Vamana, the Dwarf Avatar of Vishnu

Another telling of the three-step trick (careful what you ask for, careful what you give), concerning the god Vishnu coming to earth as a dwarf Brahmin.  This watercolour is glorious in its colours and details, down to the short, dark-skinned god-in-disguise.   Here’s the story:

Through intensive religious rituals, the demon king Bali conquered the gods. The god Vishnu came to earth as Vamana, his fifth avatar, to defeat him. Vamana appeared as a dwarflike Brahmin. When the pious Bali asked what gift the holy man desired, Vamana requested only as much land as he could cover in three steps. As Bali was about to seal his promise by pouring a libation of holy water, Bali’s advisor [Shukra] recognized Vamana’s true identity and tried to stop the transaction by shrinking to tiny size and lodging himself in the vessel’s spout. Bali poked out this obstruction with a blade of sacred grass, accidentally blinding his advisor in one eye. In this illustration, the blind advisor raises a warning finger to Bali.  Action holds its breath in anticipation of the next moment when Vamana will shed his dwarf disguise, grow to cosmic size, and engulf the world with his three steps.

Painting - Vamana, the Dwarf Avatar of Vishnu - Philadelphia Museum of Art, public domain

Source: ‘Vamana, the Dwarf Avatar of Vishnu’ (c. 1700-25), by unknown artist, opaque watercolour, gold, and silver-coloured paint on paper, page from a dispersed series of the Bhagavata Purana (Story of the Lord Vishnu); 125th Anniversary Acquisition, Alvin O. Bellak Collection, 2004, Philadelphia Museum of Art, public domain.


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