This is regarding the Avatars of Vishnu.  It is quite fascinating how Buddha managed to enter the list (he is number 9 on the list). Apparently a number of communities give that spot to Balarama (Krishna’s brother), notably Iyengars and other Vaishnavite communities. I have also seen this in a few temples (don’t know which “denomination” (if such a thing exists in Hinduism) these temples belong to) which have Balarama as #9.

The most popular explanation (which I have no reason to disagree with) about the Buddha’s entry into the list is that it was a clever ploy to prevent the spread of Buddhism, which threatened to become the largest religion in the subcontinent in the few centuries before and after christ. By including Buddha in the Hindu Pantheon, and by declaring him to be an avatar of Vishnu, an attempt was made to describe Buddhism as just a branch of Hinduism. Looking at the way Buddhism has developed after that in the subcontinent, I have reason to believe that the ploy was successful.

Regarding the construction of the list, there are again two possibilities. One view says that it was constructed not more than two millenia ago, and it was constructed only as a response to Buddhism. That it was something like “Ok here is the Buddha. He threatens us. So let’s make him one of ours. Let us declare him to be an Avatar of Vishnu. But then, we need more avatars to make this look credible. Let us include evolution into this and put in a few animals, etc. and have a nice list. But we have only 9, and there is no logical person who can finish this list. So let’s assume that he will happen sometime in the future, when the world ends. So here is The List”.

The other possibility is that one such list already existed, and the Buddha was included in the list. Though 8 is not an inauspicious number, it is unlikley that there were originally 8 avatars. Which means that there were originally 10, including possibly Kalki, and the Buddha replaced one of these 10. Looking at the other popular version of the Dashavatara, it is likely that the Buddha replaced Balarama in the list.

This raises a couple of interesting questions:

  • What avatarish thing did Balarama achieve in order to be an avatar? Which demon did he kill? I only recall him being mentioned fleetingly in the early stages of the Mahabharata, and he walked away from the war later on. So what message did he carry?
  • Balarama being an avatar, and his being a brother of another avatar Krishna, means that two avatars coexisted. In fact, someone on the list pointed out that Parashurama is a Chiranjeevi, so he has coexisted with all avatars following him. So we need to dissociate the avatar concept from the concept of rebirth and reincarnation. In any case, fascinating stuff
  • It is remarkable that Hinduism was flexible and nimble enough to turn the Buddha into an avatar when they saw him threaten them. The presence of mind of the people who thought of this workaround is commendable. I wonder where Hinduism lost its flexibility after that.
  • I also wonder how this was implemented. Hinduism has no supreme leader. And in the days when the Buddha was included into the list, there wasn’t even a Postal system, leave alone conference call facilities. How did this idea spread and gain enough credence to become the norm, then? Where did this idea of making the Buddha an avatar originate? How did t hey disseminate it? Who was the powerful set of people who were instrumental in the design, development and distribution of this idea?

It’s all fascinating stuff. And if any of you have any theories regarding the points I’ve raised here, please leave a comment.