Dev Sahrawat was 5th grade when his parents received a housewarming gift: ten carved teakwood statuettes of the ten incarnations of Vishnu. Greatly inspired, he set to work. He first outlined the characters on his sketchpad. Then, he transferred the drawings to his iPad using Procreate graphics software. Next, he compiled the drawings into a set of ten cards, with the image on one side, and the name of the avatar, attributes, traits, quirks, powers, festivals and accomplishments on the other.
Vishnu, the Protector and Preserver of the Hindu Trinity, is said to have incarnated ten times to restore cosmic order in the world. There are several Vishnu temples in India but the Dashavatar temple in Deogarh, Uttar Pradesh (6th century) is particularly well known, as is the thousand-year-old Hoysaleswara Temple in Halebid, Karnataka.
I read the stories of the dash (ten) avatars (incarnations) as a child, so I was delighted to meet a young artist on my visit to the Bay area in California, who has reinvented the parables in an artistic way.
Dev, now a sixth grader, lives with his parents and older brother. He has a knack for creating very detailed drawings of real-life and fictional characters. He is fond of reading, watching cartoons, and documentaries. He utilizes the information he gathers into interesting art forms.
Dev’s dashavatar set resembles a deck of superhero playing cards. Only, they are much cooler! The 5” x7” cards all have the same form if you lay them side by side. A neat, spare body line. A head to body ratio of 2:1.
Dev has made the eyes very prominent, as though they were all wearing eyeglasses, and the iris is rectangular rather than round. Each avatar has a similar V-shaped anointment on the forehead. Specific garbs, weapons and expressions. They are as follows:
- Matsya (fish) avatar is Vishnu in the form of a fish, with symmetrical scales and a horn on the forehead. The story goes that Vaivasvata Manu, a powerful king, found a little fish in the palm of his hands when he offered water to the Sun. The fish asked Manu if the king would take him home. Manu agreed, but the fish kept growing in size. Eventually, Manu released Matsya into the ocean, realizing the fish was Lord Vishnu himself.
Vishnu informed Manu of the upcoming destruction of the world and directed Manu to collect “all creatures” and keep them safe on a boat built by the gods. When the deluge (pralaya) came, Vishnu appeared as a great fish with a horn, to which Manu tied the boat, and delivered them to safety. Much like Noah’s ark.
- Kurma (tortoise) avatar has Vishnu carrying a tortoise shell on his back, which he uses as his weapon during the samudra manthan. He restores righteousness and helps extract amrit (the divine nectar of immortality). This avatar is neatly drawn with an inscrutable smile.
- Varaha (giant boar with big tusk) avatar. Varaha lifted the earth from the bottom of the ocean. In Dev’s drawing, Varaha looks like a nonchalant sailor.
- Narsimha is the coolest avatar, with an oversized head sporting a lion’s mane, a lion’s nose and claws. Narasimha emerged from a pillar at twilight to save his devotee, Prahlad, and tore the demon Hiranyakashipu apart with his claws and teeth.
- Vamana avatar is the most spectacular avatar from the point of storytelling. He carries a kamandalam (water bottle) in his left hand, and an umbrella in his right. Has a janeu (sacred thread going across his body from left to right). He is seen as an unassuming child ascetic who approached the “generous” king Bali for alms.
Vamana asked for three paces of land. Bali agreed, and the dwarf then changed his size to that of a giant form. With his first stride, he covered the earth, with the second, he covered the heavens. Bali realized that Vamana was Vishnu incarnate, so he offered his head as the third place for Vamana to place his foot. The avatar did so, and thus granting Bali immortality. He also made Bali the ruler of patala (the netherworld).
- Parashurama is the first Brahmin-Kshatriya, or warrior-sage, who is rendered true to form, with a coiled top knot, a rudraksha mala, and his handlebar mustache and beard. He wears a deerskin tunic. Has a bow in left arm, and a mighty axe which was bestowed on him by Shiva. He had a volatile temper and vanquished the Kshatriyas when they began abusing their power.
- Rama, the son of Dashrath and Kaushalya of Ayodhya, embodies dharma (morality and rules). A huge bow in his left arm, and a quiver of arrows on his right shoulder. He kept his father’s word and accepted fourteen years of exile. Traveled from north to the southern tip of India to rescue his wife from the clutches of Ravana, the king of Sri Lanka, with the help of his devotee, chiranjeevi Hanuman. Rama vanquished Ravana, Kumbhakarna, Tataka and Vali.
- Krishna is my favorite of the avatars. A delicate flute in his left hand. A peacock feather tucked in his crown. A mischievous smile hiding the mighty power of the sudarshana chakra that he used in the battle of Mahabharata. Krishna, the eighth son of Devaki and Vasudeva, and the foster-son of Yashoda and Nanda, is worshiped as the teacher of Bhagavad Gita, and the embodiment of love, honor, compassion, and playfulness. He is omnipresent and omniscient.
Krishna, as Dev portrays him, looks like a slender teenager, but he vanquished demons like Putana, Bakasura, Keshi, Kamsa, Kalinag, Shishupala, Dantavakra. (Balarama is considered as the eighth avatar, where Krishna is elevated to Godhead).
- Gautama Buddha is included in some texts as the ninth avatar of Vishnu. Buddha left his palace to live as an ascetic. Meditated and attained nirvana under the Bodhi tree. Founded Buddhism to liberate Hindus from the rituals and dogmas. He is depicted with long ears (always attentive), and head covered in snails (to prevent him from dehydration). He is clad in the simple cloth of a monk.
- Kalki is drawn with a flair, riding a white horse (Devdutt) and brandishing a nandaka sword in his left hand. He is supposed to appear at the end of Kali yuga. He will vanquish evil and chaos in the world and usher in the era of Satya yuga again.
Dev’s set of Vishnu cards can be an interesting family game with insights into Darwinian evolution, history, mythology and also astrology. Stories of superheroes steeped in myth are powerful because their lessons are secular and help us understand the purpose of life. We need more stories like these to satisfy the human quest.