In Hinduism, an avatar (from the Sanskrit avatāra: meaning "downcoming") refers to a "descent" of the divine into the realm of material existence, usually for the purpose of protecting or restoring dharma (cosmic order, righteousness). The avatar doctrine is a seminal concept in certain forms of Hinduism, such as Vaishnavism, which worships Vishnu as the Supreme God. Hinduism states that the Absolute can take on innumerable forms and, therefore, the number of avatars is theoretically limitless; however, in practice, Hinduism recognizes ten major avatars, albeit the scriptural lists of these ten divine manifestations frequently differ.
Due to the correspondences between the Hindu concept of avatar and the Christian concept of "Incarnation" ("Enfleshing" of God), a great deal of inter-religious Dialogue has taken place between these two communities in recent decades. Both doctrines are similar in so far as they postulate that God can enter into physical form on humanity's plane of existence; however, the doctrines differ in other significant ways. Nevertheless, it is notable that Hinduism and Christianity each teach that God can take a human form in order to protect and uphold justice, righteousness, and love.
According to the Hindu scripture titled the Bhagavan Purana, countless avatars descend into the physical universe. Verse 1.3.26 explains that "the incarnations of the Lord are innumerable, like rivulets flowing from inexhaustible sources of water." Vaishnava theologians have categorized the many avatars into a number of different nomenclatures to better characterize their specific role or godly status. Not all are recognized as "full" or "direct" incarnations of Vishnu. Some avatars are believed to be souls blessed with certain abilities of "divine origin."
Hindu traditions also typically distinguish between two different types of avatars: Those that are direct incarnations of Vishnu (purna avatara), and those in which the personality of Vishnu is only partially manifest (ansa avatara). In practice, the avatars that are most commonly worshiped today are Narasimha, Rama, and Krishna. Some Vaishnavite sects, such as Sri Vaishnavism, consider these figures to be the only avatars that are full incarnations of Vishnu. Among most Vaishnava traditions, Krishna is considered to be the highest kind of Purna avatar. The ansa avatars, meanwhile, are generally not worshiped as the Supreme Being. This category of avatars is said to include the remainder of the Dasavatara, as well as many other incarnations. In any event, most Hindus believe that there is little or no difference between worship of Vishnu and worship of His avatars, since all such worship is essentially being directed toward the one supreme God.
This is not the case in all Vaishnavite sects, however. Followers of Caitanya (including the schools of ISKCON), Nimbarka, and Vallabhacharya, consider Krishna to be the ultimate Godhead, and thus not only an avatar but also the supreme personality of the divine, as well. As such, these schools hold that all other beings exist because of Krishna, including Vishnu himself, as well as his avatars. According to Madhvacharya, on the other hand, all avatars of Vishnu are alike in potency and every other quality, with no gradation among them. For Madhvacharya, perceiving or claiming any differences among avatars was sufficient cause for eternal damnation.
Additional variations of avatars include those of Purusha avatars, guna avatars, and Manvantara avatars. Purusha avatars are described as the original avatars of Vishnu in the context of the physical universe. They include: Vasudeva, the son of Śũrasena of the Yadava dynasty; Sankarshan, who ruled over all nagas, or nature spirits; Pradyumna, a son of Krishna; and Pradyumna's son Aniruddha. Each of these gods provided the primal ingredients for the creation of the material universe.
Guna avatars, however, are the avatars in control of the three modes of nature, or (gunas). They are: Brahma, controller of the mode of passion and desire (or rajas); Vishnu, controller of the mode of goodness (or sattva); and Shiva, controller of the mode of ignorance (or tamas). These three personas are together known as the Trimurti, the Hindu trinity. Manvantara avatars are beings responsible for creating progeny throughout the universe, and are said to be unlimited in number.
Another common type of avatars are "Lila avatars." The word Lila translates to "play," "sport," or "drama." Through the power of maya (illusion, magic), it is said that the divine can manipulate forms in the material world, and lila avatars are able to assume bodily forms in order to set in motion a divine drama, which typically involves the performance of a particular series of events in order to instruct others, navigating humanity toward the paths of dharma (righteousness), bhakti (devotion), and ultimately moksha (liberation). The Dasavatars, that is, the ten well-known avatars of Vishnu, as well as the other avatars from the Puranas are just a few examples of lila avatars. In total, Vaishnavites claim that there are too many lila-avatars to list.
The ten most famous incarnations of Vishnu are collectively known as the Dasavatara ("dasa" in Sanskrit means ten). 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. Each avatar performed their duty by restoring the stability of the world, thus, all upheld Vishnu's nature as sustainer of the universe. The majority of avatars in this list of ten are categorised as lila-avatars.
The first four avatars are said to have appeared in the Satya Yuga, the first of the four Yugas, or ages of the time cycle, described within Hinduism. They are: Matsya, the fish, Kurma, the tortoise, Varaha, the boar, and Narasimha, who was half-man and half-lion.
In Hindu mythology, Matsya saved Manu Vaisvasta, the eventual creator of the human species, by rescuing him from tempestuous waters during a great flood which ravaged the primordial earth. When gods and demons could not find a secure base upon which to churn the milk of order so they could extract the nectar of immortality, Kurma offered his broad shell so the mighty churning stick could be firmly set upon it. Varaha battled and defeated the demon Hiranyaksa beneath the cosmic ocean, then proceeded to rescue the earth goddess Prthivi from a watery grave by placing her on his tusk and swimming to the surface. Narasimha used his status as neither fully human nor fully beast to defeat Hiranyaksipu, another oppressive demon who was invulnerable to both human beings and animals.
The next three avatars appeared in the Treta Yuga. They are: Vamana, the dwarf, Parashurama, the man bearing an ax, and Rama, the prince and king of Ayodhya. According to Hindu lore, after the earth had been taken over by the malevolent Bali, Vamana asked him for all the territory he could encompass in three strides. Bali gladly agreed, only to have Vamana assume his cosmic form as Vishnu and traverse the entire universe with his three steps. In a number of battles, Parashurama defeated the Kshatriyas, or militant caste, and restored the priority of the priestly caste, the Brahmins, who had been oppressed by their traditional underlings, the warriors. Rama, meanwhile, defeated Ravana and thereby freed the world from the demon's clutches, instituting a reign of virtue and prosperity. This kingdom would serve as an ideal societal structure for rulers in every generation that followed.
The eighth incarnation, Krishna (meaning "dark colored" or "all attractive"), is the only avatar to have appeared in the Dwapara Yuga. During his appearance on earth, Krishna defeated the oppressive demon Kamsa while aiding the Pandava brothers to victory over their malevolent cousins, the Kauravas. This battle is recorded in the great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, which is best known for a poem included within it, the Bhagavadgita, wherein Krishna elucidates the path of righteousness for Arjuna, a Pandava warrior.
The identity of the ninth avatar is disputed. Normally, the Buddha is listed as the ninth avatar but sometimes Krishna's brother Balarama is listed instead. For instance, the Bhagavata Purana claims that Balarama was the ninth incarnation. However, traditionally it is the Buddha who fulfills this role as the ninth avatar, albeit it should also be noted that Buddhists do not accept this doctrine and deny that the Buddha was an avatar of Vishnu. Some scholars suggest that the absorption of the Buddha into the Vaisnavite theological framework was a polemic effort to mitigate the appeal of Buddhism among the Hindu masses.
The tenth avatar, Kalkin ("Eternity" or "The Destroyer of foulness") has yet to appear upon the earth, but is set to arrive at the end of the Kali Yuga, as predicted in verse 8.17 of the Bhagavadgita. Due to his pending arrival, Kalki is the most mysterious of the avatars, though he is described as a rider upon a white horse wielding a comet-like sword. It is said that Kalki will bring the world to its end, rewarding the virtuous, while punishing the wicked.
The Puranas list twenty-five avatars of Vishnu in total. In addition to the ten listed above, these avatars include the Catursana, the four sons of Brahma who are together considered one incarnation; Narada, the traveling sage; Yajna, an incarnation within whom Vishnu temporarily assumed the role of Indra; Nara-Narayana, twin brothers; Kapila, the philosopher; Dattatreya, the combined avatar of the Trimurti); Hayagriva, a horse; Hamsa, the swan; Prsnigarbha, creator of the planet known as Dhruvaloka; Rishabha, father of King Bharata; Prithu, monarch of the solar pantheon who introduced agriculture to humankind; Dhanvantari, father of ayurveda; Mohini, a beautiful woman; Ramachandra, the king of Ayodhya; Vyasa, writer of the Vedas, and Balarama, Krishna's elder brother. A full description of each of these incarnations is found in the Bhagavata Purana, Canto 1, Chapter 3.
Besides the avatars listed in the Puranas and Vedas, many other figures are considered to be avatars by certain Hindus. For example, Caitanya Mahaprabhu (1485-1533) is listed as an avatar of Vishnu by followers of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, and is widely worshiped as such. Caitanya is often referred to as the "Golden Avatar," a moniker based upon the supposed hue of his skin. Sri Ramakrishna (1836–1886) is reported to have said to Swami Vivekananda, "he who was Rama and Krishna is now, in this body, Ramakrishna," seemingly an endorsement of his incarnate godliness. Ramakrishna's wife, Sarada Devi, is likewise considered by many to be an incarnation of Kali.
