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