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Avatar (Sanskrit: अवतार, avatāra; pronounced [ɐʋɐtaːrɐ]), is a concept within Hinduism that in Sanskrit literally means "descent". It signifies the material appearance or incarnation of a deity on Earth. The relative verb to "alight, to make one's appearance" is sometimes used to refer to any guru or revered human being.
The word avatar does not appear in the Vedic literature; however, it appears in developed forms in post-Vedic literature, and as a noun particularly in the Puranic literature after the 6th century CE. Despite that, the concept of an avatar is compatible with the content of the Vedic literature like the Upanishads as it is symbolic imagery of the Saguna Brahman concept in the philosophy of Hinduism. The Rigveda describes Indra as endowed with a mysterious power of assuming any form at will. The Bhagavad Gita expounds the doctrine of Avatara but with terms other than avatar.
Theologically, the term is most often associated with the Hindu god Vishnu, though the idea has been applied to other deities. Varying lists of avatars of Vishnu appear in Hindu scriptures, including the ten Dashavatara of the Garuda Purana and the twenty-two avatars in the Bhagavata Purana, though the latter adds that the incarnations of Vishnu are innumerable. The avatars of Vishnu are important in Vaishnavism theology. In the goddess-based Shaktism tradition of Hinduism, avatars of the Devi in different appearances such as Tripura Sundari, Durga and Kali are commonly found. While avatars of other deities such as Ganesha and Shiva are also mentioned in medieval Hindu texts, this is minor and occasional. The incarnation doctrine is one of the important differences between Vaishnavism and Shaivism traditions of Hinduism.
Incarnation concepts that are in some aspects similar to avatar are also found in Buddhism, Christianity, and other religions.
The scriptures of Sikhism include the names of numerous Hindu gods and goddesses, but it rejected the doctrine of savior incarnation and endorsed the view of Hindu Bhakti movement saints such as Namdev, that formless eternal god is within the human heart, and man is his own savior.
The Sanskrit noun (avatāra / /,; Hindustani: [əʋˈtaːr]) is derived from the Sanskrit prefix ava- (down) and the root tṛ (to cross over). These roots trace back, states Monier-Williams, to -taritum, -tarati, -rītum. It's cognate to "away" in English, which is root from PIE *au- means "off, away".
Avatar means "descent, alight, to make one's appearance", and refers to the embodiment of the essence of a superhuman being or a deity in another form. The word also implies "to overcome, to remove, to bring down, to cross something". In Hindu traditions, the "crossing or coming down" is symbolism, states Daniel Bassuk, of the divine descent from "eternity into the temporal realm, from unconditioned to the conditioned, from infinitude to finitude". An avatar, states Justin Edwards Abbott, is a saguna (with form, attributes) embodiment of the nirguna Brahman or Atman (soul). Avatar, according to Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati actually means 'Divine Descent' in his commentaries of The Shrimad Bhagavatam and The Bramha Samhita (mentioned in Brahmavaivarta Purana).
Neither the Vedas nor the Principal Upanishads ever mention the word avatar as a noun. The verb roots and form, such as avatarana, appear in ancient post-Vedic Hindu texts, but as "action of descending", but not as an incarnated person (avatara). The related verb avatarana is, states Paul Hacker, used with double meaning, one as action of the divine descending, another as "laying down the burden of man" suffering from the forces of evil.
The term is most commonly found in the context of the Hindu god Vishnu. The earliest mention of Vishnu manifested in a human form to establish Dharma on Earth, uses other terms such as the word sambhavāmi in verse 4.6 and the word tanu in verse 9.11 of the Bhagavad Gita, as well as other words such as akriti and rupa elsewhere. It is in medieval era texts, those composed after the sixth century CE, that the noun version of avatar appears, where it means embodiment of a deity. The idea proliferates thereafter, in the Puranic stories for many deities, and with ideas such as ansha-avatar or partial embodiments.
The term avatar, in colloquial use, is also an epithet or a word of reverence for any extraordinary human being who is revered for his or her ideas. In some contexts, the term avatara just means a "landing place, site of sacred pilgrimage", or just "achieve one's goals after effort", or retranslation of a text in another language. The term avatar is not unique to Hinduism even though the term originated with Hinduism. It is found in the Trikaya doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism, in descriptions for the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism, and many ancient cultures.
The manifest embodiment is sometimes referred to as an incarnation. The translation of avatar as "incarnation" has been questioned by Christian theologians, who state that an incarnation is in flesh and imperfect, while avatar is mythical and perfect. The theological concept of Christ as an incarnation, as found in Christology, presents the Christian concept of incarnation. The term avatar in Hinduism refers to act of various gods taking form to perform a particular task which in most of the times is bringing dharma back. The concept of avatar is totally real and is widely accepted all over the India. Sheth disagrees and states that this claim is an incorrect understanding of the Hindu concept of avatar.[note 1] Avatars are true embodiments of spiritual perfection, one driven by noble goals, in Hindu traditions such as Vaishnavism. The concept of the avatar in Hinduism is not incompatible with natural conception through a sexual act, which is again different from the Christian concept of the Virgin Birth.
Main article: Vishnu
The concept of avatar within Hinduism is most often associated with Vishnu, the preserver or sustainer aspect of God within the Hindu Trinity or Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Vishnu's avatars descend to empower the good and fight evil, thereby restoring Dharma. Traditional Hindus see themselves not as "Hindu", but as Vaishnava (Worshippers of Vishnu), Shaiva (Worshippers of Shiva), or Shakta (Worshipper of the Shakti). Each of the deities has its own iconography and mythology, but common to all is the fact that the divine reality has an explicit form, a form that the worshipper can behold. An oft-quoted passage from the Bhagavad Gita describes the typical role of an avatar of Vishnu:
Whenever righteousness wanes and unrighteousness increases I send myself forth.
For the protection of the good and for the destruction of evil,
and for the establishment of righteousness,
I come into being age after age.— Bhagavad Gita 4.7–8
The Vishnu avatars appear in Hindu mythology whenever the cosmos is in crisis, typically because evil has grown stronger and has thrown the cosmos out of its balance. The avatar then appears in a material form, to destroy evil and its sources, and restore the cosmic balance between the ever-present forces of good and evil.
The most known and celebrated avatars of Vishnu, within the Vaishnavism traditions of Hinduism, are Krishna, Rama, Narayana and Vasudeva. These names have extensive literature associated with them, each has its own characteristics, legends and associated arts. The Mahabharata, for example, includes Krishna, while the Ramayana includes Rama.
Main article: Dashavatara
The Bhagavata Purana describes Vishnu's avatars as innumerable, though ten of his incarnations, the Dashavatara, are celebrated therein as his major appearances. The ten major Vishnu avatars are mentioned in the Agni Purana, the Garuda Purana and the Bhagavata Purana;
The ten best known avatars of Vishnu are collectively known as the Dashavatara (a Sanskrit compound meaning "ten avatars"). Five different lists are included in the Bhagavata Purana, where the difference is in the sequence of the names. Freda Matchett states that this re-sequencing by the composers may be intentional, so as to avoid implying priority or placing something definitive and limited to the abstract.
