The concept of 'avatar' - incarnation, is the foremost cardinal of Hinduism. An incarnation - descent of God in whatever form He chose to emerge on the earth for accomplishing a divine objective, or presenting an absolute model of life or sublimating a virtue, along with accomplishing such divine objective, is considered in Hindu way of life a cosmic reality occurring from time to time or when it became emergent for re-setting the world to order. Hinduism, or rather Indian masses, discovered in these 'avatars' their ultimate ethical modules, norms of personal living, community life, governance and polity, roots of the most of their customs and conventions, permissibilities and prohibitions, indulgences and renunciations, ideals to pursue and weaknesses to evade, broadly, all that distinguished the 'humane' from the 'beast' irrespective of whether a man or an animal. Legends of incarnations have given to Indian society a huge body of corrective texts in the name of Puranas, to culture, its versatility and visual aspect, to literature, themes of its epics, emotionalism for its songs and dramatic turns of situations for its stage, to stone, its utmost forms and narratives, to canvas, its colours and linear dimensions, and to common man, his forbearance and strength to combat evil.
At one time incarnation theory might have been a potent instrument for reducing conflicts of old and new beliefs, or those of elite and tribes, for it had scope for respecting on equal footings the faith's all diverse forms and to unite various believing groups. Elevation of the humblest, the fish, the most ignored, the tortoise, and the man's headstrong antagonist, the boar, first three of Vishnu's ten incarnations, to the status of the Supreme Being, not only generated reverence for all beings but also helped cosmic unity and equilibrium.
To the believer, incarnation is the truest occurrence beyond question or blink of eye, so much that he would not see God beyond an incarnated form. Not merely that he reveres Rama or Krishna as 'Para Brahma' - Ultimate God, but sometimes such reverence is seen overpowering Puranic assertions and founding its own tradition of theology replacing by an incarnated form the absolute Godhood such as in Orissa where Krishna who as Jagannatha - Lord of the world, is God in His proto form, others being just Jagannatha's incarnations. Not a mere folk, or local tradition of worship, it transforms into scriptural classicism long back. The twelfth century Gita Govinda, a poem of love of Radha and Krishna by Jaideva, a poet of Orissa, begins with paying homage to Jagannatha's ten incarnations. Now for centuries in most part of India Rama and Krishna have completely replaced Vishnu, and Vaishnavism connotes worship rendered to Rama and Krishna.
A rhetorician's approach is hardly different. To him, the cosmos is God's manifest vision in its macro form. An incarnation is His scaled manifestation and is, hence, as real as the universe. To him, an incarnation is the expression of the corrective course that the cosmos initiates from time to time. The modern mind, too, does not reject incarnation theory for it finds it consonant with the scientific perception of elemental balance, the basic principle of cosmic existence. Elemental imbalance leads to dissolution. It finds agreeable the perception of the ancient philosopher who classified all elements that constituted cosmos on the basis of their inherent 'gunas' - qualities, as 'sattva' - true, helpful and pleasurable, 'rajas' - active and passionate, and 'tamas' - indolent and evil. This simplified the factum of elemental imbalance which occurred whenever 'sattva' deteriorated and 'tamas' gained upper hand. Then God, who manifests as cosmos and is the cumulative body of all elements, descends into the form that incarnates 'sattva' and destroys such part of 'tamas' that endangered cosmic balance. In this the common man saw resounding what he has ever felt: 'good always prevails'.
Variations apart, God's descent on the earth for restoring order and to let good prevail, as God's Prophet, messenger, or Son, possessed of all that Godhood represented, has been proclaimed world over in all major theologies, Islam, Christianity... The Buddhism did not uphold the incarnation theory; however, the Buddhist perception of the continuum of goodness as Bodhisattvas across hundreds of births, as an animal or man, was mere assertion of the truth that recurrence of goodness - 'sattva', in one form or the other is incessant. It was the same with the Jainism. Elimination of 'sinful' takes place after the 'jiva' - being, has passed through enumerable virtuous births. A virtuous birth is the essential condition for the elimination of evil within, as in Jainism, within-and-beyond, as in Buddhism, and beyond, as in incarnation concept of Hinduism. Broadly, this virtuous birth for effecting good is the crux of the incarnation theory; though, while in Jainism the virtuous birth ruins the jiva's own sins and leads it to good and salvation, in Buddhism, to the being's own good and that of others by way of showing them the path of redemption - both defining human level, in the Hindu theory the 'avatar' is God's direct descent to human level for restoring order and doing good of all beings. Unlike in Jainism, Buddhism and most other theologies, an incarnation is not a birth - the outcome of a biological process, but God's descent by His own choice.
The concept of incarnation has its origin in the Rig-Vedic mysticism itself where unlike other gods Vishnu has been conceived as a cosmic presence without a manifest form. This unmanifest presence which the Rig-Veda sought to personalise might have led seers to discover Vishnu in other beings as well as conceive him with various forms, and finally the idea of avatars might have evolved. Vishnu's incarnations, at least three of them - Matsya, Varaha and Vamana, in real perspective and unambiguous terms, surface in Brahmans, Shatpatha and Etareya in special. In the Mahabharata the theory has been further consolidated. It is, however, in Puranas that the cult of incarnation emerges as the ultimate Hindu vision of Godhood.
Texts have classified Vishnu's incarnations into three types : Purnavatara or complete incarnation, Anshavatara or partial incarnation, and Aavesavatara or birth of a divine sentiment transforming a being completely but for the time being. Rama or Krishnavatara are examples of Purnavataras, numerous divinities, hermits, Manus, gods among others, of Anshavataras, and Parasurama, of Avesavatara.
Sometimes an incarnation appears to be a mere transform. Narsimha appears to be Vishnu's transformation for a limited objective.
The myth related to Vamanavatara in Shatpatha Brahman represents Vamana more like Vishnu's transform rather than an incarnation. Vishnu's adopting to the form of Mohini in Samudra-manthana - ocean-churning myth, and his emergence on Sheshachala as Venkatesh among others are also his transforms.
Vishnu incarnated innumerable times. According to the Mahadevi Bhagavata such large number of his incarnations was the result of a curse, which sage Bhragu had pronounced against him for his heinous sin of killing a woman, Kavyamata, the wife of Shukracharya, when in the absence of her husband she was giving protection to 'asuras' - demons, behind her. In various texts number and forms of incarnations widely vary. Occasional incarnations, such as those during the twelve Devasura-sangrams - wars between gods and demons, are in addition to what Puranas enumerated. The number of incarnations in the Mahabharata and Vayu Purana is the same ten but while those in Mahabharata include goose, fish and tortoise, in Vayu Purana these are replaced with Dattatreya, Veda-Vyasa and one incarnation without name. In the Bhagavata Purana Harivansha and other Puranas his incarnations are said to be innumerable. These texts maintain that Vishnu had countless incarnations in the past and shall have as many in future. At least fifty-three of them have been distinctly identified and listed with names. In Mahadevi Bhagavata, this number is twenty-six. However, in popular traditions, which powerfully reflect also in early sculptures, the number of his incarnations is ten and sometimes twenty-four. Ten incarnations emerge as theme of Indian sculptures and reliefs right from the early Gupta period in the fifth century itself, which the fifth century Gupta temple at Deogarh in Lalitpur district of Uttar Pradesh affirms. Details of ten incarnations, namely, Matsya -Fish, Kurma - Tortoise, Varaha - Boar, Narsimha - Lion-man, Vamana - Dwarf, Parasurama, Rama, Krishna, Balarama or Buddha, and Kalki, are given hereunder.
Matsyavatara has two accounts in texts, one relates to protecting Manu, progenitor of mankind, Vivasvana's son and fifth in the line of Brahma, and the other, to recovering Brahma's Vedas. Manu is more often known as Vaivasvata Manu after his father. It is said that once when Brahma was fully absorbed in reciting Vedas, Hayagriva, a demon, slipped into his chamber and stole away the Vedas. With the Holy Scriptures the demon entered into waters and hid him there. For recovering the Vedas Vishnu incarnated as Matsya, entered the waters, killed Hayagriva and brought back the sacred texts. The myth is seen as symbolizing the restoration of true knowledge when ignorance sought to enshroud it under the cover of darkness.
