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The ten avatars of Vishnu, (Clockwise, from top left) Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Vamana, Krishna, Kalki, Buddha, Parshurama, Rama and Narasimha, (in centre) Krishna

Daśāvatāra refers to the ten principal avatars. In Vaishnava philosophy, an avatar (Sanskrit: अवतार, avatāra), most commonly refers to the 'descent' and daśa refers to 'ten' in number. The ten most famous incarnations of Vishnu or sometimes Krishna are collectively known as the Dashavatara. This list is included in the Garuda Purana (1.86.10-11) and denotes those avatars most prominent in terms of their influence on human society.

The majority of avatars in this list of ten are categorised as 'lila-avatars'. 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 incarnation in the Dwapara Yuga and the ninth in the Kali Yuga. The tenth is predicted to appear at the end of the Kali Yuga in some 427,000 years time.[1] Also according to the Vishnu Purana the Kali-yuga will end with the apparition of Kalki-avatara, who will defeat the wicked, liberate the virtuous, and initiate a new Satya Yuga.[2]

Contents

Historical perspective

Adoption of Buddha as one of the avatars of Vishnu under Bhagavatism believed to be a catalyzing factor in assimilation of relationships during Gupta period 330-550 C.E. Thus Mahayana Buddhism is sometimes called Buddha-Bhagavatism.[3] It is by this period that it is commonly accepted among academics that the concept of avatars of Vishnu was fully developed.[4]

The evolution of historical Vishnuism produced what is now a complex system of Vaishnavism, which is often viewed as a synthesis of the worship of Vishnu, Narayana, Vasudeva and Krishna which is archived by the time of Bhagavad Gita (c. 4 BCE to 3 century CE).[5]

Twelve Alvars, saints who spread the sect to the common people with their devotional hymns. Early alvars did not distinguish or listed the avataras of Vishnu, nor did they distinguished Krishna to be an avatara. Their poems in praise of Vishnu and Krishna in Tamil language are collectively known as Naalayira (Divya Prabandha).[6][7]