|Matsya||Half fish/half man avatar. He saves the world from a cosmic deluge, with the help of a boat. Some versions adds that he also saved the Vedas from a demon called Hayagriva.|
|Kurma[note 2]||Tortoise avatar. He supports the cosmos, while the gods and demons churn the cosmic ocean with the help of serpent Vasuki to produce the nectar of immortality (just like churning milk to produce butter). The churning produces both the good and the bad, including poison and immortality nectar. Nobody wants the poison, everyone wants the immortality nectar.|
|Varaha||Boar avatar. He rescues goddess earth when the demon Hiranyaksha kidnaps her and hides her in the depths of cosmic ocean. The boar finds her and kills the demon, and the goddess holds onto the tusk of the boar as he lifts her back to the surface.|
|Narasimha||Half lion-half man avatar. Demon king Hiranyakashipu becomes enormously powerful, gains special powers by which no man or animal could kill him, then bullies and persecutes people who disagree with him, including his own son. The Man-Lion avatar creatively defeats those special powers, kills Hiranyakashipu, and rescues demon's son Prahlad who opposes his own father. The legend is a part of the Hindu festival Holi folklore.|
|Vamana||Demon king Mahabali fought against the Devas and won heaven, and thus became the ruler of heaven, earth, and the underworlds. Though he was a benevolent king, he was a demon, and the devas led by Indra went to Lord Vishnu to help them get heaven back. Lord Vishnu, although didn't want to punish Bali because he was a good king, instead decided to test him. While the king was distributing alms amongst his people, Vishnu in his Vaman avatar approaches Bali in the form of a monk who offers him food, land, money, jewels, and all the riches. However, the monk refuses and asks only for three steps of land. Bali grants it to him. The dwarf grows, in his first step takes the earth and the netherworld, and in the second all of the heavens. Bali, now understanding who it is in front of him, offers his head to the Lord to put his foot on as the third pace. Lord Vishnu gave him the boon of immortality and allowed him to return to his people every year on the occasion of Onam.|
|Parshurama||Sage with an axe avatar. The warrior class gets too powerful, and seizes other people's property for their own pleasure. The avatar appears as a sage with an axe, kills all the adharmi kings and all his warrior companions, Parshurama seizes their properties and transfer them to Brahmins.|
|Rama||The form of Prabhu Narayan who defeated a cruel and adharmi rakshas Ravan. He is a statue of forgiveness,subservient and is considered the Purushuttam Or the perfect man. Words fall short while describing him.|
|Balarama||Balarama, in Hindu mythology, the elder half brother of Krishna, with whom he shared many adventures. Sometimes Balarama is considered one of the 10 avatars (incarnations) of the god Vishnu, particularly among those members of Vaishnava sects who elevate Krishna to the rank of a principal god. Other legends|
|Krishna||The Liladhar Manmohan who came in Dvapara Yuga to restablish dharma. In this avatar Shree Krishna gave the most important knowledge needed by anyone in the form of "Geeta". He does everything for his devotees. Radha, her consort in Vrindavan is the avatar of Mahalakshmi. He had 16108 wives in which 8 are considered his " Patrani" and thus is called Ashtbharya collectively. They are the avatars of Mahalakshmi and it includes- Rukmini, Satyabhama, Jambavati, Kalindi, Mitravinda, Nagnajiti, Bhadra and Lakshmana.|
|Kalki||Kalki is the prophesied tenth avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu. He prominently features in Hindu eschatology. He will bring an end to the Kali Yuga, the final epoch and harbinger in the new epoch of Satya Yuga in the endless cycle of existence within Hinduism.|
The Bhagavata Purana also goes on to give an alternate list, wherein it numerically lists out 23 Vishnu avatars in chapter 1.3.
Avatars like Hayagriva, Hamsa and Garuda are also mentioned in the Pancharatra making a total of forty-six avatars. However, despite these lists, the commonly accepted number of ten avatars for Vishnu was fixed well before the 10th century CE. Madhvacharya also regards Gautama Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu.
Manava Purana is one of Upa puranas. It narrates 42 avatars of Vishnu.
The avatar concept was further developed and refined in later Hindu texts. One approach was to identify full avatars and partial avatars. Krishna, Rama, and Narasimha were full avatars (purna avatars), while others were partial avatars (ansha avatars). Some declared, states Noel Sheth, that every living creature is an avatar of Vishnu. The Pancharatra text of Vaishnavism declares that Vishnu's avatars include those that are direct and complete (sakshad), indirect and endowed (avesha), cosmic and salvific (vyuha), inner and inspirational (antaryamin), consecrated and in the form of image (archa).
Yet another classification, developed in Krishna schools, centers around Guna-avatars, Purusha-avatars and Lila-avatars, with their subtypes. The Guna-avatar classification of avatars is based on the Guṇas concept of the Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy, that is Rajas (Brahma), Sattva (Vishnu), and Tamas (Shiva). These personalities of the Trimurti are referred to as Guna avatars. The Purushavatara are three. The first evolves all matter (Prakriti), the second is the soul present in each individual creature, the third is the interconnected oneness or Brahman that connects all souls. The Lilavataras are partial or full manifestations of Vishnu, where either some powers (Shakti) or material parts of him exist.
