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Balarama is traditionally considered to be an avatar of Lord Vishnu by those who do not consider Buddha to be one.

However, I have also frequently heard that He is an avatar of Adiseshan, the multi-headed snake upon which Lord Vishnu rests in Vaikuntham (the abode of lord Vishnu). This is evidenced by the fact that upon His death, a white cobra was observed exiting His mouth (at least according to Wikipedia and Amar-Chitra-Katha; sorry for not having a more reliable source).

In what ways do the scriptures support these two interpretations? Are they necessarily mutually exclusive? I have sometimes heard people say that He is actually an avatar of both Lord Vishnu and Adiseshan. How is this possible?

  • I either don't have reliable source, but as being from the hindu family, I have always heard from elders, serails and other story sources that Balarama was avatar of Adiseshan. I the first one, I never had a clue if anybody will even discuss that. – Mr. K Aug 21 '14 at 19:37
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The reason that Balarama is called an incarnation (avatara) of Vishnu is that the serpent Adiseshan is himself a form of Vishnu. Here is how Balarama's birth is described in the Srimad Bhagavatam:

When Kamsa had killed six of the children born from Devakî, the seventh one, a plenary expansion of Vishnu who was celebrated with the name Ananta, therefore [was born] as an embryo in the womb of Devakî ... [Vishnu] instructed His spiritual potency [Yoga-mâyâ] as follows: ... "In the womb of Devakî there is the embryo known as [Ananta-]S'esha who is a plenary expansion of Me. Take care of a smooth transition from her womb to the womb of Rohinî.... Because He changes wombs [from Devakī to the womb of Rohinī] the people of the world will address Him with the name Sankarshana, because He brings pleasure to the people [of Gokula] He will be called Râma and because of His great physical strength He will be named Balabhadra."

And here is another passage in the Srimad Bhagavatam that describes the role that Adiseshan plays as a form of Vishnu:

At a distance of thirty-eight thousand yojanas beneath the base of Pâtâla He is situated who, as a part of the Supreme Lord, relates to the darkness and is called Ananta. Scholarly Vaishnavas describe Him as Sankarshana, the ruler of the ego or I that is characterized by self-awareness [pride, identification], because He unites - 'draws together' - the seer and the seen, the subject and the object. The celestial sky around the earth, this universe, sustained on only one of the thousands of hoods of the Supreme Lord in the form of Anantadeva, is seen as a [tiny] white mustard seed.

Finally, in the Bhagavad Gita Krishna says "Among the Nagas I am Ananta."

On a side note, since you were wondering, Balarama reverting back into Adiseshan is described in this chapter of the Mausala Parva of the Mahabharata:

Proceeding then to the forest, Keshava [i.e. Krishna] beheld Rama sitting in a solitary spot thereof. He also saw that Rama had set himself to Yoga and that from out his mouth was issuing a mighty snake. The colour of that snake was white. Leaving the human body (in which he had dwelt so long), that high-souled naga of a 1,000 heads and having a form as large as that of a mountain, endued besides with red eyes, proceeded along that way which led to the ocean.

  • Fantastic way of explaining avatar of both. This must be like Vishnu has Krishna as Avatar and Krishna has Vitthal and Balaji as avatars. – Shreemay Panhalkar Aug 22 '14 at 3:00
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    @ShreemayPanhalkar I wouldn't call Balaji an incarnation of Krishna. I'd either call him Vishnu himself or an incarnation of Vishnu. Rama and Krishna are past births of his. – Keshav Srinivasan Aug 22 '14 at 3:05
  • Yeah but they are considered as avatars of Krishna. I can surely tell this for Vitthal at least. Cause he has Rukmini as his wife. – Shreemay Panhalkar Aug 22 '14 at 3:06
  • @ShreemayPanhalkar Venkateshwara isn't usually called an incarnation of Krishna, at best in Hindu scripture he's called a reincarnation of Krishna (being an incarnation of Vishnu), or he's simply referred to as Vishnu himself. – Keshav Srinivasan Aug 22 '14 at 3:10
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    @ShreemayPanhalkar And as far as Vitthala goes, it's often just considered to be a statue of Krishna, not a statue of an incarnation of Krishna. – Keshav Srinivasan Aug 22 '14 at 3:12
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Balarama is neither.

