Vishnu Rests on the Cosmic Ocean
Punjab Hills, Guler, ca. 1800. Opaque watercolor on paper. Courtesy of Harshna and Pyush Patel. L2020.11.2
Vishnu, one of the most popular Hindu deities, manifests in various forms known by the Sanskrit term avatāra, which means descent. Throughout repeating cycles of time, called yugas, Vishnu descends to earth in times of need to restore cosmic order and balance. His avatars are the embodiment of dharma, a central concept in Hindu traditions that can be understood as order, righteousness, and duty.
Vishnu is most easily identified by his blue skin and the four objects he frequently holds: the conch, mace, discus, and lotus, even in his many forms. While the exact number of avatars is contested, this exhibition focuses on the ten most common. These different incarnations evolve from animals to humans as the cycles of time progress. In defeating malevolent beings, these avatars bring divine balance to the cosmos:
Matsya, the fish
Kurma, the tortoise
Varaha, the boar
Narasimha, the man-lion
Vamana, the dwarf
Parashurama, “Rama with an Axe”
Kalki, the avatar still to come
The most beloved avatars, Rama and Krishna, appear in the two great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Although Buddhism developed separately from Hinduism for many centuries, the Buddha has been incorporated into the list of avatars. Many Hindus await the arrival of Vishnu’s final manifestation, Kalki, who will descend to Earth and restore dharma.
The avatars’ stories are told in sacred texts, oral narratives, images, dance, music, and other performance traditions throughout South Asia and beyond. This exhibition displays paintings, sculptures, and objects of popular culture dated between the tenth and nineteenth centuries. The bronze, black stone, and sandstone sculptures come from North, South, and East India. The watercolor paintings were for the most part created by master painters in the courts of the Rajput kingdoms of Northwest India.
This exhibition was curated by students in the Spring semester 2021 course Depicting God in Hinduism: The Avatars of Vishnu (RELIGION 270-3, ART HISTORY 289-2), taught by Dr. Ellen Gough, assistant professor in Emory’s Department of Religion.
Virtual Tour of the Exhibition
Tour this exhibit virtually by clicking below. For more about the filming of this exhibition and the collaboration between Emory's Center for Digital Scholarship and the Carlos Museum, visit HERE.
This class has benefited from virtual visits from distinguished art historians from the Brooklyn Museum, Middlebury College, and Haverford College discuss the many forms in which Vishnu descends to earth to restore cosmic order and balance. All of these lectures have been recorded and can be viewed HERE.
In-gallery image 1: Vishnu Reclining on the Cosmic Ocean Northern India, 11th Century. Sandstone. The Ester R. Portnow Collection of Asian Art, a gift of the Nathan Rubin-Ida Ladd Family Foundation. 2001.1.14
In gallery image 2: Emory Student Sojourner Hunt examines a scene from the Ramayana, the most celebrated epic poem in South and Southeast Asia, depicting Rama’s Coronation. In the foreground, stands the Dancing Krishna.
In-gallery Image 3: Eighteen-Armed Vishnu Northern India, 11th Century. Sandstone. The Ester R. Portnow Collection of Asian Art, a gift of the Nathan Rubin-Ida Ladd Family Foundation. 2001.1.4
Class Image: The Emory students and faculty from the Spring semester 2021 course, Depicting God in Hinduism: The Avatars of Vishnu, have met twice a week in-person and over zoom throughout the semester to study the avatars in image and text and to plan the exhibition.
Vishnu Rests on the Cosmic Ocean Punjab Hills, Guler, ca. 1800. Opaque watercolor on paper. Courtesy of Harshna and Pyush Patel. L2020.11.2
Kurma The Tortoise And The Churning Of The Ocean Punjab Hills, mid 19th Century. Opaque watercolor on paper. Courtesy of Harshna and Pyush Patel. L2016.12.1
Folio Of The Avatars Of Vishnu From an illustrated copy of the Bhagavata Purana Kashmir, August 17, 1819. Manuscript on paper. Courtesy of Harshna and Pyush Patel. L2020.9.1