Vishnu has many avatars but the Boar or Varaha Avatar has always been seen by foreign
commentators to be one of his stranger manifestations. There is no cult of porcine
totemic worshippers in any part of India, which could explain this as the usual
process of assimilation of local area cults into the larger body of the great tradition.
Even the true believers seem to feel this form needed some manifestation, and there
is a lengthy allegorical discourse upon it. But of that later.
It is plausible however that the boar was regarded as a noble animal by the Vishnu
worshipping warrior classes who used to hunt it and knew of its sterling qualities
only too well. This respect is not unmerited, the wild boar remaining one of the
most dangerous hunts known to man who has managed to practically exterminate all
other species it hunted. The boars however thrive, and it is understandable that
such a tough and resilient life form was seen as a just receptacle for the divine
energy. A boar has a bony carapace, which can turn aside a spearhead, and block
a .357 magnum round fired point blank at it. It also has wickedly up-curving tusks
at just the right angle to tear open the thigh of an upright human, standing in
the way of its charge, and sever the femoral artery. Death is not uncommon. The Hindus
have always been admirers of the fierce aspects of nature, typically seeing in them
manifestations of divine strengths, not diabolical ones. That explains the
ease with which the Varaha incarnation became a standard motif on the temple panels
of India, though it was never actually worshipped as the presiding deity in any
temple to the best of my knowledge.
The story gets somewhat difficult to sort out, as it seems that this incarnation
was once attributed to Brahma, in the form of Prajapati, and only later did it become
assimilated into the Vishnu worldview. It is entirely possible, as Brahma was once
a serious god in the Indian imagination. In the Taittriya Samhita as well as in
the Satapaha Brahmana, Brahma is credited with lifting the Earth out of the primal
waters of chaos in the form of a boar, and establishing it as a floating haven for
Life. In the latter text, the boar is called Emusha. In the Ramayana too, there
is clear evidence that Brahma originally incarnated as the Boar that lifted the Earth
out of the waters so that Life could be established upon it. As his star
waned, the great cosmological action was shifted onto Vishnu as it fitted in well
with the Evolution mode of avatar narrative, from water dwelling forms of life to
amphibians to lower mammals to man-beast to Man.
Some new features were added to the old tale when Vishnu became the protagonist.
Now the earth was old and well established, no longer a virgin field on which to
stabilize Life. The earth was also personified as Bhoodevi, the Earth Mother Goddess.
The increasing sins of all creation had caused her to sink below the surface of
the primal waters, as the burden was too much to bear. The great sages, alarmed
at this turn of events, performed Hinduism's magical panacea known as the Yagya,
the fire sacrifice, and Vishnu responded to this by incarnating as a boar and retrieving
the Earth. His touch immediately sanctified and scoured away the burden
of sin beneath which she had sunk. This adventurous rescue mission fired the imagination
of the Pauranic writers and they continued to add to the tale.
The Vayu Purana says the boar delights in water, and hence it was the appropriate
choice for something that needed to be brought from water back onto the land. His
dimensions became the source of much pious hyperbole. "A thousand yojanas in height",
or a mere nine thousand miles, "radiant as the sun, fire like lighting flashing
from the eyes", and so on. In an unconscious connection to the Brahma origins of
the tale, the Bhagvata Purana describes the boar as originating from the nostril
of Brahma, gaining in size from a thumb to the most colossal of elephants. This
text also has the most popular version of this incarnation currently extant - Vishnu's
battle with the Asura Hiranyaksha.
This Asura was a Titanic personality, brimming over with strength and ability and
perpetually frustrated because he could never find any task worthy of his great
potential. He turned to evil doing, as it was amusing at least, and momentarily
distracted him from boredom. The gods used to flee at his approach as he was perpetually
spoiling for a fight and laying havoc to all the worlds. He finally challenged Varuna
the ocean, to battle, who decided it was high time this nuisance got his comeuppance.
Varuna declined to fight citing age as a reason, but suggested that Hiranyaksha seek
out Vishnu who was a worthy opponent and, by sheer coincidence just happened
to be rescuing Bhoodevi from the waters at that moment. The foolish demon plunged
into the waters and saw that the great boar was making for the surface and ignoring
all the taunts and insults he was hurling at him. Once the earth was safely re-established,
the infuriated boar turned on the demon and tore him apart.