What Is Avatar?
An avatar (अवतार, avatāra), a concept in Hinduism that means “descent”, refers to the material appearance or incarnation of a deity on earth. The relative verb to “alight, to make one’s appearance” is sometimes used to refer to any guru or revered human being.
The word avatar does not appear in the Vedic literature, but appears in verb forms in post-Vedic literature, and as a noun particularly in the Puranic literature after the 6th century CE. Despite that, the concept of an avatar is compatible with the content of the Vedic literature like the Upanishads as it is symbolic imagery of the Saguna Brahman concept in the philosophy of Hinduism. The Rigveda describes Indra as endowed with a mysterious power of assuming any form at will. The Bhagavad Gita expounds the doctrine of Avatara but with terms other than avatar.
Theologically, the term is most often associated with the Hindu god Vishnu, though the idea has been applied to other deities. Varying lists of avatars of Vishnu appear in Hindu scriptures, including the ten Dashavatara of the Garuda Purana and the twenty-two avatars in the Bhagavata Purana, though the latter adds that the incarnations of Vishnu are innumerable. The avatars of Vishnu are important in Vaishnavism theology. In the goddess-based Shaktism tradition of Hinduism, avatars of the Devi in different appearances such as Tripura Sundari, Durga and Kali are commonly found. While avatars of other deities such as Ganesha and Shiva are also mentioned in medieval Hindu texts, this is minor and occasional. The incarnation doctrine is one of the important differences between Vaishnavism and Shaivism traditions of Hinduism.
Incarnation concepts similar to avatar are also found in Buddhism, Christianity, and other religions. The scriptures of Sikhism include the names of numerous Hindu gods and goddesses, but it rejected the doctrine of savior incarnation and endorsed the view of Hindu Bhakti movement saints such as Namdev that formless eternal god is within the human heart and man is his own savior.
Etymology and meaning
The Sanskrit noun (avatāra) is derived from the Sanskrit roots ava (down) and tṛ (to cross over). These roots trace back, states Monier-Williams, to -taritum, -tarati, -rītum.
Avatar literally means “descent, alight, to make one’s appearance”, and refers to the embodiment of the essence of a superhuman being or a deity in another form. The word also implies “to overcome, to remove, to bring down, to cross something”. In Hindu traditions, the “crossing or coming down” is symbolism, states Daniel Bassuk, of the divine descent from “eternity into the temporal realm, from unconditioned to the conditioned, from infinitude to finitude”. An avatar, states Justin Edwards Abbott, is a saguna (with form, attributes) embodiment of the nirguna Brahman or Atman (soul).
Neither the Vedas nor the Principal Upanishads ever mention the word avatar as a noun. The verb roots and form, such as avatarana, do appear in ancient post-Vedic Hindu texts, but as “action of descending”, but not as an incarnated person (avatara). The related verb avatarana is, states Paul Hacker, used with double meaning, one as action of the divine descending, another as “laying down the burden of man” suffering from the forces of evil.
The term is most commonly found in the context of the Hindu god Vishnu. The earliest mention of Vishnu manifested in a human form to empower the good and fight against evil, uses other terms such as the word sambhavāmi in verse 4.6 and the word tanu in verse 9.11 of the Bhagavad Gita, as well as other words such as akriti and rupa elsewhere. It is in medieval era texts, those composed after the sixth century CE, that the noun version of avatar appears, where it means embodiment of a deity. The idea proliferates thereafter, in the Puranic stories for many deities, and with ideas such as ansha-avatar or partial embodiments.
The term avatar, in colloquial use, is also an epithet or a word of reverence for any extraordinary human being who is revered for his or her ideas. In some contexts, the term avatara just means a “landing place, site of sacred pilgrimage”, or just “achieve one’s goals after effort”, or retranslation of a text in another language. The term avatar is not unique to Hinduism. It is found in the Trikaya doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism, in descriptions for the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism, and many ancient cultures.
Avatar versus incarnation
The manifest embodiment is sometimes referred to as an incarnation. The translation of avatar as “incarnation” has been questioned by Christian theologians, who state that an incarnation is in flesh and imperfect, while avatar is mythical and perfect. The theological concept of Christ as an incarnation, as found in Christology, presents the Christian concept of incarnation. According to Oduyoye and Vroom, this is different from the Hindu concept of avatar because avatars in Hinduism are unreal and is similar to Docetism. Sheth disagrees and states that this claim is an incorrect understanding of the Hindu concept of avatar. Avatars are true embodiments of spiritual perfection, one driven by noble goals, in Hindu traditions such as Vaishnavism.
Avatars of Vishnu
The concept of avatar within Hinduism is most often associated with Vishnu, the preserver or sustainer aspect of God within the Hindu Trinity or Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Vishnu’s avatars descend to empower the good and fight evil, thereby restoring Dharma. Traditional Hindus see themselves not as “Hindu”, but as Vaishnava (Worshippers of Vishnu), Shaiva (Worshippers of Shiva), or Shakta (Worshipper of the Shakti). Each of the deities has its own iconography and mythology, but common to all is the fact that the divine reality has an explicit form, a form that the worshipper can behold. .An oft-quoted passage from the Bhagavad Gita describes the typical role of an avatar of Vishnu:
Whenever righteousness wanes and unrighteousness increases I send myself forth.
For the protection of the good and for the destruction of evil,
and for the establishment of righteousness,
I come into being age after age.— Bhagavad Gita 4.7–8
The Vishnu avatars appear in Hindu mythology whenever the cosmos is in crisis, typically because the evil has grown stronger and has thrown the cosmos out of its balance. The avatar then appears in a material form, to destroy evil and its sources, and restore the cosmic balance between the ever-present forces of good and evil.
The most known and celebrated avatars of Vishnu, within the Vaishnavism traditions of Hinduism, are Krishna, Rama, Narayana and Vasudeva. These names have extensive literature associated with them, each has its own characteristics, legends and associated arts. The Mahabharata, for example, includes Krishna, while the Ramayana includes Rama.
The Bhagavata Purana describes Vishnu’s avatars as innumerable, though ten of his incarnations (Dashavatara), are celebrated therein as his major appearances. The ten major Vishnu avatars are mentioned in the Agni Purana, the Garuda Purana and the Bhagavata Purana;
The ten best known avatars of Vishnu are collectively known as the Dasavatara (a Sanskrit compound meaning “ten avatars”). Five different lists are included in the Bhagavata Purana, where the difference is in the sequence of the names. Freda Matchett states that this re-sequencing by the composers may be intentional, so as to avoid implying priority or placing something definitive and limited to the abstract.
The Bhagavata Purana also goes on to give an alternate list, wherein it numerically lists out 22 Vishnu avatars in chapter 1.3.
- Four Kumaras (Catursana) [BP 1.3.6] – the four Sons of god Brahma and exemplified the path of devotion
- Varaha [BP 1.3.7]- The divine warthog who lifts earth from cosmic waters
- Narada [BP 1.3.8] -the divine-sage who travels the worlds as a devotee of Vishnu
- Nara-Narayana [BP 1.3.9] – the twin-sages
- Kapila [BP 1.3.10] – a renowned sage spoken of in the Mahabharata, son of Kardama Muni and Devahuti and sometimes identified with the founder of the Samkhya school of philosophy
- Dattatreya [BP 1.3.11] – the combined avatar of the Hindu trinity Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. He was born to the sage Atri became a great seer himself
- Yajna [BP 1.3.12] – the lord of fire-sacrifice, who was also a previous Indra – the lord of heaven
- Rishabha [BP 1.3.13] – the father of Bharata Chakravartin and Bahubali
- Prithu [BP 1.3.14] – the sovereign-king who milked the earth as a cow to get the world’s grain and vegetation and also invented agriculture
- Matsya [BP 1.3.15]- A narwhal who guided Manu’s ark during the pralaya (deluge) and also killed demon Hayagriva
- Kurma [BP 1.3.16]- A giant tortoise who balances Mount Mandara atop his caprice during the churning of the cosmic ocean of milk
- Dhanvantari [BP 1.3.17] – the father of Ayurvedic medicine and a physician to the Devas
- Mohini [BP 1.3.17] – the enchantress
- Narasimha [BP 1.3.18]- The man-lion who kills demon Hiranyakashpu
- Vamana [BP 1.3.19]- The dwarf
- Parashurama [BP 1.3.20]- The Brahmin warrior with an axe who kills Kartyavira Arjuna and his Kshatriya allies
- Rama [BP 1.3.22]- ‘Perfect King’ from Suryavansha, Subject of Ramayana
- Vyasa [BP] 1.3.21] – the compiler of the scriptures – Vedas and writer of the scriptures Puranas and the epic Mahabharata
- Balarama [BP 1.3.23]- Lord of agriculture and elder brother to Krishna
- Krishna [BP 1.3.23]-Subject of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita
- Buddha [BP 1.3.24]- The enlightened teacher
- Kalki [BP 1.3.26]- The future lawgiver
Avatars like Hayagriva, Hamsa and Garuda are also mentioned in the Pañcaratra making the total of thirty-nine avatars. However, despite these lists, the commonly accepted number of ten avatars for Vishnu was fixed well before the 10th century CE.
