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AVATARA. [Source: Dowson's Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology] 'A descent.' The incarnation of a deity, especially of Vishnu.

The first indication, not of an Avatara, but of what subsequently developed into an Avatara, is found in the Rigveda in the "three steps" of "Vishnu, the unconquerable preserver," who "strode over this (universe)," and "in three places planted his step." The early commentators understood the "three places" to be the earth, the atmosphere, and the sky; that in the earth Vishnu was fire, in tile air lightning, and in the sky the solar light. One commentator, Aurnavabha, whose name deserves mention, took a more philosophical view of the matter, and interpreted "the three steps" as being "the different positions of the sun at his rising, culmination, and setting." Sayana, the great commentator, who lived in days when the god Vishnu had obtained preeminence, understood " the three steps" to be "the three steps" taken by that god in his incarnation of vamana the dwarf, to be presently noticed. Another reference to " three strides " and to a sort of Avatars is made in the Taittiriya Sanhita, where it is said, " Indra, assuming the form of a she-jackal, stepped all round the earth in three (strides). Thus the, gods obtained it. "

Boar Incarnation In the Taittiriya Sanhita and Brahmana, and also in the Satapatha Brahmana, the creator prajapati, afterwards known as Brahma, took the form of a boar for the purpose of raising the earth out of the boundless waters. The Sanhita says, "This universe was formerly waters, fluid. On it Prajapati, becoming wind, moved. He saw this (earth). Becoming a boar, he took her up. Becoming Viswakarman, he wiped (the moisture from) her. She extended. She became the extended one (Prithvi). From this the earth derives her designation as 'the extended one.' "The Brahmana is in accord as to the illimitable waters, and adds, " Prajapati practised arduous devotion (saying), How shall this universe be (developed)? He beheld a lotus leaf standing. He thought, There is somewhat on which this (lotus leaf) rests; He, as a boar having assumed that form plunged beneath towards it. He found the earth down below. Breaking off (a portion of her), he rose to the surface. He then extended it on the lotus leaf. Inasmuch as he extended it, that is the extension of the extended one (the earth). This became (abhut). From this the earth derives its name of Bhumi." Further, in the Taittiriya Aranyaka it is said that the earth was "raised by a black boar with a hundred arms." The Satapatha Brahmana states, "She (the earth) was only so large, of the size of a span. A boar called Emusha raised her up. Her lord, prajapati, in consequence prospers him with this pair and makes him complete." In the Ramayana also it is stated that Brahma "be became a boar and raised up the earth."

Tortoise Incarnation In the Satapatha Brahmana it is said that "Prajapati, having assumed the form of a tortoise (karma), created offspring. That which he created he made (akarot); hence the word Karma."

Fish Incarnation The earliest mention of the fish.Avatara occurs in th Satapatha Brahmana, in connection with the Hindu legend of the deluge. Manu found, in the water which was brought to him for his ablutions, a small fish, which spoke to him and said," I will save thee "from a flood which shall sweep away all creatures. This fish grew to a large size, and had to be consigned to the ocean, when he directed Manu to construct.a ship and to resort to him when the flood should rise. The deluge came, and Manu embarked in the ship. The fish then swam to Manu, who fastened the vessel to the fish's horn, and was conducted to safety. The Mahabharata repeats this story with some variations.

The incarnations of the boar, the tortoise, and the fish are thus in the earlier writings represented as manifestations of prajapati or Brahma. The "three steps" which form the germ of the dwarf incarnation are ascribed to Vishnu, but even these appear to be of an astronomical or mythical character rather than glorifications of a particular deity. In the Mahabharata Vishnu has become the most prominent of the gods, and some of his incarnations are more or less distinctively noticed; but it is in the Puranas that they receive their full development. According to the generally received account, the incarnations of Vishnu are ten in number, each of them being assumed by Vishnu, the great preserving power, to save the world from some great danger or trouble.

1. Matsya 'The fish.'

2. Kurma 'The tortoise.'

3. Varaha `The boar.'

4. Narasinha, or Nrisinha `The man-lion.'

These four incarnations are supposed to have appeared in the Satyayuga, or first age of the world

5. Vamana `The dwarf.'

The first five incarnations are thus purely mythological; in the next three we have the heroic element, and in the ninth the religious.

6. Parasurama `Rama with the axe.' Born in the Treta, or second age, as son of the Brahman Jamadagni, to deliver the Brahmans from the arrogant dominion of the Kshatriyas.

7. Rama or Rama-Chandra 'The moon-like or gentle Rama, the hero of the Ramayana. He was the son of Dasaratha, king of Ayodhya, of the Solar race, and was born in the Tretayuga, or second age, for the purpose of destroying the demon Ravana.

8. Krishna 'The black or dark coloured.' This is the most popular of all the later deities, and has obtained such preeminence, that his votaries look upon him not simply as an incarnation, but as a perfect manifestation of Vishnu. When Krishna is thus exalted to the full godhead, his elder brother, Balarama takes his place as the eighth Avatars.

9. Buddha The great success of Buddha as a religious teacher seems to have induced the Brahmans to adopt him as their own, rather than to recognise him as an adversary. So Vishnu is said to have appeared as Buddha to encourage demons and wicked men to despise the Vedas, reject caste, and deny the existence of the gods, and thus to effect their own destruction.

10. Kalki or Kalkin 'The white horse.' This incarnation of Vishnu is to appear at the end of the Kali or Iron Age, seated on a white horse, with a "drawn sword blazing like a comet, for the final destruction of the wicked, the renovation of creation, and the restoration of purity.

The above are the usually recognised Avataras, but the number is sometimes extended, and the Bhagavata Purana, which is the most fervid of all the Puranas in its glorification of Vishnu, enumerates twenty-two incarnations: (1.) Purusha, the male, the progenitor; (2.) Varaha, the boar; (3.) Narada, the great sage; (4.) Nara and Narayana (q.v.); (5.) Kapila, the great sage; (6.) Dattatreya, a sage; (7.) Yajna, sacrifice; (8.) Rishabha, a righteous king, father of Bharata; (9.) Prithu, a king; (10.) Matsya, the fish; (11.) Kurma, the tortoise; (12 and 13.) Dhanwantari, the physician of the gods; (14) Narasinha, the man-lion; (15.) vamana, the dwarf; (16.) parasurama; (17.) Veda-Vyasa; (18.) Rama; (19.) Balarama; (20.) Krishna; (21.) Buddha; (22.) Kalki But after this it adds " The incarnations of Vishnu are innumerable, like the rivulets flowing from an inexhaustible lake. Rishis, Manus, gods, sons of Manus, Prajapatis, are all portions of him."  

Modern Languages MLLL-4993. Indian Epics. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. The textual material made available at this website is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one. No claims are made regarding the status of images used at this website; if you own the copyright privileges to any of these images and believe your copyright privileges have been violated, please contact the webmaster. Page last updated: October 16, 2007 12:22 PM