The Ten Incarnations of Lord Vishnu
The Triple Gunas, Sattva, Rajas and Tamas
The concept of avatar or the incarnations of God is a distinct feature of Hinduism. Avatar means descent, manifestation or appearance. Especially, it refers to descent from the highest, immortal heaven into the mortal world or the earth. Hindus believe that Isvara (God) in his aspect as Lord Vishnu, incarnates upon earth from time to time, fully or partially, as a part of his duty to protect dharma, destroy evil and restore the balance between the competing forces of creation.
You may wonder why of all the gods, only Vishnu incarnates. It is because Vishnu is the preserver. Taking care of the cosmic order is his essential duty. As a part of his duty, Vishnu performs many duties to ensure the order and regularity of the worlds, of which incarnating upon earth in times of crises is an important one. The concept of incarnation is recognized in Vaishnavism but not in the other sects of Hinduism.
According to them God does not have to especially incarnate upon earth to restore dharma because nothing happens without his knowledge and will. Being omniscient with the knowledge of the past, present and future, there Is nothing that he cannot foresee to act in time. However, he may manifest at times to deal with specific problems which are already ordained by him in the destiny of the world. On such occasions, he does not incarnate in person, but manifests only certain aspects of him.
Vaishnava tradition recognizes ten chief incarnations of Lord Vishnu, known as Dasavatara or Dasavataram. There is no unanimity among scholars about them. Since incarnations can be full or partial and since Vishnu may also manifest in numerous other forms, it is difficult to determine which ones qualify as his full incarnation. Further, only a few incarnations are quoted in the Vedas, and most of them were ascribed to Brahma rather than Vishnu. It appears that the concept of incarnations evolved overtime and the true incarnations were identified long after they happened. We present here ten important incarnations, and suggest a few others which are believed to be incarnations according to the tradition or popular opinion.
1. Matsya, the giant fish
Direct and indirect references to the incarnation of fish (matsyavatar) are found in the Rigveda, several Puranas and both the epics. According to the legends, a small fish appeared to Manu (the progenitor of human race) in his hands when he was about to offer oblations. The fish requested him to rear him until he grew large enough to be left in the sea. He also forewarned him of an impending deluge and advised him to build a large boat and be prepared. When the deluge came, Manu and the seven Vedic rishis along with the Vedas set sail in the boat. The fish which, by then, grew into a gigantic size emerged out of the sea and pulled the boat by a rope to the peak of a tall mountain, where it left them and disappeared. The same story is found in a few Hindu texts with minor variations. The Bhagavata Puranas states that Manu also carried with him several plants, seeds and animal species apart from the seers and the Vedas and saved them from destruction. Probably the legend of fish incarnation was derived from the memories of a great deluge which might have engulfed the Indian subcontinent in the remote past. Since it is surrounded by the ocean on all three sides, the flooding of the coastal lands by heavy monsoons is a common occurrence.
2. Kurma, the giant tortoise.
Chronologically, the incarnation of Vishnu as a giant tortoise (kurmavatar) is considered the second. References to it are found in the Samhitas, the Upanishads, Aranyakas, and several Puranas. The incarnation was initially associated with sage Kashyapa, and in some with Prajapati. Some passages also allude to its connection with wind (Vayu). The word Kurma is symbolically used in the Vedic texts to denote the withdrawal of the senses and the ignition of sacrificial fire by churning of the fire sticks. The incarnation is primarily associated with the churning of the oceans by gods and demons. According to the legends, upon being cursed by a sage Indra the lord of the heavens lost his glory and sought the help of Vishnu, who advised him to churn the ocean of milk by summoning the devas (gods) and asuras (demons) to extract the elixir of life. Accordingly, they churned the ocean, using serpent Vasuki as the rope and the mountain Meru or Mandhara as the rod, while Vishnu in the form of a giant tortoise provided the support for the churning rod from below. Hindus and Buddhists still believe that the earth still stands on the back of a giant tortoise. The Brahmavaivarta Purana states that the earth stands upon the head of Ananta, the giant serpent. He is supported by Kurma from below, and is in turn supported by Vayu.
3. Varaha, the giant boar.
The incarnation of Varaha comes third in succession (second according to Garuda Purana) , in which Maha Vishnu lifted the submerged earth from the bottom of the cosmic ocean with his tusks in the body of a wild boar. Varaha means not only a boar but also a rain cloud, a brahmana priest (angirasas) and the bringer of auspicious tidings. Symbolically he represents the Vedic sacrifice, which supports and uplifts the world and the beings. References to Varaha are found in the Vedas, the epics and several Puranas. The Varaha Upanishad is named after this deity only. Multiple legends are associated with this incarnation. According to the Mahabharata, the earth sank into the cosmic ocean due to the weight of excessive population. The goddess of the earth sought Vishnu’s help, who then manifested as a boar and uplifted it. The most common version of the story is found in the Puranas according to which a demon named Hiranyaksha, son of Diti, carried the earth to the bottom of the cosmic ocean and challenged Vishnu to fight him. They fought for a thousand years, at the end of which Varaha killed him and rescued the earth from the ocean by lifting it up with his tusks.
4. Narasimha, the half-man and half-lion.
The fifth incarnation of Vishnu is Narasimha in which he appeared as half man and half lion. This is probably the fiercest and one of the well-known incarnations of him both in Vaishnavism and popular Hinduism. It must have appeared around the same time as the previous one, since in this incarnation, Vishnu killed Hiranyakasipu, the brother of Hiranyaksha. Narasimha means man-lion, with an upper lion body and a lower human body. It is mentioned in several Puranas, but not clearly in the Vedas. According to the popular version, after the death of Hiranyaksha, his brother Hiranyakasipu did a long penance and obtained a boon from Brahma that he should be immune to death from a man or animal, inside or outside any residence, during the day or night, upon the earth or in the air, by any entity created or to be created by Brahma, by a demigod or a demon, and so on. Having secured near invincibility and immortality, he became extremely arrogant and cruel and began tormenting people with his despotic rule, apart from disrespecting God. He also tortured his own son, Prahlad, as he was showing unflinching devotion and loyalty to Vishnu rather than to him. Enraged by his deeds, Vishnu one day sprang from a pillar in his palace as a man-lion and killed him with his bare hands, thereby ending his tyranny.
5. Vamana, infinity in a dwarf body
Vamanavatar is the first incarnation which is clearly mentioned in the Vedas in association with the name of Vishnu, a solar deity (Aditya). It is also mentioned in the Bhagavata and Vishnu Puranas. According to them the purpose of the incarnation was to contain the growing power of the Asura king, Mahabali and restore the lost glory of Indra, who suffered an ignominious defeat in his hands and lost his suzerainty over the heavens. Mahabali was the great grandson of Hiranyakasipu and grandson of Prahlada. To help Indra, Vishnu appeared upon earth as a dwarf Brahmana named Vamana and went to attend a sacrifice organized by Mahabali . As was the privilege of a Brahmana in those days, he requested the king to grant him as a gift as much space as his three strides could occupy. The king readily obliged. Vamana then assumed his universal form and covered the earth and heavens in just two strides. Since no space was left for the third one, Mahabali requested Vamana to place his feet upon his head. Vamana obliged and pushed him into the nether world. At the same time, as a compensation he granted him immortality and lordship of the nether world, and gave him permission to return to the earth once in year to revisit his lost kingdom.
6. Parashurama, the warrior with invincible axe
This is the second complete incarnation of Vishnu in a human form. The Puranas state that he was born to Renuka, the wife of Jamadagni. At a young age he did penance to Shiva and obtained from him an invincible axe as a boon. Since he always carried it with him and used it as a weapon, he became known as Parasurama or Rama with an axe. Although by birth he was a Brahmana, by nature and attitude he was a Kshatriya (warrior), born to fight. According to the Puranas, once a king named Kartavirya Arjuna visited his father’s ashram. The sage attended to him and his entourage with the help of a wish fulfilling cow named Kamadhenu. The king asked the sage to give him the cow. When the sage refused, he got angry and took it by force. Parasurama then went to his court and killed him, after destroying his army. In retaliation his sons killed his father Jamadagni. Infuriated by it, Parasurama vowed to kill all the Kshatriya kings, and kept his vow. It is possible that the story alludes to the end of the Kshatriya dominance in the lands they once rule, their privileged position in the sacrificial rituals and Upanishadic teachings. Some legends credit him with the reclamation of the west coast of India from the Indian ocean.
