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Part One: The Avataras
In the forest that is known as Naimisharanya, Shounaka and the other rishis (sages) were performing a yajna (sacrifice) dedicated to the Lord Vishnu. Suta had also come there, on his way to a pilgrimage.
The sages told Suta, "We have welcomed you. Now describe to us that which makes men all-knowing. Describe to us that which is the most sacred in the whole world".
Suta replied, "Vishnu is the essence of everything. I went to a hermitage named Vadrika with Shuka, Paila and other sages and met Vyaadeva there. Vyasadeva described to me that which he had learnt from the great sage Vashishtha, Vashishtha having learnt it from the god Agni himself. The Agni Purana is sacred because it tells us about the essence of the brahman (the divine essence). I learnt all this from Vyasadeva and I will now tell you all that I have learnt."
Do you know what an avatara is? An avatara is an incarnation and means that a god adopts a human form to be born on earth. Why do gods do this. The purpose is to destroy evil on earth and establish righteousness. Vishnu is regarded as the preserver of the universe and it is therefore Vishnu's incarnations that one encounters most often. Vishnu has already had nine such incarnations and the tenth and final incarnation is due in the future. These ten incarnations of Vishnu are as follows.
(1) Matsya avatara or fish incarnation
(2) Kurma avatara or turtle incarnation
(3) Varaha avatara or boar incarnation
(4) Narasimha avatara - an incarnation in the form of a being who was half-man and half-lion.
(5) Vamana avatara or dwarf incarnation
(10) Kalki - this is the incarnation that is yet to come.
The Agni Purana now describes these ten incarnations.
Agni told Vashishtha the story of the fish incarnation.
Many years ago, the whole world was destroyed. The destruction in fact extended to all the three lokas (Worlds) of bhuloka, bhuvarloka and svarloka. Bhuloka is the earth, svarloka or svarga is heaven and bhuvarloka is a region between the earth and heaven. All there worlds were flooded with water.
Vaivasvata Manu was the son of the sun-god. He had spent ten thousand years in prayers and tapasya (meditation) in the hermitage vadrika. This hermitage was on the banks of the river Kritamala.
Once Manu came to the river to perform his ablutions. He immersed his hands in the water to get some water for his ablutions. When he raised them, he found that there was a small fish swimming in the water in the cup of his hands.
Manu was about to throw the fish back into the water when the fish said, "Don't throw me back. I am scared of alligators and crocodiles and big fishes. Save me."
Manu found an earthen pot in which he could keep the fish. But soon the fish became too big for the pot and Manu had to find a larger vessel in which the fish might be kept. But the fish became too big for this vessel as well and Manu had to transfer the fish to a take. But the fish grew and grew and became too large for the lake. So Manu transferred the fish to the ocean. In the ocean, the fish grew until it became gigantic.
By now, Manu's wonder knew no bounds. He said, "Who are you? You must be the Lord Vishnu, I bow down before you. Tell me, why are you tantalising me in the form of a fish?"
The fish replied, "I have to punish the evil and protect the good. Seven days from now, the ocean will flood the entire world and all beings will be destroyed. But since you have saved me, I will save you. When the world is flooded, a boat will arrive here. Take the saptarshis (seven sages) with that boat. Don't forget to take the seeds of foodgrains with you. I will arrive and you will then fasten the boat to my horn with a huge snake."
Saying this, the fish disappeared.
Everything happened as the fish had promised it would. The ocean became turbulent and Manu climbed into the boat. He tied the boat to the huge horn that the fish had. He prayed to the fish and the fish related the Matsya Purana to him. Eventually, when the water receded, the boat was anchored to the topmost peak of the Himalayas. And living beings were created once again.
A danava (demon) named Hayagriva had stolen the sacred texts of the Vedas and the knowledge of the brahman. In his form of a fish, Vishnu also killed Hayagriva and recovered the Vedas.
Many years ago there was a war between the devas (gods) and the daityas (demons) and the gods lost this war. They prayed to Vishnu to rescue them from the oppression of the demons. Vishnu told Brahma and the other gods that they should have a temporary truce with the demons. The two sides should get together to churn the ocean. Vishnu would ensure that the devas benefited more from this churning of the ocean than the daityas did.
The truce was agreed upon and the two sides got ready to churn the ocean. The mountain Mandara was used as a churning rod and great sake Vasuki as the rope for churning. The devas grasped Vasuki's tail and the daityas grasped Vasuki's head. But as the churning began, the mountain Mandara which had no base, started to get immersed in the ocean. What was to be done? Lord Vishnu came to the rescue. He adopted the form of a turtle and the peak was balanced on the turtle's back.
As the churning continued, terrible poison named kalkuta emerged from the depths of the ocean and was swallowed by Shiva. Shiva's throat became blue from this poison and he is therefore known as Nilakantha, blue of throat. The goddess Varuni, the goddess of wine (sura), came out next. The gods readily accepted her and thus they came to be known as suras. But the demons rejected Varuni and were therefore known as asuras. She was followed by the Parijata tree, a beautiful tree that came to occupy the pride of place in Indra's garden. A jewel named koustubha emerged and was accepted by Vishnu as his adornment. Three wonderful animals came out next - the cow Kapila, the horse Ucchaishrava and the elephant Airavata. They were followed by the apsaras, beautiful women who became the dancers of heaven. They were known as apsaras because they emerged from ap (water). The goddess Lakshmi or Shri came out next and was united with Vishnu.
Finally, Dhanvantari emerged with a pot of amrita (the life - giving drink) in his hands. Dhanvantari was the originator of medicine (ayurveda). The daityas led by Jambha gave half of the amrita to the devas and departed with the remaining half.
But Vishnu quickly adopted the form of a beautiful woman. So beautiful was the woman that the demons were charmed. "Pretty lady," they said. " take the amrita and serve it to us. Marry us." Vishnu accepted the amrita, but he had no intention of giving it to the demons. He served it to the gods instead. There was only one demon who was somewhat clever. His name was Rahu. He adopted the form of Chandra, the moon-god, and succeeded in drinking some of the amrita. The sun-god and the moon-god noticed what was happening and reported it to Vishnu. Vishnu thereupon cut off Rahu's head with a sword.
But Rahu had drunk the amrita, so he could not die. He prayed to Vishnu and Vishnu granted him a boon. The boon was that occasionally Rahu would be permitted to swallow up the sun and the complained about him. You can see this happening at the time of the solar and the lunar eclipses. People who give alms during such eclipses are blessed.
The gods obtained the amrita and the demons did not. Thus, the gods became more powerful than the demons. They defeated the demons and regained heaven.
Vishnu's next incarnation was in the form of a boar.
The sage Kashyapa and his wife Diti had a son named Hiranyaksha. became the king of the asuras. Hiranyaksha's meditation pleased Brahma and Brahma granted him the boon that he would be invincible in battle. Thus armed. Hiranyaksha went out to fight with the devas. He comprehensively defeated the gods and conquered heaven. He also defeated Varuna, the god of the ocean. Thus, Hiranyaksha became the king of the heaven, the earth and the underworld.
But the asura was not particularly fond of the earth. He himself had begun to live in Varuna's palace under the ocean. So he hurled the earth into the depths of the ocean.
The gods went to Vishnu and prayed that something might be done about Hiranyaksha. They wished to be restored to heaven and they wished that the earth might be brought back from the depths of the ocean. In response to these prayers, Vishnu adopted the form of a boar and entered the ocean. Who should he meet there but Hiranyaksha himself?
Hiranyaksha of course did not know that this boar was none other than Vishnu. He thought that it was an ordinary boar and attacked it. The two fought for many years. But finally, Hiranyaksha was gored to death by the boar's tusks. The boar raised the earth up once again with its tusks.
Vishnu thus saved the gods and the principles of righteousness or dharma.
Hiranyaksha had a brother named Hiranyakashipu. Hiranyakashipu was furious to learn that his brother had been killed and the resolved to kill Vishnu. But this could not be done unless h e himself became powerful land invincible. Hiranyakashipu, therefore, began to pray to Brahma through difficult meditation. Brahma was pleased at these prayers and offered to grant a boon.
