By Swami Harshananda
Daśāvatāra literally means ‘ten incarnations of Lord Viṣṇu’. Lord Viṣṇu, the Preserver of this world, incarnates to ward off extraordinary perils like visitation of demons or human malefactors and to preserve the socio-ethical order, regardless of the time and place of appearance. Whenever dharma declines and adharma prospers, he embodies to restore the balance in the world.
Though there are infinite numbers of incarnations, ten avatāras are popularly remembered. Of the ten avatāras, first five have been referred to in the various sections of the Vedas and last five have been in human forms. They are:
First Incarnation - Matsyāvatāra
Matsyāvatāra means fish-incarnation. The Lord is said to have saved Manu(the progenitor of mankind), Saptarṣis(the seven sages, mind-born sons of Brahmā) along with their wives, along with the animal kingdom. The world was repopulated through them later on.
Second Incarnation - Kurma
Lord Viṣṇu incarnated himself as the Kurma (the Tortoise) in order to support mount Mandāra which started sinking during the churning of the ocean (samudramathana). The deva-s and demons had jointly undertaken this adventure to get amṛta (nectar) from the ocean.
Third Incarnation - Varāhāvatāra
Lord Viṣnu then incarnated as Varāhāvatāra which means boar-incarnation. In this incarnation the Lord killed the demon Hiraṇyākṣa and lifted the earth out of the flood waters in which it had submerged. One symbolic meaning ascribed to this incarnation is that it represents the extrication of the world from the deluge of sin by the power of the Supreme Being.
Fourth Incarnation - Narasimha
Prahlāda was a great devotee of Viṣṇu. He was severely tortured by his father, the demon Hiraṇyakaśipu. His father was a non-believer in the existence of an omnipresent and omnipotent God. Narasimha (Man-lion) appeared in front of him emerging out of the pillar and killed him. Being a combination of man (the best of higher creatures) and lion (the best of lower creatures), Narasimha represents the best of creations. Incidentally this also proves the omnipresence of God. Narasimha is especially the embodiment of valor which is a divine attribute and hence worshiped by rulers and warriors. His Mantra is said to be very powerful, capable of destroying enemies and exorcising evil.
Fifth Incarnation - Vāmana
When Bali, the grandson of Prahlāda, conquered the three worlds, Indra was deprived of his heavenly kingdom. At the request of Aditi, the mother of Indra, Lord Viṣṇu incarnated as Vāmana (the Dwarf), a young brāhmaṇa boy, and approached Bali. Bali was known for his munificence and Vāmana asked for a gift of land that could be covered by three steps. With the first and the second step, Lord Viṣṇu covered the earth and heaven. With the third step, he pushed down Bali to the netherworld. Hence he is also known as Trivikrama, one who encompassed the world with three big steps. This teaches us two morals:
- One who begs makes himself small, since even God had to resort to the dwarf's form while begging.
- A true brāhmaṇa can conquer the three worlds by the power of the spirit.
Sixth Incarnation - Paraśurāma
Paraśurāma is the sixth avatāra of Rāma with the battle-axe. Paraśurāma was the son of the sage-couple Jamadagni and Reṇukā. He exterminated the tyrannical among the Kṣattriyas led by Kārtavirya, who were oppressing the people.
Seventh Incarnation - Śrī Rāma
It is believed that Śrī Rāma the next incarnation, met Paraśurāma and absorbed his power into himself. Hence the latter is sometimes considered as āveśāvatāra, an incarnation by the temporary possession of Viṣṇu’s powers. Śrī Rāma, one of the two most popular incarnations of the Lord Viṣṇu, comes next in the series. His story, the Rāmāyana has now become an immortal epic. He is a role model for the ideal man. His name is known as the ‘tāraka-mantra,’ the mantra that takes one across the ocean of transmigration.
Eighth Incarnation - Balarāma
Balarāma, the strong and elder brother of Śrī Kṛṣṇa is the eighth incarnation. His many adventures include:
- Slaying of the ape Dvivida
- Slaying of the demon Dhenuka
- Shaking the ramparts of Hastināvati (the capital city of the Pāṇḍavas)
- Dragging the river Yamunā out of its course.
Ninth Incarnation-Śrī Kṛṣṇa
The ninth incarnation of Lord Viṣṇu is, perhaps the most popular incarnation of all. It is so popular that he is considered Purṇāvatāra (the incarnation in toto) and all other deities are regarded as his manifestations. His story and his exploits are too numerous and well-known to be mentioned here. To the average person, he is the supreme statesman, warrior, hero, philosopher and teacher, infact God himself. He is the great expounder of the ‘Song Celestial,’ the Bhagavadgitā.
Tenth Incarnation - Kalki
The tenth avatāra Kalki, is yet to come. It is believed that he will descend upon the earth at the end of the present age (Kali Yuga). He will come riding on the back of a white horse with a drawn sword. He will destroy the enemies of dharma and re-establish it in all its glory.
Variations in the List of Incarnations
This list of the ten avatāras of Lord Viṣṇu is by no means the standard one accepted by all. Taking Śrī Kṛṣṇa as Viṣṇu Himself, he is not included in some lists. His place is taken over by Buddha. In some other lists, Buddha replaces Balarāma. Other common avatāras include Haiṅsa, Sātvata, Yajña, Dattātreya, and Vedavyāsa but the total is kept as ten. A common expanded list refers to 23 avatāras.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore