India Through the Eyes of Europe - Vamana Avatara

BY: SUN STAFF - 28.12 2017

Today's image is another of the copper plate engravings by Barlow, c. 1790's, from his Dasavatara series. The image depicts the pastimes of Lord Vamanadev, the Dwarf Avatar.

The background of this picture is quite different than other images in the Dasavatara series by Barlow or those by Picart, whose engravings pre-date Barlow by some 70 years. This setting is, to the European eye, representative of the exotic mood of India. A craggy peak with full trees, winding river, stony field and Bonzai-looking plants in the foreground make up a landscape that is a patchwork quilt of Anglo interpretations of the Indian landscape.

Under a simple canopy, the exchange between Vamana Avatara and Bali Maharaja takes place. Lord Vamana is accompanied by a devotee who looks appropriately Vaisnava. However, Vamana is the same height as his servant and the king's servant, where he should be depicted as much smaller. Lord Vamana's parasol is of a familiar shape, but his crown, like Bali Mahraja's, is typically European.

The King's acolyte wears an interesting piece of headgear that seems neither Indian or European, but an amalgam of the two. He holds a beautifully extended chamar fan over the King's head.

Bali Maharaja is offering water to Lord Vamandev from a mughal-looking flask. The water vessel in this pastime is represented in various ways throughout Indian art. Very often Lord Vamana is seen carrying a lota containing water from the Ganges, which he caused to flow down from Vaikuntha. Other times, the King is seen offering water from a flask, which he is pouring into Vamana's hands. In other images, the King's attendant is seen pouring the water. While sastra makes clear that it was Vamandev Himself who caused the Ganges to flow, the water poured by the King (or his attendant) is also a depiction of Bali Maharaja's great position as a servant of the Lord.

In the Summary to Srimad-Bhagavatam 5-17, Srila Prabhupada explains: "Lord Visnu once approached Bali Maharaja while the King was performing a sacrifice. The Lord appeared before him as Trivikrama, or Vamana, and begged alms from the King in the form of three steps of land. With two steps, Lord Vamana covered all three planetary systems and pierced the covering of the universe with the toes of His left foot. A few drops of water from the Causal Ocean leaked through this hole and fell on the head of Lord Siva, where they remained for one thousand millenniums. These drops of water are the sacred Ganges River. It first flows onto the heavenly planets, which are located on the soles of Lord Visnu's feet. The Ganges River is known by many names, such as the Bhagirathi and the Jahnavi. It purifies Dhruvaloka and the planets of the seven sages because both Dhruva and the sages have no other desire than to serve the Lord's lotus feet."

In his Purport to the Dasavatara Stotra, Srila Prabhupada further explains: "Then, next incarnation is Vamanadeva. This Vamanadeva, a dwarf, He went to Bali Maharaja and asked him three feet land, and his guru, Sukracarya, induced him not to promise, because He is Visnu. But Bali Maharaja was very much satisfied to offer something to Visnu, he gave up the connection of his guru, because he forbade him to serve Visnu. Therefore Bali Maharaja is one of the mahajanas. Nobody can check the worship of Visnu. If anyone checks, he may be guru, he may be father, he may be relative, he should be rejected, immediately. Therefore Bali Maharaja is a mahajana. He showed this example: because his guru put hindrances on the path of his worshiping Lord Visnu, he gave up the connection of his guru. So by this process he begged, but that was not begging, practically that was cheating. But Bali Maharaja agreed to be cheated by the Lord. That is the symptom of the devotee. The devotee agrees to any action of the Lord, and Bali Maharaja saw that the Lord wanted to be cheat. By asking three feet land, He'll take the whole universe, so he agreed. And by two feet the whole universe was covered up and down. Then Vamanadeva asked him that where is to keep the third feet? So Bali Maharaja agreed, "My Lord, you keep it on my head, I have got my body still." In this way he purchased Lord Visnu, Vamanadeva, and Vamanadeva remained as the doorkeeper of Bali Maharaja. So by giving everything sarvatma snapane bali, he gave everything to Lord, and by that giving up, he purchased the Lord. He remained voluntarily as doorkeeper of Bali Maharaja. So, chalayasi vikramane balim adbhuta-vamana pada-nakha-nira-janita-jana-pavana, when Vamanadeva expanded His leg upwards, by His toe there was a hole in the covering of the universe, and through that hole the Ganges water came from Vaikuntha. Pada-nakha-nira-janita, and that Ganges water is flowing now in the universe sanctifying everywhere, wherever the Ganges water is there. Pada-nakha-nira-janita-jana-pavana."