In Hinduism, an avatar is the incarnation (bodily manifestation) of an Immortal Being, or of the Ultimate Supreme Being. It derives from the Sanskrit word Avatāra which means "descent" and usually implies a deliberate descent into mortal realms for special purposes. The term is used primarily in Hinduism, for incarnations of Vishnu the preserver, whom many Hindus worship as God. The Dasavatara (see below) are ten particular "Great" incarnations of Vishnu.
Unlike Christianity, and Shaivism, Vaishnavism believes that God incarnates many times whenever there is a decline of righteousness and rise of evil (from the Bhagavad Gita). Lord Krishna, avatar of Vishnu, famously said in the Gita: “For the protection of the good, for destruction of evil, and for the establishment of righteousness, I come into being from age to age.” (Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 4, verse 8.) Besides destruction of evil, it is important to note that an avatar also emerges in order to guide people towards the right path as the Lord easily can destroy evil from afar.
The word has also been used by extension by non-Hindus to refer to the incarnations of God in other religions, notably Christianity, for example Jesus.
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Beliefs and significance
The philosophy reflected in the Hindu epics is the doctrine of the avatar (incarnation of Vishnu or God as a human being). The two main avatars of Vishnu that appear in the epics are Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, and Krishna, the friend of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata. Unlike the superhuman devas (gods) of the Vedic Samhitas and the abstract Upanishadic concept of the all-pervading and formless Brahman, the avatars in these epics are the human intermediaries between the Supreme Being represented as Saguna Brahman and mere mortals.
This doctrine has had a great impact on Hindu religious life, for to many it means that God has manifested Himself in a form that could be appreciated even by the least sophisticated. Rama and Krishna have remained prominent as beloved and adored manifestations of the Divine for thousands of years among Hindus. The Upanishadic concept of the underlying unity Brahman is revered by many to be the pinnacle of Hindu thought, and the concept of the avatars has purveyed this concept to the average Hindu as an expression of the manifestation of the Hindu's highest single divinity as an aid to humanity in dark times. The Hindu cycle of creation and destruction contains the essence of the idea of "avatars" and indeed relies on a final avatar of Vishnu, that of Kalki, as the final destructive force at the end of the world.
Rama and Krishna are not the only divine avatars in Hindu traditions. Hinduism includes the belief that the divine has taken human (and prior to the emergence of humankind, animal) forms here on earth many times. Little is known of any appearance as an avatar by Brahma or Shiva, but emanations of Vishnu have appeared a number of times. Some Hindus, based on the Ramayana, aver that Shiva incarnated once as the monkey-god Hanuman. Hanuman is more well-known as the son of Vayu, the deva of wind or his emanation. (Hanuman lived in a the jungle often called Vaanar, which means people who live in the jungle), and was one of the greatest devotees of Vishnu.
The ten Avatars or Dasavatara
The Maha Avatara (Great Avatars) of Vishnu are usually said to be ten and this is popularly known as the Dasavatara (dasa (dasha) in Sanskrit means ten):
- Matsya, the fish
- Kurma, the tortoise
- Varaha, the boar
- Narasimha, the Man-Lion (Nara = man, simha = lion)
- Vamana, the Dwarf
- Parashurama, Rama with the axe
- Rama, Sri Ramachandra, the prince and king of Ayodhya
- Krishna (meaning dark or black; see also other meanings in the article about him.)
- Balarama (meaning one who holds a plough) or Buddha (see below)
- Kalki ("Eternity", or "time", or "The Destroyer of foulness"), who is expected to appear at the end of Kali Yuga, the time period in which we currently exist, which will end in the year AD 428899.
The 25 Avatars of the Puranas
The literature of the Puranas list twenty-five avatara of Vishnu. A description of these is found in the Bhagavata Purana, Canto 1.
1) Catursana 2) Narada 3) Varaha 4) Matsya 5) Yajna 6) Nara-Narayana 7) Kapila 8) Dattatreya 9) Hayasirsa 10) Hamsa 11) Prsnigarbha 12) Rsabha 13) Prithu 14) Narasimha 15) Kurma 16) Dhanvantari 17) Mohini 18) Vamana 19) Parasurama 20) Raghavendra 21) Vyasa 22) Balarama 23) Krishna 24) Buddha 25) Kalki
Types of avatars
There are two type of avatars, 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 and Krishna, Vishnu directly descends. The Svarupavatars are subdivided into Amsarupavatars and Purna avatars. In Amsarupavatars, Vishnu is fully present in the person of the organism 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 Saktyamsavatara.
