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Vishnu's Avataar

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Vishnu's Avataar
By the Courtesy of Devdatt Pattnaik

The contemplative Naaraayan, the dreaded Narasinh, the inspirational Raam: in an impermanent world, leaders change with their circumstances ---

Vishnu is amongst the most popular manifestations of God in the Hindu pantheon. But curiously, there are very few Vishnu temples across India. The most popular, where he holds his four symbols, the conch-shell, the lotus, the mace and the disc, is that of Tirupati Baalaaji in Andhra Pradesh and Badaree Naath in Uttaraanchal. Fewer still are temples of Naaraayan, the sleeping form of Vishnu, the most popular one being that of Padmanaabh Swaamee in Thiruvanantapuram, Kerala. People mostly worship Vishnu in the form of Raam, the King, and Krishn, the cowherd / charioteer. These are Vishnu's forms when He walked the earth to reinstate order. Since Vishnu is the God responsible for sustaining the world and keeping things running, one wonders if these different forms are indicative of the different roles a leader has to play as he leads a team or an organization.

The sleeping Vishnu or Naaraayan is associated with a time when the creation had not been begun or was just about to begin. Vishnu sleeps on an ocean of milk that is still. No waves, no currents, no movement. He sleeps in the coils of a serpent with many hoods. Only when a Cobra is still can it coil itself and spread its hood. By showing Vishnu sleeping in the coils of a hooded serpent, the artist is clearly representing absence of movement. The name of the serpent, Aadi Shesh or Anant Shesh, alludes to time because Aadi means what exists before the beginning, Shesh means what remains after the end and Anant means endless. Thus the sleeping Vishnu represents that moment before creation when all is still. It is the time of dreamless slumber, Yog Nidraa, when Vishnu is not even aware of Himself, let alone His surroundings. Only when He wakes up, creation begins, time starts to roll, space will unfold, and the ocean will be churned.

The sleeping Vishnu alludes to the latent leader within all people that has not yet expressed itself. Before starting any project, a leader is Naaraayan, contemplating, making plans, thinking, observing, analyzing, preparing, but not acting. Some leaders do not believe in planning at all. They just take the plunge and handle problems as they come along. Others plan too much and remain Naaraayan, never waking up.

When Naaraayan wakes up, he becomes Vishnu and sits alert on the hooded serpent at first and then when creation begins and plans start to come in operation. He leaps on the back of his eagle, Garud, that flaps its wings and travels above the skies and beneath the seas. Garud holds a serpent (time) firmly in his talons, indicating the sense of urgency that every project demands. This is a leader supervising the execution of plans using his conch-shell to communicate his vision. His disc which rotates around his finger is a reminder to all that review is critical to ensure everyone is focused on the outcome. The mace and lotus are the symbols of rewards and punishment that keeps everything on track. When all is well with the world, Vishnu returns to sit on the hooded serpent and watch things unfold. But when trouble erupts He rides the eagle, to do battle against disruptive forces.

But even this is not enough. Different situations are associated with different problems, each of which demands a different solution. Hence, the Avataar. When the project is about rescuing an organization that is in the brink of collapse, He becomes the sensitive fish, Matsya Avataar, who navigates the boat full of life and wisdom to safety. When the project needs brainstorming and co-operation between opposing factions he becomes the stabilizing Turtle, Koorm Avataar, which holds aloft the spindle that can be used to churn the ocean of life. When there are many ideas floating around but no base on which they can be applied or implemented, He becomes the Boar, Varaah Avataar, plunging into the depths of the sea, getting His hands dirty, and bringing up the foundation - land, venture capital, regulatory changes, which can nurture all ideas. When rules are established but people find ways to slip between the rules, He takes the dreaded Nara-sinh Avataar, part man, part lion, eliminating the troublemakers.

When people refuse to respect their respective roles in society, when Asur choose to occupy even the Earth and the sky, more than the space allotted to them, He appears as Vaaman Avataar, the dwarf who transforms into a giant and shoves Bali, the king of Asur, back to the nether regions where he belongs to. When people break the rules, he rises up in righteous outrage as Parashuraam, abandoning the peaceful ways of a priest who raises the axe and hacks the law breakers to death. When rules continue to be broken, He, as Raam, tries to become the model King , and by upholding the law even at the cost of personal happiness, inspires people to do the same.

When rules are upheld only ceremonially and not in spirit, He becomes Krishn, bending and breaking and redefining rules, choosing to be kingmaker rather than becoming the king. Finally, when the situation is beyond repair, then He incarnates as Kalki Avataar, riding a white horse and brandishing a sword, He systematically breaks down the existing system and prepares for a new cycle - a new organization.

Thus there is no one way to be Vishnu. It all depends on the context. Underlying this theme is the notion that everything is cyclical and impermanent. Organizations have to change because the world around them is changing. Leaders have to decide whether they are expected to be Naaraayan or Raam or Krishn or Kalki and act accordingly. Sometimes the same situation can have two different forms of intervention depending on what one aspires to achieve. Thus while Krishn provokes the Mahaabhaarat war at Kuru Kshetra, his elder brother, also Vishnu, albeit not as famous, chooses not to fight.

The lesson: when you are going to office today, think about which avatar you need to take.



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Created by Sushma Gupta on 6/15/11
Updated on 02/12/13