Avatāra

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Swami Harshananda

Sometimes transliterated as: Avatara, AvatAra, Avataara


Avatāra literally means ‘one who has descended’. The idea of people being avatars is applied today wherein certain persons today are considered avatars. These include examples such as the current Dalai Lama and the Dharma Raja (Spiritual Head) of Bhutan[1] being incarnations of the Gautama Buddha. In English the terms which reflect this Sanskrit word closest are incarnation, ephiphany, and theophany. Other applicable terms are manifestation, emanation, and embodiment.

Concept of Avatāra

The concept of ‘avatāra’ (incarnation of the Divine) is one of the fundamental tenets of the religion. The Bhagwad Gitā states that [2] after creating this world, God sets it in motion and regulates it through three cosmic laws They are known as :

  1. Ṛta
  2. Satya
  3. Dharma


When the cosmic law, the ṛta, is comprehended by the intellect, it becomes ‘satya’ (truth). When the life is regulated according to 'satya', it becomes ‘dharma’ (righteousness, right conduct). A human mind is a product of the three guṇas which is a subject to vicissitudes. These three are mentioned below :

  1. Sattva
  2. Rajas
  3. Tamas


In the beginning sattva will have the upper hand and people will naturally be inclined towards dharma. Hence life on earth moves smoothly in harmony and peace. Gradually, as rajas and tamas gain ascendance, people will incline towards evil; and this will upset the social equilibrium. Good people devoted to dharma will be neutralized and made ineffective whereas the evil ones addicted to adharma or unrighteousness will rule the roost. At such critical periods in human history God decides to ‘come down’ (avatāra = coming down) and restore the spiritual and social equilibrium implied by the word ‘dharma.’

Onus of Avatāra

Though restoring dharma is the primary concern of an avatāra, eliminating or chastising the wicked, and, protecting the good is a necessary and integral part of this process. These activities are also undertaken by him.

An avatāra is not just a jīva who has attained the state of liberation and is eager to help mankind. He also represents the direct descent of God himself to the human level in order to help the human beings to ascend to the divine level, of which the liberated soul is a perfect example. A jīva is forced to take a body due to his past actions (prārabdha-karma) whereas the avatāra incarnates on his own free to benefit mankind. Consequently, he is always conscious of his mission and power. It is only he who can see both the Absolute (Brahman) and the manifested world simultaneously and can teach the world about the Absolute.

Avatāra as per Vedānta

Vedānta discusses God’s manifestation in the world, his omniscience as also omnipotence and grace. Hence there is nothing unreasonable in the doctrine that he can also assume a special and unique form as avatāra, fully retaining consciousness of the divinity from his very birth. Another specialty of this doctrine is that God incarnates himself in response to the needs of the times wherever and whenever necessary. Hence there are no restrictions regarding either the number of incarnations or the place. The sole consideration is the decline of dharma and the rise of adharma in opposition to it, to such an extent that the social equilibrium is badly disturbed.

Avatāra as per Rgveda

The avatāra concept is probably suggested in the Rgveda[3] where Indra is said to be endowed with the mysterious power of assuming any form at will. Some of the avatāras mentioned in the lists of the ‘Daśāvatāras’ (ten incarnations) are met with in the earlier Vedic literature.

Avatāra as per Śatapatha Brāhmana

The Śatapatha Brāhmana mentions the story of Matsya (fish incarnation), Kurma (tortoise incarnation) and the Varāha (boar incarnation).[4] The Vāmanāvatāra (dwarf in-carnation) of Viṣṇu taking the three steps is also clearly mentioned in the same scriptures.[5]

Avatāra as per Purāṇas

In the purāṇas we find the avatāras limited to ten in number (hence the name ‘Daśāvatāras’ or ten incarnations). As per the purāṇas the last avatāra (Kalki) is yet to come. The Daśāvatāras are :

  1. Matsya - The fish
  2. Kurma - The tortoise
  3. Varāha - The boar
  4. Narasimha - The man-lion
  5. Vāmana - The dwarf
  6. Paraśurāma - Rāma with the battle-axe
  7. Rāma - The son of Daśaratha
  8. Kṛṣṇa - The son of Vasudeva
  9. Buddha - Gautama Buddha
  10. Kalki

However, there is no unanimity or uniformity in the various lists given by these works. Around the tenth century A. D., Buddha seems to have gained a place in the lists as the ninth incarnation. In the earlier lists and the later ones, Buddha has been replaced by Balarāma (Rāma of strength, elder brother of Krsṇa). Some lists include both Balarāma and Buddha but omit Kṛṣṇa, that all the ten are the avatāras of Kṛṣṇa of whom Lord Viśṇu is an expansion.

