|Dr. Bibek Debroy|
Except in some very rare cases, Shiva doesn’t have incarnations. Most people tend to assume Vishnu has 10 incarnations. That’s by and large true. However, there are also occasions where 24 or 12 incarnations are mentioned. Most people also tend to assume they know the names of the 10 incarnations and they are (1) Matysa; (2) Kurma; (3) Varaha; (4) Narasimha; (5) Vamana; (6) Parashurama; (7) Rama; (8) Krishna; (9) Buddha; and (10) Kalki, with Kalki to come in the future. It isn’t always that consistent. Sometimes, (9) Buddha is replaced by Balarama. In Jayadeva, the list is (I am using the names used by Jayadeva and not replacing the words with more common synonyms) (1) Meena; (2) Kacchapa; (3) Sukara; (4) Narahari; (5) Vamana; (6) Bhrigupati; (7) Rama; (8) Haladhara; (9) Buddha; and (10) Kalki. Do I need to translate the shloka I quoted? I guess not. Except to say that “vahitra” means boat and “vihita” means arranged or contrived. You arranged the Vedas through your character, which is like a boat in the waters of destruction, and held them up in the form of a fish. That’s a loose kind of translation.
The tortoise was relevant for the churning of the ocean. The gods were related to the asuras, they had the same father, though different mothers. Indeed, in distributing the amrita, a deception was practiced on the demons. Unless one accepts the premise that all asuras are necessarily bad, there was no obvious act of adharma. Hiranyaksha stole the earth and the boar killed him. Ditto for Hiranyaksha’s elder brother, Hiranyakashipu, and the Narasimha incarnation. Beyond oppressing the gods and sometimes dislodging them from heaven, it is difficult to make out a case for adharma. Vamana and Bali are an even stronger example. There is nothing to suggest that Bali was bad in any sense and his generosity was taken advantage of. Sure, a single kshatriya, Kartavirya Arjuna, caused offence. However, did that constitute enough adharma for Parashurama to exterminate kshatriyas 21 times? An individual’s act of transgression led to extermination of the collective varna. I can extend the argument for Rama, Krishna and Balarama/Buddha. The case for establishing “dharma”, however defined, and destroying “adharma”, however defined, is not that strong. At best, that BG 4.7 can be applied to Rama and Krishna.
For example, brahmanas are meant to study, teach, perform sacrifices, officiate at the sacrifices, receive gifts and give gifts. That is good conduct for a brahmana. For a kshatriya, included in that good conduct is chastisement and reward, chastisement of those who are wicked and reward of those who are good. That’s more like rule of law. BG 4.7 is about rule of law. It is not about “dharma” in its broader sense of emancipation. As I have said before, “dharma” in the sense of emancipation is about what is inside you. Rule of law is about the external world. It shouldn’t be surprising that none of the incarnations have been brahmanas. What of Kalki, yet to come? I am not sure how to describe Kalki. He is a bit like Parashurama. He will clearly be born in a brahmana household, so the Puranas tell us. But riding on a white horse and with a blazing sword in his hand, his behaviour will be like that of a kshatriya. If you read about what he will do, especially in the Kalki Purana, it is the spread of dharma through the sword.