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 Viṣṇu. One of the earliest references to the idea is found in the Bhagavadgītā (c. 200 bce), where we find a concise statement concerning Viṣṇu'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. (4.7–8)
Theologically an avatāra is a specialized form assumed by Viṣṇu 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 Viṣṇu assumes also vary greatly. All the avatāra s, however, perform positive functions vis-à-vis the cosmic order and illustrate Viṣṇu's nature as a deity who is attentive to worldly stability.
Historically the different avatāra s of Viṣṇu often appear to represent regional, sectarian, or tribal deities who have been subsumed by established Hinduism under the rubric of one of Viṣṇu'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 Viṣṇu'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, Kṛṣṇa, 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 Viṣṇu.
Viṣṇu 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.
Viṣṇu appeared in the form of an immense boar when the demon Hiraṇyākṣa took possession of the goddess Pṛthivī (Earth) and carried her away beneath the cosmic waters. Diving into the waters, Viṣṇu battled and defeated Hiraṇyākṣa. Then he placed Pṛthivī on his tusk and lifted her above the waters. In both the fish and boar forms Viṣṇu 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.
Viṣṇu 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, Viṣṇu 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 Viṣṇu assumes the role of cosmic foundation, that upon which all things securely rest and without which the world would lack stability.
Viṣṇu appeared as a man-lion to uphold the devotion and righteousness of Prahlāda, who was being persecuted by his father, Hiraṇyakaśipu, a demon who was oppressing the world and who violently opposed his son's devotion to Viṣṇu. Because of a special boon that Hiranyakasipu had received, namely, that he would be invulnerable to man and beast, Viṣṇu assumed the form of the man-lion, which was neither man nor beast, and defeated him.
Viṣṇu 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, Viṣṇu asked Bali for a favor, which Bali piously granted. Viṣṇu asked for the territory he could encompass in three strides, and Bali gladly agreed. Then Viṣṇu assumed his cosmic form and traversed the entire universe. He thereby restored the cosmos to the gods.
As Paraśu Rāma (Rāma the Ax Wielder) Viṣṇu chastened the kṣatriya 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 kṣatriya 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), Viṣṇu defeated the demon Rāvaṇa, who had brought the world under his sway. After a long exile and a heroic battle Rāma defeated Rāvaṇa 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 Viṣṇu 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 Kṛṣṇa, Viṣṇu descended to the world in order to defeat the demon Kaṃsa, 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, Viṣṇu 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, Viṣṇu'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 Viṣṇu 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 Kṛṣṇa become in medieval Hindu devotion that they assumed for their respective devotees the position of supreme deity. For Kṛṣṇa devotees, Kṛṣṇa 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, Viṣṇu is understood to be a lesser manifestation of Kṛṣṇa. 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.
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 Purāṇas, edited and translated by Cornelia Dimmitt and J. A. B. van Buitenen (Philadelphia, 1978), pp. 59–146. 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. 33–38. Jan Gonda's Aspects of Early Viṣṇuism (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.
Gupta, Shakti M. Vishnu and His Incarnations. Bombay, 1993.
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)
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.