Kurma (Sanskrit: कूर्म; Kūrma, lit. turtle) is the second Avatar of Vishnu. Like other avatars of Vishnu, Kurma appears at a time of crisis to restore the cosmic equilibrium. His iconography is either a tortoise, or more commonly as half man-half tortoise. These are found in many Vaishnava temple ceilings or wall reliefs.
Incarnation of Vishnu as a Turtle
The earliest account of Kurma is found in the Shatapatha Brahmana (Yajur veda), where he is a form of Prajapati-Brahma and helps with the samudra manthan (churning of cosmic ocean). In the Epics and the Puranas, the legend expands and evolves into many versions, with Kurma becoming an avatar of Vishnu. He appears in the form of a tortoise or turtle to support the foundation for the cosmos and the cosmic churning stick (Mount Mandara).
Together the gods and demons churn the ocean with divine serpent Vasuki as the rope (samudra manthan), and the churn skims out a combination of good and bad things. Along with other products, it produces poison which Shiva drinks and holds it in his throat, and immortality nectar which the demons grab and run away with. The Kurma avatar, according to Hindu mythology, then transforms into a femme fatale named Mohini to seduce the demons. They fall for her. They ask her to take the nectar, please be their wife and distribute it between them one by one. Mohini-Vishnu takes the pot of nectar and gives it to the gods, thus preventing evil from becoming eternal, and preserving the good.
The Kurma legend appears in the Vedic texts, and a complete version is found in the Shatapatha Brahmana of the Yajurveda. In the Vedic era, like Matsya and Varaha, Kurma is associated with Prajapati Brahma, and is not related to Vishnu. The first hint of association of Kurma as an avatar of Vishnu is found in the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata. These links, however, are ambiguous as the Kurma is referred to by epithets such as Akupara. It is only in the Puranas, that both Kurma and Matsya are exclusively and clearly linked to Vishnu.
Kurma in the Vedic texts is a symbolic cosmogonic myth. He symbolizes the need for foundational principles and support for any sustained creative activity. In sections 6.1.1 and 7.5.1 of the Shatapatha Brahmana, Kurma's shape reflects the presumed hemispherical shape of the earth and this makes it part of the fire altar design. He is also considered the lord of the waters, thus symbolism for Varuna. In these early Hindu texts, Varuna and goddess earth are considered husband and wife, a couple that depend on each other to create and nourish a myriad of life forms. Alternate names such as Kumma, Kashyapa and Kacchapa abound in the Vedic literature, as well as early Buddhist mythologies such as those in Jataka Tales and Jain texts, which also refer to tortoise or turtle.
The Kurma legend is described in Vaishnava Puranas. In one version, sage Durvasa curses the Devas (gods) to lose their powers because they slighted him. The gods needed nectar of immortality (amrit) to overcome this curse, and they make a pact with the asuras (demons) to churn the cosmic ocean of milk, so as to extract the nectar, and once it skims out they would share it. To churn the ocean of milk, they used Mount Mandara as the churning staff, and the serpent Vasuki as the churning rope while the turtle Kurma, Vishnu bore the mountain on his back so that they could churn the waters so that the churning staff would not sink the cosmic waters.
The Asuras immediately took the nectar, and quarreled amongst themselves. Vishnu then manifested himself as the beautiful Mohini and tricked the Asuras to retrieve the potion, which he then distributed to the Devas. Though the Asuras realized the trick, it was too late—the Devas had regained their powers, and were then able to defeat their foes.
There are three temples dedicated to this incarnation of Vishnu in India: Kurmai of Chittoor District of Andhra Pradesh, Sri Kurmam in Srikakulam District of Andhra Pradesh, and Gavirangapur in the Chitradurg District of Karnataka. The name of the village Kurmai mentioned above originated as there is historical temple of Kurma Varadarajaswamy (Kurmavatar of Lord Vishnu), god in this village. The temple located in Srikurmam in Srikakulam District, Andhra Pradesh, is also the Avatar of Kurma.
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