The Ten Avataras of Visnu

Visnu, one of the most prominent gods within the Hindu tradition, and is said to have descended to earth in the form of various avatars to intervene with worldly matters. Scholars researching the incarnations of Visnu proposed that like worldly matter, thinngs that are not attended to will slowly decay over time. The same can be said for dharma. Like physical objects, time withers dharma and leads to adharma without maitenance (Swamigal, 10). Each of Visnu’s incarnations can be linked to decay within the cosmic order; furthermore, all beings are put at risk when there is decay in dharma. Although there are ten main incarnations that Visnu is said to have taken which are outlined in the Garuda Purana, in other texts such as the Bhagavata Purana and elsewhere, there is mention of upwards of twenty different avatars that Visnu took. Though this may be the case, the ten avatars mentioned in the Garuda Purana, also known as the dasavatara, are considered to be the most important due to their profound impact on Hinduism. Common to most of the stories surrounding Visnu’s avatars is that he does not destroy his foes but either punishes them for a short time or defeats them in such a way that they are liberated in the process (Klostermaier, 89). Scholars have noted the progression of the dasavatara follows a sort of plausible model for evolution beginning with a simple water-dwelling organism and advancing to a human form.

1. Matsya

This is the fish avatara that is said to be the first incarnation that Visnu assumed. Matsya is considered to be the first avatara both chronologically and evolutionarily in that this is the least advanced of all the animal forms he embodied. In the Matsya Purana, it is said that the Vedas were stolen from the god Brahma by a demonic form born from a conch shell called Somaka. The Vedas housed the creative energy of the universe and were now going to be used by Somaka for evil purposes. Visnu then descended in the form of a gigantic fish and slew Somaka while subsequently returning the Vedas to their rightful owner. Matsya was also said to have saved creation from a disastrous flood by instructing Satyavrata, a pious king, to bring all manner of seeds with him in a boat when the floods came (Swamigal, 3). In this way, Manu saves not only himself but all material life on earth. This story has many parallels in other cultures, the Western equivalent being the biblical account of Noah (O’Flaherty, 181).

Fresco with Visnu's matsya (fish) avatara in a palace in Orchha, India
Fresco with Visnu’s matsya (fish) avatara in a palace in Orchha, India

2. Kurma

This is the tortoise incarnation of Visnu. In the account of Kurma, Indra was said to have met with a sage who gave him a divine garland. The garland was trampled by Indra’s elephant and Indra found it humorous. The sage was insulted and cursed Indra saying that he would lose all of his riches to the sea along with his divine position. Once this happened, giants invaded Indra’s domain and he was defeated. At this point, he approached Visnu for help and Visnu in turn told him to go with the giants and churn the ocean with a hill using a snake as a rope. This action of churning the waters can be equated to the Tantric practice of trying to taste Ambrosia (Reddy, Moorthy, & Reddy, 96). As they did this, the hill began to sink into the ocean and they prayed to Visnu for help who then appeared in the form of a tortoise to support the hill. Although crisis seemed to be averted, at that moment a poison appeared because Indra had not worshipped Siva or Vinayaka. Visnu ate the poison and they were saved (Swamigal, 7).

The Kurma (Tortoise) avatara of Visnu depicted on this pillar bas-relief at Srirangam Temple in Tamil Nadu
The Kurma (Tortoise) avatara of Visnu depicted on this pillar bas-relief at Srirangam Temple in Tamil Nadu

3. Varaha

Varaha is the boar incarnation that Visnu is said to have taken. In the account of Varaha, Vishnu’s two attendants, Jaya and Vijaya denied two sages seeking Visnu access to him. The sages cursed the two and the two became giants within the earthly realm. The two attendants in giant form, now named Hiranyaksha and Hiranya are considered to be cruelty personified, who then declared Visnu to be their enemy and attacked and conquered the minor gods. Included in the gods conquered by the two was Varuna, the lord of the waters. Hiranyaksha began to push earth down to hell [Rasatala]. As all this chaos ensued, Mother Earth prayed to Visnu for help. Visnu assumed the shape of a boar and bore the earth on his shoulders as he lifted it out of hell. Hiranyaksha challenged Visnu to mortal combat where Visnu killed him (Swamigal, 10). Though the Garuda Purana mentions the boar as one of Visnu’s incarnations, this particular avatar may have been originally attributed to the goddess Prajapati (Radice, 185).

Large bas-relief depicting Visnu in his descent as a boar (Varaha Avatara), in order to rescue the earth goddess, Bhu Devi; Mahabalipuram, India
Large bas-relief depicting Visnu in his descent as a boar (Varaha Avatara), in order to rescue the earth goddess, Bhu Devi; Mahabalipuram, India

4.Narasimha

This is the man-lion incarnation of Visnu. Narasimha is the most fearsome of Visnu’s avataras In this myth, Hiranyaka, the giant brother of Hiranyaksha who Visnu had killed, proclaimed himself king of the universe and decided to have revenge against Visnu for the his brother’s death. Meanwhile, Hiranyaka’s wife gave birth to a giant son, Prahlada, who was a devotee to Visnu. This angered Hiranyaka and he tried through many means to convert his son and turn him against Visnu. The giant tried through non-violent means such as persuasion to do so, but after these failed, he resorted to more violent methods such as having the boy bitten by snakes, stung by scorpions, and trampled by elephants among other things (Swamigal, 14). Then Hiranyaka pointed to a pillar and asked if Visnu could be found there and struck the pillar (Bharadvaja, 332). After the giant struck the pillar, Visnu burst out as a half-man, half-lion and cut out his stomach, drank his blood, and wore his intestines as a garland. Soon after, Visnu appointed Prahlada king of the giants (Swamigal, 15).

