views updated May 23 2018


AVATĀRA . The idea of an avatāra, a form taken by a deity, is central in Hindu mythology, religion, and philosophy. Literally the term means "a descent" and suggests the idea of a deity coming down from heaven to earth. The literal meaning also implies a certain diminution of the deity when he or she assumes the form of an avatāra. Avatāra s usually are understood to be only partial manifestations of the deity who assumes them.

The avatāra idea in Hinduism is associated primarily with the god Viu. One of the earliest references to the idea is found in the Bhagavadgītā (c. 200 bce), where we find a concise statement concerning Viu's primary intention in assuming different forms:

Whenever righteousness wanes and unrighteousness increases I send myself forth.
In order to protect the good and punish the wicked,
In order to make a firm foundation for righteousness,
I come into being age after age. (4.78)

Theologically an avatāra is a specialized form assumed by Viu for the purpose of maintaining or restoring cosmic order. The form is suited to particular circumstances, which vary greatly, and therefore the different avatāra s that Viu assumes also vary greatly. All the avatāra s, however, perform positive functions vis-à-vis the cosmic order and illustrate Viu's nature as a deity who is attentive to worldly stability.

Historically the different avatāra s of Viu often appear to represent regional, sectarian, or tribal deities who have been subsumed by established Hinduism under the rubric of one of Viu's many forms. By viewing these regional deities as so many varying forms of one transcendent deity, Hinduism was able to accommodate itself to a great variety of local traditions while maintaining a certain philosophic and religious integrity. This process also obviated unnecessary tension and rivalry among differing religious traditions.

Although the number of Viu's avatāra s varies at different periods in the Hindu tradition and in different scriptures, the tradition usually affirms ten avatāra s. While the sequence in which these avatāra s is mentioned varies, the following order is common: fish, tortoise, boar, man-lion, dwarf, Rāma the Ax Wielder, Rāma of the Rāmāyana, Ka, the Buddha, and Kalki. Traditionally, each avatāra appears in order to perform a specific cosmic duty that is necessary to maintain or restore cosmic order. Having performed that task, the avatāra then disappears or merges back into Viu.

Viu assumed the form of a great fish in order to save Manu Vaivasvata, the progenitor of the human race in this present cosmic age. A great deluge occurred at the beginning of the world, but Manu Vaivasvata was rescued when a giant horned fish appeared in the midst of the waters and bade him tie himself to its great horn. Bearing the seeds of creation for all living species (which the fish had instructed him to collect), the parent of the human race was prevented from drowning.

Viu appeared in the form of an immense boar when the demon Hirayāka took possession of the goddess Pthivī (Earth) and carried her away beneath the cosmic waters. Diving into the waters, Viu battled and defeated Hirayāka. Then he placed Pthivī on his tusk and lifted her above the waters. In both the fish and boar forms Viu involves himself dramatically in the cosmic process. He does so in order to preserve an element of order and life in the midst of overwhelming chaos represented by a limitless expanse of water.

Viu assumed the form of a tortoise when the gods and demons combined their efforts to churn the ocean of milk in order to extract from it the nectar of immortality. Having acquired Mount Meru, the cosmic axis, as a churning stick and Vāsuki, the cosmic serpent, as a churning rope, the gods and demons despaired because they were unable to find a secure base upon which to set the mighty churning stick. At that point, Viu assumed the form of a gigantic tortoise on whose broad back the gods and demons were able to set the churning stick and thus proceed with their task. In this form Viu assumes the role of cosmic foundation, that upon which all things securely rest and without which the world would lack stability.

Viu appeared as a man-lion to uphold the devotion and righteousness of Prahlāda, who was being persecuted by his father, Hirayakaśipu, a demon who was oppressing the world and who violently opposed his son's devotion to Viu. Because of a special boon that Hiranyakasipu had received, namely, that he would be invulnerable to man and beast, Viu assumed the form of the man-lion, which was neither man nor beast, and defeated him.

