ALTHOUGH THE IDEA of the avatar does not appear in Vedic literature, there is a belief within Hinduism that there are ten incarnations of Vishnu. The first nine of these have appeared and Kalki, the final avatar, is expected at the end of Kaliyuga. The Ram and Krishna avatars of Vishnu are the most prominent because of the popularity of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Ramayana is the story of the legendary prince of Kosala and expounds Ram’s exile and his march towards Kishkinda to capture vanars, and later towards Lanka to seize Ravan. Eventually, Ram is coronated as king of Ayodhya to inaugurate the ideal form of state: Ram Rajya. The Mahabharata is the story of a war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, two groups of cousins, in which Krishna is presented as a canny strategist. He is a war hero, a counsellor to the Pandavas. His origin stories came later.
While Ram and Krishna are both avatars of the same deity, they come from different lineages and, I argue, represent contrasting ideologies. The Sangh Parivar has tended to be territorial about the figure of Ram, while Krishna is claimed most significantly by the Yadav community. Since the 1980s, Ram has been aggressively used as political currency by the Hindu Right to gain electoral power. For Yadavs, Krishna is a cultural hero who represents productive labour.
The Sangh Parivar baulks at the very fact that there are different versions of the Ramayana in existence. In 2011, Delhi University was forced to remove AK Ramanujan’s celebrated essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas” after a writ petition was filed in court claiming the essay “hurt religious sentiments.” Ramanujan wrote that he preferred the word “tellings” to “versions or variants” because the “latter terms can and typically do imply that there is an invariant, an original or Ur-text—usually Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana, the earliest and most prestigious of them all.” But, he argued, “it is not always Valmiki's narrative that is carried from one language to another.”