Common section


800 to 1500 CE


750-1500 Medieval Puranas are composed:

Agni (850), Bhagavata (950), Bhavishya (500-1200), Brahma (900-1350), Brahmavaivarta (1400-1500), Devibhagavata (1100-1350), Garuda (900), Kalika (1350), Linga (600-1000), Mahabhagavata (1100), Saura (950-1150)

1210-1526 The Delhi Sultanate is in power

c. 1200 Early orders of Sufis arise in North India

c. 1200 Virashaivas, including Basava, live in South India

c. 1200 Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda is composed

c. 1336-1565 Vijayanagar Empire is in its prime

c. 1398-1448 Kabir lives

1469-1539 Guru Nanak founds Sikhism in the Punjab


Listen to the way Brahma himself tells the story of Prahlada; the
Puranas tell it differently.

Padma Purana, c. 750-1000 CE1

The many different ways in which the medieval Puranas tell stories about animals, women, the lower classes, and other religions are the result of a sudden burgeoning of the imaginative range of the texts, nurtured in large part by the ongoing appropriation of ideas from non-Sanskrit, oral, and vernacular cultures. By the ninth century CE, Sanskrit had embraced literary and political as well as religious realms as a cosmopolitan language that was patronized by the literati and royal courts. Some scholars argue that Sanskrit faded away during this period because “the idiom of a cosmopolitan literature” became somewhat redundant in “an increasingly regionalized world.”2 But it seems to me that the producers of Sanskrit Puranas, regionalized though they most certainly were, responded not by closing up shop but simply doing more and more business as usual, welcoming in regional popular, oral, and vernacular themes and translating them into their own kind of Puranic Sanskrit. It was in this spirit too that they welcomed in regional and popular figures and made them into some of the avatars of Vishnu.


We have already met the first two human avatars of Vishnu, Krishna and Rama, who becaome incarnate on earth to fight against antigods (Asuras) incarnate as humans and against ogres (Rakshasas) who are the enemies of humans. We have also noted, without investigating, a number of references to other avatars that Vishnu had attracted by the early centuries of the Common Era, sometimes said to be six, sometimes eighteen, but usually ten (though not always the same tenin). One of the very few surviving Gupta temples, the temple at Deogarh, in Uttar Pradesh (c. sixth-seventh century CE), is called the Temple of the Ten Avatars (Dashavatara). In the fifteenth century the poet Kabir mocked the ten avatars as “divine malarkey/for those who really know”—that is, for those who know that it is all god’s maya that Rama appears to marry Sita, and so forth.3 The Jaina concept of Universal History, which claims nine appearances of a savior in each world epoch, may have played a role in the development of the Hindu schema,4 for Vishnu too usually has nine avatars in the past, the tenth being (like the Kali Age) reserved for the future (Kalki).

Some of the new avatars were assimilated into the Puranas lists from earlier Sanskrit literature, and all of them entered the ten-avatar structure through the usual processes of Hindu bricolage. The texts often describe the avatars centrifugally, as various functions of the god emanating out of him and expressed as many manifestations (with many arms, many heads). But historically they came into being centripetally, as various gods already in existence were attracted to Vishnu and attached themselves to him like iron filings to a magnet. Avatars were particularly popular with kings, whose eulogies often sequentially link their conquests or their qualities to avatars—like the boar, he rescured the earth, like Kalki, he repelled the barbarians—perhaps to suggest that the king too was an avatar.

To fast-forward for a moment, Keshab Chunder Sen (1838-1884) in 1882 noted that the succession of Vishnu’s avatars could be interpreted as an allegory of the Darwinian evolutionary process, “presciently recognized by ancient Hindu sages and now confirmed by modern science”—that is, an ancient Indian theory that Darwin re-invented.5 (Sen may or may not have been inspired by the idea of Avataric Evolutionism that Madame Blavatsky discussed in her Isis Unveiled, published in 1877.6) Since then the ten avatars are often listed beginning with the three least complex life forms and working their way up to humans; sometimes they are also associated with the progression of the ages (Yugas) through time. Thus the list usually goes like this: the fish, the tortoise, the boar, and the Man-Lion (animals, all in the Krita Yuga, the first Age, and all but the Man-Lion aquatic animals); the dwarf, Parashurama, Rama (humans, all in the Treta Yuga, the second Age); Krishna and the Buddha (humans in the Dvapara, the third Age); and Kalki in the Kali Age. But evolutionary theory fits with the Indian theory of the Yugas only if one ignores the little matter of the clash between social evolutionism (things get steadily better) and the Yuga theory of social degeneration (things get steadily worse).

If, however, we take into account the order in which the principal ten figures first surface in texts (including coins and inscriptions), though not necessarily already labeled avatars, let alone historically connected with Vishnu, the list would look more like this: the dwarf (Rig Veda); the fish and the boar (Brahmanas); the tortoise, Krishna, Rama, Parashurama, and Kalki (all mentioned in the Mahabharata); the Man-Lion and the Buddha (mentioned in the Vishnu Purana, c. 400-500 CE).7 Finally, if we group them according to the main issues with which this book is primarily concerned, the order would be animals (the fish, the boar, the tortoise), women (Krishna/Radha, Rama/Sita), interreligious relations (the Buddha, Kalkiio), caste and class (Parashurama, the dwarf, and the Man-Lion). Let us consider them in that order.



The myth of the fish and the flood is not originally associated with Vishnu; as we have seen, at first the fish was just a fish. But in the Mahabharata (3.185), the fish tells Manu that he is Brahma, Prajapati, the Lord of Creatures, and since the fish expands from a minnow to a kind of whale, and since he is a savior, the Puranas make him one of the avatars of the god Vishnu, who is both an expander (as the dwarf who becomes a giant) and a savior (as Krishna often claims to be).


Like the avatar of the fish, the boar avatar was not originally associated with Vishnu; in the Brahmanas, the boar, an amphibious animal, is Prajapati, the Lord of Creatures, who spreads earth out on the waters to make her into a disk and who marries her.8 TheVishnu Purana identifies Prajapati with Narayana (a name of Vishnu).9 At Udayagiri, in Malwa, a shrine carved out of the rock-face and dated to the opening of the fifth century CE depicts Vishnu’s incarnation as the boar, rescuing the earth depicted as a female boar. This may have been a political allegory of Chandra Gupta II’s conquest of Malwa,10 making the image simultaneously Vishnu married to the earth-boar and a king married to the earth goddess.


The tortoise appears in the Mahabharata when the gods and antigods decide to churn the ocean of milk to obtain the elixir of immortality, the soma, using Mount Mandara as the churn. All that is said there is: “The gods and antigods said to the king of tortoises, the supreme tortoise, ‘You are the one suited to be the resting place for the mountain.’ The tortoise agreed, and Indra placed the tip of the mountain on his back, fastening it tightly (1.15-17).” Vishnu is not the tortoise here; indeed he appears in this version of the story in a different form, as the nymph Mohini, who bewitches and seduces the antigods so that they lose their opportunity to drink the soma. But the tortoise goes on to be quite famous in Hindu cosmologies and in images of the myth of the churning, and the Puranas identify the tortoise as an avatar of Vishnu. Usually he is depicted as anthropomorphic from the waist up, tortoise from the waist down, but sometimes simply as a tortoise tout court.



Major changes were beginning to be made in the worship of Krishna at this time. When we meet Krishna in the Mahabharata, he is already an adult; the Harivamsha, the appendix to the Mahabharata, composed a century or two after it (c. 450 CE), gives him a childhood. This childhood may have been derived, in the early centuries CE, from popular, vernacular, non-Brahminical stories about a village boy who lived among the cowherd people,11 a far cry from the powerful prince Krishna of the Mahabharata. In a stroke of genius, the Harivamsha put the two mythologies together, the Mahabharata story of the prince and the folk/vernacular stories of a cowherd child, by bridging them with a third story, a variant of the story that Freud called the family romance,12 the myth of a boy of noble blood who is raised by animals, or by the herders of animals, until he grows up and finds his real parents.ip The family romance is a ready-made, off-the-rack story right at hand to be picked up and used when there is a sudden need to plug a gaping hole, to construct a childhood for a god who has appeared only as an adult in earlier texts. Once the join was made, theHarivamsha quickly absorbed the cowherd mythology and developed it in its own ways. Krishna in the Mahabharata was already a double figure, a god pretending to be a prince, but now he was doubly doubled: a god pretending to be a prince pretending to be a cowherd. This opened up the way to the worship of the child Krishna and a theology of the hidden god, revealed through a series of charming miracles that puzzle all but the reader who is in the know.

The Harivamsha tells the story of Krishna’s birth into his double life:


The wicked king Kamsa heard a prophecy that the eighth child born of his cousin Devaki and her husband, Vasudeva, would kill Kamsa. He let Devaki live, on condition that Vasudeva would deliver to Kamsa every child she bore, and Kamsa killed seven infants in this Vishnu placed himself in the eighth embryo, and, at his request, the goddess of sleep took the form of the goddess Kali and entered the womb of Yashoda, the wife of the cowherd Nanda. One night Krishna was born to the princess Devaki and the goddess Kali was born to the cowherd woman Yashoda. Vasudeva carried the infant Krishna to Yashoda and brought the infant girl to Devaki. When Kamsa saw the girl, he dashed her violently to the stone floor. She went to heaven and became an eternal goddess, Kali, to whom sacrifices of animals are made, for she is fond of flesh. And Krishna grew up in the village of cowherds. When he was grown, he killed Kamsa.13

Krishna’s birth is doubled in yet another way, by the simultaneous birth of Sleep as Kali and the daughter of Devaki as the daughter of Yashoda. The worship of the goddess Kali, a new, specifically Hindu element injected into the basic formula, signals the beginning of a new prominence of women in the worship of Krishna, starting in this text, where Devaki, in a manner reminiscent of Draupadi, harasses her husband, Vasudeva, and forces him to stop saying, “It is all fated,” and to do something to save her baby. Indeed bhakti texts generally challenge the more fatalistic construction of karma, believing that people’s actions in their current lives can produce good or bad fortune in this life and that devotion to the gods, in particular, pays off in this lifetime14 as well as in the next.


The Harivamsha makes Krishna’s foster mother, Yashoda, a major character, as does the tenth book of the Bhagavata Purana, which bears the imprint of the bhakti wind blowing from the south and develops in glorious detail the other mothers of Krishna, the Gopis or cowherd women, who become his foster mothers and cluster around him in adoration. There are also negative foster mothers: The infant Krishna kills (among many ogres and ogresses) the ogress Putana, who tries to poison him with the milk from her breasts but is killed instead when he sucks out her life’s breath with her milk .15

The Bhagavata also domesticates the myth of looking into the mouth of god (Krishna), which, in the Gita, reveals to Arjuna the unbearable image of doomsday. In the Purana, Yashoda looks into the mouth of her toddler Krishna and sees in it the universe and herself (as Brahma sees the universe and himself in Vishnu), a vision that she finds unbearable, just as Arjuna did. In both cases, Krishna grants, in his infinite love, the boon that Arjuna and Yashoda will forget the vision.16


When passion, even religious passion, is the game, the erotic is always a heavy hitter. Krishna in the Mahabharata is a prince with many wives, sixteen thousand by some counts, though he had his The Puranas depict Krishna as a handsome young man who dances with the many Gopis, the wives of the cowherd men. In the great circle dance in the moonlight (rasa-lila), he doubles himself again and again so that each Gopi thinks that Krishna is with her. Similarly, the Gopis double themselves, leaving shadow images of themselves in bed with their unsuspecting husbands. The Gopis are both his mothers and his lovers; the Puranas tend to blur the distinction between the love of Krishna’s mothers (“calf love” [vatsalya]) and the love of his lovers (“honey-sweet love” [madhurya ]).17 Here is yet another example of the astounding Hindu ability to combine ideas that other religions might feel constrained to choose between or at least to keep separate.


In later Puranas, one Gopi in particular is the lover of Krishna: Radha, who is virtually unknown to the Sanskrit mythology of Krishna until the seventh century and does not become important to the devotional community until the sixteenth century,18 when bhakti has feminized sectarianism and made women more important. The story of Krishna and Radha inspired the Sanskrit Gita Govinda, “The Song of [Krishna] the Cowherd,” by Jayadeva, the court poet of the Bengali King Laksmanasena (c. 1179-1209), an important text for Vaishnava worshipers. Jayadeva’s Radha is powerful; Krishna bends down before her and puts her feet on his head. The romance of the two adulterous lovers may owe something to the Persian romances that were becoming known in India through the Muslim presence at this time, in some Sufi sects.19

In the Bhagavata Purana, Krishna would disappear from the circle dance from time to time, and the Gopis searched for him in an exquisite agony of longing, the great Indian theme of love and separation (viraha), here in the familiar bhakti mode of longing for the absent god (the deus absconditus or otiosus ). But in the later Puranas, often under Tantric influences, it was Radha alone with whom the worshiper, male or female, identified. As a Gopi, Radha was also one of Krishna’s foster mothers, a role that she does not entirely abandon when she becomes his lover. In theBrahmavaivarta Purana, probably composed in Bengal in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, the mature Radha is put in charge of the infant Krishna, to her intense annoyance; suddenly he turns into a gorgeous young man, with whom she makes love joyously for many days—until he turns back again into a demanding, and wet, infant.20


Images from the life of Rama are represented at the Dashavatara temple at Deogarh, though in general there is little evidence of Rama worship in temples at that time (the Gupta period), nor, in dramatic contrast with Krishna, is Rama’s story elaborated upon to any significant degree in the early Puranas. But Valmiki’s Ramayana was not only still widely read in Sanskrit at the time of the later Puranas (800-1500 CE) but was now beginning to be translated into the vernacular literatures, as well as retold in other Sanskrit texts. The Mahabharata, Harivamsha, Vishnu Purana, and several other Puranas omit the fire ordeal of Sita entirely,21 but the fifteenth-century Adhyatma-Ramayana used it to exculpate Sita not only from being present in Ravana’s home but from the weakness of asking Rama to capture the golden deer for her. This illusory deer, however, may have inspired the Adhyatma-Ramayana to create the illusory Sita who now desires the deer:


Rama, knowing what Ravana intended to do, told Sita, “Ravana will come to you disguised as an ascetic; put a shadow [chaya] of yourself outside the hut, and go inside the hut yourself. Live inside fire, invisible; when I have killed Ravana, come back to me as you were before.” Sita obeyed; she placed an illusory Sita [maya-sita] outside and entered the fire. This illusory Sita saw the illusory deer and urged Rama to capture it for her.22

Ravana captures the illusory Sita, and Rama then pretends to grieve for Sita, pretends to fight to get her back, and lies to his brother Lakshmana, who genuinely grieves for Sita. Sita herself is never subjected to an ordeal at all; after Ravana has been killed and the false Sita brought back and accused, the illusory Sita enters the fire and vanishes forever, while the real Sita emerges and remains with Rama. Thus the text quells the uneasiness that the reader (or hearer) may well share with Rama at the thought of Sita’s living in Ravana’s house for so long: Rama never intended or needed to test Sita (since he knew she wasn’t in Ravana’s house at all) but had the shadow Sita enter the fire merely in order to bring the real Sita back from the fire, to make her visible again. The shadow Sita protects the real Sita from the trauma of life with Rama as well as with Ravana.

But Rama seems to forget what he has done; he grieves terribly for Sita and orders the shadow Sita into the fire as if she were real. The illusory Sita is part of the greater illusion that Rama, as a great god, is now in charge of; he is play-acting (through his lila, his artistic game) the whole time anyway, so why not playact his grief for Sita? Probably in order to maintain the power of the narrative, the author has Rama seem to forget about the shadow at crucial moments; only when the gods come and remind him of his divinity (as they do in the Valmiki text) does Fire (incarnate as the god Agni) return Sita to Rama, remarking, “You made this illusory Sita in order to destroy Ravana. Now he is dead, and that Sita has disappeared.”23 And whereas Sita’s desire for the deer in the Valmiki text proves that she can’t recognize a substitute deer, in this text she gets a substitute who can’t recognize the substitute deer, while Ravana can’t recognize the substitute Sita.

The Brahmavaivarta Purana develops the idea of the subjectivity of the surrogate Sita, who goes on to have a life of her own as Draupadi, of all people:

The shadow Sita asked Rama and Fire, “What shall I do?” Fire told her to go to the Pushkara shrine, and there she generated inner heat and was reborn as Draupadi. This shadow, who was in the prime of her youth, was so nervous and excited with lust when she asked Shiva for a husband that she repeated her request five times. And so she obtained five husbands, the five Pandavas.24

Fire gives the shadow Sita a sexual future as Draupadi, who, like the shadow Sita, is born of a fire;25 indeed it may have been the shared theme of birth from fire that attracted Draupadi from her own epic into Sita’s story in the other epic, as if Lady Macbeth somehow popped up as a character in King Lear.



The Buddha avatar is mentioned in of the Mahabharata:26 “At the beginning of the Kali Age, Vishnu will become the Buddha, son of Shuddhodana, and he will preach in the Magadha dialect. All men will become bald, like him, and wear the ocher robe, and priests will cease to offer oblations or recite the Veda.”27 The precise historical detail of preaching in Magadhi, together with the reference to the name of the Buddha’s father as it appears in the Pali canon (and in later lists of historical Hindu dynasties28), lulls us into a false sense of historical reality—until it gets to the crucial point: “Those who sought refuge with Vishnu [as Buddha] were deluded.” The myth of Vishnu’s incarnation as the Buddha is established in full detail in the Vishnu Purana, represented on the sixth- to seventh-century Dashavatara temple at Deogarh and mentioned in a seventh-century Pallava inscription29 and an eighth-century Tamil inscription.30

The Buddha avatar was not originally, as it might seem at first glance and is often advertised as being, a genuine attempt to assimilate the teachings of the Buddha into Hinduism (though this was certainly done in many other ways). On the contrary, although Vishnu as Buddha expresses the anti-Vedic sentiments that Hindus (rightly) attribute to Buddhists, Jainas, Materialists, and other heretics, he does this in order to destroy the antigods by teaching them an evil doctrine, Buddhism, on the second alliance principle that the gods cannot destroy a virtuous person unless they first corrupt him:


The antigods conquered the gods in battle, and the gods went to ask Vishnu for help, saying, “The antigods have stolen our portions of the sacrifices, but they take pleasure in the duties of their own class and they follow the path of the Vedas and are full of inner heat. Therefore we cannot kill them. Please find a way for us to kill them.” Then Vishnu emitted from his body a deluding form of his magic power of illusion and said, “This magic deluder will bewitch all the antigods so that they will be excluded from the path of the Vedas and therefore susceptible to slaughter.” The gods went back home, and the magic deluder went to the great antigods.

Naked, bald, carrying a bunch of peacock feathers, the magic deluder taught the antigods what he called “the dharma that is the open door to moksha.” He said: “This would be dharma, but it would not be dharma. This would give moksha, but it would not give moksha.” And so on and so forth. Then he put on red robes and spoke to other antigods, saying, “If you wish for heaven or for nirvana, you must stop these evil rites such as killing animals. If an animal slaughtered in the sacrifice is thus promised entry into heaven, why doesn’t the sacrificer kill his own father? If the oblation to the ancestors that is eaten by one man satisfies another, then people traveling abroad need not take the trouble to carry food.” He caused them all to abandon the dharma of the three Vedas, to be free thinkers, and they became his disciples and persuaded others. The armor of their sva-dharmahad formerly protected them, but now it was destroyed, and so were they. The gods attacked them and killed them.31

The antigods are destroyed because they abandon their antigod sva-dharma in order to join the new religious movement. The great deluder, whose defense of nonviolence (ahimsa) is here regarded as part of the great lie, is both a Jaina (with peacock feathers) and a Buddhist (in ocher robes); sometimes he is said to be “the Buddha, the son of the Jina.”32 His argument about one man’s eating for another is a standard Hindu satire on the heresy of Materialist satire on the Hindu rite of feeding the dead ancestors (shraddha); the same argument is used against the Vedas in the TamilNilakeci (tenth or eleventh century), and the remark about the sacrificer’s killing his own father correctly quotes a real argument in a Buddhist Jataka text.33 Another version of the myth says that Vishnu founded the Materialist and similar sects “for the seeking of liberation through eating flesh, drinking wine, and so forth,”34 a policy that seems more Tantric than Materialist.

But the conversion of humankind to Buddhism (or Jainism, or Materialism, or Tantrism, or any other heresy) is merely an unfortunate side effect of Vishnu’s attack on the antigods, a kind of theological fallout; and the fact that the doctrine is directed against the antigods indicates the degree of anti-Buddhist sentiment that motivated the author of this myth. It is the demonization of Buddhism (as well as the Buddhification of demons). As an unfortunate bit of collateral damage from the wars in heaven, the earth is left with human Buddhists when the gods have succeeded in turning the antigods into Buddhists, like the eucalyptus trees or cane toads that people introduced into new continents in order to destroy something else, not realizing that they would then be stuck with too many eucalyptus trees and cane toads. Similarly, a fierce Hindu goddess (sometimes named Kali) is from time to time created to kill antigods, and she does, but then sometimes she begins to kill the people who created her.35 There is also a Sanskrit saying: “Like the king’s men” (raja-purusha-nyaya), referring to the fact that when you call in the soldiers to get rid of bandits who are bothering you, the bandits do go away, but then you are stuck with the often even worse depredations of the soldiers. The corruption of the Buddhists/ antigods is stated in terms of orthopraxy (people are made to stop sacrificing), but there is also a touch of orthodoxy: Teach them the wrong belief, and they will do the wrong things.

Yet the spirit of the narrative is more like a playful satire on Buddhism and Jainism than a serious attack. And some of the later Puranas, and other Sanskrit texts of this period, put a positive spin on the Buddha avatar. The Bhagavata Purana says that Vishnu became the Buddha in order to protect us from lack of enlightenment and from fatal blunders.36 The Varaha Purana advises the worshiper to worship Kalki when he wants to destroy enemies and the Buddha when he wants beauty.37 The Matsya Purana describes the Buddha as lotus-eyed, beautiful as a god, and peaceful.38Kshemendra’s eleventh-century “Deeds of the Ten Avatars”39 and Jayadeva’s tenth-century Gita Govinda tell the story of the Buddha avatar in a straight, heroic tale based on the standard episodes of Gautama’s life as related in the Pali canon, and Jayadeva says that Vishnu became the Buddha out of compassion for animals, to end bloody sacrifices.40 The Dashavatara-stotra, attributed (most probably apocryphally) to Shankara (who was often accused of being a crypto-Buddhist), praises the Buddha avatar. 41 The Devibhagavata Purana offers homage to Vishnu, “who became incarnate as the Buddha in order to stop the slaughter of animals and to destroy the sacrifices of the wicked,”42 adding a moral judgment to Jayadeva’s more neutral statement; although the last phrase might be translated “to destroy wicked sacrifices” or taken to imply that all sacrifices are wicked, it is also possible that only wicked (or demonic, or proto-Buddhist) sacrificers, not virtuous Hindu sacrificers, are condemned. These texts may express a Hindu desire to absorb Buddhism in a peaceful manner, both to win Buddhists to the worship of Vishnu and to account for the fact that such a significant heresy could prosper in India.43 They may also reflect the rising sentiment against animal sacrifice within Hinduism. Yet Kabir, in the fifteenth century, mocking the avatars, says, “Don’t call the master Buddha/he didn’t put down devils.”44 And in some texts and visual depictions, the Buddha is left out of the list of ten avatars; often Balarama, Krishna’s brother, takes the Buddha’s Hindus spoke in many voices about the Buddha, some positive, some negative, and some indifferent or ambivalent.

The myth of Vishnu as Buddha then ricocheted back into Buddhism in India. For many centuries, Hindus worshiped as a Hindu god the image of the Buddha at the Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya in Bihar (where the Buddha is said to have become enlightened, a major pilgrimage site for Buddhists).45 And a legend apparently originating in medieval Sri Lanka refers to ten bodhisattvas, one of whom is Vishnu,46 who is also represented as one of the ten bodhisattvas in Sinhalese temples, notably at Dambulla,47 and becomes the protector of Buddhism throughout Sri Lanka.48

We can trace these shifting attitudes through three broad stages. First, Buddhism was assimilated into Hinduism in the Upanishads, Ramayana, and Mahabharata. This was a period of harmony (sometimes competitive, but always civil) among Hindus and Buddhists and Jainas, in actual history, and between gods and humans (the first alliance), in mythology. Then, in the second stage, around the turn of the millennium and after, the Buddhists (in history) became more powerful and were sometimes seen as a threat. The first set of Puranic myths about the Buddha were composed at this time (the Gupta period), when Hinduism was still fighting a pitched battle against Buddhism, Jainism, and other heresies; the scars of the battle may be seen in these Puranic stories that contemptuously denounce the shastras of delusion (i.e., the Buddhist and Jaina scriptures) and the people who use them,49 assimilating this conflict into the pattern of second alliance myths of the corruption of the virtuous antigods. 50

But then, in the third stage, when Buddhism, though still a force to be reckoned with in India, was waning, the texts have a more conciliatory attitude, and the Hindus once again acknowledged their admiration of Buddhism. In mythology, the texts revise the myth of Vishnu as the Buddha to make it generous and tolerant.51 A Kashmiri king of the tenth century had a magnificent frame made for “an image of the Buddha Avatara,” and the image that he used was a Buddha figure that had probably been under worship by Buddhists; this frame may have been made for the Buddhist figure in order to “Hinduize” it,52 just as the doctrine of the Buddha was placed in the “frame” of Puranic mythology to Hinduize it and as Hindu temples were built on Buddhist stupas and, later, Muslim mosques on Hindu temples.


Kalki, usually listed as the final avatar, is the only one yet to come in the future, the messiah who will appear at the end of the present Kali Age, to destroy barbarians and atheists (Nastikas). The myth may represent a reaction against the invasion of India by Greeks, Scythians, Parthians, Kushanas, and Huns, but it owes its own conception to those very invaders. For Kalki may have been inspired in part by the future Buddha Maitreya, who will reinstate the norms of Buddhist belief and behavior,53 though both Kalki and Maitreya might have developed from the image of the purifying savior that the Parthians may have brought into India in the first centuries CE.54 The idea of the final avatar may have entered India at this time, when millennial ideas were rampant in Europe and Christians were proselytizing in India; the Hindu rider on the white horse may have influenced, or been influenced by, the rider on the white horse in Christian apocalyptic literature,55 his cloak soaked in blood, sent to put the pagans to the sword. The circularity of historical influence is such that Kalki’s purpose is to destroy the barbarian invaders, to raze the wicked cities of the plain that have been polluted by foreign kings, the same horsemen who may have brought the myth of Kalki into India.

Kalki appears first in the Mahabharata, after a long description of the horrors of the Kali Age. Then: “A Brahmin by the name of Kalki Vishnuyashas will be born, impelled by Time, in the village of Shambhala.” He will be a king, and he will annihilate all the barbarians and destroy the robbers and make the earth over to the twice born at a great horse sacrifice.56 Nothing is said here about his being an avatar of Vishnu, except that he is named Fame of Vishnu (Vishnu-yashas), and nothing is said about a horse, except for his horse sacrifice. The point about the avatar, but not about the horse, is somewhat clarified in the Vishnu Purana:


The Scythians, Greeks, Huns, and others will pollute India.57 Unable to support their avaricious kings, the people of the Kali Age will take refuge in the chasms between mountains, and they will eat honey, vegetables, roots, fruits, leaves, and flowers. They will wear ragged garments made of leaves and the bark of trees, and they will have too many children. No one will live more than twenty-two years. Vedic religion and the dharma of the shastras will undergo total confusion and reversal.

But when the Kali Age is almost over, Vishnu will become incarnate here in the form of Kalki, in the house of the chief Brahmin of the village of He will destroy all the barbarians and Dasyus and men of evil acts and evil thoughts, and he will establish everything, each in its ownsva-dharma.

And at the end of the Kali Age, the minds of the people will become pure as flawless crystal, and they will be as if awakened at the conclusion of a night. And these men, the residue of humankind, will be the seeds of creatures and will give birth to offspring conceived at that very time. And these offspring will follow the ways of the Winning [Krita] Age. 58

The transition between the end of the Kali Age and the beginning of the Winning Age is usually a cosmological upheaval, fire and flood. Here it is translated into a political upheaval: The barbarians and Dasyus (the old enemies of the Vedic people) are put to the sword. In both cases, however, all the bad people are destroyed and a remnant of good people survives to begin the new world. The doomsday Shaiva mare, with her fire and flood, seems to vanish from the junction of the ages, but at the very end of the passage, the text casually remarks: “Vishnu is the horse’s head that lives in the ocean, devouring oblations.” So she is there after all.

The Buddha and Kalki appear together in sequence in many of the Puranic lists of avatars and on reliefs of the ten avatars from the Gupta period onward.59 Vishnu first initiates the Kali Age when he becomes the Buddha to destroy the antigods and make them into heretics, and then, at the end of the Kali Age, he becomes Kalki to destroy both heretics and barbarians. One late Purana makes this connection explicit and sets both Buddha and Kalki in the past, the right time for the Buddha but the wrong time for Kalki:


At the end of the Kali Age, Adharma and Kali (the incarnation of the Kali Age) were born. Men became lustful, hypocritical and evil, adulterers, drunkards. Ascetics took to houses, and householders were devoid of discrimination. Men abandoned the Vedas and sacrifices, and the gods, without sustenance, sought refuge with Brahma. Then Vishnu was born as Kalki. He levied a great army to chastise the Buddha; he fought the Buddhists, who were led by the Jina, and he killed the Jina and defeated the Buddhists and the barbarians who assisted them. The wives of the Buddhists and barbarians had also taken up arms, but Kalki taught them the paths of karma, jnana, and bhakti. He defeated Kali, who escaped to another age.60

Kalki comes, as usual, to counteract the doctrines of the Buddhists and Jainas and barbarians. But as time has now passed—the Kalki Purana may be as late as the eighteenth century—the barbarians (mlecch"s)61 may be Christians or even Muslims. Whoever they are, Kalki teaches their women the three paths of karma, jnana, and bhakti, the paths of the Bhagavad Gita. This late bhakti text assumes that the women, with their special gift for bhakti, can still be redeemed, if the men cannot. The incarnate Kali Age escapes, because it is inevitable that, after the Winning Age that Kalki here introduces, time will inevitably degenerate, and the Kali Age will be with us again.