Vishnu is Purushavatara. The Matsya, Kurma, and Vamana avatars of Vishnu are Lilavataras. A Purnarupa in this classification, is when Vishnu manifests completely along with his qualities and powers. In Bengal Vaishnavism, Krishna is the Purnarupa. In Shaivism, Bhairava is the purnarupa of Shiva.
24 avatars of Vishnu are mentioned in Bachitar Natak's composition in Dasam Granth, the second scripture of Sikhism written by Guru Gobind Singh:
The Guru Granth Sahib reverentially includes the names of numerous Hindu deities, including Vishnu avatars such as Krishna, Hari, and Rama, as well those of Devi as Durga.
Dasam Granth has three major compositions, one each dedicated to avatars of Vishnu (Chaubis avatar) and Brahma. However, Sikhism rejects the doctrine of savior incarnation, and only accepts the abstract nirguna formless god. The Sikh Gurus endorsed the view of Hindu Bhakti movement saints such as Namdev (≈1270 – 1350 CE) that formless eternal god is within the human heart and man is his own savior.
The Gupti Ismailis, who observe pious circumspection as Hindus, uphold that the first Shi‘i Imam, ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, as well as his descendants though the line of Isma‘il, are collectively Kalki, the tenth and final avatāra of Vishnu. According to this interpretation, these figures represent the continuity of divine guidance to humankind. In the view of some Guptis, this is corroborated by the Quranic verse 14:4 which mentions the idea that God had sent a messenger to every land. They understand the avatāras to be these messengers sent by God to their people in the Indian subcontinent.
Although Puranic scriptures contain occasional references to avatars of Shiva, the avatar doctrine is neither universally accepted nor commonly adopted in Shaivism. The views on the doctrine of incarnation has been one of the significant doctrinal differences between Vaishnavism and Shaivism, in addition to their differences on the role of householder life versus monastic life for spiritual release. Shaivism is a transcendental theology, where man, with the help of his Guru, is his own savior.
The Linga Purana lists twenty-eight avatars of Shiva. In the Shiva Purana there is a distinctly Saivite version of a traditional avatar myth: Shiva brings forth Virabhadra, one of his terrifying forms, in order to calm Narasimha, an avatar of Vishnu. When that fails, Shiva manifests as the human-lion-bird Sharabha which calms down lion-man Narasimha avatar of Vishnu, and Shiva then gives Vishnu a chakra (not to be confused with Sudarshan Chakra) as gift. A similar story is told in the late medieval era Sharabha Upanishad. However, Vaishnava Dvaita school refutes this Shaivite view of Narasimha. According to some other puranas, Lord Shiva had 24 avatars, just like Lord Vishnu.
The vanara god Hanuman who helped Rama (the Vishnu avatar) is considered by some to be the eleventh avatar of Rudra (Shiva). Some regional deities like Khandoba are also believed by some to be avatars of Shiva. Ashwatthama, the son of Drona is also considered to an Avatar of Lord Shiva.
Shesha and his avatars (Balarama and Lakshmana) are occasionally linked to Shiva. Adi Shankara, the formulator of Advaita Vedanta, is also occasionally regarded as an avatar of Shiva.
In Dasam Granth, Guru Gobind Singh mentioned two avatars of Rudra: Dattatreya Avatar and Parasnath Avatar.
Avatars are also observed in Shaktism, the sect dedicated to the worship of the Goddess (Devi), but they do not have universal acceptance in the sect. The Devi Bhagavata Purana describes the descent of Devi avatars to punish the wicked and defend the righteous as – much as the Bhagavata Purana does with the avatars of Vishnu.
