Agreed that this gives an excellent opportunity for poets and other creative beings to twist and turn the storyline, and to have characters from different eons pop suddenly out of nowhere and spice up the narratives. And that is how you suddenly have Bhima from Dwapar Yuga picking up Hanuman's Treta Yuga-old tail in Mahabharata. You also have Vishnu and Indra sharing the spoils of a sport once in the vedas as two brothers (as sons of Aditi, daughter of Daksha, who is himself the son of Brahma), and then afterwards a later-dated purana declaring vehemantly that Vishnu is the creator of all, including Brahma, Daksha, and Indra. Beat that!
Yet, with all these creative freedoms, you will agree with me that when mythology itself means that the boundaries of time are sketchy and blurred at best, and that you have to second guess the timing of every occurance, this adds more confusion to the already shaky world view. The whole era of myths seems to be suspended in a space-time continuum, bobbing up and down without any direction - no arrow of time!
There are very few areas where some semblense of chronology is available. For instance, take the Vishnu Maha-Dashavataras or great incarnations. You know for sure that Matsya came first, and then Kurma, and then Varaha, followed by Narasimha, and so on. However it is not clear when exactly each one happened and how much time went by between two consecutive ones. You can only infer based on side supports. Like, it appears that Varaha and Narasimha must have happened close to each other, as the antagonists in these two - Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashyapu - were twin brothers and so must be close.
So it appears that this is the flow of the mythical time as compared to the ten maha-avataras of Vishnu:
1. Matysa (fish)
This has Vivasvan Manu as the protagonist of the story. Manu is the son of Vivasvan, son of Kashyapa and Aditi, daughter of Daksha Prajapati - who is the son of Brahma. So I am guessing that this must pretty early on - close to when the world was formed by Brahma at the beginning. Manu is saved by the fish during the deluge / flood and then the world is re-populated.
2. Kurma (tortoise)
When the Devas (Adityas - or sons of Aditi like Indra, Savitr, Varuna, etc.) were at war with Daityas and Danavas (sons of Diti and Danu) and were facing a hard time at that, Vishnu suggested to Devas to churn the ocean of milk. This is the famous story of Samudra manthan. He also agreed to take the form of a giant tortoise to support the stirring staff (mount Mandara). Since Vivasvan and Adityas are supposedly brothers, the timing of this avatara must be immediately after the events of the earlier avatara.
3. Varaha (wild boar)
The antagonist of this story is Hiranyaksha - one of the Daityas - son of Diti (sister of Aditi). The story talks about a deluge that Hiranyaksha created by pushing the Earth under water. I am not sure if this flood is the same as what Manu encountered and survived, but maybe it is a different one. In any case, the mythical time for this story is close to the earlier stories in Krita yuga.
4. Narasimha (man lion)
Hiranyaksha's twin brother Hiranyakashipu sought revenge of his brother's death, but in the end met his own end at the hands (nails) of Vishnu's Narasimha (half-man half-lion) avatara. So again, this must be close at heels to the story of Varaha. This is said to be the last avatara of Satya / Krita yuga.
5. Vamana (young student)
Vishnu's first full human avatara - albeit that of a young boy - is that of Vamana. Now this avatara was to get rid of the Daitya King Bali, under whose able leadership the Daityas and Danavas had forged a very formidable war front and army against the Devas. Bali was the grandson of Hiranyakashipu of the earlier story (Hiranyakashipu --> Prahlada --> Veerochana --> Bali). So there must be a gap of at least two generations (100-150 years?) between the fourth and the fifth avatara as against the earlier stories, which seem to have happened one after the other. In some puranas, this is also given as the first avatara of Treta yuga. So the gap may be much wider - by a couple of hundred thousand years.
6. Parashurama (brahmin king)
Bhargava rama or Parashurama - the first sovereign king of the new world - is the only avatara in which Vishnu is still supposed to be lingering around due to his unfinished business with Kalki that is yet to come. In any case, Parashurama is famous for killing Haihaya Kshatriyas 21 times over and over again. The events of this story must have happened somewhere halfway through Treta yuga.
7. Ramachandra (purushottama - 'great man')
The historical accuracy of the two epics of Hindu Mythology is a topic that requires more studied opinion than mine, but for the purpose of this writeup, it suffices to consider that Ramachandra's avatara and his war with the Lankan overlord Ravana is considered to have happened during the final eons of Treta yuga.
8. Krishna / Balarama (the poorna-purusha - the 'complete man')
Krishna and Balarama are the avatara that happened in the end of Dwapar yuga. So it seems there was a gap of two into 432,000 years (i.e 864,000 years - mythical years that is - don't get me into a discussion on the historical perspectives of these) between the seventh and the eighth avatara. Some say Krishna was Vishnu's avatara, and Balarama was Adi Sesha's avatara. Some say Balarama was born out of a white hair of Vishnu's body while Krishna was born out of a dark hair. In any case, these two were brothers and walked the Earth together before the beginning of the Kali Yuga.
9. Buddha (the wise)
This is the first avatara in Kali yuga, and also seems to be the only one where some actual historical personage can be traced to the incarnation. However the inclusion of Buddha in the list itself is quite controversial. In some lists Balarama is considered the 8th one, and Krishna the 9th one. In Maharashtra where I come from, Vithoba is considered the 9th avatar. In any case, if we include Buddha, then most scholars peg Buddha's historical time arond 486and 483 BCE i.e. about 2,500 years ago from your and my time.
10. Kalki (time / destroyer)
Kalki is supposed to be the final avatara, and this is one avatara that is yet to come. Kalki Bhagwan is expected to appear at the end of Kali Yuga i.e. about 430,000 years from now. So Kalki will come in the age of darkness, destroy the barbarians and thieves, and will re-establish righteousness on the Earth - which will eventually mark the beginning of Satya yuga again and the next cycle of Maha Yugas.
So there. We have a complete listing with the mythical timeline - first four avatars in Krita Yuga, the next three in Treta Yuga, then Krishna Balarama in Dwapara Yuga and then the last two in Kali Yuga, with one yet to happen.
Now this list is according to Vishnu Purana and other Puranas where the main deity is Vishnu (like Garuda Purana) and in most cases the mythical timeline - for once - matches with one another. If you look at some other sources, I am not sure if the timeline will match with this one. Good luck with that!
01 May 2011