Eventually Kalki as or with a stallion replaced the underwater mare as the doomsday horse; in later texts, Kalki is said to ride on a horse62 (a swift horse that the gods give him),63 and, later still, he himself is said to be a horse or horse-headed. When the Muslim sect of the Imam Shahis reworked the stories of the avatars, Kalki, the tenth avatar, became the imam, who rides on a horse.64 The horse head may be the result of merging Kalki with earlier equine myths about good horse heads, such as the head of the Upanishadic sacrificial horse and the horse head through which the Vedic Dadhyanch tells the secret of soma to the Ashvins. There is also another good horse-headed Vishnu, Hayagriva (“horse-necked”),iu who is sometimes regarded as a separate, minor avatar of Vishnu.65 In the Mahabharata (12.335.1-64), Vishnu takes this form to dive into the ocean to retrieve the Vedas from two antigods who have stolen them; Puranic retellings of the story say that when he resumed his own form, he left the horse head in the ocean, where it becomes our old friend the head of the submarine mare, though now devouring oblations instead of water.66

But there are also demonic horses in Vaishnava mythology. A still-later text states that Hayagriva was not a god at all but a horse-headed antigod that had won the boon that only someone horse-headed could kill him, and so when Vishnu was once accidentally beheaded (yes, another story: His head falls into the oceaniv), the gods had their blacksmith take an ax, cut the head off a horse, and put it on Vishnu; Vishnu then killed the horse-headed antigod.67 Krishna also fights with a horse antigod named Keshin (“Long-haired,” like the Vedic sage, or here, perhaps, “Long-maned”), whom he kills by wounding him in the mouth and splitting him in half.68 A Gupta image depicts a young Krishna kicking a horse, presumably the horse antigod Keshin, in the stomach and jamming his elbow in the horse’s mouth.69 The negative image of the Shaiva mare fire joined to the positive images of Vaishnava horses may have resulted in the ambiguous equine Vaishnava figures of both Keshin and Kalki.



Parashurama (“Rama with an Ax”) is not an avatar in the Mahabharata, though he is an important figure there in his own right. The son of the insanely jealous Brahmin sage Jamadagni and his Kshatriya wife, Renuka, Parashurama is an awkward interclass mix and gets tragically caught in the crossfire between his parents. One day, as Renuka bathes in the river she catches sight of a king playing in the water with his queen, and she desires him. Her husband, sensing this change, has their son Parashurama, the Lizzie Borden of Hindu mythology (forty whacks and all), behead her. But beheading is seldom fatal in a Hindu myth. Pleased by his son’s obedience, Jamadagni offers him a boon, and Parashurama has him bring Renuka back to life (MB 3.116.1-20). (The Tamil version of this story has Parashurama accidentally give his mother the head of a Pariah woman.70) Parashurama also requests, and is granted, as an additional boon, “that no one would remember her murder, that no one would be touched by the evil (MB 3.116.21-25).” Thus nothing really happens; at the end, all wrongs are righted. All that is lost when the head has been restored is memory—perhaps not merely the memory of the murder but also the memory of the sexual vision that threatened Renuka’s integrity as a chaste wife by threatening to unveil in her the conflicting image of the erotic woman. It is not entirely clear whether the evil consists in the murder or in the original lapse of chastity, nor, therefore, whether Parashurama is asking that his mother, or he himself, or everyone else should never again experience lust.

But Parashurama later lashes out against his mother’s class (the whole race of Kshatriyas) and kills them all.71 What is most puzzling is why this out-of-control boy of mixed birth, who comes from a broken home that he did much to break, is regarded as an appropriate addition to the list of Vishnu’s avatars. All he has going for him is a fanatical anti-Kshatriya bias that may have appealed to the Brahmin authors of the Puranas and the irony that he acts like a Kshatriya, not a Brahmin, when he wipes out the Kshatriyas. Perhaps that is enough. Kings invoke him as a role model: “Like Parashurama, he cleansed the earth of his enemies.” Like Kalki, Parashurama destroys his own people; where Kalki is modeled on barbarian invaders and kills barbarian invaders, Parashurama is a Kshatriya who kills Kshatriyas.


Though the dwarf is the earliest of the avatars, and the Man-Lion the last, they both interact with the paradoxical figure of the good antigod. This figure—first the antigod Bali, whom the dwarf conquers, then Prahlada, whom the Man-Lion saves—seems to be what the anthropologist Mary Douglas would have called a category error, matter out of place: As an antigod he is by definition anti the gods, but he is devoted to, hence pro, at least one god (Indra for Bali, Vishnu for Prahlada). The texts recognize this connection, though they reverse the historical sequence, in making Prahlada Bali’s grandfather.

In each of the three alliances, antigods grow strong by amassing the paramount virtue of the period. Thus in the first alliance the antigod Bali poses a threat because he has the Vedic virtue of generosity; in the second alliance, the good antigods in the Buddha myth, as well as ogres like Ravana, have amassed dangerous amounts of inner heat; and in the third alliance, Prahlada becomes a category error through his bhakti to Vishnu. This last instance, however, as we shall see, ultimately offers the solution to the problems of all three alliances.

Humans, not antigods, were the real problem here.iw The mythology of the good antigod is the Puranas’ coded way of talking about the challenge of people born into low castes, hence condemned to do unclean tasks, who nevertheless aspire to a life more in keeping with higher forms of dharma. Most of the Brahmins in charge of Vedic religion would still have nothing to do with such people, but many of the new sects, Puranic or Tantric, were casting about for ways to allow people of all castes to join them without compromising their status as pukka Hindu sects. These myths explore various possible ways of accomplishing this.

At the same time, these are not just stories about human beings interacting; they are also about what they say they are about, the nature of god and salvation. Moreover, a myth that imagines a new relationship between humans and gods makes possible, in turn, new relationships between humans.


Very little is said about Vishnu in the Rig Veda, but his main appearance is as the protagonist of an important creation myth in which he takes three steps by which he measures out, and therefore creates, the earthly realms, propping up the sky (1.154.1-6). The Brahmanas tell the story in more detail: “The gods and antigods were at war, and the antigods were winning, claiming the whole world as theirs. The gods asked for a share in the earth, and the antigods, rather jealousy, replied, ‘We will give you as much as this Vishnu lies on.’ Now Vishnu was a dwarf, but he was also the sacrifice. The gods worshiped with him and obtained this whole earth.”72 In the Ramayana, Bali alone, not the antigods in general, poses the threat. The Puranas now make Vishnu a Brahmin as well as a dwarf:


When the antigod Bali, son of Virochana, controlled all the worlds, Vishnu became incarnate as a dwarf and went where Bali was performing a sacrifice. He became a Brahmin and asked Bali to give him the space that he could cover in three strides. Bali was pleased to do this, thinking that the dwarf was just a dwarf. But the dwarf stepped over the heaven, the sky, and the earth, in three strides, stealing the antigods’ prosperity. He sent the antigods and all their sons and grandsons to hell and gave Indra kingship over all the immortals. 73

The cosmology implicit in the Brahmana myth is stated explicitly in this text: “Vishnu revealed that the whole universe was in his body.” Bali is not allowed to excel as a sacrificer; Vishnu sends him to hell, where all antigods, even, or especially, virtuous antigods, belong.