The other myth has wider acceptance from the Vedic texts to the twentieth century's Hindi epic Kamayani of Jai Shankara Prasad, of which main theme is the Great Deluge and Manu's escape from it. As the myth has it, while bathing in river Kritamala in course of penance, a tiny fish appeared before Manu and prayed him to protect it from larger fishes as it was afraid of them. Manu lifted it on his palm and brought it to his palace and put it into a pot. In two-three days it grew larger to the pot's size. Manu transferred it to a larger pot but in next two-three days that pot too failed to contain it. Manu now put it into a tank but in another few days it grew to a size larger than the tank. Now, Manu shifted it to the Ganges but as before Ganges too fell short to its size. Finally, the fish revealed to Manu that within seven days the world would have a great flood. Hence, he should make a large boat, board it along with Sapta-rishis - seven sages, Brahma's spiritual sons, and their wives and escape. The fish promised him to help. As advised by the fish, Manu made a boat and when the Great Deluge began enveloping the world boarded it along with Sapta-rishis and their wives and with the help of the fish paddled it to safety. In the Mahabharata the Himalayan peak where Manu's boat moored has been named as Naubandhana, while in other texts, as Navaprabhanshana, one meaning 'where the boat was moored', and other, 'which rescued the boat'. The Matsya Purana alludes to Manu as the ruler of Dravinda, and the mount where his boat reached as Malaya, not Himalayas.
Significantly, world literature, to include Greek, Latin, European, Babylonian, and South Asian among others, abounds in tales of Great Flood with someone like Manu escaping it under Divine commandment. The Holy Bible (Genesis, Chapters 6, 7 and 8) in Noah's episode seems to recount an identical flood and emergence of God instructing Noah to make an ark with given length, breadth and height to protect him his wife, sons, wives of his sons, males and females of different species of animals and birds, creepers, and vegetables - seeds of life in all its shades and kinds for He was going to flood the world to destroy it along with all flesh which was dirtied by so much of violence. Noah acted as commanded and was instrumental in protecting the seed of life and recreating its all forms. Except a different name of the place where the boat lands and such details of species which Noah is commanded to take with him, this Biblical story is repeated almost verbatim in the Holy Koran (11.3, 25-49). In Matsyavatara, Vishnu, God manifest, acts as fish, from swelling His body-size for causing the flood to securing re-emergence of life; in the Holy Bible, God Himself, not through an incarnated form, does it.
Kurmavatara does not have parallel in world literature but in India it has more versions than one. In Shatpatha Brahman, Mahabharata and Padma Purana, Kurma in its divine birth assists Prajapati in his act of procreation. Linga Purana claims that Vishnu had incarnated as tortoise to hold the earth when it was sinking into Patala - nether world. The diameter of this Kurma's back was thousands of millions of miles. However, Kurmavatara is more popularly liked with the myth of Samudra-manthana - ocean-churning, which appears in Padma Purana, Bhagavata and many other texts, though this myth, too, has two versions. It is said that once sage Durvasa's devotees offered him a garland of celestial Parijata flowers. A majestic garland of hardly any use to an ascetic, he gave it to Indra but the arrogant Indra, instead of wearing it himself, tied it on the tusk of his elephant Airavata. However, beetles, gathered around it for its fragrance and honey, began teasing the elephant which in fury destroyed the garland. This annoyed the sage and he cursed Indra that Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity and abundance, would desert him. The curse worked. Lakshmi disappeared into oceanic depths and with her, also Indraloka's prosperity, wealth and majesty. When entreated, Vishnu told gods that they might regain her only after they churn ocean.
This part of the myth has been differently narrated in some texts. Not merely Indra, Durvasa's curse worked against all gods. Their faces revealed wrinkles and hair turned white, the signs of old age. When approached, Vishnu advised gods to obtain Ambrosia - Amrita or nectar, which alone could cure them of their malady, and for it they were required to churn ocean. The job being massive they persuaded demons to join them in the act under assurance that whatever was obtained would be equally divided. Demons, tired of hundreds of years of war and in hope of becoming immortal, readily agreed. As Vishnu advised, Mount Mandrachala was made the churning rod, and serpent Vasuki, the churning rope. Gods held Vasuki's tail-part, while demons, its hoods. However, before long, due to its volume and weight Mandrachala began sinking into the ocean's basin. Thereupon Vishnu incarnated as Kurma, crept under the Mount Mandrachala, held it on its back and then the act of churning was performed uninterrupted.
