Narasimha & Avatars – The Incarnations of God

Narasimha and the Avatars consists of over sixty artists from all over India and the world and 400 artworks drawn from the many Collections of the Museum of Sacred Art. It covers many art-forms: paintings, drawings, sculptures, photography, digital art, objects, and animation. There are traditional, tribal and contemporary artists and artworks in this very inclusive exhibit. The avatars of Vishnu have been present in Indian Art and Culture for millennia. In her research curator-art historian Sushma K. Bahl has written an important chapter in this catalogue showing the historical roots of the avatars and Narasimha. Many famous classical works of art have represented the avatars in paintings and sculptures. The avatars of Lord Vishnu have also been very prominent in classical Indian dance forms, poetry, songs, music, etc. This representation of Narasimha and the avatars carries on to present day India and we can see it in traditional art forms like painting and sculptures but also in modern art forms like photography, digital art, animation and of course in films, comic books, etc.

Indian tradition is known for its variety, and unity in diversity is a key concept throughout the subcontinent. Every Indian, in fact, cherishes not only the oneness of all natural phenomena, as is commonly known, but also pervasive diversification, which is seen as an essential part of reality. The birthplace of religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, each with numerous denominations, India is also home to prominent representations of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, among others. Many elements of Indian culture, such as philosophy, cuisine, languages, fine art, dance, music, and so on, have innumerable branches and subdivisions, making it impossible to fathom them all.

So it is, too, with India’s conceptions of God. We find impersonalist manifestations of the sacred (Brahman), with the Divine as a sort of Oversoul of the universe; pantheistic and panentheistic ideas (Paramatma), that is, a sense of the Divine that indwells all people and all phenomena; and, of course, there are highly particularistic notions of a Personal Deity (Bhagavan)—culminating in Sri Krishna, the lovable Lord of Vraja. All three are seen as just so many faces on the same Absolute Truth, if also acknowledging gradations according to the realization of each devotee.

Still, even among God’s personal forms, now worshiped not only across the subcontinent but throughout the world, the number of Bhagavan’s manifestations can be mind-boggling. As the Srimad Bhagavatam (1.3.26) says, “O Brahmins, the incarnations of the Lord are innumerable, like rivulets flowing from inexhaustible sources of water.” As but one Divine manifestation among the millions alluded to in the Vedic literature — and as a testament to the diversity of Indian culture — we find Lord Narasimhadeva, half man and half lion, perhaps the most unusual and exotic of all of Krishna’s incarnations.