Although the Man-Lion does not appear until the Puranas, the antigods whom he opposes—Prahlada and his father, Hiranyakashipu—have a history that stretches back to the Brahmanas. Prahlada in the Brahmanas and in parts of the Mahabharata is a typical, demonic demon—angry, lustful, opposing the gods.74 But in the Mahabharata he becomes a type that we recognize from the second alliance of gods, humans, and antigods, a too-virtuous antigod:


Prahlada stole Indra’s kingdom, and Indra could not get it back because Prahlada was so virtuous. Indra went to Prahlada disguised as a Brahmin, and at Indra’s request, Prahlada taught Indra about eternal dharma [sanatana dharma]. Pleased with his pupil, Prahlada asked the Brahmin to choose a boon, and Indra as the Brahmin said, “I wish to have your virtue.” Indra left, taking Prahlada’s virtue and dharma with him, and Prahlada’s truth followed, and his good conduct, and his prosperity [Shri] (MB 12.124.19-63).

We recognize here the pattern not only of second alliance myths that assume the need to steal or corrupt the religious power and/or virtue of anyone who threatens the gods, but also of a transformation of the pattern of the story of Ekalavya (who gave his teacher the very essence of what made him great, even as Prahlada gives his pupil his greatness), with perhaps a bit of a spin taken from the Tantric Pashupatas who stole the good karma of people whom they tricked into wronging them. We may also recognize the pattern of the story of Bali (an antigod whose generosity to Vishnu is his undoing); indeed, in many versions of the Bali myth, Prahlada, Bali’s grandfather, warns Bali that the dwarf is Vishnu, 75 and in one text, Prahlada complains bitterly that Vishnu as the dwarf deceived and robbed his grandson Bali, who was “truthful, without desire or anger, calm, generous, and a sacrificer.”76 (In a late version of the Bali myth that is even more strongly reminiscent of Ekalavya, Indra himself begs from Bali’s father, Virochana, who generously offers him anything he wants, “Even my own head,” to which Indra without batting an eye replies, “Give me your own head,” and the antigod cuts it off and gives it to him.77) The virtue of the antigod king—his eternal dharma—leads him to lose everything, even his sva-dharma as king of the antigods. The Vedic quality of generosity is still regarded as desirable here, but now we see its disadvantage.

But then the Puranas rewind back to an earlier generation and make the villain of the piece no longer the virtuous Prahlada but his evil father. Now too the antigod’s opponent is not Indra but Vishnu as the Man-Lion, usually depicted as a lion’s head on a man’s body, though with many arms, equipped with terrible claws:


The antigod Hiranyakashipu obtained a boon from Brahma that he could not be killed by man or god or beast, from inside or outside, by day or by night, on earth or in the air, or by any weapon animate or inanimate. Confident of his invulnerability, he began to trouble heaven and earth. His son, Prahlada, on the other hand, was a fervent devotee of Vishnu. Hiranyakashipu threatened to kill Prahlada, who insisted nevertheless that Vishnu was the god who pervaded the universe. Hiranyakashipu kicked a stone pillar and asked: “Is he in this pillar too?” Vishnu emerged from the pillar in the form of a Man-Lion and disemboweled Hiranyakashipu with his claws, at dusk, on his lap, on the threshold. Then Prahlada became king of the antigods; devoted to Vishnu, he abandoned his antigod nature and sacrificed to the gods.78

The more general theme of the antigod who thinks he has a foolproof list of noncombatants but leaves out an essential clause of the contract (humans for Ravana, females for Mahisha) is joined with the theme of the Mahabharata tale of Indra and the antigod Vritra (or the antigod Namuchi), who had to be killed at twilight (neither night nor day), on the shore of the ocean (neither on land nor on sea), and with foam (a weapon neither wet nor dry) (MB 12.272-3).

Here Prahlada is a devotee of Vishnu from the start, steadfast despite the threats and attacks by his father, who is furious not because Prahlada is virtuous but merely because he has no respect for his father and the family traditions—that is, because he is violating his sva-dharma, a matter of partisan loyalties as well as ethics. Hiranyakashipu tries in vain to have his prodigal son educated in antigod etiquette: rape and pillage. Ultimately, as always, Vishnu kills the antigod, but in the process he upholds bhakti in the face of caste law. Where Vishnu has to cheat Bali by using his virtue against him, now it’s OK for Prahlada to be a good antigod. Something has changed. Sva-dharma is abolished, while general dharma is preserved and assimilated to bhakti. The texts that tell the story this way do not even bother to explain why the young antigod should serve the gods in the first place, against all laws of antigod nature. By this time, bhakti is taken for granted.


What made it OK for Prahlada to go against the rules of his birth as an antigod? It required a shift in the shape of the universe.


The basic structures of Hindu cosmology, constantly reinterpreted, served as an armature on which authors in each generation sculpted their musings on the structure of human society. In the Rig Veda, the Hindu universe was an egg, the two halves of the eggshell forming heaven and earth, with the sun as the yolk in the middle; it was a sealed, perfectly enclosed space with a given amount of good and evil and a given number of souls. This is why the sage in the Upanishads asks why heaven does not get filled up with all the dead souls going into it. This closed structure began to prove problematic when many Puranic myths acted as or pamphlets for a particular shrine, magnifying its salvific powers, presumably to drum up business by boasting that anyone—even women and people of low castes—could go straight to heaven after any contact with the shrine. In reaction against this, therefore, the gods (read: Brahmins) in some myths worry that so many people are being saved at the new shrines that people in heaven will have to stand with their hands above their heads, like people in a rush-hour subway. To keep heaven a more exclusive club, the gods take measures to destroy the shrines, flooding them or filling them with sand or simply corrupting people (as in the Buddha avatar) so that they stop going to the shrine.79 Here, as throughout this corpus, we may read these debates about imaginary creatures as paper-thin overlays on the ongoing debate about very real social classes and sectarian and religious conflicts; both Hindu and Muslim rulers did indeed, before, after, and during this period, destroy great Hindu shrines.

Ethically, this is a world of limited good or a zero-sum game: If someone is saved, someone else has to be damned. For Brahmins to be pure, Pariahs have to be impure. This is the jealous world of the second alliance: If you win, I lose. Since evil is a substance, space is a problem. This means, among other things, that evil, once created, cannot get out of the universe; the best you can do is just move it over to some spot where it will do the least possible harm, as the fire that fused Shiva’s anger and Kama’s erotic power was temporarily stashed in the doomsday mare at the bottom of the ocean.

The good antigod is the figure that ultimately triggers a paradigm shift in this cosmology. At first, he is caught in the clash between a form of general dharma (sadharana dharma) and specific dharma (sva-dharma, in this case, the duties of an antigod), a conflict that already affects the good ogres such as Vibhishana in the Ramayana. One story about a good ogre is based upon a typical myth told at some length in the Ramayana (7.5-8), in which an ogre named Sukesha is at first very good (he and his three sons study the Veda and make generous gifts), then good but threatening (they amass great amounts of inner heat and are given boons of invincibility), and finally corrupted by pride (they harass the gods); Vishnu destroys them all in battle and sends them down to hell. When a Purana retells this story, it raises new issues:


A great ogre named Sukeshin received from Shiva the boon that he could not be conquered or slain. He lived according to dharma, and one day he asked a hermitage full of sages to tell him about dharma. They began by describing the specific dharma of gods (to perform sacrifice), ogres (raping other men’s wives, coveting others’ wealth, worshiping Shiva), and others. Then they went on to explain general dharma, the tenfold dharma for all classes, such as noninjury, restraint, and generosity. They concluded: “No one should abandon the dharma ordained for his own class and stage of life or his sva-dharma.