Not as Vishnu's incarnation, and also in somewhat ambiguous terms, Varaha features first in the Rig-Veda, though it is in later Vedic literature that the myth begins gaining some shape. In the Taittiriya Samhita Varaha is alluded to as Prajapati's incarnation. One day, before the earth emerged, Prajapati, when as wind he roamed around in the sky, noticed the earth submerged into waters. Thereupon Prajapati transformed himself into Varaha, entered waters and lifted the earth above them. In Taittiriya Brahman it has been presented in a slightly different way. Brahma had mud deposited around the lower part of the lotus rising from his navel. Prajapati, incarnating as Varaha, collected this mud and scattered it on petals of lotus. In due course it was from this mud that the earth emerged.
However, in the Mahabharata and later in Puranas - Matsya, Linga, Vayu, Padma among others, Varaha emerges as an incarnation of Vishnu, though the myth yet related to the act of rescuing the earth. It is said that under a curse Jaya and Vijaya, door-guardians of Vishnu, were born as sons of sage Kashyapa of his wife Diti. They were named Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu. Conceived in an inauspicious hour both were notorious and destructive. One day, Hiranyaksha descended the ocean and began beating its waves with his cudgel. This sent ocean into tides and tremors after which Varuna, the sea-god, rushed to Vishnu and sought his protection. Vishnu incarnated as Varaha and reached the ocean. Seeing Vishnu as Varaha heading towards him Hiranyaksha picked up the earth in one of his hands and ran to the nether world. Varaha chased him, killed him and carrying on its tusks restored the earth to its original position.
Vishnu's Narsimhavatara relates to Hiranyaksha's brother Hiranyakashipu who, annoyed with Vishnu for killing his brother Hiranyaksha in his Boar incarnation, had developed for him exceptional hatred. For obtaining such powers with which he could avenge his brother's killing he went to mount Mandara and engaged in penance. Pleased by his austerities Brahma appeared and commanded him to ask for whatever he wished. Hiranyakashipu asked for a number of things, but mainly that no one should ever be able to kill him. Brahma granted whatever he wished and also that he would not be killed by anyone but Vishnu. Some texts have added dramatic curves to this part of the episode. According to them, Hiranyakashipu asked Brahma that he should neither be killed by a god, demon, man nor animal, neither in day nor during the night, and neither inside the house nor outside it. Brahma granted his prayer.
Now invincible, Hiranyakashipu had his sway over the entire earth. Atrocious and cruel as he was, he proclaimed that no body in his dominions would commemorate Vishnu's name. In the due course he had a son by the name of Prahlad. Prahlad was Vishnu's devotee by birth. It is said that the first word that he uttered was Vishnu. This greatly upset Hiranyakashipu. When Prahlad grew to age, he appointed a teacher to divert his mind from Vishnu but instead, Prahlad, the child, converted the teacher into a Vishnu's believer. The enraged Hiranyakashipu threw Prahlad before a mad elephant. The elephant charged at Prahlad but instead of hitting him elephant's tusks struck to the ground and broke. Venomous snakes were deployed to kill Prahlad but the moment a snake bit him its fangs were destroyed. Hiranyakashipu put him into blazing fire but the moment fire touched Prahlad's body it turned cool and soothing. According to one version, there rose out of the fire a ghost that attacked Prahlad to kill him but instantly there emerged in the air a wheel which beheaded the ghost. Burning with rage Hiranyakashipu cried and asked Prahlad where his Vishnu was. Prahlad coolly replied, "he is everywhere and in everything." Hiranyakashipu asked sarcastically if he was also in the doorjamb. Before Prahlad could say, "yes", the door-pillar burst and out of it emerged a horrible-looking Narsimha - half lion-half man. It was evening, neither the day nor the night and the place was neither inside the house nor outside it. Narsimha caught hold of Hiranyakashipu, pushed him to ground and with its horrible claws tore his breast and killed him.