"I want to be invincible," said Hiranyakashipu. "Please grant me the boon that I may not be killed by night or day; that I may not be killed by man or beast; and that I may not be killed in the sky, the water or the earth."
Brahma granted the desired boon. And Hiranyakashipu was happy. He thought that he had taken care of all possible eventualities. And since he had become so powerful, he conquered all the three worlds and kicked the gods out to heaven.
Hiranyakashipu had a son named Prahlada. You no doubt remember that Hiranyakashipu had resolved to kill Vishnu. But strangely enough, Prahlada became devoted to Vishnu. Hiranyakashipu tried to persuade his son. That did not work. He tried to kill his son. That too did not work since each time, Vishnu intervened to save Prahlada.
Meanwhile, the gods had been driven off from heaven. They had also been deprived of their shares in yajanas by Hiranyakashipu. These shares now went only to the asura king. In desperation, they went and prayed to Vishnu and Vishnu promised them that he would find a solution.
One day, Hiranyakashipu called Prahlada to him. "How is it that you escaped each time I tried to kill you?", he asked.
"Because Vishnu saved me," replied Prahlada. "Vishnu is everywhere."
"What do you mean everywhere?", retorted Hiranyakashipu. He pointed to a crystal pillar inside the palace and asked, "Is Vishnu inside this pillar as well?"
"Yes," replied Prahlada.
"Very well then. I am going to kick the pillar," said Hiranyakashipu.
When Hiranyakashipu kicked the pillar, it broke into two. And from inside the pillar, Vishnu emerged in his form of half-man and half-lion. He caught hold of Hiranyakashipu and placed the demon across his thighs. And with his claws, he tore apart the demon's chest and so killed him. Brahma's boon had been that Hiranyakashipu would not be killed by man or beast. But then narasimha was neither man nor beast it was half-man and half-beast. The boon had said that the asura would not be killed in the sky, the water or the earth. But Hiranyakashipu was killed on Vishnu's thighs, which were not the sky. The water or the earth. And finally, the noon had promised that Hiranyakashipu would not be killed by night or day. Since the incident took place in the evening, it was not night or day.
After Hiranyakashipu died, the gods were restored to their rightful places. Vishnu's made Prahlada the king of the asuras.
Prahlada's grandson was Vali and Vali became very powerful. When he was the king of the asuras, there was a war between the devas and the asuras. The gods were defeated and were driven off from svarga. As always, the gods fled to Vishnu and began to pray to him to save them. Vishnu assured the gods that he would do something about Vali.
Accordingly, Vishnu was born as the son of Aditi and Kashyapa. The son was a dwarf.
King Vali had arranged for a huge sacrifice and had announced that, on the occasion of the sacrifice, he would not refuse anyone a boon. The dwarf arrived at this sacrifice and began to recite the Veda's. Vali was so pleased at this that he offered the dwarf a bon. Vali's guru(teacher) was Shukracharya and Shukracharya thought that there was something fishy about the way the dwarf had arrived. So he tried to restrain Vali.
"No," said Vali. "I have offered a boon and I shall stick to my word." What boon do you desire? I will give whatever you want."
Before a boon was actually granted, a small rite had to be performed with holy water. Shukracharya was still trying to do his best to prevent the boon from being given. So he entered the vessel in which the holy water was kept to seal the mouth of the vessel and prevent the water from being taken out. To get at the holy water, the vessel was pierced with a straw. This straw also pierced one of Shukracharya's eyes. Ever since that day, the preceptor of the demons has been one eyed.
"Give me as much of land as may be covered in three of my steps," said the dwarf. "I need this as dakshina (fee) for my guru."
Vali agreed. But the dwarf adopted a gigantic form. With one step he covered bhuloka. With another step he covered bhuvarloka. And with the last step he covered svarloka. The three worlds were thus lost to Vali and Vishnu returned them to Indra. Vali had no option but to go down to the underworld (patala). But so pleased was Vishnu at Vali's generosity that he granted the asura the boon that he would bear the title of Indra in the future.