Sometimes we come across many more avatāras than the traditional ten. For instance, the Bhāgavata gives three lists of 22 names [6] 23 names [7] and 16 names[8] and also declares that the avatāras are innumerable.[9] Occasionally the avatāras are classified into three types :

  1. Purṇāvatāra - Purṇāvatāras are those in which the manifestation of the Divine is full and complete (purṇa = full) as in Rāma and Kṛṣṇa.
  2. Aihśāvatāra - Aihśāvatāras are partial manifestations (aihśa = part) of the Divine as in great sages like Vyāsa.
  3. Āveśāvatāra - Āveśāvatāras are those in which there is a temporary entry of the Divine (āveśa = entry) as in the case of Nṛsimha manifesting through Padmapāda (a disciple of Sankara) who was a votary of that deity.

Other avatars

Apart from the ones mentioned, in local traditions, there are said to be other avatars. These include ones of Vishnu, such as Visvesvara, Purukutsa, and Daityasudan the slayer of Lemurasura, as well as a bull incarnation of Indra that Puranjaya as 'Kakutstha' rode to drive away the asuras to Patala.

Vyūha

Vyūha in the Upanishads: unraveling of the knowledge

In the Upanishads the word vyuha occurs once, it appears in śloka 16 of the Isha Upanishad :-

पूषन्नेकर्षे यम सूर्य प्राजापत्य व्यूह रश्मिन्समूह |
तेजो यत्ते रूपं कल्याणतमं तत्ते पश्यामि योऽसावसौ पुरुषः सोऽहमस्मि ||
"O Sun, sole traveler of the Heavens, controller of all, Surya, son of Prajapati; remove thy rays and gather up the burning light. I behold thy glorious form; I am he, the Purusha within thee."

In this passage vyūha means – 'remove' (to a distance thy rays). The sage declares that the Truth is concealed in the Vedas, covered by a golden lid or vessel[10] Badarayana, by declaring – utpattyasambhavāt (उत्पत्त्यसम्भवात्) (Owing to the impossibility of origin) - Brahma Sutras (II.ii.42) refutes the Bhagavata view that the Chatur-vyūha forms originate successively from Vasudeva, for any origin for the soul is impossible, an implement cannot originate from its agent who wields it.[11] Whereas in a vyūha an army re-sets its different able warriors and weaponry into a specific arrangement as per battle demands, the Supreme Being re-sets the contents of consciousness through yogamaya with each formation concealing yet another formation. The five layers of matter (prakrti) that constitute the human body are the five sheaths (panchakosa), one moves inwards from the visible layers through more refined invisible layers in search of own true self.[12]

Vyūha in the Pāñcarātra Āgama: the Vaiśnava doctrine of manifestation

The Pāñcarātra Āgama, which are based on Ekāyana recension of the Śukla Yajurveda, is later than the Vedas but earlier than the Mahabharata. The main āgamas are the Vaiśnava (worship of Vishnu), the Śaiva (worship of Shiva) and the Śākta (worship of Devi or Shakti) āgamas; all āgamas are elaborate systems of Vedic knowledge. According to Vedanta Desika, the Pāñcarātra āgama teaches the five-fold daily religious duty consisting of – abhigamana, upādāna, ijyā, svādhyāya and yoga, the name of this āgama is derived on account of its description of the five-fold manifestation of the Supreme Being viz, para (supreme or the transcendental form), vyūha (formation or manifestation as the four vyūha), vibhava (reincarnation or descent to earth as avtāra), arcā (visible image of God) and antaryāmi (cosmic form of God). Lakshmi accompanies Vishnu in His Chatur-vyūha (four-fold manifestation) as Vāsudeva (creator), Saṅkarṣaṇa (sustainer), Pradyumna (destroyer), and Aniruddha (spiritual knowledge promulgator). This is the Vaiśnava doctrine of Vyūha or the doctrine of formation.[13]

The Chatur-vyūha forms of Vishnu are related to four of the six causes of creation which six are God Himself as the final cause of creation and His five aspects – Narāyana (thinking), Vāsudeva (feeling), Samkarśana (willing), Pradyumna (knowing), and Aniruddha (acting) successively. Each divinity controls its specific creative energy.[14] The six gunas – jnana (omniscience), aishvarya (lordship), shakti (potency), bala (force), virya (virtue) and tejas (self-sufficiency), acting in pairs and in totality, are the instruments and the subtle material of pure creation. Vyūhas are the first beings created, and they represent the effective parts of a coherent whole.[15] Here, vyūha means – projection; the projection of the svarūpa ('own form') as bahurūpa ('manifest variously').[16]

References

  1. P. 301 The Cyclopædia of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia ..., Volume 2 By Edward Balfour
  2. Bhagwad Gitā 4.5-8
  3. Rgveda 3.53.8; 6.47.18
  4. Śatapatha Brāhmana 1.8.1.1-6; 7.5.1.5; 14.1.2.11
  5. Śatapatha Brāhmana 1.2.5.1
  6. Bhāgavata 1.3.6-22
  7. Bhāgavata 2.7.1 ff.
  8. Bhāgavata 11.4.3 ff.
  9. Bhāgavata 1.3.26
  10. Template:Cite book
  11. Template:Cite book
  12. Template:Cite book
  13. Template:Cite book
  14. Template:Cite book
  15. Template:Cite book
  16. Template:Cite book
  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore