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An Anglicized form of the Sanskrit, avatara , "descent", from the root tr , "pass" (cf. Latin in-trare ), and the preposition ava , "down".

The word is used, in a technical sense, in the Hindu religion to denote the descent upon earth of a portion of the essence of a god, which then assumes some coarser material form, be it animal, monster, or man. Such descents are ascribed in the mythology of Hinduism to various gods, but those ascribed to Vishnu are by far the most important. They are believed to have taken place at different ages of the world, and to have consisted of different proportions of the essence of Vishnu. Their number is variously stated, ranging from ten to twenty-eight, finally becoming indefinitely numerous. Any remarkable man is liable to be regarded as a more or less perfect avatar of Vishnu, and the consequence one of the worst features of Hinduism --has been the offering of divine homage to men, especially the founders of religious sects and their successors.

The ten most famous avatars are:

  • The Fish, matsya . The basis of this is the story told in the Satapatha Brahmana of how Manu was saved from the Deluge by a great fish, which foretold him of the danger, commanded him to build a boat, and finally towed this boat to a mountain top. The Puranas afterwards declare that this fish was an avatar of Vishnu.
  • The Tortoise, Kurma . Vishnu in this form offers his back as the pivot on which rests Mt. Mandara, while the gods and demons churn with it various valuable objects from the ocean of milk.
  • The Boar, Varaha . Like the first, this avatar is concerned with the rescue of the earth from a flood, the boar raising it from the water in which it had been submerged.
  • The Man-lion, Nara-sinha . Vishu takes this form to deliver the world from a demon, who had obtained from Brahma the boon, that he should be slain neither by a god, a man, nor an animal.
  • The Dwarf, Vamana . The world having fallen under the possession of another demon, Vishnu, in the form of a dwarf, begged for as much of it as he could cover in three steps. His request was granted, but, from the Rig-Veda on, the most prominent thing in connection with Vishnu (originally a sun-god), was that in three strides he traverses the universe. Two strides now sufficing for the redemption of heaven and earth, compassion inspires him to leave the nether regions to the demon he has duped.
  • Rama with the axe, Parasu-rama . In the form of a hero, Rama, armed with an axe, Vishnu destroys the Ksatriyas, or warrior caste, in the interest of the priestly caste, the Brahmins.
  • Rama, the great hero of the Hindu Odyssey, the Rama yana , who is made into an avatar of Vishnu.
  • Krsna, the Indian Hercules, as he is styled by Megasthenes, the most popular hero of India, is the most perfect avatar of Vishnu.
  • Buddha, a curious result of the triumph of Hinduism over Buddhism. In one version it is explained that Vishnu's purpose was to destroy the wicked by leading them into a false religion.
  • Kalki. In this form Vishnu will descend when the world is wholly depraved, destroy utterly the wicked, and restore the happy conditions of the Age of Virtue.
  • The importance of this theory of avatars to Hinduism is the way in which it has contributed to the wonderful adaptability of that religion. In the Buddha avatar the fact is particularly patent, but, in the Rama and Krsna avatars also, we clearly have the adoption into Hinduism of the cults of these heroes. It is a mere guess that similar compromises with some totemistic forms of religion are to be seen in the Fish, Boar, and Tortoise avatars, and the same might be said of an attempt to see in the Man-lion and Dwarf avatars, traces of the aboriginal religions. The resemblance of these avatars to the doctrine of the Incarnation is most superficial, and as the theory of the avatars has a sufficient basis in Hindu philosophy, several points of contact with the earlier mythology, it is unnecessay to suppose with Weber (Indische Studien, II, 169) that it is the result of an imitation of this dogma.

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