The Ten Avatars of Vishnu: a Guide

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).

Did you know that there is an Indian martial art? Parashurama is said to be the founder of Kalaripayattu.

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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.

 


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About Ambaa Choate

Ambaa is an American woman of European ancestry who is also a practicing Hindu. She is fascinated with questions of philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life. Join her in the journey to explore how a non-Indian convert to Hinduism experiences her religion.

  • http://www.deafdrummer.org Stephanie Ellison

    Does this help?

    If I were god or goddess who had created/helped created this world, I
    sure would have inserted a life cycle loop somewhere, so I could live
    endlessly forever if I wanted to. Maybe some people have figured this
    out and have purposefully avoided moksha because it’s so darn fun and
    interesting to live life on Earth as a human, especially if you have
    somehow figured out how to jump from wealthy family to family, or how
    about from skill-talented person to the next one! A question I have is,
    what happens to the spiritual apparition called memories, experiences?
    It has to go SOMEWHERE, as it is a part of energy. Maybe it is passed
    back up to something that is collecting this information, this history,
    and I’m once again free to live another life unencumbered, or, that I
    retain my memories, but they are made inaccessible through some sort of
    memory dampening structure, hidden very cleverly from eventual human
    discovery, so as not to spoil the new adventures of each succeeding
    life. To experience life with a fresh slate, a fresh perspective, so you
    can experience once again the joys of discovery, of learning, the
    wonder of an amazing, new experience, and so on.

    • Vikas

      Memories are carried forward by atma(soul) as a summary of the current life and the atma has the memories of all your past lives. It reflects in the personality and attitude of a person right from his childhood.

      All living organisms are made of five elements out of which human form is the hardest to get as you can control your actions in this form but when a human does not fulfill his life’s purpose of benefitting the mankind his soul is thrown back to inferior life forms(animals) and this cycle keeps on repeating. So roughly after taking countless animal forms soul takes one human form

  • http://www.deafdrummer.org Stephanie Ellison

    The question then becomes, why is the center of awareness in my body, my mind, my intellect? And why is it in yours, as obviously, you can consciously read this and reply as you wish…?

    • Ambaa

      Part of the illusion of maya is that we see ourselves as separate beings. I believe that the only thing creating a boundary between our consciousnesses is layers and layers of misunderstanding and sanskara (karmic consequences).

  • Vikas Bengaluru

    If one would go through the Vishnu Sahasranamam, you would be bereft of all doubts. It gives an account of all names by which he is called. None of the stanzas mention Buddha in them. Also the sahasranamam has been written long back in our ages present, so we can not ignore it as blind belief.

  • Vikas Bengaluru

    Some things are present right before our eyes, we don’t ignore it as blind faith. Electric fields, magnetic fields are invisible, yet we have the power to control them. In the same way, the power to believe that the almighty exists or not, again rests with us. We can see only things that we can believe in.

  • Jaskaran Dhaliwal

    Really?:
    http://prabhupadabooks.com/classes/sb/1/3/24/los_angeles/september/29/1972
    अञ्जनः is the father of शाक्यमुनि’s mother, महामाया. What other buddha could it be referring to? सुमेधः is the only other buddha which has an “अञ्जनः” in his family, but he lived before vyAsaH and definitely not in the kaliyugam.
    I agree that the historical buddha is not one of the दशावताराः (I don’t even believe in that concept, because there is no shAstrika basis for it), but he was a लीलावतारः.

  • Jaskaran Dhaliwal

    This is actually a neo-Hindu creation by Bhaktivinod Thaakkur, who is only considered a form of pramANa for those who are part of his specific paraMparA. He doesn’t speak for all gauDiya-s, let alone all vaiShNava-s, and certainly not all Hindus. Regardless, the order is not fixed, it changes with each manvantara and kalpa.

  • Jaskaran Dhaliwal

    Trying to “prove” that Hindus or Vaidik Rshi-s predicted Darwin’s theory of Evolution & Natural Selection well in advance is ridiculous, and is similar to those Hindus who claim that rAvaNa’s vimAna was a proto-aeroplane or that sAyaNAchArya calculated the speed of light. If you’re going to use science to try to defend your faith, then that is likely a sign of insecurity. Your post also reads as if you’re relegating shrIman nArAyaNa to the status of a jIvAtmA, although I may be incorrect.

  • Jaskaran Dhaliwal

    To an advaitI, yes. However, not everyone interprets ahaMbrahmAsmi in the same way. I do not believe that saying that brahma (not the svayambhU, padmajA ब्रह्मा, but ब्रह्म) is my antaryAmI is equivalent to saying that I personally am the परमभोक्ता.

