Avatara (Sanskrit: avataranam means “the decent of Supreme Being on earth for the ascent of man”), means ‘descent’, and usually implies a deliberate descent of the Divine into the mortal realms to reveal the Absolute Truth to humanity and remind them of their true divine nature. This voluntary ‘descent’ into the world out of boundless compassion for all creatures is called avatara and has 4 basic purposes; 1. Protection of the righteous; 2. Elimination of the wicked; 3. Re-establishment of Dharma (righteousness) and 4. Bestowing of Grace.
Avatara concept is used primarily in Hinduism for descents of Vishnu whom Vaishnava Hindus worship as the Supreme God. Shiva and Ganesha are also described as descending in the form of avatars. The Ganesha Purana and the Mudgala Purana offers the details of Ganesha`s avatars specifically, the avatars of Vishnu also carry a greater theological prominence than those of Shiva or Ganesha and upon examination relevant passages are directly derivative of the Vaishnava avatara lists.
The most traditional form of Avatar within Hinduism is the incarnations of Vishnu, the preserver or sustainer aspect of God within the Trimurti or Hindu Trinity. Dasavatara is the ten Avatars of Vishnu in the Garuda Purana. Matsya is first avatar of Vishnu. However, the ten most famous descents of Vishnu are collectively known as the “Dasavatara” and denote avatars who were most prominent in terms of their influence on human society.
The first four of the avataras appeared in the Satya Yuga and the first of the four Yugas or ages in the time cycle were described within Hinduism. The next three avatars appeared in the Treta Yuga, the eighth descent in the Dwapara Yuga and the ninth in the Kali Yuga. The tenth is destined to appear at the end of the Kali Yuga after some 427,000 years.
Though Avatars may appear in different forms at different times, places and circumstances, yet they are all the manifestations of the One Supreme Lord.
Shri Krishna says :-
Though unborn, the Imperishable Self and also the Lord of all beings, yet brooding over nature which is Mine own, I am born through My Own Power. Whenever there is decline of righteousness, then I Myself come forth. For the protection of the good, for the destruction of the evil-doers, for the sake of firmly establishing righteousness, I am born from age to age (Ch. IV-6, 7, 8).
Degrees of Avatara
There are Purna Avatara (full incarnations), Amsa Avatara (partial incarnations), Avesa Avatara (inspirational incarnations or indirect), etc.
Six Categories Of Avataras
• Purusha Avatara — Described as the original avatars of Vishnu or Krishna within the Universe.
• Lila Avatara — Pastime incarnations.
• Guna Avatara — Are associated with the Trimurti because of their roles of controlling the three modes or gunas of nature.
• Manvantara Avatara — are beings, who are responsible for creating descendants throughout the Universe, and are unlimited in number. They do not take birth but evolve spiritually.
• Yuga Avatara — Incarnations during a specific yuga.
• Satyavesa Avatara — The saktyavesa incarnations are of two kinds – direct and indirect. Incarnations of jivas, or living beings, empowered for a special mission.
Krishna first incarnates as the three purusha avataras namely:
- Karanodakashayi Vishnu — “The Lord who is lying on the causal ocean”.
- Garbhodakashayi Vishnu — “The Lord who is lying on the universal ocean”.
- Kshirodakashayi Vishnu — “The Lord who is lying on the ocean of milk”.
A list of Lila avataras (pastime incarnations) mentioned in the Srimad Bhagavatam:
11.Dhruvapriya or Prsniggarbha
The Trimurtis assumes this guna avatara post:
• Vishnu — Sattvik Guna (Mode of goodness, Maintanence)
• Brahma — Rajik Guna (Mode of passion, Creation)
• Siva — Tamas Guna (Mode of ignorence, Destruction)
Brahma’s day — 1,000 catur yugas — is divided into fourteen periods of the rule of Manus (fathers of mankind) known as manvantaras. The incarnations during these manvantaras are listed as follows:
In each of these yugas the Lord incarnates with a different body color according to the yuga.
asan varnas trayo hy asya
grhnato ‘nuyugam tanuh
suklo raktas tatha pita
idanim krishnatam gatah
“Krishna appears as an incarnation in every millennium. In the past, He assumed three different colors – white, red and yellow – and now he has appeared in a blackish color.”
