The Sanskrit word avatara ("that which crosses over" and thus a "descent" from heaven) refers to the incarnation of a deity or divine power in the world. Originally a concept held by a number of theistic Hindu traditions in classical India, the idea of an avatara has found a place in recent years in some religious American sensibilities that have been influenced by Indian thought.
Hindu texts from the third century b.c.e. to the twelfth century c.e. speak of such incarnations primarily in terms of divine salvation. Here, a divine being is said to take physical form as a way to save the universe as a whole from annihilation. But such an incarnation is also said to take place to give devout devotees a vision of divinity, rescue them from distress, or reward them for their service. In these instances, divine incarnation serves private or inward purposes rather than universal functions.
Some contemporary religious movements in America based on the disciple's reverential attitude toward a particular spiritual master use the word avatara (or avatar, as the word has entered the English lexicon) to represent the experience that the divine has taken form in the world in the person of the master himself or herself.
Although different deities are said in Hinduism to have taken embodied form in various ways, the term avatar is associated in classical texts most broadly with the incarnations of the god Vishnu, who throughout the centuries has been regarded as the divine power that protects the world against all debilitating and destructive forces. The number of Vishnu's incarnations varies from text to text, but most Hindu traditions recognize ten. Vishnu is said to have taken form as:
- a fish, to save the righteous progenitor of the human race from a universal flood;
- an immense boar who retrieved the goddess Earth from the bottom of the universal ocean, where she had been held by a cosmic demon;
- a tortoise on whose back the gods placed Mount Mandara as a giant stick so they could churn the ocean to extract the elixir of immortality from it;
- a half man, half lion to destroy a demon who could be defeated by neither human nor beast;
- a dwarf who swelled to universal size to retrieve the world from a demonic king by winning all of the territory he could cover in three steps;
- Rama the Ax-Wielder, who bravely corrected the warriors in their mistreatment of the priests whose rituals held the human community in contact with the sacred realm;
- the heroic Lord Rama, who battled the evil Ravana, the latter of whose selfish acts threatened to destroy the world;
- Lord Krishna, who took form as an adviser to Arjuna when that great warrior had lost courage in his fight against the forces of unrighteousness;
- the Buddha, who deluded those whose views were already incorrect, thus making the way for their salvation;
- Kalki, the avatar of the future who will return on a white horse at the end of time to destroy the evil world and usher in a new, golden age.
Understood theologically, Vishnu's incarnations mark his role as preserver of the world on whose being the entire universe is founded and who, in his great love for the world, sustains it and protects it against the powers of destruction.
Various traditions interpret some of these incarnations differently. For example, some regard the Buddha avatar not as one who deceives the ignorant, but rather as one who teaches nonviolence and compassion. The devotional tradition of Hinduism also includes a popular set of stories in which Krishna is described as a fun-loving, even mischievous child and as a supreme lover whose affection for his beloved Radha is an allegory of God's love for the human soul.
There are attestations in contemporary religious movements of the belief in an avatar in the form of a spiritual master independent of any reference to any particular classical deity, Vishnu or otherwise. In general, such traditional accounts are regarded as sacred narratives that reveal a deeper theological point, namely that an eternal truth or divine power can and does become incarnate in the world in the form of a particular spiritual master, and that this event is to the world's advantage.
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William K. Mahony
A term used in Hindu religion to indicate the incarnation of a deity. Avatara is a Sanskrit word meaning "descent," and the Hindu gods take on animal or human form in different ages for the welfare of the world. In Hindu mythology, the god Brahma (originally known as the creator Prajapati) became successively incarnated as a boar, a tortoise, and a fish, to assist the development of the world in prehistory.
Certain Hindu scriptures ascribe these incarnations to the god Vishnu (the preserver), but since the manifestation of divine power takes many different forms in Hindu mythology, the distinction is academic. Various scriptures ascribe to Vishnu ten major incarnations: (1) Matsya (the fish), associated with legends of a great deluge in which Manu, progenitor of the human race, was saved from destruction; (2) Kurma (the tortoise), whose back supported great mountains while the gods and demons churned the ocean to retrieve divine objects and entities lost in the deluge; (3) Vahura (the boar), who raised up the earth from the seas; (4) Nara-sinha (the man-lion), who delivered the world from the tyranny of a demon; (5) Vamana (the dwarf), who recovered areas of the universe from demons; (6) Parasu-rama (Rama with the axe), who delivered Brahmins from dominion by the warrior caste during the second age of the world; (7) Rama, hero of the religious epic Ramayana, who opposed the demon Ravana; (8) Krishna popular incarnation chronicled in the religious epic Mahabharata (especially in theBhagavad-Gita section) and Srimad Bhagavatam; (9) Buddha, the great religious teacher; and (10) Kalki, an incarnation yet to come, who is prophesied to appear on a white horse with a sword blazing like a comet, to destroy the wicked, stabilize creation and restore purity to the world.
In other religious works, as many as 22 incarnations are listed, including various great saints and sages. According to Hindu belief, a perfected human soul has no further karma (action and reaction) and is absorbed into divinity at death, but may elect to be incarnated for the good of the world. The deity Shri Krishna, in the Bhagavad-Gita (4:7-8) specifically promises: "Arjuna, whenever there is decline of dharma (righteous duty), and unrighteousness is dominant, then I am reborn. For the protection of the virtuous, the destruction of evil-doers, and to reestablish righteousness, I am reborn from age to age." Belief in repeated divine reincarnations of the deities for the good of the world, as distinct from one unique Messianic event, is one of the major theological differences between Hinduism and Western religions such as Judaism and Christianity.
av·a·tar / ˈavəˌtär/ • n. chiefly Hinduism a manifestation of a deity or released soul in bodily form on earth; an incarnate divine teacher. ∎ an incarnation, embodiment, or manifestation of a person or idea: he set himself up as a new avatar of Arab radicalism. ∎ Comput. a movable icon representing a person in cyberspace or virtual reality graphics.