7. Rama, the prince of Ayodhya.
Rama is surely the most popular of all the incarnations of Vishnu, more than even Krishna. Historically, he was popular not only in India but also in several Asian countries. He also prominently figures in the art and literature of India as an inspiring and exemplary personality. The epic Ramayana details his life story. It is the oldest of all the epics and venerated by Hindus as sacred. It has been translated in almost every language. Apart from the original Ramayana by sage Valmiki, numerous versions and variations of it are also available in many native languages. Rama is also worshipped as a deity by millions of Hindus in temples and homes. He was the eldest son of King Dasaratha of Kosala, born to his first wife, Kausalya, through a sacrifice and grew up in Ayodhya, the capital. Due to court intrigues, Rama could not succeed his father. Instead, he had to go on a 14-year-old exile along with his wife, Sita and brother Lakshmana, his brother. They lived a simple life in the forests of Dandarakanya in central India, where Sita was abducted by the evil King Ravana when the brothers were not at home. After locating her whereabouts Rama got a long bridge built upon the ocean with the help of a large army of monkeys (Vanaras). After crossing it with the army, he engaged Ravana in a fierce fight and killed him. Freeing Sita from captivity, he returned to Ayodhya and was coronated as the king. The reign of Rama (Ramarajya) was so good that even today people use it as the standard model of governance (Ramarajya) for the rulers to follow .
8. Balarama, the elder brother of Lord Krishna,
Balarama was the elder brother of Krishna. He is an ancient deity, who is mentioned in the Mahabharata and some Puranas. However, he is not mentioned in the Vedas, which suggests that his inclusion in the list of Vishnu’s incarnations may be post Vedic. He is considered the eighth incarnation of Vishnu by the Vaishnava tradition, while some regard him as an incarnation of Adishesha rather than Vishnu. The latter view is justified because it is difficult to explain the possibility of two complete incarnations of Vishnu happening simultaneously. As his name suggests, Balarama is associated with physical strength (balam). His weapon is the plough (halam). After escaping infanticide in the hands of his uncle, Kamsa after he was born, Balarama grew up as a cowherd along with his brother Krishna in the care of his foster parents who lived in a pastoral community near Mathura. While growing up, he killed a few asuras who were dispatched by his uncle to kill him and his brother. After he grew up, he married Revathi, a princess. Their third daughter Shasirekha was married to Abhimanyu, the son of Arjuna. Balarama trained both Duryodhana and Bhima in mace fight (gada-yuddh). However, being a peace lover he remained neutral during the Kurukshetra war.
9. Krishna, the Sutradhar of the Mahabharata.
Lord Krishna is undoubtedly one of the most revered deities of Hinduism. While some of his followers worship him as an incarnation, some consider him the Supreme Being himself. The Bhagavadgita, which is one of the most popular texts of Hinduism, contains the essence of his teachings and philosophy. According to the legends, he lived during the Mahabharata times, whose date is placed variously between 5000 BCE and 2500 BCE. He was originally known as Vasudeva, who was probably worshipped by Vrishnis and later admitted into the Vedic fold. According to some scholars, Vasudeva, the deity of Vrishnis became fused with the Krishna of the Yadavas as the two communities forged a bond, resulting in the emergence of Vasudeva Krishna. The Puranas state that Krishna was born to Devaki and Vasudeva when they were held in captivity by his uncle Kamsa. He was brought by his foster parents, who were cowherds, along with Balarama. His childhood was full of miracles and heroic deeds. When he grew up, he killed his uncle and restored the kingdom to his other uncle. For the remainder of his life he stayed at Dwaraka, the capital of the Yadava kingdom, and provided leadership as a philosopher guardian. In the Mahabharata war, he mentored the Pandavas and stood on their side in the battlefield, but did not directly fight with the Kauravas.
Kalki is believed to be the tenth and the last incarnation of Maha Vishnu in the current time cycle. References to him are not found in the Vedas, but in a few Puranas. The Mahabharata also makes a passing reference to it, without providing much information. A few Puranas which mention him vary in their accounts. The popular belief is that sometime in future, at the end of the current epoch, which goes by the name Kaliyuga, Vishnu will incarnate as Kalki, to destroy evil and restore dharma. Riding a magical white horse, which is endowed with supernatural powers and holding a fierce and invisible sword, he will end the reign of the darkest and the evilest beings upon earth and herald a new golden epoch known as the Age of Truth (Satyayug). Although the Puranas provide a vague idea of how long the current epoch will continue, no one knows when it truly began and when exactly it will end, while there is no end to the number of speculations made by several scholars and spiritual teachers. Some spiritual leaders within and outside Hinduism claimed themselves as the incarnation of Kalki but failed to gain widespread acceptance. References to Kalki are also found in Buddhism and Sikhism.
Other possible incarnations
The ten incarnations of Vishnu, which we have discussed so far, are believed to be the standard ones. However, the list is not definitive or universal. Even Vishnu’s role in the incarnations is disputed since the earliest ones are ascribed in the Vedas to Brahma rather than to Vishnu, while Vishnu himself is mentioned in them as an Aditya, a minor solar deity. Therefore, whatever list of incarnations we may have is subject to speculation. We do not even know whether Vishnu’s incarnations are only ten, except for some descriptions in the Puranas. The number ten is probably a symbolic allusion to the ten directions (dasa disa) of space, which symbolically stands for God. Vishnu is also credited with several partial incarnations, which make it difficult to distinguish his complete incarnations from his partial ones. Some accounts include the following manifestations also as incarnations of Vishnu.
