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Ten avatars of Vishnu (clockwise, from upper left): Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Vamana, Krishna, Kalki, Buddha, Parshurama, Rama & Narasimha, and Krishna (centre)

In Hinduism, Avatar or Avatāra (Devanagari अवतार, Sanskrit for "descent" [viz., from heaven to earth]) refers to a deliberate descent of a deity from heaven to earth, and is mostly translated into English as "incarnation", but more accurately as "appearance" or "manifestation".[1]

The term is most often associated with Vishnu, though it has also come to be associated with other deities.[2] Varying lists of avatars of Vishnu appear in Hindu scriptures, including the ten Dashavatara of the Garuda Purana and the twenty-two avatars in the Bhagavata Purana, though the latter adds that the incarnations of Vishnu are innumerable.[3] The avatars of Vishnu are a primary component of Vaishnavism. An early reference to avatar, and to avatar doctrine, is in the Bhagavad Gita.[4]

Shiva and Ganesha are also described as descending in the form of avatars. The various manifestations of Devi, the Divine Mother principal in Hinduism, are also described as avatars or incarnations by some scholars and followers of Shaktism.[4][5] The avatars of Vishnu carry a greater theological prominence than those of other deities, which some scholars perceive to be imitative of the Vishnu avatar lists.


Etymology and meaning

The Sanskrit noun avatāra is derived from the verbal root tṝ "to cross over", joined with the prefix ava "off , away , down". The word doesn't occur in the Vedas, but is recorded in Pāṇini (3.3.120). Avatāra was initially used to describe different deities, then around the 6th century CE it began to be used primarily to describe the manifestations of Vishnu.[6] While earlier texts mention deities taking on different forms, the Bhagavad Gita (4.5-9) is the first text to discuss the doctrine associated with the term even though the word avatāra itself is not mentioned.[7]

The common translation "incarnation" due to its christological implications is somewhat misleading as the concept of avatar corresponds more closely to the view of Docetism in Christian theology, as distinct from the idea of God 'in the flesh' in mainstream Christology.[8][9]

Related to the concept of avatar is that of vibhūti, that is, the idea of manifestations of the divine in various aspects of human life and the natural world.[10]

Avatars of Vishnu

Matsya, fish avatar of Vishnu

The concept of avatar within Hinduism is most often associated with Vishnu, the preserver or sustainer aspect of God within the Hindu Trinity or Trimurti. The descents of Vishnu are also integral to his teaching and tradition, whereas the accounts of other deities are not so strictly dependent on their avatar stories. Although it is usual to speak of Vishnu as the source of the avatars, within the Vaishnavism branch of Hinduism Narayana, Vasudeva, and Krishna are also seen as names denoting divine aspects which descend as avatars.[1]

The Bhagavata Purana describes Vishnu's avatars as innumerable, though there are ten incarnations (Dasavatara, Sanskrit: ten avatars) that are widely seen as his major appearances.[1][3] Krishna and Rama are the two mostly widely known and worshiped avatars of Vishnu, with their stories told in the two popular epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.[11] Different lists of Vishnu's avatars appear in different texts, including: the dasavatara from the Garuda Purana; lists of twenty-two, twenty-three, and sixteen avatars in the Bhagavata Purana;[12] thirty-nine avatars in the Ahirbudhnya saṃhitā;[13] the dasavatara again in Agni Purana; the first eight of the dasavatara in Padma Purana. The commonly accepted number of ten was fixed well before the 10th century CE.[12] In addition, various Vaishnava saints and founders are considered to be partial avatars.[14]

Vishnu's avatars typically descend for a very specific purpose. An oft-quoted passage describes the typical role of an avatar of Vishnu—to bring dharma, or righteousness, back to the social and cosmic order:[1][2]

Whenever righteousness wanes and unrighteousness increases I send myself forth.
In order to protect the good and punish the wicked,
In order to make a firm foundation for righteousness,
I come into being age after age. (4.7–8)

Some Vaishnavism schools consider Krishna to be the source of all avatars, with the various avatars categorized in many different ways. For example: Purusavatara is the first avatara; Gunavataras are represented by the Trimurti (Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva) who each preside over one of the gunas (rajas, sattva, and tamas); Lilavataras are the well-known ones, and include Avesavataras (beings into whom part of God Himself has entered) and saktyamsavesa (into whom only parts of His power enter); Kalpa-, Manvantara-, and Yuga-avataras descend during different cosmic ages.[15]


Varaha, the boar avatar of Vishnu

The ten most well known descents of Vishnu are collectively known as the Dasavatara (Sanskrit: ten avatars). This list is included in the Garuda Purana (1.86.10"11).[16]

The first four are said to have appeared in the Satya Yuga (the first of the four Yugas or ages in the time cycle described within Hinduism). The next three avatars appeared in the Treta Yuga, the eighth descent in the Dwapara Yuga and the ninth in the Kali Yuga. The tenth, Kalki, is predicted to appear at the end of the Kali Yuga.[17]

