Divine descent is a Hindu phenomenon that has often been misinterpreted or misunderstood. It is widely associated with the Christian doctrine of Docetism (Sheth 12), however the Sanskrit word avatara more closely relates to words such as descent or manifestation (Matchett 4-6). The earliest written record of this doctrine comes from the Bhagavad-Gita. In it, Krsna begins to explain the mysteries of his incarnation in order to clear the warrior Arjuna’s confusion. Krsna explains his previous births (janmani) as being the lord of the individual selves, yet one with all around him. He goes further into saying that he is fully aware of his many previous births and at any point of his choosing he may generate himself in order to touch foot in the mortal world. In the context of the Bhagavad-Gita, Krsna spawns himself a completely new body while still maintaining his personal divinity and understanding of Purusa (see Matchett 102-103).
Krsna finally states, “Whenever law of righteousness withers away and lawlessness arises, then do I generate myself ” (Bhagavad-Gita 4.7-8). This underlines the main purpose for divine descent in the Hindu tradition. The goal is restoring cosmic balance to the realm of humans by maintaining and enforcing dharma while eliminating and defeating adharma or destruction of social order (Sheth 99). In general, the preserver god visnu is the main source of divine descent into the human realm however avatars of gods such as Shiva or Ganesh have also been said to manifest themselves (Courtright 175). It is through the many incarnations of Visnu that the wills and actions of the gods may be fulfilled. This is a vehicle for which the deities may be fully appreciated and their wills fully upheld. Many Hindus believe that meditation on the divine incarnation and the human deeds performed by these avatars can help in the pursuit of enlightenment.
Many Hindus hold these avatars (avatara) close in thought through their days. These divinely descended deities have personified themselves in a way that allows Hindus to more accurately understand their importance. Rama and Krsna are both avataric figures that have remained beloved for thousands of years (Roshen 250). These heroes take the most underlying key concepts of Upanishadic texts and personify them in an understandable vehicle for learning. In common belief, many believe these avatars are just heroes responsible for the safeguarding of our existence, making them worthy of praise.
Many sects of Hinduism have been devoted to the teachings and actions of particular avatars. Vaishnavism is one of the main sects of Hinduism that gives focus to Visnu and his descents as supreme lord. One of the most prominent figures in Vaishnava teachings is the eighth avatar of Visnu, Krsna. Many Hindus participate in celebrations dedicated to these prominent figures. One such celebration is that of Rama Navami, a very popular and well-known festival dedicated to the birth of the 7th avatar and protagonist of the great Ramayana epic, Rama (Abbe 111). The teachings of Rama and his actions throughout the epic make him a model for dharmic action and a guide for the perfect man. The Rama Navami is a particularity important festival that honors the birth date of the great deity and is attended by the thousands every year.
Among some of the most important Puranic texts associated with Hinduism is the Bhagavata-Purana. Often considered the purest of the Puranas, the Bhagavata-Purana is one of the great Hindu texts that focuses very clearly on bhakti towards Visnu but often uses Krsna as a vehicle through which Visnu can be more clearly interpreted. Bhakti is a central focus for the attainment of enlightenment and is often expressed as an ongoing devotion and personal love to a god, often associated with monotheistic Hindu views such as Vaishnavism (Gupta 12). Devotees of Krsna consider him to be the only pure expression of Visnu through divine descent. Therefore the great hero of the Mahabharata, Krsna, is often shown tremendous amounts of bhakti throughout Hindu tradition. In some specific schools of Vaishnavism, Krsna is said to be so overwhelmingly important that he is considered the source of all other avatars. This notion gave birth to the school of Krsnaism, a sect devout in their worship to lord Krsna as the Bhagavan himself (Matchett 52).
In modern times, the largest and most common denomination of Hindus are Vaishnavas with more than 550 million practicing today (Abbe 115). The sects’ overwhelming emphasis on the power of bhakti and worship, as a whole, has lead to the creation of many discernable religious practices. Vaishnavism holds representations of Visnu and his avatars, most commonly Rama or Krsna, as reality and essential in showing daily bhakti (Gupta 14). Representations of the preserver god and his avatars are absolutely necessary for reverence and worship. Many will pray to these representations several times a day, often offering material objects as offerings. One of the most discernable of these practices is the marking of the tilak on the forehead of a Hindu. These tilaks vary enormously across different sects but all are characterized by a symbolic connection to Visnu and his avatars (Abbe 163). With such strong emphasis on personal devotion to a single deity, it is easy to see how many elaborate and beautiful temples have been created in order to aid the process. Thousands of temples are scattered across India, adorned beautifully with artwork and sculptures as praise towards the many avatars who descended in order to keep cosmic balance. Thousands attend these intricate temples; dedicated to the many vehicles in which lord Visnu extends his love to his devotees.
When pertaining to avatars in the Hindu tradition, the most widely associated deity is clearly Visnu. Among these incarnations are the ten widely known Dashavataras who are the most important and fundamental in the understanding of avatara. However, there exist many more then just ten manifestations of Visnu: as stated by the Bhagavata Purana there exists an innumerable and infinite number of avatars. Divine descent is not only restricted to Vaishnava deities. The Linga Purana contains manifestations from other gods such as Ganesh and Shiva who sent forth avatars in order to keep the cosmic balance by slaying evil demons and performing dharmic action. Many times we also see the descent of Visnu’s consort Laksmi into the realm of humans; often as consorts for the various avatars of Visnu himself such as Sita, the beautiful and dharmic wife of the hero Rama.
Of the Vaisnava avatars, the most prominent are grouped into a list of ten appropriately named the Dashavatara. Each of these ten incarnations are from one of four yugas or eras in Hindu tradition. The first of these yugas is that of the satya yuga where human action was dictated and governed by the god. Also known as the Golden Age or age of truth, this is when the first four of the dashavatara. Matsya the fish is typically listed as the first of Visnu’s avatars and is often associated with the comparable genesis narrative of Abrahamic tradition (Sheth 113). Matsya descends to earth in order to alert Manu, the first man, of an impending storm that will wipe out the earth and all who reside on it. The flood myth is common across most cultures and many comparisons can be made. Matsya orders Manu to gather all the grain and in many accounts animals as well, and board an arc, which Matsya pulls to safety. Many times, Matsya is said to defeat a demon after saving Manu. From the demon he recovers the holy Vedas and bestows them to man.
From this story a lot can be said about the other nine Dasavataras and the many symbols they represent. From the tale of Matsya, we see the very first supposed avatar of Visnu. Comparatively, Matsya is vital to genesis of human life and in many ways is held to explain our very origins. The subsequent 9 avatars following Matsya seem to all follow this theme of evolution and the creation of human existence. The remaining 3 avatars from the satya yuga are all forms of beasts, including Narasimha who begins to take human characteristics, as well as lion. The evolution from a scientific stand point of the water dwelling fish to the amphibious turtle and subsequently by a boar or more broadly a man beast. Visnu’s avatars seem to clearly represent the process of human evolution in an order that follows scientific reason. The subsequent treta yuga, begins with what could be interpreted as the first proto man, Vamana or the dwarf god. From here, Visnu only chose to incarnate himself into humanly forms each slightly further into the development of human thought. Parasurama lives a life of forest dwelling and using early weapons; his successor Rama is an example of humans organizing themselves into communities and kingships. The evolution extends into a period of more politically advanced systems with Krsna and stops at the catalyzing ninth avatar Buddha who depicts the age of human realization and enlightenment. Hindus had, in a way, shown a Darwinian and evolutionary understanding thousands of years before the very birth of Darwin (Brown 227).
Kalki, the final avatar, is the most unique incarnation of the Dashavatara. Unlike his predecessors, Kalki has not yet descended upon our realm. Of the ten avatars, Kalki is described as the destroyer of filth and the final avatar in the current mahayuga. It is said that Kalki will descend upon the earth following the end of the Kali yuga, the same yuga we reside in today. This moment will mark the end of our current mahayuga where Kalki generates in order to rid the world of the “filth” that has been acquired during this current age of misery and spiritual degeneration (Mahony 333).
The avatars of Ganesh are an interesting comparison to the highly discussed incarnations of lord Visnu. The Mudgala Purana regards Ganesh as the most revered and holy of the gods for his constant involvement in the well being of humans. The incarnations of Ganesh are often used as models for the creation of the world and are used to describe theological concepts of the Hindu tradition. Each incarnation of Ganesh is sent to eradicate a demon typically symbolic with malicious qualities (see Courtright 176). The actions stated in both the Ganesa Purana and Mudgala Purana have lead many to a life of bhakti towards Ganesa.
Divine descent is a truly intricate and substantial process in the Hindu tradition. Its complexities and origins are deeply rooted in the theological Hindu thought that has shaped the lives and practices of countless cultures. These avatars offer a vehicle for which all those wishing to extend their love and devotion to gods, may do so. A universal language of devotion is achieved through these enormously impactful figures. Perhaps the complexities associated with divine descent are truly a measure of the complexities of the gods themselves most undoubtedly characterized by an infinite number of avatars. Divine descent is truly a phenomenon that expresses the extent of love felt by the gods towards their people; love that could not exist without the enduring bhakti of their people.
References and Further Readings
Brown, Mackenzie (2010) “ Vivekanda and the Scientific Legitimation of Advaita Vedanta.” Handbook of Religion and the Authority of Science, Vol.10, No.1: 227-230.
Dubois, Abbe (2007) Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies. Paris: Cosimo Incorporated.
Gupta Raui (2007) Caitany Vaisnava Vedanta of Jiva Gosvami: When Knowledge meets devotion. Edinburgh: University of Sterling.
Mahony, William (1987) “Perspectives on Krsna’s Various Personalities.” History of Religions 26, Vol. 26, No.3: 333-335.
Moffit, John (1977) “Incarnation and Avatara: An Imaginary Conversation.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Vol.13, No.2: 456-461.
Matchett, Freda (2001) Krishna, Lord or Avatara? : The Relationship between Krishna and Vishnu. Surrey: Routledge Publication.
Courtright, Paul (1987) “ Ganesha: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings.” The Journal for Asian Studies, Vol.26, No.1: 175-177.
Roshen, Dalal (2011) Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide. Delhi: Penguin Books India.
Sheth, Noel (2002) “ Hindu Avatara and Christian Incarnations: A Comparison.” Philosophies of East and West, Vol.52, No.1: 98-125.
Article written by: Zachery Sanderson (March 2015), who is solely responsible for its content