Among the popular avatars (incarnations) of Vishnu, Sweta Varaha (White Rhinoceros) is the third.
Popular notion is that Varaha avatar is a wild boar (or pig) which restored earth(land) from completely sinking into water.
But in reality, Sweta Varaha Avatar is Elasmotherium, which is ancestor of present day’s Rhinoceros.
This Avatar took place at the time of deluge ending the Padma kalpa and after restoration of earth, the next kalpa (the present one) was named after this avatar as ‘Sweta Varaha Kalpa‘.
Mahabharata describes the Varaha as triple humped, as shown in the Harappan iconography.
Santi Parva in Mahabharata describes Vishnu of great power assumed the form of the varaha).
Entering into the Earth, he attacked the demons. Then Vishnu as the God of Gods, as the soul of Yoga and the mover of Yoga, assuming his power of Yoga, roared with a great roar agitating the demons.
By this roaring all the words and the ten directions were shaken. The boar creates a powerful great roar or naada, a sound vibration that destroys demons.
In the Bhagavata Purana, Varaha emerges as a tiny beast (a size of a thumb) from the nostrils of Brahma, but soon starts to grow. Varaha’s size increases to that of an elephant and then to that of an enormous mountain. The scriptures emphasize his gigantic size. The Vayu Purana describes Varaha as 10 yojanas (The range of a yojana is disputed and ranges between 6–15 kilometres (3.7–9.3 mi)) in width and a 1000 yojanas in height. He is large as a mountain and blazing like the sun. Dark like a rain cloud in complexion, his tusks are white, sharp and fearsome. His body is the size of the space between the earth and the sky. His thunderous roar is frightening. In one instance, his mane is so fiery and fearsome that Varuna, the god of the waters, requests Varaha to save him from it. Varaha complies and folds his mane.
The original Rhino image existed on coins and symbols of Gupta dynasty and prior.
However, the boar and its relative the pig started emerging as replacement for original Elesmotherium or Rhino and they were being seen as polluting animals since the 12th century, due to Islam influence on India.
Muslims consider the pig and its meat unclean. This led to a decline in Varaha worship to a certain extent.
Now we can find one Varaha temple on tirumala hills, adjacent to Venkateswara temple.
Puranas mention that when earth was restored from sinking, the first part which emerged from water was Tirumala hills and Varaha chose to rest there till end of this Kalpa.
Guru Dattatreya’s first incarnation in Kali Yuga, Sri Pada Vallabha, in his charitra (biography) also describes Varaha as a tough and gigantic animal with unicorn and body of a rhinoceros.
Wld Boars have corns emerging from teeth on both sides, but only Rhino and its ancestor Elasmotherium has unicorn above its nose.
Eka Sringhee Varaahas Tvam (Unicorn Rhinoceros) says Ramayana.
Unicorn Rhino used on Seals till Gupta Era
Vishnu Sahasranama says
“Maha Varaho Govinda Sushena Kanaka Angadi”
It means “Multiplier of the Great Boar group’s golden progression”. Vishnu is hailed the multiplication of great Boar, who lifted the earth (Go (earth) + vinda (lifted) ).
In the Santi Parva of Mahabharata, Krishna says
“Assuming, in the days of old, the form of a boar (Varaha) with a single tusk (Eka-Sringa), o enhancer of the joy of others, I raised the submerged Earth from the bottom of the ocean. From this reason I am called by the name of Ekasringa”.
Scientifically, this can be seens as In case of an extinction event (like the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event that happened 65.5 million years ago) which cuts-off sunlight, creating huge ice-shelves on continents, resulting in most of land getting covered with ice, only semi-aquatic beings that can ‘SCAVENGE’ on the remains can survive.
This kind of event is like getting the entire earth into the deep darkness of ocean. Only semi-aquatic scavenging beings can survive such events and evolve according to science, as food becomes scarce and most of land is covered with ice that expands. And that is what exactly several Puranas and Mahabharata state. They say ‘Varaha’ (Boar) which is a ‘Scavenger’ animal lifted the beings of the earth from the bottom of the ocean.
It is natural that such beings evolve a horn to shovel snow probably. The Eka-Sringa Varaha is one such animal.
Dasavatara Strotram by Swami Desika :
gOpaayEth anisam jaganthi kuhanaa pOthree pavithree kritha
brahmANDa: praLayOrmi gOsha gurubhir gONaaravai: gurguraih:
yath dhamshtra ankura kOTi ghaaTa ghaTanaa nishkampa nitya sthithi:
brahma sthambham asoudasou bhagavathee mushEva visvambharaa
Here, the line Nish kampa nitya sthithi means, Holding the ever revolving, ever rotating earth firm and steady on his Unicorn. The modern scientific concept of earth rotating was described long back here.
Elasmotherium is an extinct genus of giant rhinoceros endemic to Eurasia during the Late Pliocene through the Pleistocene, from 2.6 Ma to as late as 50,000 years ago, possibly later, in the Late Pleistocene, an approximate span of slightly less than 2.6 million years.
E. sibiricum was the size of a mammoth and is thought to have borne a large, thick horn on its forehead which was used for defense, attracting mates, driving away competitors, sweeping snow from the grass in winter and digging for water and plant roots.
Varaha or Rhinoceros in Hebrew tradition
Hebrew tradition uses the word Reem, to describe a mythical unicorn monster which looked like a Rhinoceros and emerged from sky. (Midarsh, fol.14)
According to Rabbi Jannai, Noah saw a young Rhinoceros, which was one day old, as big as Mount Tabor, whose dimenstions were forty miles.
Its neck was 3 miles long and head half a mile. It dropped dung and choked up jordan. (Jalkut, Genesis fol.14a)
Varaha or Rhinoceros in Chinese tradition
A similar story during Yao’s regime (when earth was flooded) in China, describes a Qilin (with unicorn) with deer’s body, horse’s hooves and enormous horn on its head.
Other stories concerning Yao tell the appearance of a large goat with Unicorn, which meted out justice on earth.
Interestingly, Varaha Avatar in hindu mythology is considered as a source of knowledge and justice.
Varaha has killed demon and restored justice and Dharma on earth, according to Varaha Purana.
Somehow all ancient traditions seem to depict a gigantic unicorn animal to have restored earth from sinking into floods.