Sukeshin taught all the ogres about general dharma, and when they practiced it, their brilliant luster paralyzed the sun, moon, and stars; night was like day; owls came out and crows killed them. Then the sun realized the ogres’ one weakness: they had abandoned their sva-dharma, a lapse that destroyed all their general dharma. Overpowered by anger, the sun shot his rays at them, and their city fell from the sky.

But when Sukeshin saw the city falling, he said, “Honor to Shiva!” and Shiva cast his glance at the sun, which fell from the sky like a stone. The gods propitiated Shiva and put the sun back in his chariot, and they took Sukeshin to dwell in heaven.80

The first of the three parts of this myth states the problem: the clash between general and specific dharma. The second defends sva-dharma, and the third overrules it, when Sukeshin plays the bhakti card to trump at least some of the aces of the caste system.

At the start, Sukeshin is in a bind: He must not abandon his dharma of rape and pillage, but he must also practice self-restraint (not easily compatible with rape) and generosity (not easily compatible with stealing). The one ray of light in this dark conflict is the fact that the sva-dharma of an ogre here apparently includes the worship of Shiva. Sukeshin seizes upon this loophole and proselytizes, with devastating results: Innocent owls die, and the sun is disastrously still. The midnight sun (which drives Scandinavians and Russians to commit suicide in summer) is even worse than the midwinter, when there is no sun; human beings (and, apparently, gods) cannot stand too much light—too much goodness in the wrong place. This is the traditional view: For an ogre, evil is its own reward, and a good ogre (virtuous) is by definition a bad ogre (the white sheep of his family). The jealous sun puts an end to it—but no. The marines land, as the troops of bhakti blow sva-dharma out of the water. The solution, however, is implied rather than stated: Sukeshin alone goes to heaven, the token antigod there; the other antigods, whose massive luster caused all the problems, conveniently vanish. Not everyone can go to heaven, it appears. Even with bhakti, at this point, not all are saved; the masses, the lower castes, and unreformed sinners are not saved. Not yet, at any rate.


But later bhakti texts blast through this impasse. The spirit of these texts is what Mircea Eliade celebrated as “breaking open the roof ” (briser le toit),81 and the later Puranas did it, cracking open the egg of the closed universe. We have seen one example of this sort of cosmological transformation in two different versions of hell, first with a Mahabharata king (Yudhishthira) who cannot transfer his personal good karma and then with a Puranic king (Vipashchit) who can. Now we will encounter a mythology in which, again, sinners are given good karma that they don’t deserve, but since now it is a god, rather than a human king, who transfers his powers, his compassion and forgiveness, the god, unlike the king, loses nothing by it, none of his good karma. The world of limited good gives way to a world of infinitely expansible good karma and bhakti; the generous donor keeps it all while the sinners benefit from it too, just as in the avatar the god remains entire in heaven even while he gives a portion of himself to the avatar on earth. Unlike texts such as the Gita, these texts are saying that even without bhakti on your part you can be saved from your sins; the god has enough bhakti for both of you.

In several of the late Puranic texts, when a shrine offers universal access to heaven, raising the gods’ hackles, Shiva intervenes, preserves or restores the shrine, and takes everyone to “the abode of Brahma.”82 When the god of hell, Yama, complains that women, Shudras, and dog cookers all are going to heaven through one particular shrine, the Shaiva shrine of Somnath, putting Yama out of work, Shiva replies that they all have been purified by the sight of the shrine, and he dismisses Yama without another word.83 To the complaint that heaven is full of evil people, Shiva simply replies that the people in question are no longer evil, ignoring the other half of the complaint, that heaven is full, or Yama on the dole. (Somnath is, the reader will recall, the temple that Mahmud of Ghazni so notoriously destroyed in 1025, perhaps before this text was composed.) Apparently, Shiva’s new heaven cannot be filled; these texts imagine a new heaven that can stretch the envelope to accommodate everyone.84 Earlier the shape of the universe seemed to constrain the ethical possibilities, but when those possibilities grow intense, the cosmos changes its shape, and this in turn can change the way that human beings treat one another, at least in theory and perhaps in practice. As in the Gita, the payoff is still in the next life. Most of these texts are not saying that a Pariah can act like a Brahmin in this life, merely that he too can be freed from this life. But some of them seem to imply that people of all castes can change their forms of worship in this life and thus gain a better rebirth. And here again we must acknowledge that these stories are not merely about Pariahs but also about the relationship between all humans and their salvation.


Under the combined influence of bhakti, Deshification, and Islam, some texts take the challenge one step further. Now the god to whom the antigod is devoted comes to him and announces that he and all the other antigods are to be taken forever to the heaven of the god, which can accommodate not only all reformed sinners but even unreformed sinners too, as well as people of all classes.85 Indeed this heaven is particularly partial to unreformed sinners. This is the culminating myth of the third alliance: The gods love all of us, even the good (hence bad) antigods and, especially, the bad antigods. This is a world of not only unlimited good but undeserved good, of what might be called accidental grace.

We can see a kind of development here. First comes the story of the good bhakta, a good man, a devotee of Shiva, whom Shiva saves from death; there are many stories of this type.86 Then comes the evil bhakta. The god of death is forced to spare all worshipers of Shiva, even if they are evildoers (or evil thinkers; heretics and liars also go to heaven if they worship Shiva) or antigods who worship Shiva against their sva-dharma of being evil;87 we have seen some of these. Then comes the story of a man who is neither good nor a bhakta:


A thief who killed Brahmins, drank wine, stole gold, and corrupted other men’s wives lost everything in a game of dice. That night he climbed on the head of a Shiva-linga and took away the bell [inadvertently ringing it]. Shiva sent his servants to the thief and brought him to Kailasa, where he became a servant of Shiva.88

Three of the thief’s sins are those of lustful addiction—wine, women, and dice—and the fourth and fifth are the two defining sins of the Brahmin world: killing Brahmins and stealing (Brahmins’) gold. The thief’s brush with accidental bhakti does nothing at all to change him; presumably, he goes on dicing, womanizing, and drinking until he dies. Although in some stories the accidental act of worship changes the worshiper, more often the sinners remain unreformed like this and therefore (sic) go to heaven.

Here is another story, about a very bad man, this one ironically named Ocean of Virtues (Gunanidhi):


Gunanidhi abandoned his wife for a prostitute and went to a temple at night to rob it; he made a new wick for the lamp in order to see what was worth stealing, found the treasure, took it, and then returned to his wicked ways. Years later, when he died, he won deliverance from hell and eternal life in heaven because he had lit a lamp for the god.89

(Robbing temples, you will recall, was a very real problem at this time: South Indian kings, Muslim conquerors, everyone was doing it.) Similarly, Devaraja (“King of the Gods”), a thoroughly no-good fellow, accidentally heard the Shiva Purana being recited when he was passing by on some foul errand, paid no attention to it at all, but was still saved, by that contact, from the consequences of his sins.90 Then there was the man of equally dastardly deeds, named Rogue (Kitava), who tripped while hastening to bring flowers to his whore; he fell down, dropped all the flowers, and cried out, “Shiva!”ix For offering flowers to Shiva, not only was he saved from being thrown into hell but he was given the throne of Indra, king of the gods, thus fulfilling his name. (He was eventually reborn as the antigod Bali, but that is another story.)91

None of these sinners reforms as a result of his accidental encounter with the god; no one sees the light or turns over a new page; all go on whoring, robbing, and so forth until they die, presumably of syphilis, cirrhosis, or impalement. But the mere encounter is enough to save them. The theme of the undeserving devotee implicitly repositions ritualism, even apparently “mindless” ritualism, over bhakti. It argues that feelings, emotions, intentions do not count at all, that certain actions are efficacious in themselves in procuring salvation for the unwitting devotee. You don’t even have to know how to do the ritual, but you do it “naturally,” almost like the “natural” (sahaja) acts of Tantric ritual. In this sense, at least, these stories present a Tantric argument for the efficacy of a ritual useful for sinners in the Kali Age.