  • Jaskaran Dhaliwal

    Anyway, in response to the blog post in general, it’s largely correct, but I would like to make some clarifications:
    1) The original “dashAvatAra,” which was made by jayadeva gosvAmI in his gItagovindam, did not include kRiShNa, who was a pUrNAvatAra and hence endowed will all the kalA-s of mahAviShNuH. Hence, he did not consider him an avatAra, but rather as svayambhagavAn himself. It included both balabhadra and buddha. All other avatAras are forms of kR^iShNa/keshava in his view. Hence why the anupAdam of the dashAvatArastotram is “keshavadhR^ita ______ sharIra/rUpa, jaya jagadisha hare”
    2) vedAntadeshika did not include buddha on his list, and included more than 10 avatAra-s
    3) vAdirAja (an AchArya in the madhvasampradAya) included buddha, but not balabhadra, and lists over 10, including dhanvantari.
    4) The bhAgavatapurANam includes buddha and kalki, but lists 24 in total, including vyAsa and RiShabha.
    5) Ergo, the current list, while popular, was not accepted by any vaiShNava siddhAnta/vedAntAchArya.
    6) varAhaH and shUkaraH (both meaning boar or pig) are actually epithets, just as upendraH, urukramaH, and trivikramaH are epithets of vAmana. His “formal” name is emUShaH
    7) The story of bhU being lifted out of the water is also the source of her epithet as hrI. When he was at the bottom of the kShIrasAgaram, she was covered completely, but when she was lifted out from it, she was elevated and was uncomfortable being exposed in such a manner. Hence, her name is hrI, which means modesty, and is used in the puruShasUktam…
    hrIshchatelakShmIshchapatnyau ahorAtrepArshve
    hrI and lakShmI are your wives, the day and night are your sides.

    • Ambaa

      Very interesting!

    • Arya P

      First of all – Jayadeva wrote Gita Govinda. I don’t know who you are referring to as Jayadeva Goswami. As Jayadeva was not referred as Goswami ever in his lifetime. Please make that correction in future. Second in Dasavatar Buddha is the 9th avatar with Krishna as the 8th Avatar. But according to various other puranas like bramanda purana Krishna is referred as Vishnu and Balaram is replaced in place of Krishna(8th Avatar).

      • Jaskaran Dhaliwal

        Yes, and the dashAvAtarastotram is one of the aShTapadi-s of the gItagovindam, duh. Also, it is convention to refer to him as jayadevagoswAmI or jayadevakavi in bongo as a title of respect. See this text for example (http://www.indiadivine.org/content/files/download/364-sri-gita-govinda-by-jayadeva-goswami-in-sanskrit-pdf/), I’m afraid you’re confusing the brahmANDapurANam with the brahmavaivartapurANam, the uttarabhAgaH of the brahmavaivartapurANam has a list of the dashAvatAra, although it includes mohinI instead of bhR^igupati (i.e. parashurAma). Regardless, it is jayadeva’s list from which the modern dashAvatAra derives. Show me shAstrapramANa which states otherwise and I may consider your claim.

        • Arya P

          First of all. Jayadeva Goswami is something that should not be associated to Sri Jayadeva. Goswami cult was started by the Gaudya cult – mainly the follower of Sri Chaitanya. But Chaitanya himself followed Sri Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda. So how can a master be given the same title that his follower has. It is a kind of disrespect. So Jayadeva who was born in Puri, Odisha is always called Sri Jayadeva. We are not discussing here the sabotage and lying of Bengalis who claimed Jayadeva to be from Birbhum because it is already settled. It has been 5 years that ASI has declared Jayadeva to have born in Kenduli Sasan in Puri. The birbhum story was a concoted one and even the bengali historians have agreed to the wrong doing. One more problem with this Goswami cult is they have not been exact followers of Vaishnavism. They have glorified Sri Chaitanya more than his beloved Sri Jagannath – Vishnu.

  • Arya P

    Buddha is indeed an avatar. If you happen to go to Sri Jagannath Temple in Puri you will find Buddha as the ninth avatar. Many believe Sri Jagannath to be Buddha. The temple was once a Buddhist shrine broken by muslim invaders. There was an annual fair where Buddha was taken in chariots similar to Rath Yatra in Puri. Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism started in the land of Odisha. It was a Buddhist land before Hinduism revived itself. Buddha is also believed to be born in Lembei Paragana near Bhubaneswar. The place is called Kapilaprasad. There is the original rock edict of Asoka in Bhaskareswara temple in Kapileswara. Anton Furher wrongly spread the history of Lumibini, Nepal as the birthplace of Buddha. Even Buddha’s ashes were found in Puspagiri monastery in Odisha. It was believed that the Mallas brought the ashes from Kushinagar after the Mahaparinivarna and handed it over to the king of kalinga Brahmagupta. Near Puri there was a tooth relic of Buddha which was later shifted to Sri Lanka by the Indian King. Sri Jagannath is also called as Arka Bandhu(mean friend of Surya God) and Buddha is also named by the same. The present avatar is also believed to be Sri Jagannath. There are many hindu temples with Buddhist style architecture and Buddha’s images carved in the walls.

    • Jaskaran Dhaliwal

      Many people also believe viTThala to be buddha (because of his epithet pANDuraNga). Your point is?

      • Arya P

        Yes you are right. Buddha is replace by Vithoba/Vittala/Jagannath with their regional relevance.

      • Arya P

        My point is – some of the rituals over a period of time become practices in those eras and people start believing in them until they are digested into another.

  • nitin

    When there was nothing but emptiness there was a bright light.