  1. Matsya, the fish-avatar who saved Manu - the progeniter of mankind from the great deluge and rescued the Vedic scriptures by killing a demon
  2. Kurma, the tortoise-avatar, who helped in the Samudra manthan - the churning of the ocean
  3. Varaha, the boar-avatar, who rescued the earth from the ocean, by killing her kidnapper-demon Hiranyaksha
  4. Narasimha, the half man-half lion avatar, who killed the tyrant demon-king Hiranyakashipu, to rescue the demon's son Prahlada, who was a Vishnu-devotee
  5. Vamana, the dwarf-avatar, who defeated the demon-king Bali
  6. Parashurama, sage with the axe who killed the thousand-armed king Kartavirya Arjuna
  7. Rama, the king of Ayodhya and the hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana
  8. Krishna, the king of Dwarka, a central character in the Bhagavata Purana and the Mahabharata and reciter of Bhagavad Gita
  9. Gautama Buddha[18][19][20][21] [22][23][24][25] [26][27][28][29][30]
  10. Kalki ("Eternity", or "time", or "The Destroyer of foulness"), who is expected to appear at the end of Kali Yuga.

Balarama, the elder brother of Krishna, is sometimes considered as one of the Dasavatar[citation needed], omitting Buddha from the list. In other traditions, Balarama is considered as a partial avatar of Vishnu or an avatar of Shesha, the serpent on which Vishnu sleeps.[31][32]

In the Bhagavata Purana

Mohini, the only female avatar of Vishnu

As many as forty specific avatars of Vishnu are mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana, though the book adds that the number is innumerable.[33] Twenty-two avatars of Vishnu are listed numerically in the first book:[34]

  1. Four Kumaras [BP 1.3.6] - the four Sons of god Brahma
  2. Varaha [BP 1.3.7]
  3. Narada [BP 1.3.8] the divine-sage who travels the worlds as a devotee of Vishnu
  4. Nara-Narayana [BP 1.3.9] - the twin-sages
  5. Kapila [BP 1.3.10] - a sage and one of the founders of the Samkhya school of philosophy
  6. Dattatreya [BP 1.3.11] - the combined avatar of the Hindu trinity Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
  7. Yajna [BP 1.3.12] - the lord of fire-sacrifice, who took was the Indra - the lord of heaven
  8. Rishabha [BP 1.3.13] - the father of King Bharata and Bahubali
  9. Prithu [BP 1.3.14] - the sovereign-king who milked the earth as a cow to get the world's grain and vegetation and also invented agriculture
  10. Matsya [BP 1.3.15]
  11. Kurma [BP 1.3.16]
  12. Dhanvantari [BP 1.3.17] - the father of Ayurveda medicine
  13. Mohini [BP 1.3.17] - the enchantress
  14. Narasimha[BP 1.3.18]
  15. Vamana [BP 1.3.19]
  16. Parasurama [BP 1.3.20]
  17. Vyasa [BP] 1.3.21] - the compiler of the scriptures - Vedas and writer of the scriptures Puranas and the epic Mahabharata
  18. Rama [BP 1.3.22]
  19. Balarama [BP 1.3.23]
  20. Krishna [BP 1.3.23]
  21. Buddha [BP 1.3.24]
  22. Kalki [BP 1.3.25]

Besides these, another four avatars are described later on in the text as follows:

  1. Prshnigarbha [BP 10.3.41] - the son of Prshni
  2. Hayagriva [BP 2.7.11] - the horse-faced avatar
  3. Hamsa [BP 11.13.19] - the swan
  4. Golden avatra [BP 11.5.32] - the avatara in Kali-yuga for propagating hari-namasankirtan

Avatars of Ganesha

(Clockwise from left top) The four of Ganesha from Ganesha Purna: Mahotkata, Mayuresvara, Dhumraketu and Gajanana.

The Linga Purana declares that Ganesha incarnates to destroy demons and to help the gods and pious people.[35] The two upapuranas - Ganesha Purana and Mudgala Purana - detail the avatars of Ganesha. Both these upapuranas are core scriptures of the Ganapatya sect - exclusively dedicated to Ganesha worship.

Four avatars of Ganesha are listed in the Ganesha Purana:Mohotkata, Mayūreśvara, Gajanana and Dhumraketu. Each avatar corresponds to a different yuga, has a different mount and different skin complexion, but all the avatars have a common purpose - to slay demons.[36]

The Mudgala Purana describes eight avatars of Ganesha:[37]

  1. Vakratunda (Vakratuṇḍa) ("twisting trunk"), his mount is a lion.
  2. Ekadanta ("single tusk"), his mount is a mouse.
  3. Mahodara ("big belly"), his mount is a mouse.
  4. Gajavaktra (or Gajānana) ("elephant face"), his mount is a mouse.
  5. Lambodara ("pendulous belly") , his mount is a mouse.
  6. Vikata (Vikaṭa) ("unusual form", "misshapen"), his mount is a peacock.
  7. Vighnaraja (Vighnarāja) ("king of obstacles"), his mount is the celestial serpent Śeṣa.
  8. Dhumravarna (Dhūmravarṇa) ("grey color") corresponds to Śiva, his mount is a horse.