These narratives seem counterintuitive and were perceived as perverse by some subsequent Hindu commentators. But where did the idea come from?

Retracing our footsteps, we can see the early stirrings of this concept of the sinner who goes to heaven despite his intentions, in the South Indian idea of “hate-devotion,” which takes on new dimensions in the late Puranas. By trying to kill the god, the antigod becomes passionate toward the god, and so the god loves the antigod, with or without repentance.92 After Krishna killed the ogress Putana (“Stinky”), her body gave off a sweet smell when it burned, for she had been purified by her death at his hands and by suckling him—even though she had done it with the intention of poisoning him. This doctrine, though sometimes challenged in bhakti texts that demanded a conscious turning toward god, was often upheld in texts justifying heresies: “Those who become non-Vedic Pashupatas and decry Vishnu really worship him through the spirit of hatred [dvesha-buddhi].”93 The Bhagavata Purana makes explicit the effect of this belief: “Desire, hatred, fear, or love toward the lord, filling the heart with bhakti, destroy all sins and bind one to the lord: The Gopis by desire, Kamsa by fear, the wicked kings by hatred, and his kinsmen by affection were bound to him as we are by bhakti.”94 Other elements too contributed to the development of the idea of accidental grace, such as the Tantric goal of merging with the god by flouting all the rules of conventional dharma.


In keeping with the other reversals of caste rules, dogs often play important roles in this theology:


An evil thief was killed by the king’s men. A dog came to eat him, and accidentally, unthinkingly, the dog’s nails made the mark of Shiva’s trident on the man’s forehead. As a result, Shiva’s messengers took the thief to Kailasa.95

Now the dog, instead of the sinner, performs an accidental act of worship, as the three scratches of his nails (part of his foot, the lowest part of this lowest of creatures) form the triple lines of Shiva’s trident (trishula), just as Kannappar’s dogs left their paw marks on Shiva, and the natural genitals of male and female Tantrics are read as the signs of Shiva and Parvati. The thief’s generosity to the dog is part of his bhakti to the god. The dog who intends to eat the thief (and perhaps succeeds; the text does not say) unthinkingly blesses him. The thief goes to heaven, though the dog does not.

Another dog blesses the sinner who feeds him in a retelling of the story of Kannappar, in the Skanda Purana:


Once upon a time there was a certain Kirata named Chanda [“Fierce”], a man of cruel addictions. He killed fish and animals and birds and even Brahmins, and his wife was just like him. One night, on the great Night of Shiva, he spent the night in a bilvatree, wide awake, hoping to kill a wild boar. There happened to be a Shiva linga under the tree. The leaves of the bilva tree [used in Shiva worship] that the hunter cut off to get a better view fell on the Shiva linga, and mouthfuls of water that he spat out chanced to land there too. And so, unknowingly, he performed a puja. His wife too stayed up all night worrying about him, for she feared he had been killed. But she went and found him and brought him food, and while they were bathing before their meal, a dog came and ate all the food. She became angry and started to kill the dog, but Chanda said, “It gives me great satisfaction to know that the dog has eaten the food. What use is this body anyway? Don’t be angry.” And so he enlightened her.

Shiva sent his messengers with a heavenly chariot to take the Kirata to the world of Shiva, with his wife, because he had worshiped the linga on the Night of Shiva. But the Kirata said, “I am a violent hunter, a sinner. How can I go to heaven? How did I worship the Shiva-linga?” Then they told him how he had cut the bilva leaves and put them on the head of the linga, and he and his wife had stayed awake and fasted. And they brought the couple to heaven.96

By eating the food, the dog inadvertently causes the Kirata and his wife to give food, a part of the puja that, like staying up all night, is prescribed for the Night of Shiva. Thus this story recapitulates and integrates three stories: of linga worship by mouthfuls of unclean food from a hunter (the tale of Kannappar), of inadvertent worship by someone violating Hindu dharma, and of salvation for a man touched by a dog. It also includes the man’s wife in the process of his salvation. Luck plays a part too.

The Tantric argument that low people have to have low (or at least very simple and easy) sources of grace underlies a more complex story of salvation by dog, a variant of the myth of the evil king Vena,97 father of the good king Prithu:


As a result of his sins, Vena was born among the barbarians, afflicted with leprosy. He went to purify himself at the shrine of Shiva the Pillar (Sthanu), but the gods forbade him to bathe there. Now, there was a dog there who had been a man in a previous life but had been sinful and hence reborn as a dog. The dog came to the Sarasvati River and swam there, and his impurities were shaken off and his thirst slaked. Then he was hungry and entered Vena’s hut; when Vena saw the dog, he was afraid. Vena touched him gently, and the dog showered him with water from the bathing place. Vena plunged into the water, and by the power of the shrine, he was saved. Shiva offered Vena a boon, and Vena said, “I plunged into the lake out of fear of this dog, for the gods forbade me to bathe here. The dog did me a favor, and so I ask you to favor him.” Shiva was pleased and promised that the dog would be freed from sin and would go straight to Shiva’s heaven. And he promised Vena that he too would go to Shiva’s heaven—for a while.98

The unclean dog first is cleansed and then transfers the water from his body to that of Vena, by shaking himself (as wet dogs always do); only then does he frighten Vena so much that Vena jumps into the water. I take the text to mean that Vena could jump into the water only after the dog had sprinkled him. He cannot enter the shrine before that, for reasons that are spelled out in another version of the story: As he approaches the shrine of Sthanu, the wind in the sky says, “Do not do this rash deed; protect the shrine. This man is enveloped in an evil so terrible that it would destroy the shrine.”99 This is the catch-22: The sinner would pollute the shrine before the shrine could purify the sinner; the sick man is too sick to take the medicine. The idea of contamination by contact with evil, transfer of evil, a variant of transfer of karma, comes from the zero-sum world of caste pollution; it determines whom you should avoid touching, the basis of the concept of untouchability. By contrast, the world of bhakti brings an open cosmogony and a new vision of the accidental grace of god (and of dog), both a response to and an inspiration for new visions of the grace that is possible for and between all human beings, including those of the excluded social classes. It’s a way of making room for people who have been kept outside the system, either by birth or by actions, since actions, as well as birth, can pollute people and marginalize them.

The dog therefore intercedes for the sinner. He makes him a little less polluted, so that he becomes eligible for real purification. Similarly, the heretics to whom Shiva teaches the Tantras need to have worked off the curse, to have started on the path upward, before he can give them the Tantras, and in the view of some non-Tantrics, the Tantras make the Tantrics a little less benighted, so that they become eligible for real religion. Vena is not finished yet; there are other rebirths before he is finally freed. But the dog makes it possible for him to proceed on the path to his salvation. And finally, at the end of the myth, and a millennium or two after Yudhishthira’s dog in the Mahabharata vanished before he could enter heaven, this dog enters Shiva’s heaven.

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