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.
An 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
Varahavatara, the incarnation as boar, again in the Satya Yuga.
Narasimhavatara, the incarnation as Man-Lion (Nara = man, simha
= lion), also in 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
The 25 Avatars of the Puranas
According to the Puranas the incarnation of Vishnu are many.
The Bhagavata Purana lists 25 incarnations of Vishnu which mentioned
- Catursana (the four Kumaras, sons of Lord
- Varaha (the boar)
- Matsya (the fish)
- Hayasirsa (Hayagriva)
- Hamsa (the swan)
- Narasimha (The Man-Lion)
- Kurma (The Tortoise)
- Vamana (the Dwarf)
- Parasurama (Rama with the axe)
- Raghavendra (Sri Rama or Ramachandra, king of Ayodhya)
- Vyasa (Vyasadeva)
- The Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama)
Types of avatars
- Madhvacharya, the proponent of dvaita school of Vaishnavism,
believed that one should not try to categorize the incarnations
of Vishnu as primary or secondary because they were all alike
in potency and quality and doing so would result in eternal
- However not all followers of Vishnu agree with this argument.
According to a majority of them the incarnations of Vishnu fall
into two categories, primary avatars and secondary avatars.
The most common type of primary avatars are called Svarupavatars,
in which He manifests Himself in His Sat-cid-ananda form. In
the primary avatars, such as Narasimha, Rama, Krishna], Vishnu
directly descends. The Svarupavatars are subdivided into Amsarupavatars
and Purna avatars. In Amsarupavatars, Vishnu is fully present
in the body but He is manifest in the person only partially.
Such avatars include the first five avatars from Matsya to Vamana
except for Narasimha. Narasimha, Rama and Krishna, on the other
hand, are types of Purna avatars, in which all the qualities
and powers of the Lord are expressed. Narasimha and Rama are
also additionally considered to be Lila avatars. Other avatars
are secondary avatars, such as Parashurama in which Vishnu does
not directly descend. Parashurama is the only one of the traditional
ten avatars that is not a direct descent of Vishnu. There are
two types of secondary avatars: 1) Vishnu enters a soul with
His form. (e.g., Parashurama) or 2) Vishnu does not enter a
soul with His own form, but gives him extraordinary divine powers.
(e.g., Veda Vyasa.) The secondary avatar class is sometimes
called Saktyamsavatar, Saktyaveshavatar or avesha avatar. Note
that the secondary avatars are not worshipped. Only the direct,
primary avatars are worshipped. However, in practice, the direct
avatars that are worshipped today are the Purna avatars of Narasimha,
Rama and Krishna. Krishna, among most Vaishnavites, is considered
to be the highest kind of Purna avatar. However, followers of
Chaitanya (including ISKCON), Nimbarka, Vallabhacharya differ
philosophically from other Vaishnavites, such as Ramanuja and
Madhva and consider Krishna to be the ultimate Godhead, and
not simply an avatar. In any event, all Hindus believe that
there is no difference between worship of Vishnu and His avatars
as it all leads to Him.
Many claim that the ten avatars represent the evolution of life
and of mankind on earth. Matsya, the fish, represents life in water.
Kurma, the tortoise, represents the next stage, amphibianism. The
third animal, the boar Varaha, symbolizes life on land. Narasimha,
the Man-Lion, symbolizes the commencement development of mammals.
Vamana, the dwarf, symbolizes this incomplete development of human.
Then, Parashurama, the forest-dwelling hermit armed with an axe,
connotes completion of the basic development of humankind. The King
Rama signals man's ability to govern nations. Krishna, an expert
in the sixty-four fields of science and art according to Hinduism,
indicates man's advancement in culture and civilization. Balarama,
whose weapon was a plough could stand for the development of agriculture.
Buddha, the enlightened one, symbolizes social advancement of man.
Note that the time of the avatars also has some significance:
Thus, kings rule reached its ideal state in Treta Yuga with Rama
Avatar and social justice and Dharma were protected in Dwapar Yuga
with the avatar of Krishna. Thus the avatars represent the evolution
of life and society with changing epoch from Krita Yuga to Kali
yuga. The animal evolution and development connotations also bear
striking resemblances to the modern scientific theory of Evolution.
The avatars described above are of Vishnu, which in a sense a
symbol of the "current state" of the society. The wife of Vishnu
is "Laxmi" the goddess of Wealth. The Wealth is generated by the
society, and is required to keep it going. This is symbolized by
keeping Laxmi at the feet of Vishnu and basically taking care of
him. Brahma, the "Creator" god, is the god of Knowledge. He is supposed
have created knowledge. Again this symbolizes the generation of
knowledge by the society, (as it is settled and growing and backed
The four Yugas are again the symbolically represented. The description
of each Yuga is given as follows: Krita Yuga is represented by a
man carrying a small piece of pot (kamandalu). Treta Yuga is represented
by a man carrying a Cow and an Anchor. Dwapar Yuga is represented
by a man carrying a Bow and Parashu (Axe). Kali Yuga is represented
by a man who is ugly, without clothes and making offensive gestures
holding in his hand his genitals (sex organ).
If the above descriptions are seen carefully, one realizes that
this also represents several technological advancements of the human
society. In the first yuga there is a development of pottery, language
and yagna (yadnya) rituals etc. The second yuga shows the mastering
of agricultural techniques. The third yuga tells the development
of weapons technology whereby the agricultural society (now staying
in groups) and their generated wealth needs to be protected. The
last yuga represents the complete anarchy of the values developed
so far and is basically the last phase in the development of any
society. The symbolic gesture of holding the sex-organ in hand shows
the importance given to the materialistic pleasures of life and
finally destroying the peace of mind.
Suggested Further Reading
Source: Adapted from the Wikipedia article "Avatar",
under the G.N U Free Docmentation License and suitably modified
by Jayaram V for Hinduwebsite.com