The Myths of Narasimha and Vamana

Two Avatars in Cosmological Perspective

By Deborah A. Soifer

Subjects: Hindu Studies
Series: SUNY series in Hindu Studies
Paperback : 9780791408001, 321 pages, November 1991
Hardcover : 9780791407998, 321 pages, November 1991

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Table of contents

List of Figures
A Note on Translations and Abbreviations

1. Introduction

2. Vedic Antecedent to the Avataric Nature of Visnu

3. Brahmanic Antecedents to the Avataric Nature of Visnu

4. The Blink of an Unblinking Eye

5. Myths of the Narasimhavatara: Motif Analysis and Discussion

6. Myths of the Vamanavatara: Motif Analysis and Discussion

7. Conclusion

Appendix I. Translations of Narasimha Myths


Brahmanda Purana II. 5.3-29
Brahma Purana 213. 44-79
Visnudharmottara Purana I. 54
Matsya Purana Ch. 161-163
Padma Purana V (Uttara) . 42
Skanda Purana VII. 2.18. 6--130 (see Vanama myths: SK. P. VII. 2. 14-19)


Appendix II. Translations of Vamana Myths


Bhavisya Purana 4. 76. 1-27
Brahman Purana 73
Brahman Purana 213. 80-105
Brahmanda Purana II. 73. 75-87
Matsya Purana Ch. 244-246
Narada Purana I. 10-11
Padma Purana Srstikhanda 25
Padma Ourana Uttarakhanda 266-267
Skanda Purana I. 1.18-19
Skanda Purana V. 1.74
Skanda Purana VII. 2.14-19
Skanda Purana VII. 4.19. 10-14
Vayu Purana 98. 59-88
Visnudharmottara Purana I. 21
Visnudharmottara Purana I. 55





The Sanskrit Puranas and epics are replete with stories of the avatars, incarnations of the god Visnu in various forms to rid the universe of malevolent forces and to restore the proper cosmic balance. As Narasimha, half-man half-lion, Visnu finds a loophole in the pact of invulnerability the demon Hiranaipu has received from god Brahma, and rends the demon apart with his claws. As the brahmin dwarf, Vamana, Visnu deceives the demon Bali with his diminutive appearance and thwarts Bali's attempt to gain universal sovereignty.

After carefully analyzing the myths of Vamana and Narasimha, Deborah Soifer grounds her study in the textual history of each avatar and its myth, in their religious contexts, and in the intricate cosmology of the classical period of Hinduism. Contrasting the bestial persona of Narasimha with Vamana's priestly appearance and his associations with early cosmologic themes, she finds complementarity and significance in this pair as they are viewed in the larger context of periodic cosmic destructions and recreations.

While focusing primarily on these two mythological figures, Soifer's work explores the relationship between dharma and the 'devious' acts of gods; the interplay between cosmic and 'sociocosmic' levels of reality; and the relationship between cosmology, theology, and soteriology in a religious worldview.

Deborah A. Soifer is Lecturer in the Asian Studies Program at Bowdoin College.


"The book's strength is its in-depth analysis of two neglected figures in Hindu mythology: Vamana and Narasimha. Treating them comparatively along the trajectories of creation and eschatology is original and illuminating. The book also has insights about myth in relation to cosmology and ideology that are subtle and sophisticated. " -- Paul B. Courtright