In Hinduism, an avatar /ˈævətɑr/ (Hindustani: [əʋˈt̪aːr], from Sanskrit अवतार avatāra "descent") is a deliberate descent of a deity to Earth, or a descent of the Supreme Being (e.g., Vishnu for Vaishnavites), and is mostly translated into English as "incarnation", but more accurately as "appearance" or "manifestation".
The phenomenon of an avatar (descent of God in human and other forms) is observed in Hinduism, Ayyavazhi, and Sikhism only. Thus Avataravada is one of the core principles of Hinduism along with Ekeshwaravada (One Supreme Divine Reality), Veda Praman (Authority of the Vedas), Atman, Karma, Murti Puja, Ahimsa, and Punarjanma (Reincarnation).
The term is most often associated with Vishnu, though it has also come to be associated with 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 a primary component of Vaishnavism. An early reference to avatar, and to avatar doctrine, is in the Bhagavad Gita.
Shiva and 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 Vishnu carry a greater theological prominence than those of other deities, which some scholars perceive to be imitative of the Vishnu avatar lists.
In Sikhism, an avatar is a deliberate descent of a soul to earth in any form.Guru Granth Sahib believes in the existence of the Dasavatara. In Dasam Granth, Guru Gobind Singh wrote three composition on historical avatars which include Vishnu Avatar, Brahma Avatar, and Rudra Avatar.
Etymology and meaning
The Sanskrit noun avatāra is derived from the verbal root tṝ "to cross over", joined with the prefix ava "off, away, down". The word does not occur in the Vedas, but is recorded in Pāṇini (3.3.120). Avatāra was initially used to describe different deities, then around the 6th century AD it began to be used primarily to describe the manifestations of Vishnu. While earlier texts mention deities taking on different forms, the Bhagavad Gita (4.5-9) is the first text to discuss the doctrine associated with the term even though the word avatāra itself is not mentioned.
According to some scholars like Mercy Oduyoye, H. M. Vroom, and Noel Sheth, the common translation "incarnation" is somewhat misleading as the concept of an avatar corresponds more closely to the view of Docetism in Christian theology, as different from the idea of God 'in the flesh' in mainstream Christology.
Meaning in Sikhism
In Sikhism, every soul that has taken form or has been born on earth is called avatar. Guru Granth Sahib believed in the existence of Dasavtara, who were kings of their times who tried their best to bring revolution in the world. Guru Granth Sahib states:
ਹੁਕਮਿ ਉਪਾਏ ਦਸ ਅਉਤਾਰਾ ॥
हुकमि उपाए दस अउतारा ॥
By Hukam (Supreme Command), He created His ten incarnations,
ਦਸ ਅਉਤਾਰ ਰਾਜੇ ਹੋਇ ਵਰਤੇ ਮਹਾਦੇਵ ਅਉਧੂਤਾ ॥
दस अउतार राजे होइ वरते महादेव अउधूता ॥
ਅਵਤਰਿ ਆਇ ਕਹਾ ਤੁਮ ਕੀਨਾ ॥
अवतरि आइ कहा तुम कीना ॥
Since your take form (birth), what have you done?
Gurmat defines 'avatar' as one who has taken avatar/birth onto this mortal earth. It is quite clear from this line.
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 or the one and only supreme God for followers of Vaishnavism.
Vishnu's avatars typically descend for a very specific purpose. An oft-quoted passage from the Bhagavad Gita describes the typical role of an avatar of Vishnu—as bringing dharma, or righteousness, back to the social and cosmic order:
“ 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. (Gita:4.7–8)
The descents of Vishnu are also integral to His teaching and tradition, whereas the accounts of other deities are not so strictly dependent on their avatar stories. Although it is usual to speak of Vishnu as the source of the avatars, within the Vaishnavism branch of Hinduism Narayana, Vasudeva, and Krishna are also seen as names denoting divine aspects which descend as avatars.
The Bhagavata Purana describes Vishnu's avatars as innumerable, though there are ten incarnations (Dashavatara), that are widely seen as his major appearances. Krishna and Rama are the two mostly widely known and worshiped avatars of Vishnu, with their stories told in the two major Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Different lists of Vishnu's avatars appear in different texts, including: the dasavatara from the Garuda Purana; lists of twenty-two, twenty-three, and sixteen avatars in the Bhagavata Purana; thirty-nine avatars in the Pañcaratra the dasavatara again in Agni Purana; the first eight of the dasavatara in Padma Purana. The commonly accepted number of ten was fixed well before the 10th century CE. In addition, various Vaishnava saints and founders are considered to be partial avatars.
