As a kid, I was fascinated with the tales of the ten avatars of the Hindu god Vishnu. Brahma creates, Siva destroys and Vishnu is the man in the middle who preserves, he keeps the universe going. According to Hindu mythology, there are ten times when things got so bad on Earth that Vishnu had to take on a mortal form and show up to, you know, preserve. Return this precious realm to its former peaceful state and whatnot. The ten tales are beautifully imaginative with Vishnu appearing first as a giant fish and evolving over the course of his incarnations into tortoise, boar, dwarf, half-man-half-lion, various humans and the superhuman of the future, the Vishnu that is yet to come. Very messianic, but in a different way: It is the nature of order to become disorder; the system usually self-corrects but every once in a while it needs to be pulled back from the precipice by a literal act of God before there is no longer a system to be preserved. Religion loves its bureaucracy.
While the tale of Kurma the tortoise is my absolute favorite in terms of story and symbolism and Vamana the dwarf gave me the willies by growing in size to take over all of the worlds, it is the fourth incarnation of Narasimha, translated as “man-lion” or half-man half-lion, that has always puzzled me. Granted, the situation for which Vishnu took on this fearsome form was a powerful demon king named Hiranyakashipu who was busy scorching the worlds after having prayed for and attained a boon that “he should not get death either on earth or in space, either in fire or in water, either during daytime or during nighttime, either by humans or by gods or by any species, either by the animate or by inanimate [weapons], either inside the house or outside the house.” Narasimha honored all of the boon’s protections when he finally killed Hiranyakashipu in a spectacularly creative fashion and everything was right again on Heaven Earth and the Netherworld, but why did Vishnu have to become a monster to kill a monster?
Do we sometimes have to become that which we abhor in order to fight what we fear? Become the merciless conqueror to keep from being smashed? What is good and bad then, and what value the system that requires preservation at all costs?
More about Narasimha and the philosophy of the avatars at Manas.