The Concept of Avatar or Incarnation in Hinduism

Hinduism Concepts

by Jayaram V

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:

  1. Matsyavatara, the incarnation as the fish in the Satya Yuga or the age of truth.
  2. Kurmavatara, the incarnation as the tortoise, in the Satya Yuga.
  3. Varahavatara, the incarnation as boar, again in the Satya Yuga.
  4. Narasimhavatara, the incarnation as Man-Lion (Nara = man, simha = lion), also in the Satya Yuga.
  5. Vamanavatara, the incarnation as the Dwarf, in the Treta Yuga.
  6. Parashuramavatara, the incarnation as priestly warrior with an axe, in the Treta Yuga.
  7. Sri Ramavatara, incarnation as virtuous prince and king of Ayodhya, in the Treta Yuga.
  8. 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 cousins.
  9. 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.)
  10. Kalkyavatara, incarnation as a sword wielding and horse riding Kalki who will destroy the evil forces before the end of the of Kaliyuga.

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 below.

  1. Catursana (the four Kumaras, sons of Lord
  2. Brahma)
  3. Narada
  4. Varaha (the boar)
  5. Matsya (the fish)
  6. Yajna
  7. Nara-Narayana
  8. Kapila
  9. Dattatreya
  10. Hayasirsa (Hayagriva)
  11. Hamsa (the swan)
  12. Prsnigarbha
  13. Rishabha
  14. Prithu
  15. Narasimha (The Man-Lion)
  16. Kurma (The Tortoise)
  17. Dhanvantari
  18. Mohini
  19. Vamana (the Dwarf)
  20. Parasurama (Rama with the axe)
  21. Raghavendra (Sri Rama or Ramachandra, king of Ayodhya)
  22. Vyasa (Vyasadeva)
  23. Balarama
  24. Krishna
  25. The Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama)
  26. Kalki

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 damnation. 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 by wealth).

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.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Source: Adapted from the Wikipedia article "Avatar", under the G.N U Free Docmentation License and suitably modified by Jayaram V for

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