The various avatars categorized in many different ways. For example: Purusavatara is the first avatara; Gunavataras are represented by the Trimurti (Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva) who each preside over one of the Guṇas (rajas, sattva, and tamas); Lilavataras are the well-known ones, and include Avesavataras (beings into whom part of God Himself has entered) and saktyamsavesa (into whom only parts of His power enter); Kalpa-, Manvantara-, and Yuga-avataras descend during different cosmic ages. Some Vaishnavism schools consider Krishna to be the source of all avatars (Krishnaism).
The ten best known avatars of Vishnu are collectively known as the Dasavatara (a Sanskrit compound meaning "ten avatars"). This list is included in the Garuda Purana (1.86.10"11).
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.
- 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.
- Kurma, the tortoise-avatar, who helped in the Samudra manthan – the churning of the ocean. Story can be found in the Kurma Purana.
- Varaha, the boar-avatar, who rescued the earth from the ocean, by killing her kidnapper-demon Hiranyaksha. Story can be found in the Varaha Purana.
- 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
- Vamana, the dwarf-avatar, who subdued the king Maha Bali. Story can be found in the Vamana Purana.
- Parashurama, sage with the axe who killed the thousand-armed king Kartavirya Arjuna
- Rama, the king of Ayodhya and the hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana
- Krishna, the king of Dwarka, a central character in the Bhagavata Purana and the Mahabharata and reciter of Bhagavad Gita.
- Buddha, also known as Gautam Buddha, the enlightened one. He was born as the crown prince of the Kapilavastu to King Suddhodana and Maya. He was named Siddhartha, meaning "Perfected-Goal." *(see note)
- Kalki ("Eternity", or "time", or "The Destroyer of foulness"), who is expected to appear at the end of Kali Yuga. Story can be found in the Kalki Purana.
- Note: Some versions include Balarama (the elder brother of Krishna) as the eighth avatar, with Krishna listed as the ninth instead of Buddha, while others replace Buddha with Balarama as the ninth avatar.
In the Bhagavata Purana
As many as forty specific avatars of Vishnu are mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana, though the book adds that the number is innumerable. Twenty-two avatars of Vishnu are listed numerically in the first book:
- Four Kumaras (Catursana) [BP 1.3.6] – the four Sons of god Brahma and exemplified the path of devotion.
- Varaha [BP 1.3.7]
- 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 took was the Indra – the lord of heaven
- Rishabha [BP 1.3.13] – the father of King Bharata 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]
- Kurma [BP 1.3.16]
- Dhanvantari [BP 1.3.17] – the father of Ayurveda medicine and a physician to the Devas.
- Mohini [BP 1.3.17] – the enchantress
- Narasimha [BP 1.3.18]
- Vamana [BP 1.3.19]
- Parashurama [BP 1.3.20]
- Vyasa [BP] 1.3.21] – the compiler of the scriptures – Vedas and writer of the scriptures Puranas and the epic Mahabharata
- Rama [BP 1.3.22]
- Krishna [BP 1.3.23]
- Balarama [BP 1.3.23]
- Buddha [BP 1.3.24]
- Kalki [BP 1.3.25]
Besides these, another four avatars are described later on in the text as follows:
- Prshnigarbha [BP 10.3.41] – the son of Prshni
- Hayagriva [BP 2.7.11] – the horse-faced avatar
- Hamsa [BP 11.13.19] – the swan, he expounded on the Vedas to Sage Narada.
- Golden incarnation [BP 11.5.32] – the avatara in Kali-yuga for propagating hari-namasankirtan, which is sometimes interpreted as the saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, though there is no explicit mention of a name in the verse.
In Dasam Granth
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)
- Nara (Nara in Nara-Narayana)
- Narayana (Narayana in Nara-Narayana)
- Maha Mohini (Mohini)
- Bairaha (Varaha)
- Nar Singha (Narasimha)
- Bavana (Vamana)
- Arihant Dev
- Manu Raja (Manu)
- Suraja (the sun)
- Chandara (the moon)
- Nara (Arjuna)
Before describing these avatars, the composers have written that these tried to equate themselves with god and unable to know secrets of almighty. But Dasam Granth is controversial among Sikh scholars and few of them believe it to be the work of Guru Gobind Singh.
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There are many senses and shades of meaning of the term avatar within Hinduism.
Purusha avatars are sometimes described as the original avatars of Vishnu within the Universe:
The personalities of the Trimurti (Hindu trinity) are also sometimes referred to as Guna avatars, because of their roles of controlling the three modes (gunas) of nature, even though they have not descended upon an earthly planet in the general sense of the term 'avatar'.