The kshatriyas were the second of the four classes. It was their job to wear arms and protect the world. And rule. The brahmanas were the first of the four classes. It was their job to pray, study the sacred texts and perform religious rites. But the kshatriyas became very insolent and began to oppress the world and the brahmanas. Vishnu was then born as the son of the sage Jamadagni and his wife Renuka. Since this was the line of the sage Bhrigu, Parashurama was also called Bhargava. Parashurama's mission was to protect the brahmanas and teach a lesson to the kshatriyas.
There was a king named Kartavirya who had received all sorts of boons from the sage Dattatreya. Thanks to these boons, Kartavirya had a thousand arms and conquered and ruled over the entire world.
One day, Kartavirya went on a hunt to the forest. He was very tired after the hunt and was invited by the sage Jamadagni had a kamadhenu cow. This meant that the cow produced whatever its owner desired. Jamadagni used the kamadhenu to treat Kartavirya and all his soldiers to a sumptuous feast.
Kartavirya was so enamoured of the kamadhenu that he asked the sage to give it to him. But Jamadagni refused. Kartavirya then abducted the cow by force and a war started between Kartavirya and Parashurama. In this war, Parashurama cut off Kartavirya's head with his axe (parashu) and brought the kamadhenu back to the hermitage.
After some time, Parashurama was away when Kartavirya's sons arrived at the ashrama and killed Jamadagni. On the death of his father, Parashurama's anger was aroused. He killed all he kshatriyas in the world twenty-one times. On the plains of Kurukshetra, he built five wells which were filled with the blood of kshatriyas. Eventually, Parashurama handed over the world to Kashyapa and went and lived on Mount Mahendra.
Brahma came out of Vishnu's navel. Brahma's son was Marichi's son Kashyapa, Kashyapa's son Surya, Surya's son Vaivasvata Manu, Manu's son Ikshvaku, Ikskhvakku's son Kakutstha, Kakutstha's son Raghu, Raghu's son Aja, Aja's son Dasharatha, Dasharatha's sons were Rama, Bharata, Lakshmana and Shatrughna. Since Rama was descended from Kakutstha and Raghu, he was also called Kakutstha and Raghava. Since his father's name was Dasharatha, he was also called Dasharathi. Rama's story belongs to the solar line (surya vansha), since one of his ancestors was Surya.
Vishnu himself wished to destroy Ravana and the other rakshasas (demons). He therefore divided himself into four parts and was born as Rams, Bharata, Lakshmana and Shatrughna. Rama was Koushalya's son, Bharata Kaikeyi's. Lakshmana and Shartrughna were the sons of Sumitra.
The sage Vishvamitra came to Dasharatha and pleaded for Rama's help in defeating the rakshasas who were disturbing his yajanas. Rama killed these demons and Vishvamitra was so pleased that he taught Rama the use of all divine weapons. Rama broke a bow of Shiv's that had been in the possession of the king of Mithila, Janaka. This was the task that had been appointed for marrying Sita, Janaka's daughter. Rama married Sita, Lakshmana married urmila, Bharata married Mandavi and Shatrughna married Shrutakirti. On the way back to Ayodhya, Rama also beat Parashurama in a duel.
Dasharatha resolved that Rama should be made yuvaraja, that is, the heir apparent to the kingdom.
But Kaikeyi had a servant named Manthara who plotted otherwise. When he was young, Rama had pulled at Manthara's feet and ever since that day, Manthara had not been kindly towards Rama. She reminded Kaikeyi of the two; boons that had been promised to her by King Dasharatha. Years ago, the gods had been fighting with the demon Shambara and had asked Dasharatha for his help. In fighting with Shambara, Dasharatha had been injured. He had been nursed back to health by Kaikeyi. Dasharatha had promised two boons to Kaikeyi as a reward and Manthara's suggestion was that Kaikeyi should now ask for these two boons. By the first boon Rama would be banished to the forest for fourteen years and by the second boon Bharata would become yuvaraja.
Kaikeyi listened to Manthara. At Manthara's instance, she asked for these two boons. Dasharatha was very angry, but Rama insisted that he would indeed go to the forest for fourteen years. Rama, Lakshmana and Sita first went to the banks of the river Tamasa. From there they went to the kingdom of Guha, the king of the hunters (nishadas). They crossed the river Jahnavi and arrived in Prayaga, where the sage Bharadvaja had his hermitage. Their final destination was the mountain range of Chitrakuta, on the banks of the river Mandakini.
Meanwhile, back home in Ayodhaya, King Dasharatha who could not bear to be parted from Rama, died. Bharata and Shatrughna had gone on a visit to their uncle's house and were recalled. But Bharatha refused to be king. He went to the forest to try and persuade Rama to return, but Rama insisted that he would not return before the fourteen years were over. So Bharata brought back Rama's sandals. He placed these sandals on the throne as a token of Rama's kingship. And he began to rule the kingdom in Rama's name from Nandigrama, rather than from Ayodhya.
Rama, Lakshmana and Sita then went to the forest that is known as the Dandaka forest, dandakaranya. This forest was on the banks of the river Godavari and there was a beautiful lgrove inside the forest known as Panchavati. They built a hut there and resolved to live there.
There was a rakshasa woman named Shurpanakha. She happened to come to the place where Rama Lakshmana and Sita had built their hut. Shurpanakha liked Rama so much that she wanted to marry Rama and eat up Lakshmana and Sita. But Lakshmana cut off Shurpanakha's nose and ears with his sword.
Shurpanakha fled to brother Khara and demanded revenge. Khara and fourteen thousand other demons (rakshasas) attacked Rama, but they were all killed by Rama. Shurpanakha then went to her other brother Ravana, the king of Lanka.
Ravana asked the rakshasa Maricha to adopt the form of a golden deer and roam around in front of Rama's hut. Sita was so charmed by the deer that she asked Rama to capture it for her. Rama was long in returning and Lakshmana went to look for him. Taking advantage of Rama and Lakshmana's absence, Ravana kidnapped Sita. Jatayu, the king of the birds, did try to stop Ravana, but he met his death at Ravana's hands.
Rama and Lakshmana were greatly distressed to find Sita missing and they looked for her everywhere. Rama made friends with the monkey Sugriva. He killed Sugriva's brother Bali and made Sugriva the king of monkeys. The monkeys were sent off in all the four directions to look for Sita.
The monkeys who had gone towards the south learnt that Sita was in Lanka, across the ocean. One of these monkeys was Hanumana. Hanumana leapt over the ocean and arrived in Lanka. He discovered the lonesome Sita in a grove of ashoka trees, the ashokavana. Hanumana introduced himself and assured Sita that he would soon be back with Rama. Hanumana caused some general havoc in Lanka and was captured by Meghnada or Indrajit, Ravana's son. Ravana ordered that Hanumana's tail should be set on fire. But Hanumana used his burning tail to set fire to all the houses of Lanka. He then returned to Rama with the news that Sita had been found.
Rama, Lakshmana and the army of monkeys arrived at the shores of the ocean. There they built a bridge over the ocean so that they could cross over into Lanka. There was a terrible war in which Rama killed the giant Kumbhakarna, Ravana's brother. Lakshmana killed Indrajit. Rama killed Ravana with a powerful divine weapon, the brahmastra.
The fourteen years were by now over and Rama, Lakshmana and Sita returned to Ayodhya. There Rama was crowned king and he treated his subjects as his own sons. He punished the wicked and followed the path of dharma. During Rama's rule there was no shortage of foodgrains anywhere and the people were righteous. No one died an untimely death.
On Rama's instructions, Shatrughna killed the asura Lavana and built the city of Mathura in the place where Lavana's kingdom had been. Bharata was sent by Rama to kill a wicked gandharva, a singer of heaven named Shailusha, who lived on the banks of the river Indus with his sons. Bharata killed them and built two cities there, Takshashila and Pushkaravati. In Takshashila Bharata established his son Ataksha as king and in Pushkaravati he made his son pushkara the king. Rama and Sita had two sons named Kusha and Lava. Rama ruled for eleven thousand years before he died.
This is the story of the Ramayana as recounted in the Agni Purana. It was written by the sage Valmiki after he had heard the story from the sage Narada.
Rama was the seventh avatara of Vishnu, Krishna was the eighth.