List

  1. Matsya, the fish, appeared in the Satya Yuga.The Fish Incarnation is the first incarnation of Vishnu. Lord Vishnu takes the form of a fish in order to retrieve the Vedas from the demon Hayagriva, who stole them from Lord Brahma. Without the Vedas, Creation of the Universe cannot take place. He slayed the demon Hayagriva, recovered the Vedas, and also saved the pious king Satyavrata from the deluge so that life and religion can be preserved for the next cycle of Creation.
  2. Kurma, the tortoise, appeared in the Satya Yuga. The turtle Incarnation is the second incarnation of Vishnu. When the devas and asuras were churning the ocean in order to get the nectar of immortality, the mount Mandara they were using as the churning staff started to sink and Lord Vishnu took the form of a turtle to bear the weight of the mountain.
  3. Varaha, the boar, appeared in the Satya Yuga. The Boar incarnation is the third incarnation of Vishnu. He appeared in order to defeat Hiranyaksha, a demon who had taken the Earth (Prithvi) and carried it to the bottom of what is described as the cosmic ocean in the story. The battle between Varaha and Hiranyaksha is believed to have lasted for a thousand years, which the former finally won. Varaha carried the Earth out of the ocean between his tusks and restored it to its place in the universe.
  4. Narasimha, the half-man/half-lion appeared in the Satya Yuga. The Man-Lion Incarnation is the fourth incarnation of Vishnu. When the demon Hiranyakashipu acquired a boon from Brahma, which gave him inordinate power, Lord Vishnu appeared in the form of half-man/half-lion, having a human-like torso and a lower body, but with a lion-like face and claws. Hiranyakashipu could not be killed by human, deva or animal, Narasimha is neither one of these, as he is a form of Vishnu incarnate as a part-human, part animal. He comes upon Hiranyakashipu at twilight (when it is neither day nor night) on the threshold of a courtyard (neither indoors nor out), and puts the demon on his thighs (neither earth nor space). Using his sharp nails (neither animate nor inanimate) as weapons, he disembowels and kills the demon.
  5. Vamana, the dwarf, appeared in the Treta Yuga. The fourth lineal descendant of Hiranyakashyap, named Bali, through his devotion and penance defeated Indra, the god of firmament, humbled other gods and extended his authority over the three worlds. All the gods appealed to Lord Vishnu for protection and He became manifest in His Dwarf Avatar of Vaman for the purpose of restraining Bali. Once when this king was making a great religious offering, Lord Vishnu in the form of Vaman appeared before him in the company of other Brahmins. Bali was extremely pleased to see a holy man with such a diminutive form and promised to give him whatever he should ask. Lord Vishnu asked only for as much land as he could measure by three steps. Bali laughingly agreed to grant the boon of three steps. Lord Vishnu as dwarf stepped over heaven in first stride and earth in the second stride. Then out of respect to Bali's kindness and his grandfather Prahlad's great virtues, Lord Vishnu stopped short and left him in pathal, the subterranean region. Bali is believed to have ruled Kerala.
  6. Parashurama, Rama with the axe, appeared in the Treta Yuga. Parashurama a Brahmin, the sixth avatar of Vishnu, belongs to the Treta yuga, and is the son of Jamadagni and Renuka. Parashu means axe, hence his name literally means Rama-of-the-axe. He received an axe after undertaking a terrible penance to please Shiva, from whom he learned the methods of warfare and other skills. Parashurama is said to be a "Brahma-Kshatriya" (with the duties between a Brahmana and a Kshatriya), the first warrior saint. His mother is descended from the Kshatriya Suryavanshi clan that ruled Ayodhya and Lord Rama also belonged to. A haihaya King Kartavirya Arjuna (Sahasrarjuna - purportedly with a thousand arms) and his army visited Jamadagni, a Brahmin sage, who fed his guest and the whole army with his divine cow Kamadhenu. The king demanded the magical cow. Jamadagni refused because he needed the cow for his religious ceremonies. King Kartavirya Arjuna (Sahasrarjuna) took the cow forcibly and devastated the ashram. Angered at this, Parashurama killed the king's entire army and, after cutting each one of his thousand arms, the king himself with his axe. As a revenge, the King's sons killed Jamadagni in Parashurama's absence. Furious at his father's murder, Parashurama killed all sons of Sahasrajuna and their aides. His thirst for revenge unquenched, he went on killing every adult Kshatriya on earth, not once but 21 times, filling five ponds with blood. These are the actions which highlight his warrior characteristics. Ultimately, his grandfather, Richeek Rishi, appeared and stopped him.
  7. Rama, Ramachandra, the prince and king of Ayodhya, appeared in the Treta Yuga. Lord Rama is one of the most commonly adored gods in Hinduism and is known as an ideal man and hero of the epic Ramayana. Lord Rama defeated and killed the king of Sri Lanka, Ravana for capturing and imprisoning his wife Sita in the Ashoka Garden in Sri Lanka.
  8. Krishna (meaning 'dark coloured' or 'all attractive') appeared in the Dwapara Yuga along with his brother Balarama. According to the Bhagavata Purana Balarama is said to have appeared in the Dwapara Yuga (along with Krishna) as an incarnation of Ananta Shesha. He is also counted as an avatar of Vishnu by the majority of Vaishnava movements and is included as the ninth Dasavatara in some versions of the list which contain no reference to Buddha. Because of his great Godly power, Lord Krishna is another of the most commonly worshipped deities in the Hindu faith. He is considered to be the eighth avatar of Lord Vishnu. He played a huge role in the Battle of Kurukshetra and helped the Pandavas defeat the Kauravas. He is also a significant character in the epic of Mahabharata. Shree Krishna delivered Bhagwad Gita on battlefield of the Battle of Kurukshetra to Arjun. He, like Lord Rama, is also known for his bravery in destroying evil powers throughout his life. The Lord is usually depicted as playing the flute (murali), indicating spread of the melody of love to people.
  9. Buddha (See alternative lists below for Balarama at this position) See also: Buddha as an Avatar of Vishnu. With the departure of Lord Krishna (Krishna Avatar), the age of Kali set in, in this age, the true devotion to Vedas was replaced by empty rituals. To enlighten the world in such times, Lord Vishnu descended the earth as Buddha, the enlightened one.
  10. Kalki ("Eternity", or "time", or "The Destroyer of foulness"), who is expected to appear at the end of Kali Yuga, the time period in which we currently live. The tenth and the last avatar of Vishnu, Kalki, is yet to appear. Kalki will appear at the end of the Kalyuga. This avatar will appear seated on a white horse with a drawn sword blazing like a comet. He shall come finally to destroy the wicked, to restart the new creation and to restore the purity of conduct in people's lives.
Dashavatar: (from left) Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Parashurama, Rama, Balarama, Buddha, Kalki. Traditional print.