Viu assumed the form of a dwarf in order to restore the world to the gods. The world had been taken over by Bali, a powerful yet virtuous member of the ordinarily unrighteous race of the asura s. Appearing as a dwarf, Viu asked Bali for a favor, which Bali piously granted. Viu asked for the territory he could encompass in three strides, and Bali gladly agreed. Then Viu assumed his cosmic form and traversed the entire universe. He thereby restored the cosmos to the gods.

As Paraśu Rāma (Rāma the Ax Wielder) Viu chastened the katriya s, the warrior class, for the haughty, presumptuous, and overbearing attitudes with which they had oppressed the brahmans. In several bloody campaigns, Paraśu Rāma humbled the katriya s and asserted the priority of the brahmans in the social and theological systems.

As Rāma, the hero of the Rāmāyana (one of the two great Indian epics), Viu defeated the demon Rāvaa, who had brought the world under his sway. After a long exile and a heroic battle Rāma defeated Rāvaa and became ruler of India. He then instituted a reign of virtue, order, and prosperity that has come to assume in the Hindu tradition the place of a golden age. In this avatāra Viu descended to the world to set forth a model of ideal kingship that might serve as an inspiration for all rulers at all times.

As Ka, Viu descended to the world in order to defeat the demon Kasa, who was oppressing the earth with his wickedness, and to ensure the victory of the Pandava brothers in their war against their cousins, the Kauravas. The story of this battle is related in the other great Hindu epic, the Mahābhārata.

As the Buddha, Viu acted to delude those who already deserved punishment for their bad deeds. Deceived by the Buddha's false teachings, these individuals renounced the Vedas and traditional Hinduism, thus earning punishment in hell or in inferior births. In a number of later texts, Viu's Buddha avatāra is interpreted positively. He is said to have assumed this form in order to teach nonviolence and gentleness to the world.

Kalki is the form that Viu will assume at the end of this cosmic age. As Kalki he will appear in human form riding a white horse; he will bring the world to an end, reward the virtuous, and punish the wicked.

So popular did the avatāra s Rāma and Ka become in medieval Hindu devotion that they assumed for their respective devotees the position of supreme deity. For Ka devotees, Ka is the highest expression of the divine and as such is understood not as an avatāra himself but rather as the source of all avatāra s. In this context, Viu is understood to be a lesser manifestation of Ka. Similarly, devotees of Rāma regard him as the highest expression of the divine.

The avatāra idea also came to be applied to other Hindu deities. Śiva and Durga, for example, are said in some later scriptures to assume appropriate forms in order to preserve the world or to bless their devotees. Especially in devotional contexts, avatāra s no longer function primarily to restore cosmic order. Rather, their raison d'être is to bless devotees with the presence of the divine, to rescue devotees from peril, or to reward them for heroic devotion or service.

See Also

Ka; Rāma; Viu.


A convenient summary of the principal Sanskrit texts in which the avatāra myths are told is found in Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Purāas, edited and translated by Cornelia Dimmitt and J. A. B. van Buitenen (Philadelphia, 1978), pp. 59146. An abbreviated account of the avatāra myths may be found in John Dowson's A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion, Geography, History, and Literature (London, 1878), pp. 3338. Jan Gonda's Aspects of Early Viuism (Utrecht, 1954) discusses some of the avatāra s in historical context and shows how the development of the avatāra theology developed in the Hindu tradition.

New Sources

Gupta, Shakti M. Vishnu and His Incarnations. Bombay, 1993.

Krishna, Nanditha. The Book of Vishnu. New Delhi; New York, 2001.

Miranda, Prashant. Avatar and Incarnation: A Comparative Analysis, from Dr. S. Radhakrishnan's Viewpoint. New Delhi, 1990.

Parrinder, Edward Geoffrey. Avatar and Incarnation: The Divine in Human Form in the World's Religions. Oxford; Rockford, Mass., 1997.

David Kinsley (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated Jun 27 2018

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.

Three steps

views updated May 18 2018

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