Vishnu's incarnation as Vamana is one of his three incarnations which had their origin in Vedic literature. In Vedic texts Vamana seems to have been a mere transform of Vishnu, a form to which Vishnu resorts when gods pray him for freeing their habitation from demons. Here, with his third stride he covers the Vedas and Vak, that is, all manifest and unmanifest, and known and spoken. However, in Puranas Vamana emerges as a regular incarnation born as Aditi's son by sage Kashypa for recovering gods' lost power and position. As the myth has is, Bali, fourth in the line of Hiranyakashipu and grandson of Prahlad, was the king of demons. His exceptional prowess had given him the name Mahabali - the mighty. Once when battling for taking possession of Ambrosia, the nectar, obtained from churning of ocean, Indra beheaded him with his disc. However, his demon-followers picked up his body and carried it to nether world where Shukracharya, demons' teacher, revived him to life. Now he devoted himself to further penance and acquired such powers as would defeat gods. With renewed vigour and powers he not only defeated gods, destroyed their power and position but also evicted them of their habitation. Indra's mother Aditi, sage Kashyapa's wife, heard all about it which filled her with grief. When Kashyapa knew the reason of her sadness, he advised her to observe a particular fast which would please Vishnu who alone could restore to gods their position and power. Aditi did as Kashyapa advised her. Pleased by her fast, Vishnu appeared before her and as she desired he took birth as her son. He was born in dwarfish form and was named Vamana.
At that time Mahabali was celebrating the occasion of his conquest over the world at Narmada's banks by performing sacrifice. In the gathering were a large number of hermits and Brahmins. Vamana also joined them. When his turn came, he prayed Mahabali to grant him a piece of land measuring three strides as alms. Mahabali's teacher Shukracharya warned him against granting the request but Mahabali paid no heed and granted it. He asked Vamana to measure it. Vamana expanded his body to such size that in two steps he covered the entire earth, heaven, and Patala, and asked the demon king for the space to put his third. Mahabali, true to his words, presented his head and asked Vamana to put it there. Vishnu placed his foot on his head and pushed him into the Patala and thus, gods' position and power were restored. Vishnu in this form has been designated in Puranas as Vishnu-kranta, Tri-Vikram or Vikranta, a form widely represented also in early sculptures.
Texts name Vishnu's sixth incarnation as Parasurama - Rama with Parasu or axe. As the myth goes, once Karttaviryarjuna, the Kshatriya king of Mahismatinagar, did great penance and pleased Dattatreya, a great sage, who, as he desired, blessed him with a thousand arms. One day, he was on a hunting expedition around the bank of river Narmada. Tired he looked for a place to rest and reached the hermitage of sage Jamadagni who was living there with his wife Renuka, Parasurama and other sons. At that time Parasurama was out. The sage summoned his divine cow Kamadhenu that served Karttaviryarjuna and his retinue with delicious food. When leaving, Karttaviryarjuna asked the sage for the cow, and when he did not concede, the king caught it and took it away forcibly. On his return Parasurama heard of it. He instantly left for Mahismatinagar, killed Karttaviryarjuna and brought Kamadhenu back. This, however, sowed the seeds of enmity and now onwards Karttaviryarjuna's sons looked for an opportunity to avenge their father's killing.
In another event, one day Parasurama's mother Renuka went to the river to fetch water. At that time a gandharva, named Chitraratha, was bathing in the river. Renuka's eye fell on him. With his divine eye Jamadagni saw it and when she came back the enraged sage asked each of his sons to behead her but none except Parasurama obeyed him. Pleased with his filial devotion his father told him to ask for anything he desired. Parasurama asked his father to revive his mother, which Jamadagni accomplished.
One day when Parasurama was out, Karttaviryarjuna's sons, who were looking for an occasion to avenge their father's killing, entered the hermitage of Jamadagni. They cut off the head of the sage and carried it with them. On Parasurama's return his mother told him how his father was killed. Wailing miserably she beat her breast twenty-one times. The event transformed Parasurama into Aveshavatara - incarnation of revenge, and with his divine wrath he traveled over the world twenty-one times and eliminated all wicked Kshatriya kings and freed the earth of wickedness.
Rama, the eldest son of Dasharatha, the king of Ayodhya, was Vishnu's seventh, and in one sense full and absolute incarnation - Purnavatara, for as Rama, Vishnu not only eliminated evil such as Ravana and the host of his demons but also presented the ultimate model of life, polity and kingship.
As Krishna, in his eighth incarnation, Vishnu had a more accomplished incarnation for as Krishna he not only redeemed the world from mighty evil forces but also sublimated to divine heights the virtues like love and devotion and expounded such principles as detachment and 'Karma' - one's obligation to act. Born to Devaki and Vasudeo and brought up by Yashoda and Nand, Krishna was both, the son of Devaki and Vasudeo, as also of Yashoda and Nand; thus as Krishna, Vishnu represented also the dimensional breadth of worldly relations. In some texts Krishna appears as ninth, and Balarama, as eighth incarnation.
In the same myth Balarama is said to be the incarnation of Vishnu as also of serpent Shesh on Vishnu's behest. As scriptures have it, when the misdeeds of many kings, more so of Kansa, Mathura's king, became cumbersome to Bhoodevi, the mother earth, she transformed into a cow and reached before Vishnu praying him to redeem her of the evil powers tramping her under their feet. Vishnu promised her that he would take birth as Vasudeo's sons, Balarama and Krishna, and redeem her of Kansa and other wicked kings. Vasudeo and Devaki were in Kansa's prison and six of their children had been killed by Kansa as soon as they were born. The seventh in her womb was Balarama or Balabhadra. Now the myth slightly varies. Instead of incarnating himself Vishnu directs Shesh to incarnate as Balarama to help Vishnu, when he incarnates as Krishna, in his mission against demons. As Kansa was sure to kill this seventh child too, as soon as it was born, Vishnu directed Yogamaya to transfer the foetus from Devaki's womb to Rohini's, Vasudeo's other wife. In due course Rohini bore a child who was initially named Sangharsana, but became popular later as Balarama or Balabhadra.
The texts and traditions that identify Balarama as the incarnation of serpent Shesh include Buddha as Vishnu's ninth incarnation, though in his Buddhavatara Vishnu adopts an altogether different path to uphold 'dharma' - righteousness. It was those days when demons had defeated gods and had their sway all over, endangering the very existence of 'dharma'. Gods approached Vishnu and entreated him to do something for protecting it. On gods' prayer, Vishnu incarnated as Gautam Buddha or Siddhartha, son of Kapilavastu's king Suddhodhana. Thereafter Gautam Buddha went around the country, preached demons and persuaded them to reject the Vedas and Vedic laws. Vishnu Purana, Agni Purana and many others assert that Vishnu as Buddha planned to render all demons anti-Vedas and convert them to the path of Buddhism and thus send them to hell without killing or warfare.
As Agni Purana and other scriptures have it, Vishnu is scheduled to incarnate in his last and tenth incarnation as Kalki that shall take place during the last part of Kaliyuga, the age of Kali, when people will have lost faith in God, become irreligious and atheist, those of the low castes would rule and feed upon human beings, and the rest, converted into thieves and evil-doers. At this juncture, Vishnu shall incarnate as Kalki, the son of a Brahmin named Vishnuyashas in the village Sambhala.
He would take over as the priest of Yajnavalkya. Kalki would have the power to create arms and soldiers by his mere will and by them he would destroy the wicked. With this would begin the new eon which will be known as Kritiyuga. Opinions differ as to whether Kalkiavatara has taken place or not. Texts assert that it shall take place during the last part of Kaliyuga. In Vana-parva, Mahabharata has estimated Kaliyuga's age as 4, 32. 000 years. The Great War itself had taken place around the beginning of Kaliyuga. Thus, so far Kaliyuga's age would be around 5000 years or so. Obviously, it will take a long time for Kaliyuga to reach its last part when Kalki would incarnate.
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Shatpatha Brahmana: Edited by Albert Waver, Leipzig, 1924
Etareya Brahman: Gita Press, Gorakhpur
Taittiriya Samhita: Gita Press, Gorakhpur.
Taittiriya Brahman: Gita Press, Gorakhpur
Linga Purana: Poona
Matsya Purana: Poona
Mahabharata: Gita Press, Gorakhpur; Critical Edition, Poona; English translation by Pratap Chandra Rai, Calcutta.
Valmiki Ramayana: Gita Press, Gorakhpur, 1976.
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P. C. Jain & Usha Bhatia: The Magic of Indian Miniatures
Dr. Daljeet & P. C. Jain: Krishna : Raga se Viraga Tak
Suvira Jaiswal: Origins and Development of Vaishnavism
D. O. Flaherty: Hindu Myths
Veronica Ions: Indian Mythology
Devdatta Pattanaik: Vishnu
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