Published in First City, September 2010.
Vishnu is the preserver of cosmic order. This often involves battling Asuras, conventionally understood as ‘demons’. Every battle involves a different demon and so Vishnu takes different forms for each battle.
When Hiranayaksha dragged the earth under the sea, Vishnu took the form of a boar, Varaha, plunged into the waters, gored the Asura to death, placed the earth on his snout and raised her back to the surface. This confrontation was highly physical.
Hiranakashipu was a different kind of Asura. He obtained a boon that made him near invincible: he could not be killed either by a man or an animal, either in the day or in the night, neither inside a dwelling nor outside, neither on the ground or off the ground, neither with a weapon nor a tool. To kill this Asura, Vishnu transformed himself into Narasimha, a creature that was half lion and half human, neither man nor animal completely. He dragged the Asura at twilight, which is neither day nor night, to the threshold, which is neither inside a house nor outside, and placing him on his thigh, which is neither on the ground nor off, and disembowelled him with his sharp claws, which are neither weapons nor tools. This complex confrontation was highly intellectual; a battle of wits.
Then came Bali, an Asura, who was so noble and so generous that his realm expanded beyond the subterranean realms to include the earth and sky. To put him back in his place, where he belonged, Vishnu took the form of a dwarf, Vaman, and asked him for three paces of land. When Bali granted this wish, the dwarf turned into a giant and with two steps claimed the earth and sky, shoving Bali back to the nether regions with the third steps. This battle involved not so much defeating the opponent as it did transforming oneself.
A study of these avatars of Vishnu indicates a clear shift in war tactic. From Varaha to Narasimha to Vamana there is a shift from brute force, to brain rather than brawn and finally an exercise in outgrowing rather than outwitting. The demons are becoming increasingly complex — Hiranayaksha is violent, Hiranakashipu is clever and there is no real fault in Bali; his goodness disturbs cosmic balance. Each one forces Vishnu to change, adapt, and evolve. There is no standard approach; each approach is customized. What is significant is the shift from animal to human, from strength to cunning, from external drive to internal drive.
Dinar is now the head of sales in a television production house. And he has realized the value of changing his war tactics with people, he felt, threatened his growth, his very own Asuras.
He began his career as a print journalist. “I recall in the early days, I competed with my colleagues by filing in more stories and better stories. I produced faster than most and of much better quality. Naturally, I was loved by my editors.
“But then I became an editor and then moved up the corporate hierarchy. The rules of the games changed. My competitors did not play by the rules; they bent the rules, slipped between the cracks, monitored and manipulated situations against me. It was all politics. The only way to survive was to outsmart them in their game. I became better at networking. I found a way to plug holes through which they could slip out. I would anticipate their moves and walk a few steps ahead of them. This got me far. But not too far. I was always having to look over my shoulder.
“One day, I just quit. I realized playing the same games in the same pond would not take me far. So I moved from the newspaper to a television company. I knew nothing and had to learn everything from scratch. I was a small fish. I worked hard and grew to be a very big fish. I suddenly knew two domains: print and television.
“My old colleagues are still in the newspaper, still reporting stories, still fighting over who gets the credit, still playing politics with one another. I have meanwhile a wider and deeper experience and have earned respect across industries. While they are still pulling each other down, and have stayed where they were, I have risen so up in the pursuit of my potential, that all they can do is stare in awe and admit defeat.”
Initially Dinar was a Varaha, using brawn to win the rat race. Then he became Narasimha, using brains to outsmart and win. But then he stopped being an animal. He realized true victory lies in personal evolution. No more boar or lion, he accepted he was a dwarf and grew up to be a giant, outpacing the rats and outgrowing the race.