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 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  after creating this world, God sets it in motion and regulates it through three cosmic laws They are known as :
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 :
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 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). The Vāmanāvatāra (dwarf in-carnation) of Viṣṇu taking the three steps is also clearly mentioned in the same scriptures.
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 :
- Matsya - The fish
- Kurma - The tortoise
- Varāha - The boar
- Narasimha - The man-lion
- Vāmana - The dwarf
- Paraśurāma - Rāma with the battle-axe
- Rāma - The son of Daśaratha
- Kṛṣṇa - The son of Vasudeva
- Buddha - Gautama Buddha
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  23 names  and 16 names and also declares that the avatāras are innumerable. Occasionally the avatāras are classified into three types :
- Purṇāvatāra - Purṇāvatāras are those in which the manifestation of the Divine is full and complete (purṇa = full) as in Rāma and Kṛṣṇa.
- Aihśāvatāra - Aihśāvatāras are partial manifestations (aihśa = part) of the Divine as in great sages like Vyāsa.
- 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.
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.
- P. 301 The Cyclopædia of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia ..., Volume 2 By Edward Balfour
- Bhagwad Gitā 4.5-8
- Rgveda 3.53.8; 6.47.18
- Śatapatha Brāhmana 126.96.36.199-6; 188.8.131.52; 184.108.40.206
- Śatapatha Brāhmana 220.127.116.11
- Bhāgavata 1.3.6-22
- Bhāgavata 2.7.1 ff.
- Bhāgavata 11.4.3 ff.
- Bhāgavata 1.3.26
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore