Avatars are not just a cartoon show or a movie or a video game persona. The word “Avatar” comes from a Sanskrit word that means “descent” and it refers to when a deity manifests in an earthly embodiment.
Some believe that there is no limit to possible avatars and God will be born in the world whenever there is a severe need. People with this belief may see Jesus as an avatar, as well as many other respected spiritual teachers.
Others believe in the ten avatars of Vishnu: that there are a set number of avatars whose names and forms are already known. Of the many Gods of Hinduism, only Vishnu manifests in this way. I am not sure why that is. I would guess that it has to do with him being the middle of the trinity. As “The Preserver” it is Vishnu’s job to keep things running smoothly after The Creator created and before The Destroyer destroys. (There is evidence that some of these incarnations were originally associated with Brahma instead, but were shifted as worship of Brahma declined). Update: I might be wrong about this. I have never heard about any avatars that are not Vishnu, but Wikipedia suggests that Ganesha, Devi,Brahma and Shiva have avatars as well.
It may be confusing for some that Krishna has such a prominent place in worship. Krishna is an avatar of Vishnu. Krishna is the name of the human embodiment, but the God is actually Vishnu. Rama is exactly the same way. So Rama and Krishna are embodiments of the same God.
1) Matsya is said to be the first avatar of Vishnu. He is a fish (or sometimes depicted as half man and half fish like a mermaid). He is said to have rescued the first man from a flood in a story that seems to have influenced the Noah flood story (or, perhaps more likely, both stories were influenced by a common source). Matsya is associated with the beginning of the world.
2) Kurma is the second avatar of Vishnu. This embodiment was a turtle. This incarnation is associated with the very famous churning of the ocean story. While the devas and asuras were churning the ocean for the nectar of immorality, the mountain they were using began to sink in the soft ocean floor, so Vishnu became a turtle and rested the mountain on his back.
3) Varaha is the third avatar. This embodiment was as a gigantic boar. His lover is the Earth herself (Bhudevi). The story goes that the universe was full of primordial waters and the earth was small and lost in it. Varaha dove in and rescued, then married her.
4) Narasimha, the fourth avatar, is half man and half lion (note the second part of his name “simha” means “lion.”) He is known as the Great Protector, protecting devotees who are in need. He is the manifestation of divine anger. His main story is from when a demon is upset that his son worships Vishnu and Vishnu takes this form to protect the son. Because the demon had a boon listing a great many things that could not kill him, this form that is neither man nor animal was created. (The weapon Pashupata first makes an appearance in this story. It will become an important part of The Mahabharata plot).
“O most unfortunate Prahlad, you have always described a supreme being other than me, a supreme being who is above everything, who is the controller of everyone, and who is all-pervading. But where is He? If He is everywhere, then why is He not present before me in this pillar?”
Prahlad then answers, He was, He is and He will be. In an alternate version of the story, Prahlad answers, He is in pillars, and he is in the smallest twig. –Wikipedia
5) Vamana, the fifth avatar, is the first fully human one. He is often portrayed as a little person and is sometimes called “the dwarf avatar.”
Dressed up as a tiny Brahman, he went to the house of the evil Raja while he performed a pooja. Near its end, the practitioner must give something to those present. He asked the dwarf what he wished, and Vamana replied that he wanted three feet of land. The King consented. Vamana then grew so large that one foot covered the planet, another the heavens, and so there was no where to place the third. The evil king then realized his mistake, and in shame bowed his head down for the third footstep of Vamana. –Wikipedia
6) Parashurama is the sixth avatar. He is an avatar of Vishnu, a descendant of Brahma, and a student of Shiva! He was a guru to Bishma, Drona, and Karna (key characters in The Mahabharata). Parashurama is an immortal and, as such, he was alive during several other incarnations of Vishnu (including Krishna and Rama). This, to me, shows how a soul is not as individual as we usually think! He had important roles in both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. If any of you have seen Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata, he is the character who gives Karna the divine weapon (the one who has a serious grudge against everyone of the Kshatriya caste).
7) Rama is the seventh avatar. He is often considered the perfect man. His devotion to and respect for his father is highly praised. The story of the Ramayana is pretty well known around the world and the story of Rama’s wife, Sita, kidnapped by a demon and rescued by Rama and monkey servant, Hanuman. Rama is one of the best known of the avatars and there’s a lot to be said about him. More than I could fit here!
8) Krishna is the eight avatar. He is no doubt the most well known. Krishna holds the distinction of having delivered one of the most beloved texts in Hindu scripture: The Bhagavad Gita (The Song of the Lord). It describes how to free one’s self from the prison of endless cycles of life and death. Krishna is a fascinating figure, worth studying much closer. His life is often broken into different segments. Some focus worship on his child form when he was known as a cute and mischievous butter lover. He was born to overthrow an evil king and was killing demons when he was a toddler. Some focus on Krishna’s teenage years when he was fawned over by lots of young women, the gopis (cow herding girls). His flute would melt their hearts. Several poets have written love songs to Krishna in this stage. In his later life as a king, Krishna was a key figure in The Mahabharata, guiding the Pandava brothers and it was during that time that he spoke the Gita.
9) Buddha is thought to be the ninth avatar by some. (Some others believe Krishna’s brother Balarama was the ninth avatar). Buddha was originally a Hindu prince named Siddhartha. Several Hindu texts refer to a buddha, but they may refer to different people as the word means “enlightened one.” Some say that Vishnu came in the form of Buddha to change the Hindu traditions around animal sacrifice, making new rules for a new age.
10) Kalki, the last avatar, has not happened yet. It is said that he will appear at the end of the Kali Yuga (the last age, which we are currently in) to herald the end of the world (rather, the world will become unmanifest until it all starts over again). Interestingly, he is a horseman, riding in on a white horse with a blazing sword to destroy the darkness of the last age.
There is a lot of metaphor and symbolism to be found in these stories. Most of them come from various puranas (meaning “something old”), which are ancient texts of stories and myths. One thing that stands out to me is how many of the avatars are not human. I think that shows that all of life is divine. A human embodiment is very important for enlightenment, but souls travel through all types of embodiments on their journey.
What makes an avatar different from any other wise sage or realized saint? Though we as human being can realize that we have divinity within us and know that we are one with God, an avatar doesn’t have to realize that. He comes to the world already knowing that he is God and having a particular role to play to guide the play of the universe.