Yet another classification, developed in Krishna schools, centers around Guna-avatars, Purusha-avatars and Lila-avatars, with their subtypes. The Guna-avatar classification of avatars is based on the Guṇasconcept of the Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy, that is Rajas (Brahma), Sattva (Vishnu), and Tamas (Shiva). These personalities of the Trimurti are referred to as Guna avatars. The Purushavatara are three. The first evolves the matter (Prakriti), the second is the soul present in each individual creature, the third is the interconnected oneness or Brahman that connects all souls. The Lilavataras are partial or full manifestations of Vishnu, where either some powers (Shakti) or material parts of him exist.
Vishnu is Purushavatara. The Matsya, Kurma and Vamana avatars of Vishnu are Lilavataras. A Purnarupa in this classification, is when Vishnu manifests completely along with his qualities and powers. In Bengal Vaishnavism, Krishna is the Purnarupa. In Shaivism, Bhairava is the purnarupa of Shiva.
24 avatars of Vishnu are mentioned in Bachitar Natak’s composition in Dasam Granth, the second scripture of Sikhs written by Guru Gobind Singh:
- Macha (Matsya)
- Kaccha (Kurma)
- Narayana (Narayana in Nara-Narayana)
- Maha Mohini (Mohini)
- Bairaha (Varaha)
- Nar Singha (Narasimha)
- Bavana (Vamana)
- Bishan (Vishnu)
- Sheshayi (Shesh)
- Manu Raja
- Suraja (the sun)
- Chandara (the moon)
- Arihant Dev
- Nara (Nara in Nara-Narayana, ie, Arjuna)
The Guru Granth Sahib reverentially includes the names of numerous Hindu deities, including Vishnu avatars such as Krishna, Hari, and Rama, as well those of Devi as Durga.
Dasam Granth has three major compositions, one each dedicated to avatars of Vishnu (Chaubis avatar) and Brahma. However, Sikhism rejects the doctrine of savior incarnation, and only accepts the abstract nirguna formless god. The Sikh Gurus endorsed the view of Hindu Bhakti movement saints such as Namdev (~1270 – 1350 CE) that formless eternal god is within human heart and man is his own savior.
Avatars of Ganesha
The Linga Purana declares that Ganesha incarnates to destroy demons and to help the gods and pious people. The two upapuranas – Ganesha Purana and Mudgala Purana – detail the avatars of Ganesha. Both these upapuranas are core scriptures of the Ganapatya sect – exclusively dedicated to Ganesha worship.
Four avatars of Ganesha are listed in the Ganesha Purana: Mohotkata, Mayūreśvara, Gajanana and Dhumraketu. Each avatar corresponds to a different yuga, has a different mount and different skin complexion, but all the avatars have a common purpose – to slay demons.
The Mudgala Purana describes eight avatars of Ganesha:
- Vakratunda (Vakratuṇḍa) (“twisting trunk”), his mount is a lion.
- Ekadanta (“single tusk”), his mount is a mouse.
- Mahodara (“big belly”), his mount is a mouse.
- Gajavaktra (or Gajānana) (“elephant face”), his mount is a mouse.
- Lambodara (“pendulous belly”), his mount is a mouse.
- Vikata (Vikaṭa) (“unusual form”, “misshapen”), his mount is a peacock.
- Vighnaraja (Vighnarāja) (“king of obstacles”), his mount is the celestial serpent Śeṣa.
- Dhumravarna (Dhūmravarṇa) (“grey color”) corresponds to Śiva, his mount is a horse.
