According to a description in the Srimad Devi Bhagavata, Goddess Sarasvati and Devi Ganga used to live in the abode of Bhagavan Vishnu, where they revered him along with the Lord’s primordial power, Goddess Lakshmi. One day, Sarasvati and Ganga got into a tense verbal discussion and Goddess Saraswati cursed Ganga, “You will have to descend to Earth and get in touch with the bad karma of all beings.”
When the Goddess of wisdom and enlightenment displays anger and curses another form of Shakti, there has to be a rationale. What appeared to be a curse for a form of Shakti became a blessing for all her children on Earth. When Vishnu heard about the divine dispute, he gave Ganga the permission to descend to the planet as a river — the holy Ganges — and wash away the negative karma of mortals. He gave her a couple of blessings, “Contact with the breeze that flows over your water will be adequate to bring jivas to Vaikuntha. Chanting of your name will diminish bad karma, and bathing in your water will be the highest purifier.”
Hearing these blessings, Ganga looked somewhat worried. “I understand that my water will purify mortals. But won’t it accumulate their bad karma as a result?” she asked. Bhagavan smiled and replied, “Ignorant mortals alone will not bathe in your water; saints and my devotees will also give you their darshan. That will maintain the purity of your water.”
Because Kalki has not visited us yet, we can not say much about him. Like the other nine incarnations of Lord Vishnu, he is expected to incarnate when our ethical condition becomes deplorable — too low to be improved by saints. Scriptures say that in the last phase of kaliyuga, which may be a few hundred thousand years away, people stop engaging in good karma altogether, hypocrisy defeats God’s remembrance, citizens renounce their prudence, and spiritual knowledge is completely lost. This sets the platform for God’s final visit to Earth to trigger another cycle of four yugas, beginning with satayuga.
Kalki’s name is mentioned in many Puranas, including the Vishnu Purana, the Srimad Bhagavata Purana, and the Harivamsha Purana. According to the Vishnu Purana, he will be born to a Brahmin named Vishnuyasa in a village named Shambhala to annihilate all the wicked rulers and citizens of Earth. After Kalki guides the remaining humans towards their appropriate dharma over the last few days of kaliyuga, their minds will get purified as if they have “woken up at the end of the night.”
How can the author of the Puranas say anything about a future incarnation of Vishnu? Firstly, parts of the future can be seen by maharishis like Ved Vyas, who have divine vision. Secondly, though Kalki has not visited Earth in the current era, he has been here before in a previous cycle of yugas, according to Hinduism’s popular notion about incarnations. In fact, as Hindus believe, all incarnations of Vishnu are born repetitively in different eras or in different universes.
When earth’s rulers and citizens were taking pride in torturing life forms, Vishnu felt that it was time to teach them about compassion and ahimsa (non-violence) towards both humans as well as animals. Accordingly, he incarnated as Buddha in Kapilvastu in 6th century BCE.
Because it had been prophesized that Prince Siddhartha (Buddha’a name in early life) may give up the material world one day, his father tried his best to keep him away from spirituality and distress. But at the right moment, simple observations of human suffering (a sick person, an elderly, and a corpse) led him to renounce his kingdom and family, and he began his search for realization. One could argue that he was already detached (from birth) and only needed a slight initiation. He began his search with philosophical learning, asceticism, and travels to religious places, but these alone could not give him what he was looking for. Finally, meditation under a tree worked, and he turned into the “enlightened one” in Bodhgaya in present-day Bihar.
For the liberation of the commoner, Buddha established and propagated the eightfold path, which involved perfection in understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, awareness, and concentration. Interestingly, from a Hindu perspective, there is a lot in common between this path and the mental training and cleansing needed to succeed in Karma Yoga or Jnana Yoga.
Fun fact: Astrologically, Buddha’s incarnation is connected to Mercury, the planet of intellect and communication, and symbolizes intellectual perfection.
To continually guide humanity towards himself, Lord Vishnu followed his incarnation as Rama with that of Lord Krishna, who was born on the eighth day (waning fortnight) of the lunar month Bhadrapada, which is celebrated all across the Hindu world as Janmashtami. For most followers of Sanatana Dharma, Krishna, the author of the Bhagavada Gita, is the guru of the universe and the sole savior.