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, in particular, ISKCON, and followers of Vallabhacharya differ philosophically from other Vaishnavite schools and consider Krishna to be the ultimate Godhead, and not simply as 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.
References are cited and given below.
A number of people in more recent times have claimed to be an avatar, for example Meher Baba. See list of other avatar claimants.
The Ninth Avatar: Balarama or Buddha?
Balarama is the ninth avatar according to Puranic tradition. However, with the increase in popularity of Buddhism in India, some time in the latter half of the first millennium A.D, a belief that Buddha is the ninth avatar gained prominence. (This is an example of the remarkable ability of Hinduism to assimilate other ideas and cultures; it ultimately contributed to the decline of Buddhism in India.) Buddha is therefore often referred to as Buddhadev ("Divine Buddha") by many Hindus. Buddhists, however, do not consider Buddha to be an avatar. A prominent contemporary Hindu thinker who considered Buddha an avatar was Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. On the other hand, followers of Dvaita, in particular, do not consider Buddha to be an avatar as he preached heterorthodox views (i.e., rejecting the Vedas, etc.) but instead accord Balarama the designation. Balarama, among the ten avatars, is different from other avatars as he is an incarnation of Vishnu's serpent Adi Sesha rather than of Vishnu himself.
Many claim that the ten avatars represent the development of life and of mankind. 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 man. Vamana, the dwarf, symbolizes this incomplete development. Then, Parashurama, the forest-dweller, 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 to cultural concerns. Buddha, the Enlightened one, symbolizes the enlightenment and spiritual advancement of man. Note that the time of the avatars does not necessarily indicate much; kings ruled long before Rama and science was pursued long before Krishna. The avatars represent the order, and not the time, of these occurrences, according to certain Hindus. The animal development connotations bear striking resemblances to the theory of Evolution.
List of other avatar claimants
Apart from the ten traditional avatars of Hinduism some other persons claimed to be avatars or are believed to be avatars by their followers.
- Buddha accepted as an avatar by some Hindus, for example by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan
- Chaitanya (1486 - 1534) is claimed to be an avatar of Krishna by the Gaudiya Vaishnavism denomination
- Shirdi Sai Baba (18??-1918) some of his followers believed him to be an avatar of Dattatreya
- Meher Baba (1894- 1969)
- Sathya Sai Baba (born circa 1926-1929) claims to be an avatar of Shiva, Shakti and Krishna
- Adi Da (1939- ) claims to be the Kalki avatar
- Samael Aun Weor (1917 - 1977) claimed as the real Kalki Avatar and Buddha Maitreya
- Narayani Amma claimed as the real Narayani Avatar]
- Mother Meera (1960-) claims to be an Avatar of Adipara- Shakti
- The Avatar site (http://www.avatara.org/)
- Avatars (Incarnations or Descents) of Vishnu (http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/southasia/Religions/Avatars/Vishnu.html)
- Avatar of Lord Vishnu (http://www.hindunet.org/avatars/index.htm)
- The Ten Avatars (http://www.public.iastate.edu/~wsanford/darshan/hindu_deities/ten_avatars.html)
- Dasavatar discussion with meanings (http://www.srivaishnavam.com/stotras/dasavatharam_meaning.htm)
- Gaudiya Vaishnava types of avatar chart; similar beliefs with some modifications with Krishna as the Supreme Person. (http://www.gaudiya.com/image/manifestations.gif)
- Adapted from: Wikipedia. (2005). Avatar (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avatar). Retrieved on June 11, 2005.
- Meaning of Parushama, an Avesha avatar. (http://www.srivaishnavam.com/stotras/dasavatharam_meaning.htm#PARASURAMA)
- Types of Avatars; answers to questions #67-70. (http://www.srivaishnavan.com/ans_iswara.html#67)
- Bhakti Schools of Vedanta, pg. 94, by Swami Tapasyananda, available at Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai. available at India web site: http://www.sriramakrishnamath.org and US site: http://www.vedanta.com.