He is a founder of Buddhism and a historical personality who lived in the sixth century BCE. Many Hindus believe him to be the ninth incarnation of Vishnu and include him in the list rather than Balarama. He founded a new path to liberation which became subsequently known as Buddhism or Bauddha Dharma and which offered a stiff competition to the Vedic religion. The Buddha preached the Four Noble Truths about the origin and resolution of suffering, offering the Eightfold Path as a way to liberation from it. Some Hindu texts identify the Buddha as a heretic teacher who manifested upon earth as an incarnation of Vishnu to delude ignorant asuras and lead them astray, while some suggest that he manifested upon earth when Dharma was in decline to restore it and reestablish it.
2. Lord Jagannath
The chief deity of the Hindu temple at Puri, Odisha, Lord Jagannath is believed to be either a manifestation of Lord Krishna or an incarnation of Vishnu. Just as Krishna, he has an elder brother named Balabhadra and a sister named Subhadra. According to some he was probably a tribal deity who was later admitted into the Hindu fold through integration. Some believe he may be a softer version Lord Narasimha. Jagannath means lord of the universe. Although he is not mentioned in the main Puranas, in some Odiya texts he is listed as the ninth incarnation of Vishnu, as they suggest that he has all attributes of an incarnation. Hence on certain occasions, he is decorated and worshipped as the other incarnations.
3. Lord Venkateswara
He is currently the most popular deity of Hinduism. Millions of people visit his temple at Tirumala Tirupathi, while hundreds of temples are built in his honor all over the world. He is described in the scriptures and inscriptions as a Vaishnava deity and an incarnation of Vishnu bearing similar epithets and Vaishnava marks and symbols. His consort is considered an incarnation of goddess Lakshmi. His temple is situated at the top of the seven hills, known as Sheshachalam, which is revered as the sacred body of the coiled Adishesha. He also has several names, which are equally popular in Vaishnava tradition. The revenue generated by the temple from donations by devotees is a major source of revenue for the State Government.
Some temple traditions in Maharashtra identify Vithoba, also known as Vitthala and Panduranga as the ninth incarnation of Vishnu in place of the Buddha. Some consider him to be an incarnation or manifestation of Krishna, while some associate him with Shiva also. His consort is Rakhumai, a variant of Rukmini, the chief consort of Lord Krishna. Historically, he is associated with the Bhakti tradition, which regards devotion to God as the highest yoga and the best path to liberation. The temple at Pandharpur is considered his earliest temple. It is also a famous Hindu pilgrim center in Maharashtra.
In the Bhagavadgita (4.7) Lord Krishna says “O Bharata, whenever there is a decline of virtue and ascendance of evil, then I surely manifest Myself.” As the upholder of the worlds, God takes upon himself the duty of maintaining the order and regularity of his creation. Although he has no desires or expectations, he performs them dutifully with equanimity and detachment. The incarnations teach us valuable lessons about life, morality, righteous conduct and exemplary life. They teach us the way of life, which is characteristic of the sacrificial model of life as projected in the Vedas. They show us how God will live upon earth if he decides to appear in human form, and as his devotees what we too can do in our own lives, following his footsteps, to escape from the wheel of life into immortality.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- Ten Distinguishing Features Of Hinduism
- Hindu God Vishnu, the Preserver
- Popular Prayers of Vishnu
- The Ten Iconic Symbols of Hinduism
- The Highest Manifestations of Brahman
- The Concept of Avatar or Incarnation in Hinduism
- Meaning and Definition of Bhagavan
- Aspects, Emanations, Incarnations and Forms of God Vishnu
- Four Types of Intelligence
- The Duality of Shakti, the Two Faces of Creation
- The Origin and Significance of the Epic Mahabharata
- God and You in Hinduism
- Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism
- Hinduism - Gods and Goddess in the Vedas
- Essays On Dharma
- Esoteric Mystic Hinduism
- Introduction to Hinduism
- Hindu Way of Life
- Essays On Karma
- Hindu Rites and Rituals
- The Origin of The Sanskrit Language
- Symbolism in Hinduism
- Essays on The Upanishads
- Concepts of Hinduism
- Essays on Atman
- Hindu Festivals
- Spiritual Practice
- Right Living
- Yoga of Sorrow
- Mental Health
- Concepts of Buddhism
- General Essays
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