  • nitin

    When moses went to the mountain to receive the commandments he saw a glorious light and said Jehovah.

  • nitin

    The muslims call Allah as ei noor I illahi. Meaning glorious light.

  • nitin

    Shiv is the embodiment of both masculine and femine.he mentioned as binduswarup and also as anant.meaning he both a dot and also infinity

  • nitin

    Brahma was born from the naval of Vishnu.when they laid eyes on each other they were debating as to who came first then they saw a bright light or rather a pillar of fire.and a voice told that whoever would find the beginning and end of the light would realise who came first.Vishnu discovered that the light had no beginning nor a end but brahma lied that he had found the end.that is why brahma is not worshipped.

  • nitin

    Hinduism can contained merely as religion it is the wisdom of the universe

  • Mitthi Yadav

    balarama was not incarnation of lord vishnu he was of sheshnaga got that.I don’t know you people how can you post anywhere without complete knowledge.

  • disqus_H12xYh54gg

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  • http://netwardi.blogspot.com/ Kalpesh J

    sorry to say this but you are victim of false propaganda tactics of Hindu organization which claim Buddha was Avatar of some Hindu god Vishnu. Gautam Buddha/Siddhartha was very much human being like other normal people and he was not any divine person. Also seems you follow Satya Sai Baba, you should watch youtube videos exposing Sathya sai baba’s gimmicks, they have explained very well what tactics he used to fool around with people.

  • Manjari

    Hello! Overall, very good article for those not well versed in Hinduism. There are some clarifications I think need to be made.

    1. Krishna – Krishna was not a king, but a Kingmaker. Krishna, while born a Kshatriya, was raised by the Yadavs, who were cursed to never be king. It is under his guidance that the Pandavas gain the throne to Hastinapuri.

    2. I could be very wrong, but I am not certain Rama was aware that he was God on earth. There is no doubt that Krishna was fully aware, but I am not sure if Ram was aware, or consciously avoided any divine action to show how a human should live.

    Also, just to add to your post, there are some who believe that Balrama was teh 9th avatar. Balrama was Krishna’s brother. Of course, the ninth avatar is pure speculation. It is also certainly possible that even Jesus was the ninth avatar!

  • Alok Surya Shyamkarn

    The enlightened One after 54 cycle births as Prince Sidhartha attained true wisdom of uniting with the Infinite self (Antaryami),detachment with the finite individual form & it’s material possesion ,denouncing family ,throne , king prospect to teach a medium path ,divine purpose declared in the puranas before ,yet the soul never dies ,immortal transforms into high or low forms of life according to karmic consequences (Bhagwad gita)Brahmalokam Punarvartanam -Soul will have to return from the highest abode of heaven to fulfill the unfulfilled purposes in a human form ,as per the law of karma ,200 years later becomes the Emperor *Devnama Ashoka Priyadarshi* ashoka’s inscription on birth place of buddha testmonizes it adopts & spreading Buddhism to asian countries ,sending son -Mahendra & Daughter -Sanghmitra as it’s ambassadors . Buddha accepted as an kind of Avatara ,Leela/gyan avatara during 76 ad kanishka era kingdom by kingdom & authorities of sanatan dharma as a branch sprouting from it’s roots , The Enlighted realization of infinite self was known as “Light of Asia ” contemporary of Cofucius in china in that B.C era , Mahaparinirvan is also attained for 1000 or more years ,proclaimed then to return after 2500 years , So here I am, The Brahm Surya Purush form again on it’s journey to fulfill divine purposes & be One with the ,Kalki Yuga Avatar in ending years of kaliyug . As Vedanta wisdom ,Ishta Purtam Manyman varishtam .Nanyat Sreyo Vedyante Pramudha , वेदांत सर्वकालिक ज्ञान(इष्ट पुरतम मान्य्मना वरिष्ठाम,नान्यत्र श्रेयो वेदयन्ते प्रमुढ़ा ,नाकस्य परस्ते ते सुकृते नुभुत्वा ,इमाम लोकम हिनात्राम वा विसन्ति )~ अर्थात , वे व्यक्ति घोर मूढ़ होते है जो ये मानते है की विभिन्न कर्मकांडो द्वारा पुण्य अर्जित किया जा सकता या पुण्य कार्यों द्वारा अर्जित बल से स्वर्ग के उच्च लोको मे स्थाई रूप से सुख भोगने हेतु वास किया जा सकता है , अपितु ब्रह्म सत्य ये है की अर्जित पुण्य बल समाप्त होते ही पुनः जगत (पृथ्वीलोक) मे मनुष्य रूप मे लौटना निश्चित है जो कलियुग मे दुर्लभतम है (द्वापर युगावतार द्वारा घोषित वन जीव रूपों मे सिंह,etc ~भगवद्गीता ज्ञान ) या हींन निकृष्ट जीव योनियों के चक्रों मे घूमना पड़ता है, M,J as refernce song proclaimed “I am the Light of this World ,I feel grand ,I ve seen your face a thousand times , it proved to be fatal but his desire to reach out to me was honest & affectionately acknowledgement to share it with global audiences as art imitates life ,get in touch


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