Kṛṣṇa is clearly shown to be Svayam Bhagavān by Bhāgavatām whose feet are respected hundreds of times by all other scriptures, with the help of other texts such as Gītā, Gopāla-tāpanī Upaniṣad, and other scriptures. Other Purāṇas also state what Bhāgavatm states, that Kṛṣṇa is Svayam Bhagavān. For instance Brahmāṇḍa Purāṇa says that a particular name of Kṛṣṇa is śuka-vāg-amṛtābdhīnduḥ: particular name of Krishna us given as :"the moon arising from the ocean of nectar of Śukadeva’s speech"

Since it has been shown that Kṛṣṇa is Mahā-vāsudeva, it follows that Baladeva is Mahā-saṅkarṣaṇa. Whatever form Kṛṣna attains, his associates should attain corresponding forms. Thus it is incorrect to think that Balarāma is some āveśāvatāra. It is seen by the descriptions of Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma that they are similar.

tāv aṅghri-yugmam anukṛṣya sarīsṛpantau: Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma, with the strength of their legs, crawled about zigzag in the muddy places of Vraja. (SB 10.8.22)

athānusmṛtya viprās te anvatapyan kṛtāgasaḥ yad viśveśvarayor yācñām ahanma nṛ-viḍambayoḥ

The brāhmaṇas then came to their senses and began to feel great remorse. They thought, “We have sinned, for we have denied the request of the two Lords of the universe, who are engaged in spreading human pastimes.”

SB 10.23.38

dadarśa kṛṣṇaṁ rāmaṁ ca vraje go-dohanaṁ gatau: Akrūra then saw Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma in the village of Vraja, going to milk the cows.

(SB 10.38.27)

tau rejatū raṅga-gatau mahā-bhujau: the two mighty-armed Lords shone splendidly in the arena.

(SB 10.43.19)

In the world, the sun and moon are described together. The sun and Venus are not described together.

Thus in Hari-vaṁśa, in glorification of Vāsudeva, Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma are compared to the moon and sun.

dhvaja-vajrāṅkuśāmbhojaiś cihnitair aṅghribhir vrajam śobhayantau mahātmānau

Two exalted personalities beautified the cow pasture with the impressions of their feet, which bore the marks of the flag, lightning bolt, elephant goad and lotus. SB 10.38.30

Thus Balarāma has the qualities of Kṛṣṇa, not of Pṛthu and other āveśa forms. His glory is described:

naitac citraṁ bhagavati hy anante jagad-īśvare ota-protam idaṁ yasmiṁs tantuṣv aṅga yathā paṭaḥ

My dear Parīkṣit! That Balarāma killed Dhenukāsura is not such a wonderful thing, considering that he is Bhagavān, the unlimited and the controller of the entire universe. In him, the entire cosmos rests as cloth depends on its threads. SB 10.15.35

vāsudeva-kalānantaḥ sahasra-vadanaḥ svarāṭ agrato bhavitā devo hareḥ priya-cikīrṣayā

The foremost manifestation of Kṛṣṇa is Saṅkarṣaṇa, who is known as Ananta and Śeṣa with a thousand heads, because he shines with many forms. Previous to the appearance of Kṛṣṇa, this original Saṅkarṣaṇa will appear as Baladeva, just to please the Supreme Lord Kṛṣṇa in his pastimes.

SB 10.1.24

Saṅkarṣaṇa is the first aṁśa (kalā) of Kṛṣṇa, the son of Vasudeva (Vāsudeva). He comes personal not as an expansion of Saṅkarṣaṇa, for it is said he exists by himself (svarāṭ). He is devoid of divisions of time and space (anantaḥ).

Yamunā devī says:

**> rāma rāma mahā-bāho na jāne tava vikramam yasyaikāṁśena vidhṛtā jagatī

jagataḥ pate Rāma, Rāma, O mighty-armed one! I cannot know your full prowess. With a single portion of yourself you hold up the earth, O Lord of the universe. SB 10.65.28**

Ekāṁśena means “by whose portion called Śeṣa.” Sridhara Svami provides same explanation.

