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Avatāra

Avatāra (Skt., ‘descent’). The earthly manifestations (or ‘incarnations’) of a Hindu deity. More specifically, it is an earthly manifestation of Viṣṇu due to his free choice (i.e. not due to the laws of karma or a curse) and taking the form of a full human life (including conception, birth, and natural death), for the sake of a specific cosmic purpose. This allowed for the inclusion of other popular heroes and figures of worship under the general umbrella of Viṣṇu religion. Already at a relatively early stage, the Vedic figure of Trivikrama was included, now under the name of Vāmana, ‘the Dwarf’. By widening the definition of the term, cult-figures like the Varāha (Boar), Kūrma (Tortoise), Matsya (Fish), and Nṛsiṃha/Narasiṃha (Man-Lion), could be included. Somewhat later also Rāma, Balarāma or Baladeva (Kṛṣṇa's half-brother), and Paraśurāma (Rāma with the Axe) entered the group. Even the Buddha was appropriated by certain traditions. A future manifestation is connected with Kalkin.

Many other figures were regionally, or at times envisaged as avatāra of Viṣṇu, e.g. Nayagrīva, Dattātreya, the Haṃsa (Goose), etc. But by the close of the first millennium CE a set of ten had acquired the widest currency (Baladeva, the Buddha, and Paraśurāma being somewhat less rigidly included in such lists of ten). Another extension of the concept that proved particularly useful was the idea of an arcâvatāra, viz., the descent and permanent residence of a deity (particularly Viṣṇu) in the sculpture of a temple image (arcā).

Finally, various religious movements have tended to regard their founder or their sages as avatāras of their own specific deity. The concept of an aṃśâvatāra, ‘partial incarnation’, remained unproductive outside the circles of the scholastics; in some areas aṃśa is actually used as a synonym of avatāra.

The belief put forward in Bhāgavata-purāṇa, that humans can become avatāras by a divine infilling, has allowed the title to be extended to religious leaders, such as Gāndhī and Satya Sai Baba, or to non-Hindus, such as Jesus or Muḥammad.

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Vishnu

Vishnu (vĬsh´nōō), one of the greatest gods of Hinduism, also called Narayana. First mentioned in the Veda as a minor deity, his theistic cults, known as Vaishnavism, or Vishnuism, grew steadily from the first millennium BC, absorbing numerous different traditions and minor deities. By his worshipers Vishnu is regarded as the supreme God, of whom other gods are secondary manifestations. The early epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana show considerable Vaishnavite influence. The later Puranas fully elaborate the myths of Vishnu and his avatara (incarnations): Matsya (the fish), Kurma (the tortoise), Varaha (the boar), Narasimha (the man-lion), Vamana (the dwarf), Parashurama (Rama with the ax), Rama, Krishna, Buddha, and Kalkin (who is yet to appear). Vishnu is generally depicted as dark blue in color, crowned, and bearing in his four hands his emblems—the conch, discus, mace, and lotus. His mount is the eagle Garuda, and his consort is Lakshmi, or Shri, the goddess of wealth.

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avatara

avatara (ăv´ətârə) [Skt.,=descent], incarnations of Hindu gods, especially Vishnu. The doctrine of avatara first occurs in the Bhagavad-Gita, where Krishna declares: "For the preservation of the righteous, the destruction of the wicked, and the establishment of dharma [virtue], I come into being from age to age." Vishnu is believed to have taken nine avatara, in both animal and human form, with a tenth yet to come. The avatara of Shiva are imitations of those of Vishnu.

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Three steps

Three steps (cosmic control of one of Viṣṇu's avataras): see VĀMANA.

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