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
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).
Kurma (tortoise), snake rope, mountain with dancing
Vishnu artwork at
the Bangkok Airport, Thailand.
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.
Kurma legend appears in the Vedic texts, and a complete version is
found in the
Shatapatha Brahmana of the Yajurveda. In the Vedic
Matsya and Varaha,
Kurma is associated with Prajapati
Brahma, and is not related to Vishnu. The first hint 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
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.
Main article: Samudra manthan
Avatar of Vishnu, below Mount Mandara, with
around it, churning the ocean of milk during Samudra Manthan. ca 1870.
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
Mount Mandara as the churning staff, and the serpent
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
Vishnu then manifested himself as the beautiful
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.
Kurma avatar at
Saptashrungi of Shaktism.
There are three temples dedicated to this incarnation of
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.
Part of a series on
Brahma (Dvaita, Acintyabhedabheda)
Cultural depictions of turtles
Kashyapa – a Vedic sage whose name also means "tortoise, turtle"
Zeus and the Tortoise
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Media related to
Kurma at Wikimedia Commons
Avatars of Vishnu
1 The list of ten avatars varies regionally. The two
substitutions involve Balarama,
Krishna and Buddha is considered the
avatar of Vishnu.
Krishna is almost always included; in exceptions, he
is considered the source of