How can one become a devoted Vaishnava, Shaiva, or Shakta at the same time?

Different forms of God are conceived in Hinduism to meet the different tastes and temperaments of people. While God as Brahman/ Parabrahman is one and is amenable for worship in different forms, saints and sages always advise seekers to concentrate and worship one God whose form is ishta – the most dear to the heart. That way focus will be far better instead of fritting away energy in different directions.

Here is a story narrated by Satguru Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma) which is quite apt to answer your question:

Dig deep at one place

Once there was a famous devotee. A man from the next village heard about him and therefore came to see him. The visitor waited outside the front yard of the house as the devotee was performing his worship inside the house at that time.

The man peeped inside and noticed that the devotee was sitting in front of his pooja shrine and doing the worship of Lord Ganesha. The visitor, seeing this dug a hole in the ground. The devotee then started worshiping his Guru. The visitor, now dug a second hole. After finishing the hymns praising the Guru, the devotee then started worshiping Lord Muruga. The visitor dug a third hole.

As the devotee then proceeded to worship Lord Vishnu, Goddess Lakshmi, Lord Shiva, Goddess Kali and so on, the visitor too dug one hole each corresponding the the God worshiped.

After finishing the puja, the devotee came out and he was surprised to see so many holes at his yard. He shouted at the visitor: “What is this? Why have you dug so many holes in my yard?”

The visitor said, “I wanted to get some water and so I dug one hole. Since I didn’t get water there, I dug the next one and the next and so on. I have dug everywhere but could not get any water. Had I dug at one place deep enough, I would have got the water by now and need not have wasted my time”.

The devotee understood immediately. Had he surrendered to  any one of the Gods wholeheartedly and concentrated worshiping him, he could have become a liberated soul by then.

[Amma: The Gods and Goddesses have diverse forms, but in reality all are one. The various names and forms are only to help us in our spiritual practice to suit our diverse tastes. Each one can choose a deity according to his taste and mental make up which will serve as the ladder to reach the supreme.]

Why were Brahmins treated superior in ancient India? Do Brahmins of the present day really think they are superior to other classes of people? Is ‘Brahmin pride’ really justified?

The source of knowledge of all rituals and mantras is Vedas, particularly Yajur Veda for rituals. Only Brahmins were originally entitled to learn Veda and practice the rituals because only brahmins had the required qualities and qualifications for it.

Those who do the poojas, prayers and rituals were expected to live a pure life, be very dedicated, be free from lust and greed, lead an extremely simple life (funded purely by donations/ gifts/ grants from Kings or the dakshina —voluntary offering paid by the ritual seekers). They were expected to eat less, practice austerities of the highest order, never work for a salary, follow vegetarianism, not consume alcoholic drinks etc. These were indeed the essential qualifications for people who were to be fit enough for conducting rituals and also to memorize Vedas and repeat them verbatim, because Vedas were transmitted from generation to generation only through word by mouth.

Of the four varnas, only Brahmins were able to live up to these fundamental expectations. Brahmins had access to Sankrit and they were good in reciting Vedas with proper intonation that is very essential for the mantras to take effect. Naturally, the tradition was followed generations after generations. Further other knowledge like Dhanurveda (scriptures about archery) and philosophy (contained in Upanishads) were to be taught to others for which Brahmins were fit enough and brilliant enough.

Thus even though Brahmins were in exclusive possession of the greatest knowledge source of Hinduism, they opted to live an extremely simple and pure life as per dharma ordained on them. They were free from jealousy, greed and they shunned violence. Naturally, they commanded respect in the society. Kings prospered through their association with Brahmins and they naturally showed lots of respect to Brahmins.

That’s how in ancient India, Brahmins were treated superior to other varnas.

However, in today’s cultural background things are totally different.

Practically all those who call themselves brahmins have only a semblance of  Brahmins  today. If you read “Deivatthin Kural” by Kanchi Maha Swamigal (Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi) (1884-1984), you will find that he has unequivocally said that today’s brahmins are far, far deviated from what true Brahmins are supposed to be and we have little to claim and feel proud to be brahmins in the real sense.

Mind you, Kanchi Maha Swamigal was the pontiff of Kanchi Kamakoti Matt and he was an extremely revered Brahmin saint, considered to be a Jivan Mukta. When he makes such a statement, we have to take it at its face value.

Who is a Brahmin?

