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Avatara in Indian Culture 

By Dr. Narasingh Ch. Panda

Incarnation of God on the earth is called avatara. In Sanskrit, the term avatara means incarnation. Avatara is an appearance of any deity on earth, or descendent from heaven, and it bears a great importance as a religious concept in the Indian tradition and culture. The word avatara does not occur in the major early Upanishads, though there are a few references in the later Upanishads. It is listed in Panini’s Astadhyayi (3.3.120) and also in many standard works after the epic literature. But there are faint glimmerings of the theory of incarnation and of these forms even in the earliest Vedic literature. Some scholars have definitely observed in the following Rgvedic verse, the germs of the doctrine of incarnation, viz. ‘pado sya visvabhutani tripadasyamrtam divi’ (Rgveda, 10.90.3).

In this context Prof. S.N. Das Gupta in his Critical History of Indian Philosophy (part 2, pp. 523ff) says “here there is the starting point of the theism of the Bhagavad Gita, the idea of God as not only immanent but transcendent, a universe which is no illusion and the doctrine of incarnation.” Certainly this hymn is important, and it is quoted in the Svetasvatara Upanishad and in the Bhagavad Gita (13.13). Hence, Srimad Bhagavata (1.3.4) clearly states that this purusa rupa (male form) is the original source of different incarnations as well as the real base of creating of devatas, human beings, animals and other creatures.

However, the beginnings of the doctrine of an incarnation and some of the well-known incarnations of Lord Vishnu may also be traced to the Vedic literature. In the Vedic idea of Lord Vishnu, as a solar divinity, coming down to the earth from the highest abode,  also in the frequent allusions in the Vedic literature, Gods assume different forms in order to accomplish their several exploits. In the Vedic literature (Satapatha Brah), 1.8/1.1-6 (Matsya); (Kurma); (Varaha); 1.2.5.aff (Vamana), etc.), we actually come across of the early indications of the Matsy,. Kurma, Varaha, Vamana and other incarnations.


Necessity of Incarnations

The theory of incarnations bring to mankind  new spiritual messages and it presupposes the recognition of Vishnu as the Supreme God, the creator and ruler of the Universe, the upholder not only of the cosmic, but also of the moral order of the world. When the enemies endanger the order of the world, the Lord incarnates himself for the purpose of defending it. It is a comforting belief for the ordinary man to hold that when the affairs of the world are in mess, God comes down to the earth to set matters right (Gita, 4.7-8) i.e. when the world is in serious trouble, people believe that deliverance will come by the grace of God. Another purpose of God assuming the worldly form is to educate the mortals (because the people in general follow the footsteps of  great men). God appears as the guru, to lead them beyond the delusion of ignorance.

In addition to these, the manifestation of the Lord is intended only for bestowing the boon of the final beatitude of the human beings. As it is rightly said in the Srimad Bhagavata: “nrnam nihsrevasarthaya vyaktirbhagavato nrapah” (10. 29. 14).


Number And Types Of Incarnations  

In the Mahabharata, Ramayana and Puranas it is frequently stated that Lord Vishnu comes down to the earth often for punishing the wicked, for the protection of good and the establishment of dharma. Srimad Bhagavata (1.3.26), the most popular purana, states that the incarnations of Vishnu are innumerable, like the rivulets flowing from an inexhaustible lake. In the Mahabharata (12.339. 103-104) the incarnations are stated to be ten and they are the same as now generally accepted except that Hamsa, which is mentioned instead of Buddha and Krishna is called Satvata.

