In Hinduism, an Avatar is a deliberate descent of a deity to Earth, or a descent of the Supreme Being (e.g., Lord Vishnu for Vaishnavites), and is mostly translated into English as “incarnation”, but more accurately as “appearance” or “manifestation”.
The phenomenon of an avatar is observed in Hinduism. Avatar is regarded as one of the core principles of Hinduism. The term is most often associated with Lord Vishnu, though it has also come to be associated with other deities. Varying lists of avatars of Lord 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 Lord Vishnu are innumerable. The avatars of Lord Vishnu are a primary component of Vaishnavism. An early reference to avatar, and to avatar doctrine, is in the Bhagavad Gita.
Lord Shiva and Lord Ganesha are also described as descending in the form of avatars. The various manifestations of Devi, the Divine Mother principal in Hinduism, are also described as avatars or incarnations by some scholars and followers of Shaktism. The avatars of Lord Vishnu carry a greater theological prominence than those of other deities, which some scholars perceive to be imitative of the Lord Vishnu avatar lists.
Avatars of Lord Vishnu
The concept of avatar within Hinduism is most often associated with Vishnu, the preserver aspect of God within the Hindu Trinity or Trimurti or the one and only supreme God for followers of Vaishnavism.
The ten best known avatars of Vishnu are collectively known as the Dashavatara (ten avatars). This list is included in the Garuda Purana. The first four are said to have appeared in the Satya Yuga (the first of the four Yugas or ages in the time cycle described within Hinduism). The next three avatars appeared in the Treta Yuga, the eighth descent in the Dvapara Yuga and the ninth in the Kali Yuga. The tenth, Kalki, is predicted to appear at the end of the Kali Yuga.
- Lord Matsya, the fish-avatar who saved Manu – the progenitor of mankind from the great deluge and rescued the Vedic scriptures by killing a demon. Story can be found in the Matsya Purana.
- Lord Kurma, the tortoise-avatar, who helped in the churning of the ocean. Story can be found in the Kurma Purana.
- Lord Varaha, the boar-avatar, who rescued mother earth from the ocean, by killing her kidnapper-demon Hiranyaksha. Story can be found in the Varaha Purana.
- Lord Narasimha, the half man-half lion avatar, who killed the tyrant demon-king Hiranyakashipu, to rescue the demon’s son Prahlada, who was a Vishnu devotee.
- Lord Vamana, the dwarf-avatar, who subdued the king Maha Bali. Story can be found in the Vamana Purana.
- Lord Parashuram, sage-avatar with the axe who killed the thousand-armed King Kartavirya Arjuna
- Lord Ram, the King-avatar of Ayodhya and the hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana
- Lord Krishna, the king-avatar of Dwarka, a central character in the Bhagavata Purana and the Mahabharata and reciter of Bhagavad Gita.
- Buddha, the sage-avatar.
- Kalki, an avatar who is expected to appear at the end of Kali Yuga. Story can be found in the Kalki Purana.
*Some versions include Balaram (the elder brother of Lord Krishna) as the eighth avatar, with Lord Krishna listed as the ninth instead of Buddha, while others replace Buddha with Lord Balaram as the ninth avatar.
Other Avatars of Lord Vishnu
- Nara-Narayana – the twin-sages
- Kapila– 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.
- Rishabha – the father of King Bharata and Bahubali.
- Prithu– the sovereign-king who milked the earth as a cow to get the world’s grain and vegetation and also invented agriculture.
- Dhanvantari– the father of Ayurveda medicine and a physician to the Devas.
- Mohini– the enchantress.
- Vyasa– the compiler of the scriptures, Vedas and writer of the scriptures Puranas and the epic Mahabharata.
Avatars of Lord Ganesha
The Linga Purana declares that Lord Ganesha incarnates to destroy demons and to help the gods and pious people. The two puranas – Ganesha Purana and Mudgala Purana detail the avatars of Lord Ganesha. Both these puranas are core scriptures of the Ganapatya sect (exclusively dedicated to Lord Ganesha worship).
Four avatars of Lord Ganesha are listed in the Ganesha Purana: Mohotkata, Mayuresvara, Gajanana and Dhumraketu. Each avatar corresponds to a different time and era, 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:
- Lord Vakratunda (twisting trunk), his mount is a lion.
- Lord Ekadanta (single tusk), his mount is a mouse.
- Lord Mahodara (big belly), his mount is a mouse.
- Lord Gajavaktra or Gajanana (elephant face), his mount is a mouse.
- Lord Lambodara (pendulous belly), his mount is a mouse.
- Lord Vikata (unusual form), his mount is a peacock.
- Lord Vighnaraja (king of obstacles), his mount is the celestial serpent Sesha.
- Lord Dhumravarna (grey color) corresponds to Lord Shiva, his mount is a horse.
Avatars of Lord Shiva
Although Puranic scriptures contain occasional references to avatars of Lord Shiva, the idea is not universally accepted in Saivism. As an avatar requires residence in a womb, Lord Shiva as ayonija (not of a womb) cannot manifest himself as an avatar. The Linga Purana speaks of twenty-eight forms of Lord Shiva which are sometimes seen as avatars. In the Shiva Purana there is a distinctly Saivite version of a traditional avatar myth: Lord Shiva brings forth Lord Veerabhadra, one of his terrifying forms, in order to calm Lord Narasimha, an avatar of Lord Vishnu. When that fails, Lord Shiva manifests as the human-lion-bird Lord Sharabha. The story concludes with Lord Narasimha becoming a devotee of Lord Shiva after being bound by Lord Sharabha.
The monkey-god Lord Hanuman who helped Lord Ram, the Lord Vishnu avatar is considered by some to be the eleventh avatar of Lord Rudra. Some regional deities like Lord Khandoba are also believed by some to be avatars of Lord Shiva.
Avatars of Devi
Avatars are also observed in Shaktism, the sect dedicated to the worship of the Goddess (Devi), but they do not have universal acceptance in the sect. Bhagavata Purana describes the descent of Devi avatars to punish the wicked and defend the righteous much as the Bhagavata Purana does with the avatars of Lord Vishnu. Like Lord Vishnu, his consort Goddess Lakshmi incarnates as Goddess Sita and Radha, the consorts of Lord Ram and Lord Krishna avatars.
Avatars of Goddess Lakshmi
Goddess Sridevi and Goddess Bhudevi are two different forms of Goddess Lakshmi. Dharini, the consort of Lord Parashuram, Sita, the consort of Lord Ram and Yashodhara, the consort of Buddha along with the consorts of the previous incarnations of Lord Vishnu are all considered full incarnations of Goddess Lakshmi.