A Brahmin is

  • One whose whole time job is Veda parayana (chanting vedas) , Veda abhyasam (learning veda’s teachings) and Veda Samrakshanam (protecting veda).
  • one who does nitya karma (daily rituals) without fail. It covers
    • 1) Trikala Sandhya Vandanam (worship-thrice-a-day: as Pratha Sandhya — at early morning, Madyaniga Sandhya — at noon and Saayam Sandhya — at dusk) to be done by all males. who have obtained Brahmopadesam.
    • 2) Samithadanam (offerings to fire) recommended daily once, by unmarried Brahmacharis)
    • 3) Aboupasanam (offerings to fire — recommended daily twice, by married Adults and unmarried Brahmacharis)
    • 4) Brahma Yagnyam (recommended to perform daily, once, after Madhyaniga Sandhya)
    • 5) Pithru Tharpanam (offerings to deceased parents — specific dates in a month, Lunar cycle dependent, to be performed ONLY by those Male members whose father has passed away).
  • One who eats his food by begging, or by means of dana obtained from kings
  • one who lives the life of a teacher to teach Vedic knowledge (or arts, archery etc) and lives by guru dakshina (offerings to the guru) which is not to be demanded (i.e. only voluntary contributions).
  • One who leads a life of extreme simplicity (bordering on poverty) as a dharma
  • one who does not work and earn his livelihood by any other means
  • one who abhors possessing of material wealth, accumulating and hoarding
  • one who is extremely careful about his physical and mental purity and takes immediate corrective measures and goes through self-purification ceremonies.
  • is never offensive, always following ahimsa, never retaliating, never killing, always forbearing, sacrificing. having his senses under control, never lustful, non-drinking etc
  • one who strives for Brahma Gnyana (knowledge of the supreme) as the only purpose of life.
  • one who does not resort to doing activities of the other varnas — Kshatriya (warriors) , Vaishya (traders) or Sudra (laborers and artisans).

Of course, it is obvious that not only brahmins but also all other varnas have deviated far away from the type of lives ordained to them in scriptures. Obviously there is virtually no scope of going back.

Most of the brahmins of today are brahmana-kshatryas (rulers and buracrats) , Brahmana-Vysyas (businessmen, company executives, traders) or Brahmana-Sudras (workers and skilled labor force – including IT Engineers!).

Brahmins are supposed to be never running behind money. But every educated brahmin is very much in the rat race of money-making; it has almost come to a stage in Tamil Nadu that if a brahmin boy does not earn in dollars, he is not considered as Brahmin!

Even brahmins fitting into Vedic brahminism (purohits called Vadhyars/ Shashtrigalin Tamil) who conduct rituals like marriages, death ceremonies, Shraddda Karma etc as per vedic practices are extremely money-minded and demand their cut but not necessarily proportionately knowledgeable in mantras and rites.

On the positive side, we should also acknowledge that many Brahmins even today carry better principles and values by way of their strict upbringing; they are in general far more honest, straight forward, free from bad/evil habits, trustworthy, intelligent, reliable, sincere, non-violent and law abiding.

Varnashrama is gone and only castes remain in Indian society. And Brahmins too exist as a caste only, carrying a false sense of superiority, not as per the original definition and exalted role of Brahmins outlined in varnashrama dharma.

If Varnashrama system were ordained by God truly, why is not existing in other cultures or societies across the world?

The Varnashrama Dharma (classification of the society into 4 classes of people based on their work and role in society in Hinduism), which unfortunately got hardened and compartmentalized into a system of castes, is frequently blamed as a major reason for underprivileged people in the lower strata of the society to leave Hinduism for good.

While the caste system and the consequent demarcation of some of them as ‘upper’ and some as ‘lower’ can be blamed for some of the ills in the social practices of Hinduism, it is outright foolhardy to imagine that “Varnashrama” does not exist in any other religion or society!

In any  religion, even where an overt caste or profession-based demarcation does not seemingly exist, there will invariably be the rich, powerful and influential persons who become de facto “upper castes” and the rest who are not so privileged become “lower castes”. Again there will indeed be different levels of people fitting between “upper” and “lower” depending on the clout they have with money, power or influence.