In Ayodhyā-māhātmya in Skanda Purāṇa(2.8.2.61-63), describing the disappearance pastime of Lakṣmaṇa, it is said:

tataḥ śeṣātmatāṁ yātaṁ lakṣmaṇaṁ satya-saṅgaram | uvāca madhuraṁ śakraḥ sarvasya ca saḥ paśyataḥ ||

Then while everyone was looking, Indra spoke in a sweet voice to Lakshmana, who is always true to his promise, and within whom Sesa had merged.

Lakshmana had undergone a merging with Sesa when Lakshmana descended. When work of helping devatas was completed, Sesa emerged from Lakshmana and went to Patala again, and Lakshmana went to the spiritual world.

indra uvāca -- lakṣmaṇottiṣṭha śīghraṁ tvam ārohasva padaṁ svakam | deva-kāryaṁ kṛtaṁ vīra tvayā ripu-nisūdana || vaiṣṇavaṁ paramaṁ sthānaṁ prāpnuhi svaṁ sanātanam | bhavan-mūrtiḥ samāyātā śeṣo'pi vilasat-phaṇaḥ ||

Indra said: Lakṣmaṇa! Please rise up and ascend to your own place quickly. O brave one, killer of enemies! You have performed godly tasks. Attain the highest, eternal abode of Viṣṇu which belongs to you. Your aṁśa Śeṣa with shining hoods has also come.

Further it is stated( 6.8.2.81)

ity uktvā sura-rājendro lakṣmaṇaṁ sura-saṅgataḥ | śeṣaṁ prasthāpya pātāle bhū-bhāra-dharaṇa-kṣamam || lakṣmaṇaṁ yānam āropya pratasthe divam ādarāt ||

Having said this, Indra, the king of the devatās, surrounded by the devatās, established Śeṣa, who was capable of holding up the weight of the earth, in Pātāla. He then reverently had Lakṣmaṇa ascend a vehicle. Indra then returned to Svarga.

In the section of Narayana Armor, it is shown Baladeva is distinct from Sesa and exceeding him in potency

yajñaś ca lokād avatāt kṛtāntād balo gaṇāt krodha-vaśād ahīndraḥ

May Yajña protect me from defamation! May Balarāma protect me from death! Śeṣa protect me from envious serpents. SB 6.8.18

Here it is shown that Baladeva is different from Śeṣa and has more powers. Instead of kṛtantāt, sometimes janāntāt (destruction from others) is seen.

Vasudeva equates Balarāma with Kṛṣṇa.

yuvāṁ na naḥ sutau sākṣāt pradhāna-puruṣeśvarau: you are not our sons but the very Lords of both material nature and its creator [Mahā-Viṣṇu]. (SB 10.85.18)

The word sākṣāt in the verse above has greater significance in the argument.

The statements like "The greatly powerful Balarama is a part of Sesa-Naga"(MB 1.67.152) should be considered as the perception of the sage who spoke it or it is said with the intent to promulgate popular belief.

Sridhara Svami gives such explanation in SB 10.1.2 where Krishna is apparently described as amsa of Vishnu :

tatrāṁśenāvatīrṇasya viṣṇor vīryāṇi śaṁsa naḥ

Sridhara Svami says, "The word aṁśena (as an aṁśa) is said with the intent to promulgate popular belief."

Alternate explanation is amsena means along with Baladeva. Therefore, it can mean Vishnu(Krishna) who descended with His amsa(Baladeva).

Another way to understand such statements is given here:

According to Hari-vaṁśa Upendra appeared as Kṛṣṇa.

idānīṁ nāśa ārabdhaḥ kulasya dvija-śāpa-jaḥ yāsyāmi bhavanaṁ brahmann etad-ante tavānagha Now due to the brāhmaṇa’s curse, the disappearance of my family has already begun. O sinless Brahmā, when my family disappears. I will pay a visit to your abode. SB 11.6.31

Śrīdhara Svāmī explains that the Lord visiting Brahmā’s abode refers to the son of Vikuṇṭha returning to his abode.(meaning Krishna is avatara of Vikuntha). Sometimes Kṣīrodakaśāyī is said to come as Kṛṣṇa, sometimes the puruṣa is said to come as Kṛṣṇa, and sometimes Nārāyaṇa Rṣi is said to come as Kṛṣṇa. And in speaking of Lakṣmaṇa as Balarāma, Rāma is said to come as Kṛṣṇa. The hair of Nārāyaṇa is said to come as Kṛṣṇa. Accepting one statement as authoritative, others are thereby denied. However, all these statements are true.[in as much as they reflect some particular perspective of scripture]. Additionally, because all of the statements are made in accordance with the speaker's experience and intellectual resolve, they are consistent in meaning.

