Avatar means to appear, to descend, to take birth or
manifest. In Hinduism, an
avatar means the form of a deity and usually refers to an incarnation
of God or His aspects such as Vishnu on planet earth either as a man
or an animal or some mythical creature. An avatar is not mere
materialization or appearance of God in physical form for the sake of
his devotees. It is neither a disguise nor a trick played upon our
senses. God has been appearing to people from time to time either to
pass on some message or accomplishing some task through the beholder.
His voice has been heard by countless people upon earth either
internally through the subtle channels or externally through actual
hearing. He appeared personally to several sages, seers and even
demons like Ravana or Hiranya who did severe penances to obtain boons
from Him. He conversed with them blessed them and helped them in the
pursuit of their goals, be it enlightenment or invincible power or
victory against enemies or even invincibility against Himself. On
occasions he also assumed distinct forms to help both men and gods.
For example, Lord Vishnu assumed the form of Mohini, a beautiful
damsel to help the gods when they and the demons churned the
oceans for amrit, the elixir of life and needed His help to
distract the demons. Lord Siva appeared as a tribal warrior to Arjuna
and challenged him for a fight to test his devotion and determination.
He responds to us in His own mysterious ways even today, if we pray to
Him sincerely, with faith and devotion. These are however not
incarnations, but manifestations of God.
By definition an
incarnation is different. It requires the birth of God in physical
form, through the natural process and his existence upon earth in
physical form undergoing the same experiences as living beings. It is
not necessary that the physical form needs to be that of human always.
It can be a human, animal or semi human or even mythical form. The
incarnation may exist for a brief period of time or for a life time.
The incarnation may have all the powers and awareness of God in His
absolute aspect or only a necessary portion of it. It is also said
that when God incarnates upon earth, He does not incarnate alone. A
number of associate divinities and evolved souls also incarnate upon
earth to play their part in His incarnation and assist Him. At the
same time a number of demons also become active either physically or astrals
to counter and thwart the purpose of the incarnation and provide the
necessary opposition to the divine drama that is played out.
incarnation is essentially an interference in the affairs and
progression of the manifested worlds. It is an intervention that
becomes necessary due to the activity of beings endowed with free
will. The law of karma makes each individual being responsible for its
action. But in some cases that alone may not deter some from causing a
great imbalance in the working of the worlds or interfering with the
lives of other people through their actions. When their number
increases disproportionately, God decides to take matter into His own
hands and comes down to earth in physical form to restore order and
morality. Some times He may manifest Himself indirectly through His emanations
or directly as an incarnation.
This is the justification and the
purpose of incarnatin which the followers of Vaishnavism accept as undeniable
truth. They believe that, as promised in the Bhagavadgita by the
Supreme Being, from time to time whenever there is excessive presence of evil
and suffering of virtuous people Lord Vishnu incarnates upon earth upon earth to restore order
and destroy evil. But followers of Saivism hold a contradictory
opinion. According to them Siva would not
incarnate because God is the knower of past, present and future and
controller of all. Every thing happens to according to his will and
even evil cannot act itself out unless he wills. So what needs to be accomplished can be
accomplished through the will of Siva without the need for a separate
incarnation. If at all there is a need to interfere as per his will,
Siva would manifest Himself directly and take necessary action. So
Siva would only manifest or act through his agencies such as a Guru or
an aspect or emanation but would not incarnate. However not all followers of Siva would agree
with this argument.
The Ten Great Incarnations of Vishnu
There is a divergence of opinion as to the number of incarnations of
Vishnu. According to some his incarnations are many and difficult to
enumerate. But others believe that his primary incarnations
are only ten, while his secondary incarnations are several. There is
also no unanimity among his followers as to what the ten primary
incarnations are. The most commonly accepted list of ten primary
incarnations are as shown below:
- Matsyavatara, the incarnation as the fish in the Satya Yuga or
the age of truth.
- Kurmavatara, the incarnation as the tortoise, in the Satya Yuga.
- Varahavatara, the incarnation as boar, again in the Satya Yuga.
- Narasimhavatara, the incarnation as Man-Lion (Nara = man, simha = lion),
the Satya Yuga.
- Vamanavatara, the incarnation as the Dwarf, in the Treta Yuga.
- Parashuramavatara, the incarnation as priestly warrior with an axe, in the Treta Yuga.
- Sri Ramavatara, incarnation as virtuous prince and king of Ayodhya, in the Treta Yuga.
- Sri Krishnavatara, incarnation as cowherd and leader of the Yadus
in the Dwapara Yuga to slay his uncle Kamsa and many other demons
and assist the Pandavas in the Mahabharata war against their evil
- Buddhavatara, incarnation as an enlightened Buddha in the Kali Yuga to
establish a new religion called Buddhism for those disinterested
in ritualism and casteism. (Some include Balarama, the
brother of Krishna here instead of the Buddha.)
- Kalkyavatara, incarnation as a sword wielding and horse riding
Kalki who will destroy the evil forces before the end of the of