- Vishnu – As controller of the mode of goodness (sattva)
- Brahma – Controller of the mode of passion and desire (rajas)
- Shiva – Controller of the mode of ignorance (tamas)
Manvantara avatars are beings responsible for creating progeny throughout the Universe. There are said to be unlimited numbers of these avatars. "During the hundred years of Brahmā's life, there are 504,000 manvantara-avatāras."
Shaktyavesa and Avesa avatars
Avataric incarnations are classified as two kinds
- direct (sakshat)
- indirect (avesa)
When Vishnu himself descends, he is called sakshat or shaktyavesa-avatara, a 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 said to be a great number of avesa avatars. Examples include Narada Muni, Sugata Buddha, and Parashurama. Parashurama is the only one of the traditional ten avatars that is not a direct descent of Vishnu.
According to the Sri Vaishnavism sect of Hinduism, there are two types of primary or direct avatars, Purna avatars and Amsarupavatars:
- Purna avatars are those in which Vishnu takes form directly and all the qualities and powers of God are expressed, (e.g. Narasimha, Rama and Krishna).,
- Amsarupavatars are those in which Vishnu takes form directly but He is manifest in the person only partially. (e.g. avatars from Matsya, Kurma etc.).
The avesa or indirect avatars are generally not worshiped as the Supreme being. Only the direct, primary avatars are worshiped in this way. In practice, the direct avatars that are worshiped today are the Purna avatars of Narasimha, Rama and Krishna. Among most Vaishnava traditions, Krishna is considered to be the highest Purna avatar. However, followers of Chaitanya (including ISKCON), Nimbarka, and Vallabha Acharya differ philosophically from other Vaishnavas, such as Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya, and consider Krishna to be the ultimate Godhead, not simply an avatar. That said, all Hindus believe that there is no difference between worship of Vishnu and His avatars as it all leads to Him. According to Madhvacharya (chief proponent of Dvaita or school of differential monism), all avatars of Vishnu are alike in potency and every other quality. There is no gradation among them, and perceiving or claiming any differences among avatars is a cause of eternal damnation. See Madhva's commentary on Katha Upanishad.
Avatars of Krishna
Krishna is believed to have incarnated as humans in legends.
- Swami Chakradhara - the founder of the Vaishnava Mahanubhava sect
- Samvaliyaji - Sanwaliya Seth, born in Rajasthan
- Daityasudan - the slayer of the demon Lemurasura of Lemur town
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
Although Puranic scriptures contain occasional references to avatars of Shiva, the idea is not universally accepted in Saivism. As an avatar requires residence in a womb, Shiva as ayonija (not of a womb) cannot manifest himself as an avatar. The Linga Purana speaks of twenty-eight forms of Shiva which are sometimes seen as avatars. 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. The story concludes with Narasimha becoming a devotee of Shiva after being bound by Sharabha. However, Vaishnava followers including Dvaita scholars, such as Vijayindra Tirtha (1539–95) refute this Shaivite view of Narasimha based on their reading of Sattvika Puranas and Śruti texts.
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.
Other stated avatars of Shiva, according to some sources, are 8th century non-dualist Vedanta philosopher (Advaita Vedanta) Adi Shankara. He was named "Shankara" after Lord Shiva and is considered by some to have been an incarnation of the god and Virabhadra who was born when Shiva grabbed a lock of his matted hair and dashed it to the ground. Virabhadra then destroyed Daksha's yajna (fire sacrifice) and severed his head as per Shiva's instructions.
In Dasam Granth, Guru Gobind Singh have mentioned two avatars of Rudra: Dattatreya Avatar and Parasnath Avatar.
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. The Devi 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 Vishnu. Like Vishnu, his consort Lakshmi incarnates as Sita and Radha – the consorts of Rama and Krishna avatars. Nilakantha, an 18th-century commentator on the Devi Bhagavata Purana – which includes the Devi Gita – says that various avatars of the Goddess includes Shakambhari and even the masculine Krishna and Rama – generally thought to be Vishnu's avatars.Lakshmi and Saraswati are also goddesses worshipped as Devi avatars.
Avatars of Brahma
In Dasam Granth, second scriptures of Sikhs written by Guru Gobind Singh, mentioned seven Brahma Avatars.
- Valmiki Avatar
- Kashyap Avatar
- Sukra Avatar
- Baches Avatar
- Vyas Avatar
- Khat Rishi Avatar
- Kalidas Avatar
- Avatars in the Mahabharata
- Gautama Buddha in Hinduism
- List of avatar claimants
- Daniélou, Alain (1991) . . Inner Traditions, Vermont, USA. ISBN 0-89281-354-7. pp. 164–187.
- Coleman, T. (2011). "Avatāra". Oxford Bibliographies Online: Hinduism. doi:. Short introduction and bibliography of sources about Avatāra (subscription required).