Alternative lists

Temple door depicting the ten avatars, Sree Balaji Temple, Goa. (from leftmost upper corner, clock wise) Matsya, Narasimha, Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, Kalki, Vamana, Vithoba as Buddha, Varaha and Kurma.

Balarama is considered as one of the Dasavatar in South Indian traditions, and Buddha is not considered as part of the list. [8] [9] Some sources omit Krishna from the list of avataras,[10][11] In a number of medieval traditions Krishna is recognized to be Svayam Bhagavan, or the source of avataras, in the belief of Gaudiya Vaishnavas,[12] the Vallabha Sampradaya,[13] and the Nimbarka Sampradaya, where Krishna is accepted to be not only the source of all other avatars, but also the source of Vishnu himself. This belief is drawn primarily "from the famous statement of the Bhagavata Purana" (1.3.28).[14]

In some lists Balarama, the elder brother of Krishna, takes the place of Gautama Buddha as the ninth avatar of Vishnu. According to the Bhagavata Purana Balarama is said to have appeared in the Dwapara Yuga (along with Krishna) as an incarnation of Ananta Shesha. He is also counted as an avatar of Vishnu by the majority of Vaishnava movements. Such lists contain no mention of Buddha.

In Maharashtra and Goa, Vithoba's image replaces the traditional representation of Buddha, when depicted as the ninth avatar of Vishnu, in some temple sculptures and Hindu astrological almanacs. The saint-poets of Maharashtra also praised Vithoba as a form of Buddha.[15]

Jayadevas Dasavatara Stotra

Pralaya Payodhi Jale (from Gita Govinda) by Jayadeva concludes after listing the ten avataras each with a separate stanza:

vedān uddharate jaganti vahate bhū-golam udbibhrate
daityaṁ dārayate baliṁ chalayate kṣatra-kṣayaṁ kurvate
paulastyaṁ jayate halaṁ kalayate kāruṇyam ātanvate
mlecchān mūrchayate daśakṛti-kṛte kṛṣṇāya tubhyaṁ namaḥ

O Lord Kṛṣṇa, I offer my obeisances unto You, who appear in the forms of these ten incarnations. In the form of Matsya You rescue the Vedas, and as Kūrma You bear the Mandara Mountain on Your back. As Varāha You lift the earth with Your tusk, and in the form of Narasiṁha You tear open the chest of the daitya Hiraṇyakaśipu. In the form of Vāmana You trick the daitya king Bali by asking him for only three steps of land, and then You take away the whole universe from him by expanding Your steps. As Paraśurāma You slay all of the wicked kṣatriyas, and as Rāmacandra You conquer the rākṣasa king Rāvaṇa. In the form of Balarāma You carry a plow with which You subdue the wicked and draw toward You the River Yamunā. As Lord Buddha You show compassion toward all the living beings suffering in this world, and at the end of the Kali-yuga You appear as Kalki to bewilder the mlecchas [degraded low-class people or persons of low charater or persons who yielded to the worldly sensual pleasures and lost their character].

In 2009, the Indian Postal Service issued a series of ten stamps with the Dasavatara as the theme. It was released in Bhubaneswar, Orissa, to commemorate the birth of Jayadeva in that state.

Similarity to Darwinism and evolution

Life originated in water in unicellular form to start with. This was followed by aquatic life forms, and subsequently Amphibians(i.e. creatures who could live equally well in water as well as on land) came into existence. Homo Sapiens evolved during a very later stage of evolution. Scientists have postulated various theories about this evolution. Darwin, Mendel & others postulated various theories on this subject.

British geneticist and evolutionary biologist, J B S Haldane, observed that the Dasavataras are a true sequential depiction of the great unfolding of evolution. The first few avatars of Vishnu show an uncanny similarity to the biological theory of evolution of life on earth.[16]

Avatars Explanation Evolution
Matsya. First avatar is a fish, one which is creature living in water. If we compare it with biological evolution on different Geological Time Scale first developed life was also in the form of fish which originated during Cambrian period.
Kurma Second avatar was in the form of Tortoise (reptiles). In geology also first reptiles comes as second important evolution which originated in Mississippian period just after Amphibians.
Varaha Third avatar was in the form of Boar. Evolution of the amphibean to the land animal.
Narasimha The Man-Lion (Nara= man, simha=lion) was the fourth avatar. But in geology no such evidences are mentioned. It may have been related with Ape Man The term may sometimes refer to extinct early human ancestors, such as the undiscovered missing link between apes and humans.
Vamana Fifth Avatar is the dwarf man. It may be related with the first man originated during Pliocene. It may be related with Neanderthals. Neanderthals were generally only 12 to 14 cm (4½–5½ in) shorter than modern humans, contrary to a common view of them as "very short" or "just over 5 feet".
Parashurama, The man with an axe was the sixth avatar. It has the similarities with the first modern man originated during Quaternary period or the man of Iron age.