Some Hindus with an inclusivist outlook perceive the central figures of various non-Hindu religions to be avatars. Some of these religious figures include: Jesus (4 B.C.E.-c. 33 C.E.), the founder of Christianity, Zoroaster (a.k.a. Zarathustra), the founding prophet of Zoroastrianism, Mahavira (599-527 B.C.E.), promulgator of the tenets of Jainism, Gautama Buddha (563-483-543 B.C.E.) the key figure in Buddhism, as well as Bahá'u'lláh (1817–1892 C.E.) the founder-prophet of the Bahá'í Faith, who is believed to be Kalkin Avatar.
However, many other Hindus reject the idea that avatars can exist outside of traditional Hinduism.
In a series of four lectures delivered at the Theosophical Society at Adyar, Madras, in December 1899, Annie Besant (1847-1933 C.E.), the president of the society, combined Theosophical concepts with classic Vaishnavite ideas. A decade later, her co-worker Charles Webster Leadbeater would claim that his young protégé Jiddu Krishnamurti was actually the avatar of a Cosmic Christ-like being called the Maitreya. Many New Age teachings have been strongly influenced by Neo-Theosophical ideas as well, primarily through the works of Alice Bailey, Helena Roerich and Manly P. Hall, among others. These thinkers developed the idea of a celestial hierarchy of ascended masters: A group of ordinary humans who have undergone transformation to become spiritually enlightened beings. Among these figures are Jesus, Confucius, Gautama Buddha, and Mary the Mother of Jesus; at the head of the hierarchy again is Maitreya. Many New Age teachings speak of the coming return of Christ, or the coming of the Maitreya, which will usher in a new cosmic Era. According to Benjamin Creme, a contemporary British esotericist, the Maitreya has already incarnated, and will soon reveal himself.
The standard list of the Dasavatars bears striking resemblances to the modern scientific theory of Evolution. Matsya, the fish, represents life in water, and Kurma, the tortoise, represents the next stage, amphibianism (although technically, a tortoise is a reptile, not an amphibian). The third animal, the boar Varaha, marks the development of life upon land. Narasimha, the Man-Lion, represents the further development of mammals. Vamana, the dwarf, symbolizes the incomplete development of human beings, while Parashurama, the forest-dwelling hermit armed with an ax, connotes completion of the basic development of humankind, perhaps in the form of barbarism. Rama indicates humanity's ability to effectively govern nations, while Krishna, allegedly an expert in the sixty-four fields of science and art, indicates advancement in culture and civilization. Buddha represents the further intellectual advancement of man, culminating in the realization of even greater spiritual truths. Thus, the avatars represent the evolution of life and society with each epoch from Krita Yuga to Kali Yuga. This progression of animal life from the sea creature to the intellectually enlightened human is not incongruent with modern evolutionary theory. This connection gets particularly interesting when taking into considerations descriptions of Kalkin, who has sometimes been described as being a yantra-manava, or a "machine-man," which could be interpreted to suggest the future development some sort of technologically enhanced human being which is as of yet unknown.
Research on the concept of avatars in Hinduism suggests that the avatar doctrine became an important feature in popular Hinduism during the time of the composition of the Bhagavadgita (c. 200 B.C.E.-200 C.E.). Due to the similarities between the concepts of avatar and incarnation, as well as the proposed time frame of the Gita, some scholars have speculated that either Hinduism influenced the development of the Incarnation doctrine found in Christianity, or else that Hinduism borrowed the idea of incarnation from the Christians. Scholarship is inconclusive on this matter. Such controversial arguments depend on anachronistic historical assumptions that are not easily supportable.
Another controversial aspect of the avatar doctrine is its potential abuse by dubious gurus and their followers. In recent decades, there have been a number of gurus who have been lauded as avatars. Due to this resultant surfeit of alleged avatars, claims to being an incarnation of God have come to be viewed with some suspicion by modern Hindus. Swami Tapasyananda of the Ramakrishna Mission has noted the widespread abuse of the avatar doctrine today, which has lead him to laud Christianity for limiting Divine Incarnation to a one-time phenomenon. In Swami Tapasyananda's view, followers should identify their guru as a conduit to God, rather than God incarnate. However, Swami Sivananda, founder of Divine Life Society, has said that a guru can be likened to God if he himself has attained realization and provides a link between the individual under his tutelage and the Absolute. Such a guru, according to this definition and interpretation, should have actually attained union with God, and should inspire devotion in others while radiating a presence that purifies all.
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