Nilakantha, an 18th-century commentator on the Devi Bhagavata Purana – which includes the Devi Gita – says that various avatars of the Goddess includes Shakambhari and even the masculine Krishna and Rama – generally thought to be Vishnu's avatars. Parvati, Lakshmi and Saraswati are main goddesses worshipped as Devi avatars.
Devi is popular in her form as Parvati. In Devi Mahatmya she is seen as the Goddess Mahakali, and in Uma Samhita, she is seen as Devi herself. Regarding her incarnations, it varies per sect in Hinduism. She could be all Goddesses as said in Shaivism and some main Shatism interpretations like the Sri kula and Kali Kula families, or just a form of Devi in some other Shaktism interpretations and many Vaishnava interpretations. With this in mind, Parvati's forms include:
All of these incarnations helped provide security to the world and even brought Shiva into the participation of wordly affairs.
Like Vishnu, his consort Lakshmi incarnates as in many forms to help provide order and to enlighten the world with her consort. She has many forms, and just like Parvati, some of her forms are not consistent throughout all sects and interpretations of Hinduism. In Vaishnavism and some interpretations of Shaktism, Lakshmi is seen as Devi herself. She could be every Goddess as said in Vaishnavism and some interpretations of Shaktism, or just another form of Devi as seen in other interpretations of Shaktism and in Shaivism. With this in mind, Lakshmi's forms include:
In Dasam Granth, second scriptures of Sikhs written by Guru Gobind Singh, mentioned seven Brahma Avatars.
According to the Skanda Purana, Brahma incarnated himself as Yajnavalkya in response to a curse from Shiva.
The Linga Purana declares that Ganesha incarnates to destroy demons and to help the gods and pious people. The two Upapuranas – Ganesha Purana and Mudgala Purana – detail the avatars of Ganesha. Both these upapuranas are core scriptures of the Ganapatya sect – exclusively dedicated to Ganesha worship.
Four avatars of Ganesha are listed in the Ganesha Purana: Mohotkata, Mayūreśvara, Gajanana and Dhumraketu. Each avatar corresponds to a different yuga, has a different mount and different skin complexion, but all the avatars have a common purpose – to slay demons.
The Mudgala Puranam describes eight avatars of Ganesha:
Jhulelal, the Iṣṭa-devatā (most-revered deity) of Sindhi Hindus, is considered the incarnation of the Varuna.
The Lord, Visnu, took his place in the egg. Then with his mind devoted to the supreme spirit, Brahma meditated upon Visnu. At the end of the meditation a drop of perspiration was produced from his forehead. That drop, of the shape of a bubble, in a moment fell on the earth. O you of an excellent face, I, having three eyes, a trident, and adorned with the crown of the matted hair, was born from that bubble. With modesty I asked the lord of gods: "What shall I do?" Then God Visnu, with delight, thus spoke to me: "O Rudra, you will bring about a fierce-looking destruction of the world, (after) actually being (my) portion, viz. Samkarsana, O you of an excellent face."
So Balarama became (Bala+Deva) Baladeva. Krishna and Balarama are regarded as Hari and Hara. Here Balarama is regarded as Lord Siva. Siva is helping Vishnu in every incarnation like Rama-Laxman in Treta Yuga. In Dvapara Yuga as Krishna-Balarama and in Kali Yuga they are Jagannath and Balabhadra.
Some say that Krishna is Vishnu, Balarama is Shiva and Subhadra is Devi, thus the three siblings represent the three main schools of Hindu theism: Vaishnava, Shaiva and Shakta.
The gods complained to Shiva that Vishnu had entered the body of the Buddha on earth for their sake, but now the haters of religion, despising Brahmins and the dharma of class and stage of life, filled the earth. “Not a single man performs a ritual, for all have become heretics—Buddhists, Kapalikas, and so forth—and so we eat no offerings.” Shiva consented to become incarnate as Shankara, to reestablish Vedic dharma, which keeps the universe happy, and to destroy evil behavior.
After seeing his (of Brahma) aberration on the altar at the time of marriage, Sambhu cursed him. He was then born as Yajnavalkya. Sakalya engaged Yajnavalkya in the royal palace for the performance of the Santi rites.
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