In any part of the world, in any decent society, you will find these sort of people:

  • Teachers, professors, clergies, preachers, research scholars, scientists, intellectuals, linguistics — They are de facto equivalent to Brahmin class
  • Politicians, statesmen, ministers, Top officers in administrative services, chiefs of Defense (Army/ Navy. Air force), military officers — they are de facto equivalent to Kshatriya Class.
  • Businessmen, traders, Industrialists, small Industry owners — they are de facto equivalent to Vysya Class.
  • Laborers, workmen, craftsmen, technicians — they are de facto equivalent to Shudra Class.

In the present times, even in India, it is common place to see Brahmins by caste being engaged in politics, civil services, trading/ business etc. Poor under-educated Brahmins too work as cooks, technicians etc. If a shudra by birth becomes a Sanskrit professor, he is in a way a Brahmin only, as per original definition.

Even if caste systems go, the social class differences between the rich and poor, the elite and the underdog are not going to vanish. That is the reality of human society.


Purusharthas – Dharma, Artha, Kama & Moksha

The purpose of a religion is basically to pave a way for leading a meaningful, smooth and joyous life without sacrificing mental peace and without too much pain and suffering.

Hinduism which is sanatana dharma — the way of righteous living contains more than enough guidelines for the above purpose.


Hindhu dharma outlines four Purusharthas — meaningful pursuits for life: Dharma, Artha, Kama & Moksha.

Dharma (Righteousness)

Righteousness and duties in life. Hinduism places highest importance to following righteousness in life. Whatever be your activity in life, if it confirms to right dharma, it brings in peace and harmony in life. The Hindu dharma does not permit an unbridled life of carefree enjoyment; everything has its preset boundaries. ‘Eat, drink and be merry’ is never considered the goal of life. Every individual is bound by his duties and responsibilities towards his family, to the society, to the nation and to the entire nature and universe even encompassing the departed souls of forefathers and devatas (demigods controlling the nature) in the upper worlds. In ancient Hindu civilization, Manu Smriti was the scripture elaborating the dharmas to be followed in life by different classes of people.

Artha (Wealth)

Going in pursuit of money, wealth, comforts and possessions is indeed considered as an essential aspect of human life. But it shall not be the only goal of life and whatever one does to acquire Artha should be bound by dharma. Else, one is sure to end up in a chaotic life of suffering.

Kama (Pleasure)

Seeking pleasure through the 5 senses including sexual pleasure is the very nature of all creatures. Again Hinduism permits enjoyment within boundaries. Any hunt for joy ignoring dharma is highly discouraged because such a pursuit may bring short term joy but end up in pain in the long run.

Moksha (Liberation)

Of all the acceptable pursuits of life, seeking Moksha (liberation from the Samsara — from the cycle of births and deaths) is considered the highest goal of life. Man, after pursuing a life of seeking artha (wealth) and kama (pleasures) and even leading a life of strict dharma (righteousness) is bound to feel a shallowness in life at some point of time or other. Even within one’s life time, the process of ending up in old age deprives one from enjoying artha and kama to any level of reasonable satisfaction and  a sense of dejection of not having enjoyed enough lingers in the mind even at the death bed.

This causes subsequent births and the cycle keeps on continuing, because the the fundamental nature of wealth or sensual enjoyments is such that practically no one ever gets a feeling “enough is enough”. This aspect of creation is known as maya. Maya always deludes people to indulge in more and more enjoyment leading only to more and more suffering or dissatisfaction.

At some point of other in life, at some birth or other, man starts wondering whether his hunt for wealth and enjoyment is fundamentally flawed somewhere. He starts seeking more clear answers for the true meaning of birth. It is at this point, a man grows from the clutches of religious faith to spirituality. From the Karma Kanda in Vedas (that gave all the procedures for seeking worldly enjoyments) a seeker elevates himself to Jnana Kanda — Vedanta /Upanishads  and he gets the right answers and clarifications now.

He gets mentally prepared to leave behind Artha and Kama and goes behind Moksha as the only meaningful pursuit in life.

What is the strongest argument in favour of Hinduism?

The strongest argument in favour of Hinduism, in my opinion, is the concept of Karma and rebirth existing in Hinduism.

To understand more on this subject, please click:  “The concept of Karma & Rebirth in Hinduism

I believe karma and rebirth theory is very elaborate, exhaustive, very logical and convincing in Hinduism.

How does it compare with after-death-theories offered by Christianity and Islam? This detailed comparison is available in my reply to the following Question:

If someone is kind, loving, considerate, compassionate, law abiding and just a good person all his life, but doesn’t believe in God, would he go to hell?