– Srimad Bhagavatam 10.8.13
• In the Satya yuga a white avatara appeared to Kardama muni to establish meditation as the process for self-realization.
• In the Treta yuga a red avatara appeared to Brahma to establish fire sacrifice as the process for self-realization.
• In the Dvapara yuga a dark avatara (Krishna) appeared as the son of Devaki to establish temple worship as the process for self-realization.
• In the Kali yuga a Yellow avatara appeared (Chaitanya Mahaprabhu) as the son of Sachi Mata to establish the chanting of the holy names (nama-sankirtana) as the process for self-realization.
There is no limit to the number of shaktyavesha incarnations. But some are mentioned in the vedic literatures as examples. They are of two kinds, direct and indirect. When the Lord Himself expands displaying a particular power of His opulences He is known as Sakshat. When He empowers a living entity with some particular sakti – power, for some specific activity, to represent Him , that living entity is called indirect or avesha incarnation.
- Four Kumaras empowered with knowledge.
- Narada empowered with devotional service.
- Brahma empowered with creative power.
- King Pritu empowered with power to maintain living beings.
- Parasurama empowered with power to kill evil elements.
- VedaVyasa to compile the vedas.
- Many Many more.
Twenty-two Avataras of Vishnu
Twenty-two avatars of Vishnu are listed numerically in the first Canto of the Bhagavata Purana that include Narada or the traveling sage, Dattatreya or the combined avatara of the Trimurti, Prithu or the king who made earth beautiful and attractive, Vyasa or the compiler of Vedas and so on. Other than the mentioned ones, there are other avataras too like Prshnigarbha, born to Prshni; Hayagriva or the horse and Hamsa or the swan.
After Kalki avatar is described in the Bhagavata Purana it is declared that the avatars of Vishnu are uncountable. However twenty-five avatars of Vishnu is generally taken as of those of greatest significance. According to Gaudiya Vaishnava interpretation in texts of the Bhagavata Purana, and a number of texts from the epics and Puranic scriptures, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is also considered as an avatar and is worshiped as such by followers of the tradition. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is often referred to as the Golden Avatar.
In the Vaishnava branch of Hinduism, Vishnu is only one divine being that manifests in form. Thus Narayana, Vasudeva and Krishna are also seen as names denoting divine aspects, which take avataric form. Purusha avataras are sometimes described as the original avatars of Vishnu or Krishna within the Universe, such as Vasudeva, Sankarshan, Pradyumna and Aniruddha. Guna avatars are associated with the Trimurti concept. The personalities of the Trimurti are also sometimes referred to as Guna avataras, because of their roles of controlling the three modes or gunas of nature. However, they have not descended upon an earthly planet in the general sense of the term `avatar`.
Vishnu, as the controller of the mode of goodness or Sattva, creates his avataras in the respective field, while Brahma as the controller of the mode of passion and desire or the rajas and Shiva as the controller of the mode of ignorance or the tamas. Manvantara avataras are beings, who are responsible for creating descendants throughout the Universe, and are unlimited in number. They do not take birth but evolve spiritually. Shaktyavesa and Avesa avataras are either direct (sakshat) or indirect (avesa).
When Vishnu himself descends, he is called sakshat or shaktyavesa avatara. He is referred to as the direct incarnation of God. But when he does not incarnate directly, but indirectly empowers some living entity to represent him, that living entity is called an indirect or avesa avatar. There are a great number of avesa avatars; some of the important ones are Shakyamuni Buddha, Narada Muni, and Parashurama. Parashurama is the only one of the traditional ten avatars that is not a direct descent of Vishnu.
There are two types of primary or direct avatars, Purna avataras and Amsarupavatars. The purna avatars are those in which Vishnu takes his form directly and all the qualities and powers of God are expressed, like Narasimha, Rama and Krishna. Amsarupavatars are those in which Vishnu takes form directly but the Lord is manifested in the person only partially, like Matsya and Parashurama. The avesa or indirect avatars are generally not worshiped as the Supreme Being.
Among most Vaishnava traditions, Lord Krishna is considered to be the highest Purna avatar. However, followers of Chaitanya, Nimbarka, and Vallabha Acharya have a different philosophy from the other Vaishnavas, such as Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya consider Krishna to be the ultimate Godhead, not simply an avatar. All Hindus believe that there is no difference between worshiping Lord Vishnu and His avatars as it all leads to Him.