The avatars of Vishnu are complex in their own way, with various questions to be asked about them.
Of Matsya, Kurma, Varaha and Narsimha, nothing is to be asked, as they all are simple avatars – they perform their karma swiftly, before ascending to Vaikunt as Narayana again.
Vaman is the first confusing avatar.
He is a traditional upholder of a rigid caste system. What is the reason for the hereditary caste system? In today’s world, ‘caste’ is a distasteful term. The avatars of Vishnu, actually, refer to different time periods.
Matsya, Kurma, Varaha and Narsimha deal with solely evolution – invertebrates in water and land, followed by amphibians and reptiles, their gradual evolution to the mammal, as a boar, and then, the evolution of man through the genus Homo, as in a lion-man.
Vaman is from the period of time when the hereditary caste system was a necessity. Civilization had begun, and the concept of ‘help the helpless’ had become important, as opposed to Matsya nyaya, where might is right, the law of the jungle.
Animals practicing the law of the jungle is not sin – it is nature, born through instinct. The only reasons animals may be considered dangerous are: when they feel threatened, in self defense, out of sheer hunger, in pain, or in psychological disability, as in elephants in musth, or, occasionally, when they feel an emotion animals normally do not experience: the simplest form of innocent rage.
Therefore, animals are, no matter what, considered innocent in comparison to their actions. Humans, though, are questionable, and are guilty unless psychologically or physically unwell.
That is why rules were created, and thus, division of labour. Ambition could not be entertained solely because even a brilliant child needs upbringing to the same level, and therefore, the caste system, of occupations – scholars, and people related to knowledge, politicians and warriors, businesses and traders, and servants, charioteers, cowherds and agriculturists were separated.
A hierarchy was created as people needed knowledge the most, followed by leadership, followed by money, and then service.
For the sake of a proper upbringing, Vaman, who stands for that period of time, upholds the caste system.
Then, there is Parashuram.
Parashuram stands for a time when the scholars, the brahamanas, were being opposed by the kshatriyas, warriors and politicians. The Yadava clan, to which Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, belonged, had a chief named Arjuna Kartavirya, the son of Kritavirya.
He was a Chandravanshi, eternal enemy of the Ikshwaku race of Suryavanshi kings. The Chandravanshi dynasty, in particular, opposed brahamanas, turning the tables of the caste system, the highest being the kshatriyas, followed by the vaishya race of merchants and traders, followed by the sudra race of agriculturists, hunters and servants, and the discriminated brahamanas.
In this period, the kshatriyas had become too powerful, and Parashuram must stop discrimination of brahamanas by staunchly opposing the kshatriya race. Even so, the curious Parashuram also questions the brahamana concepts, not upholding the caste system to be hereditary and rigid, as in the times of Vaman. Even so, he does not speak out his doubts, as he knows that the rigid caste system is still pertaining to the moral order of the times.
When Arjuna Kartavirya ruthlessly steals from Jamadagni, a scholar-seer and Parashuram’s father, and insults Renuka, Parashuram’s mother, a kshatriya of the Suryavanshi race, Parashuram alone attacks Mahismati, the Yadava capital, kills Kartavirya, and comes back with the cow stolen by Kartavirya, as well as the little wealth belonging to Jamadagni, then stolen too by Kartavirya.
Kartavirya’s sons then plunder the ashram of Jamadagni and kill him, leaving Renuka to weep in despair. Wanting to uphold social order by rearranging the occupational caste system, Parashuram breaks social order himself, by taking up arms, as a kshatriya from his mother’s blood, and twenty-one times laying siege to kingdoms where brahamanas are discriminated, defeating the discriminators, with an axe.
Then there is Ram, who lived in a society where the rigid caste system was being questioned, and with the evolution of society, the caste system did not fully uphold social order, with the discrimination of the sudra castes.
Ram wishes to uphold the concept of rules, even if it involves breaking social order – he defies the caste system, despite not breaking it himself, and accepts all points of view.