Among the Puranas also, only some mention Buddha as an avatara. The Matsya Purana (285.6-7) mentions the well-known ten incarnations including Buddha as the 9th incarnation of Vishnu. Besides, the Agni Purana, the Padma Purana and the Varaha Purana enumerate the well known ten incarnations of Vishnu. The names of the ten incarnations are thus: (1) Matsya - fish, (2) Kurma - the tortoise, (3) Varaha - the boar, (4) Narasimha - the man-lion, (5) Vamana - the dwarf, (6) Parasurama, (7) Sri Rama, (8) Sri Krishna, (9) Buddha, and (10) Kalki. The Bhagavata Purana makes the number of incarnations twenty-two, including the minor ones. These are : (1) Purusa, (2) Varaha, (3) Narada, (4) Nara & Narayana, (5) Kapila, (6) Dattatreya, (7) Yajna, (8) Rsabha, (9) Prthu, (10) Matsya , (11) Kurma, (12) Dhanvantari, (13) Mohini, (14) Narasimha, (15) Vamana, (16) Parasurama, (17) Vedavyasa, (18) Ramachandra, (19) Balarama, (20) Sri Krishna, (21) Buddha, and (22) Kalki (yet to come). The Gitagovinda of Sri Jayadeva speaks of ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu. He takes Balarama as an incarnation instead of Krishna and explains Krishna as the Supreme Lord, the Purusottama,(Gitagovinda 1.1.16).

There are three kinds of incarnations. They are: (1) Purnavatara (full incarnation). When the God manifests himself in the form of a human being for the full span of life, this is known as purnavatara. The examples of this kind are Sri Rama, Sri Krishna, Veda Vyasa, etc. (2) Amsavatara (partial incarnation): When the incarnation is only partial, i.e. the activity of such manifestation is limited to a particular time, place or incident. Vamana, Varaha, Narasimha, Kurma, and Matsya, avatar fall in this category. (3) Avesavatara - Avesa means overshadowing. The example of this kind is Parasurama incarnation. When Sri Rama married Sita and was returning from Mithila, he was accosted by Parasurama and challenged to a duel, where it is said that after bending Vishnu’s bow, Vishnu’s influence in Parasurama passed to Sri Rama. Thereafter Parasurama is said to be no longer an avatara. In this case, Vishnu’s influence that overshadowed the soul of Parasurama, passed on to Sri Rama, leaving Parasurama a mere rishi (sage). This is clearly a case of avesa or overshadowing.

Avataravada or the Theory of Evolution

The incarnations give us the keys which unlock the mysteries of nature. They represent the different stages of evolution in the different departments of nature. Even if we take into consideration the ten incarnations (of Lord Vishnu) as they stand, the different stages of evolutions are there.

The circumstances which necessitated these incarnations and the mighty deeds accomplished by Vishnu on these occasions are most graphically and exhaustively described. Attempts have been made to rationalize the different forms assumed by Vishnu in different incarnations. In the beginning of the creation there were waters everywhere, and, to suit this conditions of the world, the first incarnation of Vishnu was, appropriately enough, in the form of a fish, the animal to be found in water. Then the earth began gradually to take shape among those waters, and therefore in his second incarnation, Vishnu appeared as a tortoise, which can move both in water and land.

The later stages of evolution, namely, animal life in the forests. Then comes the boar (varaha) incarnation. The boar lives on land alone. Next we have the transition between the animal and the human world in the man-lion (Narasimha) incarnation. The development is not completely fulfilled when we come to the dwarf
(Vamana) incarnation. The first stage of man is that of the brutish, violent,  Rama with axe (Parasurama), who devastates the  humanity; later we get the divine spiritual Sri Rama, who consecrates family life and affections and Sri Krishna, who exhorts us to enter into the warfare of the world; and after him Buddha, who, full of compassion for all life, works for the redemption of mankind. Last of all we have the incarnation yet to come, the Kalki, who will fight against evil and injustice with the sword in hand.

The notable aspects of incarnations are that, God comes from an unmanifest state to a manifest state, i.e. amurta  to murta; the incarnation may vary in number from text to text, but is obvious that incarnation is a descent of God into man and not an ascent of man into God; and the ultimate purpose of incarnation is the establishment of dharma and to punish the wicked. 


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