Vamana the fifth avatar, or incarnation, of Vishnu, in which he appears as a dwarf. Bali was a powerful king who conquered Indra (q.v.), ruled over the three worlds, and filled the gods with dismay for their future prosperity. Even Vishnu could overcome him only by craft. While Bali was performing on an extraordinary scale a sacrifice in honor of the gods, in order that he might gain still more power by his meritorious action and rule more widely than ever, a dwarf approached him and did him reverence. Pleased with the devout and unpretending manner of the little Brahman, Bali asked him to demand a boon, however costly it might be. But the dwarf merely asked for so much ground as he could measure with three paces. The king smilingly granted so modest a request, although his family priest Usanas, suspecting the divine nature of the dwarf, strongly dissuaded him from doing so. Then the god leaped up as the mightiest of the host of heaven, and strode with one pace over the earth, with a second over the intermediate space or atmosphere, and with a third over the sky, thus leaving to Bali only the lower regions, which he assigned him as his future abode. The utterance of Bali in reference to this disaster will serve to show how sacred a promise is held by the Hindus when once obtained. He said, "If, renowned chief of the gods, you consider the word which I uttered to be deceitful, I now do what is sincere and can be no deception, place your third step on my head. Fallen from my position, I fear not the infernal regions, or binding in bonds, or misfortune difficult to escape, or loss of wealth, or your restraint, so much as I am afflicted by a bad name" (Muir, Original Sanskrit Texts, 4:128). For his piety and promise-keeping manner he was rewarded by Vishnu with the promise that, after a temporary residence in one of the most delightful places of Patala (q.v.), he should be born as India in the reign of the eighth Manu.
The Vedic conception of the three strides of Vishnu is doubtless the basis of the idea from which this avatar arose. In this incarnation as dwarf, Vishnu is considered to have been a Son of the same Kasyapa, SEE VARAHA, who is also the father of Hiranyakasipu and Hiranyaksha; but while their mother is Diti, the dwarf's mother is Aditi (space); and as she had previously brought forth Indra, Vishnu is sometimes called Upendra, or the younger Indra. As son of Aditi, Vishnu becomes one of the Adityas. SEE VISHNU.