When you encounter the word Avatar, it’s highly plausible that you first thought of a movie or a cartoon version of yourself on Facebook.
You are also right, but there’s a deeper meaning behind the word avatar, deeply woven into Hinduism’s unique and vibrant culture. Enlighten yourself through this article!
What Is An Avatar? (It’s More Than Just A Movie!)
It’s sad to say that most of us only knew about avatars through social media and James Cameron’s movies.
But in reality, avatars have already been a concept of Hinduism thousands of years ago, probably way older than the avatars we mostly know.
According to Matt Stefon, an avatar is the material appearance of a deity or a supreme being in an animal or human form. They are sent to fight evil entities posing threats to the world and restore righteousness.
It came from the Sanskrit word Avatara, which means descent. Dr. David Frawley explained that an avatar generally refers to an unexpected or revolutionary event or person meant to bring change to the world.
He added that as incarnations of the Divine, the avatars are primarily associated with the descents of Lord Vishnu (The Pervader), the supreme being and divine power that maintains and preserves the universe.
The Avatars of Lord Vishnu
As the primary of the Trimurti (trinity of Hinduism), it is said that Lord Vishnu will plunge into the earth as one of his avatars when it is in chaos and threatened by dark forces.
According to the Bhagavata Purana, Lord Vishnu’s avatars are innumerable. However, he has ten avatars known and celebrated as they represent Lord Vishnu’s major appearances.
They are known as the Dashavatara or Ten Avatars, mentioned in the Purana, Agni Purana, and Bhagavata Purana.
- Four of the Dashavatara were said to have existed during the era of Satya Yuga (Golden Age) or the Age of Truth. A time when humanity was under the direct guidance of the gods.
- Three of them descended during the Treta Yuga (Silver Age) when humankind focused more on material possessions and became less spiritual.
- One during the Dvapara Yuga or the Bronze Age. At this time, humanity is not as strong as its ancestors. They were enveloped by darkness and evil qualities.
- One appeared during the Iron Age or Kali Yuga. It is said that the Kali Yuga is the present time and is the worst of all the Yugas as it is full of sins and conflicts.
- Lastly, according to legends, the last of the Dashavatara is still yet to appear.
|The Dashavatara of Lord Vishnu
(The Golden Age)
|Matsya is a half-fish, half-human avatar of Lord Vishnu.
He alerted the human leader, Manu, about the great flood and assisted him in saving all the living beings, the Vedas, and the world’s vegetation.
(The Golden Age)
|Kurma is Lord Vishnu’s half-tortoise, half-human manifestation.
He balances Mount Mandara on his shell and assists the gods during the churning of the legendary sea, Samudra Manthan.
It is also said that he carries the weight of the whole universe at his back.
(The Golden Age)
|Varaha is a half-human, half-boar manifestation of Lord Vishnu, who is said to massacre the monster Hiranyaksha.
He saved Bhudevi (the personification of the earth) from the monster and brought her back to her rightful position.
(The Golden Age)
(The Man Lion)
|Narasimha is a half-lion and a half-human avatar born to end King Hiranya Kashyap’s tyranny and bring back Dharma on earth.
|Vamana is Lord Vishnu’s Brahmin manifestation, who is said to appear to check the increasing power of the evil ruler Bali.
He deceived Bali and sent the tyrant to the underworld.
(The Angry Man)
|Parshurama is an avatar presented as a Kshatriya. He is a sage described as holding an axe.
He was born to end the tyranny of the Kshatriyas caste, who abused their power and brought misery to others.
(The Perfect Man)
|Rama is the main protagonist of the ancient epic Ramayana. He assassinated the evil ruler Ravana to end his rule and save his wife Site.
(The Divine Statesman)
|In the Mahabharata, Krishna is depicted to have ended the reign of his authoritarian maternal uncle Kansa.
Krishna also served as Ajurna’s guide, charioteer, and Pandava’s advisor.
|The Prince Siddharta Gautama left his family and royal life to search for enlightenment.
Through the eightfold paths, he established Buddhism and reached Kalki is Lord Vishnu’s sole avatar yet to be born. According to legends, he will appear to slay the monster Kali and open a new Golden Age.
Kalki is portrayed as a warrior on a white steed, wielding his fiery sword to end the world’s oppression and punish all unjust leaders.
The Pattern of the Dashavatara
According to eCraft India, Lord Vishnu’s appearance is akin to the legs of a cow. If you notice, the number of avatars decreases by one in each Yuga. Four in Satya Yuga, three in Treta Yuga, one during the Dvapara Yuga, and one during Kali Yuga.
In the Puranas, the cow is believed to represent Dharma. The cow of Dharma stands on four legs in the Satya Yuga, three in Treta Yuga, one in the Dvapara Yuga, and one during the Kali Yuga.
The Symbolism of Avatars
According to Jayaram, many believe the Dashavatara represents the evolution of man. Their appearance signifies the different cycles of life and the circumstances experienced by mankind during those times.
- Matsya, the fish, is associated with life in water.
- The tortoise Kurma represents the transition of life from sea to land.
- The third avatar, Varaha, the boar, signifies life on land.
- On the other hand, Narasimha, depicted as a man-lion, symbolizes the beginning of mammals’ development.
- Vamana, the dwarf, represents the incomplete development of humans.
- Then Parshurama, the sage holding an axe, symbolizes the end of man’s basic evolution.
- Rama represents the ability of man to govern,
- while Krishna, known for his expertise in the sixty-four field of arts and science, signals man’s cultural development and the beginning of civilizations.
- Lastly, Buddha, the enlightened one, signals man’s social advancement.
Avatars vs. Incarnation
The terms avatar and incarnation are often associated with one another, but they are deeply different.
In Christianity, incarnation means that God took the form of flesh through Jesus Christ, which is different from how Lord Vishnu manifested himself through his avatars.
Kenneth Samples explained that many perceive Jesus Christ as an avatar, but he argued that incarnation is deeply embedded at the heart of Christianity and a truth recorded in history.
Noel Sheth explained that the translation of the avatar as an incarnation had been questioned a lot by Christian theologians. According to them, an incarnation is in the flesh and imperfect, while an avatar is perfect and mythical.
Wrapping It Up!
Avatar, which means descent, is the manifestation of a supreme being in the form of an animal or a human.
In Hinduism, the Dashavatara or the Ten Avatars are believed to be the manifestations of Lord Vishnu in the Four Yugas of endless time. They appear to defeat evil and restore peace and harmony on earth.
It is also believed that the Dashavatara represents Dharma and the evolution of man— from his creation to his complete development.
It’s just right to learn more about avatars to appreciate and remember their origin and not blindly associate them with things far from their context.
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