Avatars of Shiva

Sharabha(right) with Narasimha

Although Puranic scriptures contain occasional references to avatars of Shiva, the idea is not universally accepted in Saivism.[4][38] The Linga Purana speaks of twenty-eight avatars of Shiva.[39] In the Shiva Purana there is a distinctly Saivite version of a traditional avatar myth: Shiva brings forth Virabhadra, one of his terrifying forms, in order to calm Narasimha, an avatar of Vishnu. When that fails, Shiva manifests as the human-lion-bird Sharabha. The story concludes with Narasimha becoming a devotee of Shiva after being bound by Sharabha.[40] However, Vaishnava followers including Dvaita scholars, such as Vijayindra Tirtha (1539-95) refute this Shaivite view of Narasimha based on their reading of Sattvika Puranas and Śruti texts.[41]

The monkey-god Hanuman who helped Rama - the Vishnu avatar is considered by some to be the eleventh avatar of Rudra (Shiva).[42][43] Some regional deities like Khandoba are also believed by some to be avatars of Shiva.[44][45]

Avatars of Devi

A 17th century painting depicting Hanuman worshiping Rama and his wife Sita. Lakshmana is also seen in this painting from Smithsonian Institution collection. Rama is considered the avatar of Vishnu, Sita of Vishnu's consort Lakshmi, Lakshmana of Shesha - the serpent on whom Vishnu sleeps, and Hanuman is believed to be an avatar of Shiva.

Avatars are also observed in Shaktism, the sect dedicated to the worship of the Goddess (Devi), but they do not have universal acceptance in the sect. The Devi Bhagavata Purana describes the descent of Devi avatars to punish the wicked and defend the righteous—much as the Bhagavata Purana does with the avatars of Vishnu.[46] Like Vishnu, his consort Lakshmi incarnates as Sita and Radha - the consorts of Rama and Krishna avatars.[47] Nilakantha, an 18th century commentator on the Devi Bhagavata Purana - which includes the Devi Gita - says that various avatars of the Goddess includes Shakambhari and even the masculine Krishna and Rama - generally thought to be Vishnu's avatars.[48] Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati are also goddesses worshipped as Devi avatars.[49]

Other Vaishnava avatars

There are many senses and shades of meaning of the term avatar within Hinduism.

Purusha avatars

Purusha avatars are sometimes described as the original avatars of Vishnu or Krishna within the Universe:[50][51]

Guna avatars

The personalities of the Trimurti (Hindu trinity) are also sometimes referred to as Guna avatars, because of their roles of controlling the three modes (gunas) of nature,[51] even though they have not descended upon an earthly planet in the general sense of the term 'avatar'.

  • Vishnu - As controller of the mode of goodness (sattva)
  • Brahma - Controller of the mode of passion and desire (rajas)
  • Shiva - Controller of the mode of ignorance (tamas)

Manvantara avatars

Manvantara avatars are beings responsible for creating progeny throughout the Universe, said to be unlimited in number.[52] They do not take birth.

Shaktyavesa and Avesa avatars

Avataric incarnations are classified as two kinds

  • direct (sakshat)
  • indirect (avesa).

When Vishnu himself descends, he is called sakshat or shaktyavesa-avatara, a direct incarnation of God. But when he does not incarnate directly, but indirectly empowers some living entity to represent him, that living entity is called an indirect or avesa avatar.[53]

There are said to be a great number of avesa avatars. Examples include Narada Muni, Shakyamuni Buddha, and Parashurama. Parashurama is the only one of the traditional ten avatars that is not a direct descent of Vishnu.

According to the Sri Vaishnavism sect of Hinduism, there are two types of primary or direct avatars, Purna avatars and Amsarupavatars:

  1. Purna avatars are those in which Vishnu takes form directly and all the qualities and powers of God are expressed, (e.g. Narasimha, Rama and Krishna).[54],[55]
  2. Amsarupavatars are those in which Vishnu takes form directly but He is manifest in the person only partially. (e.g. avatars from Matsya to Parashurama).

The avesa or indirect avatars are generally not worshiped as the Supreme being. Only the direct, primary avatars are worshiped in this way. In practice, the direct avatars that are worshiped today are the Purna avatars of Narasimha, Rama and Krishna. Among most Vaishnava traditions, Krishna is considered to be the highest Purna avatar. However, followers of Chaitanya (including ISKCON), Nimbarka, and Vallabha Acharya differ philosophically from other Vaishnavas, such as Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya, and consider Krishna to be the ultimate Godhead, not simply an avatar. That said, all Hindus believe that there is no difference between worship of Vishnu and His avatars as it all leads to Him. According to Madhvacharya (chief proponent of Dvaita or school of differential monism), all avatars of Vishnu are alike in potency and every other quality. There is no gradation among them, and perceiving or claiming any differences among avatars is a cause of eternal damnation. See Madhva's commentary on Katha Upanishad.

See also

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  50. ^ Avatar - Categories of Incarnations
  51. ^ a b - theology
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  55. ^

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