He upholds truth, honour and peace, and is maryada purushottam, the man who upholds ideals and rules. Even the dark side of rules, where they are unfair but still must be utilised to maintain social order, is followed by Ram.
Ram is an epitome of perfection and rules, rules that may break and reform social order itself. He allows himself to suffer to be a role model of truth and oaths, but crushes anything that breaks social order ruthlessly, such as during the beheading of Shambuka, the sudra who wishes to be a scholar.
Even though acts of Ram may be considered slightly bad, they were a necessity for the greater good.
The next avatar of Vishnu is Krishna. By this time, even rules had become inflexible, and therefore, for the greater good, Krishna breaks rules. He is leela purushottam, who upholds the ideals of life in a simple and understandable way. He breaks rules by saving Panchali when she is being disrobed, and unfairly breaks social order slightly for the greater good.
Then, there is the Buddha, who completely destroys the social order and reconstructs it in a completely different way.
But, in order to uphold, support, protect, make flexible and destroy the social order, one must have a strong reason, a strong form of support.
Thus does the Goddess make her role.
In the Vaman avatar, Vishnu shows his supreme form to the asura Mahabali. Here, only the Goddess is not present in this form – she appears separately, destroying the evil asuras personally.
In the Parashuram avatar, she is the mother, who is silent to it all, but is neither the demure Gauri nor the terrible Kali – she is the in-between. She commits sin, and Parashuram punishes her for that slightest of sins, to prove that even terrible sins must be committed to uphold social order in that time, where Parashuram commits the crime of maa-hatya, killing the mother, when he beheads Renuka, only for her to rise again.
Thus is the Goddess the earth.
If the earth is destroyed, she rises again, but her creatures are affected.
In the Ram avatar, the Goddess is Sita. Sita may be seen as the demure, gentle Gauri – she is found by Janak, the rajah of Mithila, when they begin agriculture in the land of Mithila, and therefore, she represents the cultivated, fertile earth, tamed by mankind.
She silently bears all the pain – of exile, capture, rejection, death.
Even so, she finally displays her purity by going back whence she came, to the earth. But not before proving she can become the terrible Kali.
After abduction and freedom from the rakshasa king Ravan, Ram wishes to leave her free, as he is unsure of her purity.
She silently undergoes agni pariksha, by surviving the flame, and proving her purity to Ram. Then the asura brother of Ravan appears to take revenge for the death of Ravan. He attacks and defeats Ram; then, the demure Gauri becomes the violent Kali – as Durga, the Goddess, Sita kills Ravan’s brother, proving her power.
As Draupadi, the Goddess is Vishnu’s friend, not his husband. Draupadi and Krishna are mere friends – but Draupadi’s five husbands have no power to help her, and she thus turns to Krishna, who aids her. Where Sita is Gauri, Draupadi can be seen as the fearsome Kali, wishing for vengeance and the blood of those who insulted her.
The Goddess proves her ruthlessness with this form, ensuring people are terrified of her. Once, when the Pandavas, her husbands, discover that Draupadi is in love with somebody else, while in the forest, they abandon her.
She accepts it as the demure Gauri, and wanders on her own, when Yudhishtir asks for her again. Then, she reveals to him her form as Goddess, and as Kali, defeats the Pandavas.
She ties her hair in Dushasan’s blood, using Dushasan’s entrails as bands, showing her ruthlessness once more.
The Goddess proves to Vishnu that she is powerful enough to destroy the world.
A myth goes that Barbarika, grandson of Bhim, is the only one who watches the Mahabharata war fully, and is the perfect judge. When asked about what he saw, he replies that he saw only Krishna and his Sudarshan chakra destroying the troops of Kuru, and Draupadi emerging from the earth drinking their blood.
The strongest warriors alone are killed by Draupadi personally.
Therefore, here Draupadi represents the untamed forestland in earth – the weak ones fall to people who prefer this earth, i.e. Vishnu, while the strongest are still prey to nature.
In the Buddha avatar, Buddha abandons his wife and practises discrimination, until his wife guides him to the right way.
Thus, the Goddess impacts avatars of Vishnu majorly.