Lord Rama, Lord Krishna and Lord Buddha were the seventh, eighth and ninth other avatars of Lord Vishnu. It indicates the physical and mental changes and evolution in the man from its time of appearance.

See also

Notes

  1. ^ B-Gita 8.17 "And finally in Kal-yuga (the yuga we have now been experiencing over the past 5,000 years) there is an abundance of strife, ignorance, irreligion and vice, true virtue being practically nonexistent, and this yuga lasts 432,000 years. In Kali-yuga vice increases to such a point that at the termination of the yuga the Supreme Lord Himself appears as the Kalki avatara"
  2. ^ Klostermaier (2007) p. 495
  3. ^ Hāṇḍā, Omacanda (1994). Buddhist Art & Antiquities of Himachal Pradesh: Up to 8th Century A.D.. Columbia, Mo: South Asia Books. pp. p. 40. ISBN 81-85182-99-X.  
  4. ^ Faculty For Indian History (Prabha IAS-IPS Coaching Centre) Arumbakkam, Chennai, INDIAN HISTORY - 2003 exams test papers. "CIH - Read history make history". www.chandraiashistory.com. http://www.chandraiashistory.com/INDIAN%20HISTORY%202003.htm. Retrieved 2008-08-01. "19) The crystallization of the Avatara Concept and the worship of the incarnations of Vishnu were features of Bhagavatism during the answer (d) Gupta period"  
  5. ^ Beck, Guy L. (1993). Sonic theology: Hinduism and sacred sound. Columbia, S.C: University of South Carolina Press. pp. p. 170. ISBN 0-87249-855-7.  
  6. ^ Annangaracariyar, P.B. (1971). Nalayira tivviyap pirapantam. Kanci: VN Tevanatan.  
  7. ^ Seth, K.P. (1962). "Bhakti in Alvar Saints". The University Journal of Philosophy.  
  8. ^ Britannica list of dashavatara
  9. ^ English-Tamil dictionary
  10. ^ The Religion of the Hindus By Kenneth W Morgan, D S Sarma p.55
  11. ^ Iconography of Balarama By N.P. Joshi p.25
  12. ^ Kennedy, M.T. (1925). The Chaitanya Movement: A Study of the Vaishnavism of Bengal. H. Milford, Oxford university press.  
  13. ^ Flood, Gavin D. (1996). An introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 341. ISBN 0-521-43878-0. http://books.google.com/books?id=KpIWhKnYmF0C&printsec=frontcover&dq=gavin+flood&sig=q_waAYpO_WokCivKS2OtlwsG2dw#PPA118,M1. Retrieved 2008-04-21.  "Early Vaishnava worship focuses on three deities who become fused together, namely Vasudeva-Krishna, Krishna-Gopala and Narayana, who in turn all become identified with Vishnu. Put simply, Vasudeva-Krishna and Krishna-Gopala were worshiped by groups generally referred to as Bhagavatas, while Narayana was worshipped by the Pancaratra sect."
  14. ^ Essential Hinduism S. Rosen, 2006, Greenwood Publishing Group p.124 ISBN 0275990060
  15. ^ Jamanadas, K. (2001). "Vitthala of Pandharpur is Buddha". Tirupati Balaji was a Buddhist Shrine. Dalit E-Forum. http://www.ambedkar.org/Tirupati/Chap4.htm. Retrieved 2008-09-20.  
  16. ^ http://www.americanchronicle.com/articles/view/101713

References

  • Klostermaier, Klaus K. (2007). A survey of Hinduism. Albany: Sate University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-7081-4.  
  • Sikand, Yoginder (2004). Muslims in India since 1947: Islamic perspectives on inter-faith relations. London: RoutledgeCurzon. ISBN 0-415-31486-0.  

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