5. Vamana

In the account of Vamana, it is said that Visnu took the incarnation of a dwarf. This incarnation is important when studying the dasavatara as a form of evolutionary structure because Vamana could perhaps be equated to an early form of human such as Australopithecus or the early homo. Some scholars say that this is why Vamana appears before any of the other human incarnations (Reddy et al., 96). In the account of Vamana, Visnu disguises himself as a dwarf who was supposedly of such great beauty and strong spiritual aura that no one could refuse him anything (Swamigal, 20). The king Bali, who had claimed the earth was so charmed that he offered Vamana anything he wanted. Vamana asked only for a piece of land the size of himself. Bali agreed to this. The Vamana lay down and began to rapidly grow until he covered the entire surface of the earth thereby reclaiming the earth for the gods (Hopkins, 89).

Visnu's Vamana (Dwarf) avatara sends the demon Bali to the underworld
Visnu’s Vamana (Dwarf) avatara sends the demon Bali to the underworld

6. Parashurama

This incarnation is actually of Rama, but an axe-wielding version of Rama. In this tale, Parasurama and Rama coexist in the same time period and even interact toward the end. The story goes that at one point, petty princes and czarinas were entrusted with the care of the world but were conducting themselves in an adharmic fashion. Parashurama defeated these knightly communities twenty-one times (Reddy et al, 93; Bhardvaja, 333). He later learned that Rama had broken Siva’s bow at Janaka’s house and was enraged. In his rage he confronted Rama and challenged him to wield his bow. Rama did so with ease and Parasurama detected the presence of Visnu within Rama. Realizing his purpose as avatara was over and went away (Swamigal, 29).

7. Rama

The account of Rama, although mentioned in the Garuda Purana, can be found in full detail within the Ramayana. As the hero and central figure of the Ramayana, Rama is an important figure within Hinduism. Even as a young child Rama was involved in heroic exploits. As a boy he accompanied a sage to protect him while he made a sacrifice and in the process slew a demon (Wilson, 548). According to Klostermaier (87), Rama was conscious of his divinity in his every move. Though he knew this and was troubled by the prospect, he behaved as any other ordinary man. At different points throughout his life, Rama engaged in epic adventures. He became involved in the politics of a monkey kingdom and befriended Hanuman. His wife Sita was captured by a demon named Ravana and through a series of events, Rama and his companions rescued Sita, killed Ravana, and destroyed Lanka, an island where a demonic kingdom was located (Radice, 198).

8. Krsna

The avatara of Krsna is mentioned briefly in the Garuda Purana, but he is more widely known for his role in the Mahabharata. Krsna is widely held to be the most important incarnation of Visnu, but Krsna is not an avatar in the regular sense. Some claim that Krsna was the true form of Visnu manifested on earth rather than a disguise or alternate form. Though he could be considered Visnu in human form, he still possessed human qualities such as love, disobedience, and youthfulness, which makes Krsna a seemingly approachable figure. In the Mahabharata he serves as a companion and advisor to the Pandava brothers and aids in their victory over the adharmic Kauravas. He is the only avatara to have an entire cult devoted exclusively to his worship (Klostermaier, 95).

9. Buddha

The Buddha incarnation is a politically charged avatara. The Buddha that is Visnu’s incarnation is in fact Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. In the Visnu Purana, there is a war between gods and demons in which the gods lose. Their destruction is imminent until Visnu appears as the Buddha and distracts the asuras from their agendas by converting them to Buddhism. The Buddha, also called the magic deluder, makes fun of traditional Hindu practice such as fire sacrifices. The demons are distracted from their original intentions and the gods wage war on them and defeat them. It was simply an unfortunate byproduct of Visnu’s necessary action that people were converted to Buddhism (Radice, 231). Though negative anecdotes exist about the Buddha avatara, the Buddha is not viewed in an entirely negative light.

10. Kalki

This final incarnation of Visnu is seen as the future avatara that will not come until the end of the Kali yuga, which is the current yuga. Right before Kalki’s appearance, the world is supposedly going to degenerate into an adharmic place. Men will engage in unnatural relations with their mothers and daughters, people will become fond of nudity and unrighteous conduct, all manner of natural disaster and plague will occur, and only pockets of pious devotees will remain and will incessantly chant the name of Visnu in hiding. The world will be completely overtaken by vice and the like. At this point, Visnu will assume the form of Kalki, a black colored avatar wielding a fiery sword, riding a horse, and accompanied by a parrot. Upon his arrival, Kalki is predicted to destroy the wicked inhabitants of the earth and usher in a new age (Swamigal, 65).

Bibliography

Bhäradväja, K (1981) A Philosophical Study of the Concept of Visnu in the Puränas. New Delhi: Pitambar Publishing Company.

Coogan, Michael D (ed.) (2005) Eastern Religions Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hopkins, Thomas J (1971) The Hindi Religious Tradition. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Klostermaier, Klaus K (2000) A Short History of Hinduism. Oxford: Oneworld Publications.

O’Flaherty, Wendy D (ed. and trans.) (1975) Hindu Myths. London: Penguin Books.

Pulla Reddy, A (1981) “Evolution and Incarnations of Lord Vishnu: An Analysis of Dasavatara” Folklore 22, no.5.

Swamigal, Pandrimalai (1982) The Ten Incarnations of Dasvatara. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Wilson, H.H (trans.) (1989) The Visnu Purana: A System of Hindu Mythology and Tradition. Delhi: Nag Publishers.

Related Terms

Dasavatara

Garuda Purana

Visnu Purana

Ramayana

Mahabharata

Related Websites

http://www.slagram.net/Dasavatara-page.htm

http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/southasia/Religions/Avatars/Vishnu.html

Written by Joel Butler (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

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