Various statements become one statement by following the author’s explanation.

It is like resolving the order of ascension through the path of light towards liberation and through the path of the nāḍīs in Brahma-sūtra 4.3.1.

When Svayam Bhagavān appears all other forms enter him. This is the meaning whenever these statements occur.

Thus the wise conclude as follows. How is it possible unless they all enter into Svayam Bhagavān? Some of the aṁśas also appear again, such as Pradyumna. Kṛṣṇa merged Śiśupāla and Dantavakra (who had fallen from the son of Vikuṇṭha’s planet in the universe and should return there) into himself since Vikuṇṭha had also entered into Kṛṣṇa. When his pastimes ended, Vikuṇṭha’s son entered his own planet Vaikuṇṭha above Brahmaloka with his associates Jaya and Vijaya.

Nārada says:

vairānubandha-tīvreṇa dhyānenācyuta-sātmatām nītau punar hareḥ pārśvaṁ jagmatur viṣṇu-pārṣadau These two associates of Lord Viṣṇu—Jaya and Vijaya—by meditation with intense, continuous hatred of the Lord, entered Kṛṣṇa, and then went to the side of the Lord as his two associates. SB 7.1.26

In Hari-vaṁśa, while Garuḍa was killing demons who had stolen Kṣīrodakaśayī’s crown, Kṛṣṇa appeared on earth. Recovering the crown, and not seeing Viṣṇu anywhere on the upper planets, Garuḍa offered the crown to Kṛṣṇa (in whom Viṣṇu had entered) on the top of Gomanta Mountain.

This is similar to accepting the order of ascension on the path of light as the main element and the order of the nādīs and rays as the secondary element as per Braham-sūtra 4.3.1. That method should be seen here as well.

That all amsas appear with Krishna is confirmed in:

sva-śānta-rūpeṣv itaraiḥ sva-rūpair abhyardyamāneṣv anukampitātmā parāvareśo mahad-aṁśa-yukto hy ajo ’pi jāto bhagavān yathāgniḥ Being compassionate in mind, when his devotees are afflicted by the demons, Svayam Bhagavān Kṛṣṇa, though not having material birth, appears within this world along with all his Viṣṇu expansions, since he is the lord of all forms of God and devatās. SB 3.2.15

He comes endowed with all aṁśas of his great self when he is born (mahadaṁśa- yuktaḥ). Śruti says mahāntaṁ vibhum ātmānam: he is the great ruler, the self. (Kaṭha Upaniṣad 1.2.22) mahadvac ca: since mahat does not refer to mahat-tattva, avyakta cannot refer to pradhāna. (Brahma-sūtra 1.4.7) Or mahat refers to the aṁśas. “He is endowed with aṁśas like puruṣas which are great.” Mahat means that their essential nature is greatness as in the phrase loka-nātham mahad-bhūtam: he is the master of the worlds, the great one. (Viṣṇu-sahasranāma) Or “He is endowed with aṁśas and their causes which are great.” Uddhava speaks to Vidura.

Thus, using similar reasoning, Balarama is not avatar of Vishnu or Sesha though such statements are found in scriptures.

ekonaviṁśe viṁśatime vṛṣṇiṣu prāpya janmanī | rāma-kṛṣṇāv iti bhuvo bhagavān aharad bharam ||

The Lord appeared in the Vṛṣṇi dynasty in the two forms of Balarāma and Kṛṣṇa as the nineteenth and twentieth avatāras and relieved the burden of the earth. SB 1.3.23

The word Bhagavān here indicates the direct appearance of Bhagavān, not from the puruṣa named Aniruddha. The word Bhagavān distinguishes Kṛṣṇa from others. Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma are both addressed as Bhagavān since Kṛṣṇa is directly Bhagavān and Balarāma is his direct expansion. They both relieved earth of its burden. Thus even Balarāma also rejected as an expansion of Aniruddha since Kṛṣṇa manifests (Vyuha)Vāsudeva and Balarāma manifests Saṅkarṣaṇa.

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