Krishna has arguably been the favorite form of God for Hindus on the path of Bhakti. Many devotional saints over the last few centuries have claimed to have seen the Divine in person as Krishna, who happens to be a divine flutist and dancer, the possessor of the Sudarshana Chakra, the chariot driver of Arjuna, and a cow-herder – all at the same time. The impact of his divine plays on the Hindu world can be seen from the fact that the devotional schools of Nimbarka, Vallabha, and Chaitanya, along with numerous other bhakti saints, consider Krishna not only an incarnation but the source of all incarnations — who also manifests as the Hindu trinity.
Astrologically, Krishna is related to the moon, the significator of the mind. Whether we talk about Krishna’s foster parents, Yashoda and Nand, the gopis, the bhakti saints, or modern day devotees and jnana yogis, we can easily see how Krishna has attracted the devotional mind. His incarnation probably represents perfection in devotional spirituality where nothing but his memories fill our mind to get rid of everything else.
Sri Ramachandra was born on the ninth day of the lunar month Chaitra in the town of Ayodhya to teach humans how to live righteously. His biography, the epic Ramayana, forms the biggest chapter of ethics in Hinduism. To perform a divine play on a grand scale, when Lord Vishnu incarnated as Rama, his spouse, Goddess Lakshmi, incarnated as Devi Sita. Moreover, Shesha Naga, the unborn serpent god, incarnated as Rama’s most famous brother, Lakshmana. Similarly, the potencies of Vishnu’s Sudarshan chakra and shankha (conch) took birth on earth as Rama’s brothers, Shatrughna and Bharata, respectively.
In Hinduism, Rama is the ideal incarnation of the Divine. Though he is beyond all gunas, he reflects higher qualities such as compassion, gentleness, responsibility, purity, forgiveness, austerity, devotion (to his gurus and Lord Shiva), and courage in unlimited amounts. A considerable feature of Rama’s divine play was his extremely restrained use of divine powers. This allowed his beings to interact with and learn from him while treating him as a fellow being. Because of his unprecedented perfection in hiding his own divinity through his maya, recognizing his real nature was difficult for many of his unrealized contemporaries, including some of his “enemies.”
Astrologically, being related to the Sun, Rama shows the height of self-discipline, leadership, and brilliance, which are all signified by this graha. Just like all the planets revolve around the sun, all the gods, who incarnated as vanaras, and the immortal rishis appeared on earth during Rama’s stay to gather around the ruler of the creation and spend some time with him.
Happy Rama Navami!
When Mother Earth was being hurt by the cruelty of her kings and rulers, Vishnu’s partial incarnation Parasurama was born as Rishi Jamadagni’s son to punish the kshatriya (warrior) clans. Following the killing of his father (who was later revived) by the family of Sahastrabahu Arjun, Parasurama wiped out generations of corrupt warriors from the planet to restore justice for the masses and “purify” the kshatriya lines. What may be viewed as large scale violence by some became a blessing for society. After the war, Parasurama donated the land that he had won to sages and spent most of his time in austere worship.
Later, Parasurama shows up in both the Ramanaya as well as the Mahabharata. In the Ramayana, he appears to gain a darshan of Lord Rama after Rama breaks Lord Shiva’s bow. In the Mahabharata, he coaches Bhishma, Drona, and Karna, the three most powerful warriors in the epic.
Astrologically, Parasurama is related to the planet Venus, which supports balance (libra) between materialism and spirituality. Interestingly, the clash between Parashurama and Sahastrabahu Arjun’s family started when the latter stole Kamadhenu, the divine cow that could confer all desires (and is supposedly a Venusian blessing), from Jamadagni’s ashram. This shows that when the responsible start stealing material pleasures, rather than earning them through hard work, dharma gets disturbed and the tamas habits of cruelty and corruption are cherished. Ultimately, Nature has to intervene and take harsh steps for the restoration of justice.