Avatars of Shiva
The Linga Purana lists twenty-eight avatars of Shiva. In the Shiva Purana there is a distinctly Saivite version of a traditional avatar myth: Shiva brings forth Virabhadra, one of his terrifying forms, in order to calm Narasimha, an avatar of Vishnu. When that fails, Shiva manifests as the human-lion-bird Sharabha which calms down lion-bird Narasimha avatar of Vishnu, and Shiva then gives Vishnu a chakra as gift. A similar story is told in the late medieval era Sharabha Upanishad. However, Vaishnava Dvaita school refutes this Shaivite view of Narasimha.
The monkey-god Hanuman who helped Rama – the Vishnu avatar is considered by some to be the eleventh avatar of Rudra (Shiva). Some regional deities like Khandoba are also believed by some to be avatars of Shiva.
Shesha and his avatars (Balarama and Lakshmana) are occasionally linked to Shiva. Adi Shankara, the formulator of Advaita Vedanta, is also occasionally regarded as an avatar of Shiva.
In Dasam Granth, Guru Gobind Singh mentioned two avatars of Rudra: Dattatreya Avatar and Parasnath Avatar.
Avatars of Devi
Avatars of Lakshmi
Sridevi and Bhudevi are two different forms of Goddess Lakshmi. Dharini, the consort of Parashurama, Sita, the consort of Rama and Yashodhara, the consort of Siddhartha along with the consorts of the previous incarnations of Vishnu are all considered full incarnations of Lakshmi.On the other hand, Radha and the gopis, Rukmini, Satyabhama and the rest of Krishna’s wives with the exception of Yamuna are all considered partial incarnations of Lakshmi.
Avatars of Brahma
In Dasam Granth, second scriptures of Sikhs written by Guru Gobind Singh, mentioned seven Brahma Avatars.
- Valmiki Avatar
- Kashyapa Avatar
- Dattatreya Avatar
- Lakshman Avatar
- Vyasa Avatar
- Balarama Avatar
- Kalidasa Avatar
According to the Skanda Purana, Brahma incarnated himself as Yajnavalkya in response to a curse from Shiva.
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There are strong links between Samkarsana/Sesa and Siva, so that it is not difficult to see in this pale companion of the dark Krsna a reminder of Siva’s parity with Visnu, even though Visnu still has the lead.
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The Lord, Visnu, took his place in the egg. Then with his mind devoted to the supreme spirit, Brahma meditated upon Visnu. At the end of the meditation a drop of perspiration was produced from his forehead. That drop, of the shape of a bubble, in a moment fell on the earth. O you of an excellent face, I, having three eyes, a trident, and adorned with the crown of the matted hair, was born from that bubble. With modesty I asked the lord of gods: “What shall I do?” Then God Visnu, with delight, thus spoke to me: “O Rudra, you will bring about a fierce-looking destruction of the world, (after) actually being (my) portion, viz. Samkarsana, O you of an excellent face.”
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So Balarama became (Bala+Deva) Baladeva. Krishna and Balarama are regarded as Hari and Hara. Here Balarama is regarded as Lord Siva. Siva is helping Vishnu in every incarnation like Rama-Laxman in Tretaya Yuga. In Dwapar Yuga as Krishna-Balarama and in Kali Yuga they are Jagannath and Balabhadra.
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Some say that Krishna is Vishnu, Balarama is Shiva and Subhadra is Devi, thus the three siblings represent the three main schools of Hindu theism: Vaishnava, Shaiva and Shakta.
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The gods complained to Shiva that Vishnu had entered the body of the Buddha on earth for their sake, but now the haters of religion, despising Brahmins and the dharma of class and stage of life, filled the earth. “Not a single man performs a ritual, for all have become heretics—Buddhists, Kapalikas, and so forth—and so we eat no offerings.” Shiva consented to become incarnate as Shankara, to reestablish Vedic dharma, which keeps the universe happy, and to destroy evil behavior.
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- The Skanda-Purana: Part XVII. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. 2002. p. 130.
After seeing his (of Brahma) aberration on the altar at the time of marriage, Sambhu cursed him. He was then born as Yajnavalkya. Sakalya engaged Yajnavalkya in the royal palace for the performance of the Santi rites.
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