CHAUBĪS AUTĀR, a collection of twenty four legendary tales of twenty-four incarnations of the god Viṣṇu, forms a part of Bachitra Nāṭak, in Gurū Gobind Siṅgh's Dasam Granth. The complete work contains a total of 4, 371 verse-units of which 3, 356 are accounted for by Rāmāvtār and Krishnāvtār. The shortest is Baudh Avatār comprising three quatrains, and the longest is Krishnāvtār, with 2, 492 verse-units, mostly quatrains.
The introductory thirty-eight chaupaīs or quatrains refer to the Supreme Being as unborn, invisible but certainly immanent in all objects. Whenever evil predominates, saviours of the humanity or avatārs emerge by His hukam, i. e. order, to re-establish righteousness. They fulfil His will and purpose. Kāl Purash who creates them ultimately subsumes them all in himself. The poet asserts his monotheistic belief here and while enumerating the avatārs discountenances any possibility of their being accepted as the Supreme Being, i. e. Akāl Purakh. In the epilogue to one of the episodes in Krishnāvtār occurs a statement repudiating the worship of popular deities like Gaṇeśa, Kṛṣṇa and Viṣṇu (verses 434-40). The Supreme Being, called in the Gurū's authentic idiom, Mahākāl (the Supreme Lord of Time) is acknowledged as the Succourer to whom prayer is made to keep operative the defensive might (tegh) and dispensing of charity (deg). Thus is set forth the basic principle of the Sikh faith amid a long literary exercise.
The poet asserts that he, having descended from the martial Kṣatriyas, cannot think of adopting the attitude of a recluse towards the disturbed conditions of his time. The greater part of the tales of Rāmāvtār and Krishnāvtār are taken up with battle-scenes evoked through many alliterative devices with the clash and clang of arms constantly reproduced. At the close of Krishnāvtār, in a kind of postscript, is proclaimed the crusader's creed, which is ever "to remember God, to contemplate holy war; and, unmindful of the destruction of the perishable body, to embark the boat of noble repute. " The poet has thus extracted the element of heroism from the prevalent stories without projecting the attitude of a worshipper, with the sole purpose of inspiring his followers with the resolve to fight for Dharma, i. e. to uphold righteousness. Chaubīs Autār does not appear to be the work of one period. It was a long project which was in execution for a decade or more. While Krishnāvtār is stated in verse 2, 490-91 to have been composed in Samvat 1745/AD 1688 at Paoṇṭā when Gurū Gobind Siṅgh was residing there, Rāmāvtar, according to verses 860-61 was composed at Anandpur in Samvat 1755/AD 1698 near the temple of Naiṇādevī, close to the bank of the River Sutlej. Another component of the Chaubīs Autār is Nihkalaṅkavtār which is a sustained expression of appearance of Nihkalaṅk who would destroy evil and establish righteousness. An interesting. phenomenon observable in Krishnāvtār is the sliding of the poet from Kṛṣṇa's mythical career into his own contemporary scene. Among the heroes mentioned some bear medieval Rājpūt names (Gaj Siṅgh, Dhan Siṅgh, Sūrat Siṅgh); some Muslim like Nāhar Khān, Tāhir Khān, and Sher Khān. In verse 1602 malechh which was the pejorative term used for Muslims is used. The name of the city of Delhi appears, which is an anachronism. Such anachronisms indicate how the poet's consciousness was touched by the turmoil in contemporary Mughal times.
The texture of the language is neo-classical Braj. The poet has employed a variety of metres, and made them responsive to the passing moods or emotions and changing situations. The metres are alternately short and long in consonance with the increasing and lessening of the fury of battle. Blank verse in Punjabi has been inserted for the first time by the poet in the Sirkhaṇḍī metre (Rāmāvtār, verses 467-70). Punjabi words keep cropping up as in the heading of a Krishnāvtār episode luk-mīchan (hide and seek) and in referring to a king condemned to be incarnated as a lizard (kirlā, in Punjabi). At one place in Rāmāvtār (verse 657-68) Persian words are blended with Hindi to make rekhtā: the language that was the precursor of modern Urdu. The range of vocabulary thus becomes vast and varied.
Dharam Pāl Āshṭā