Why do Brahmins perform all the Hindu rituals?

The source of knowledge of all rituals is Veda, particularly Yajur Veda. Only Brahmins were originally entitled to learn Veda and practice the rituals because only brahmins had the required qualities and qualifications for it.

Those who do the poojas, prayers and rituals were expected to live a pure life, be very dedicated, be free from lust and greed, lead an extremely simple life (funded purely by donations/ gifts/ grants from Kings or the dakshina —voluntary offering paid by the ritual seekers). They were expected to eat less, practice austerities of the highest order, never work for a salary, follow vegetarianism, not consume alcoholic drinks etc. These were indeed the essential qualifications for people who were to be fit enough for conducting rituals.

Of the four varnas, only Brahmins were able to live up to these fundamental expectations. Brahmins had access to Sankrit and they were good in reciting Vedas with proper intonation that is very essential for the mantras to take effect. Naturally, the tradition was followed generations after generations.

Like everything in nature being subjected to degradation, Brahmins too got degraded; Brahmins too became greedy, started demanding money for services, started dominating and demeaning other castes, slackened their grip on sanskrit, diluted vedic practices and so on.

But still, by virtue of the tradition, Brahmins are still seen as best of the lot to continue with the practices of conducting rituals. So it goes on.

If attaining Moksha is the aim of life in Hinduism, why there are mentions about Swarg (heaven) and Narak (hell)?

Let us first read a funny anecdote that Sri Ramakrishna said. Sri Keshab Chandra Sen was a very popular religious leader in Kolkotta and he was the chief of Nav Vidhan Brahma Samajam. The Samajam was one of the prominent and powerful spiritual movement in Kolkotta and Kesab had many admirers and followers. He was quite rich. He was a very powerful orator too and admired by many.

Keshab Chandra Sen & Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa

He was fortunate to come across Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and got gradually and deeply attracted to the saint. He could understand that whatever lofty spiritual subjects he was lecturing on, Sri Ramakrishna was a living and practical embodiment of them.

He used to listen to Ramakrishna’s freewheeling talks on religion and spirituality in rapt attention.

One day he said to Sri Ramakrishna, “Swami, I want you to teach me much more deeper insights into spirituality”. Ramakrishna said laughingly, “I can teach you alright, but if you listen to them and act on them, your Samajam and all would vanish!”

Swiftly, Keshab said, “then whatever you have taught me is good enough, Swami”.

Hope you get the purport of this story here. Not all religious people are in search of Moksha. Most of them want happy and prosperous life in this world and they want to enjoy life in higher worlds too. If scriptures say ‘if you do these acts of punya, conduct great fire sacrifices, feed poor in large scale, construct temples and so on, God will be pleased with you and give you a life in heaven post death’.

At the same length, people need to be warned of leading a life of extreme suffering in the hell, if they engage in evil and atrocious acts in this life.

Thus Swarga and Naraga have their purpose to ordinary people who are very much bound to Samsara and have no keenness to get out of it. Despite whatever suffering they undergo, people will still cling to life and hope that enjoyment will come in due course.

The concept of moksha is attractive only to spiritually more evolved people who could understand that life is like a dream of never ending wants and hunting behind happiness by trying to meet the wants but not getting it mostly.

For such people, karma yoga is the path — working without attachment to the fruits of Karma. For them freedom from the hopeless cycle of births and death — moksha is the only meaningful goal in life.

Why do people chant slokas and hymns to praise God? What is the need?

There are two approaches behind praising God.

  1. An ordinary devotee’s love for God is purely materialistic. He wants good things to happen to him, he wants money, wealth and possessions; he wants to escape from suffering. He believes God is like an over-sized superman. Human beings want and love appreciation, words of praise, honors etc and they will positively respond, even out of the way, to help you when you praise and adore them. These devotees apply the same yardstick to God too and hope to reap the benefits in shortcut!
  2. A true and serious devotee who has real bhakti in his heart starts loving God as his dearest. When you are deeply in love with a girl without any pretense, you start appreciating openly her beautiful looks, her manners, her qualities etc. You derive joy in showering your praise because it comes deep from your heart. You write poems about her; send her love letters/ messages etc. These things just come out naturally out of your emotional overflow of love towards her. In the same way, true devotees of God definitely get joy in singing hymns and praising his divine qualities.

When the love of a boy culminates into marriage with the girl, then all the former words of praise don’t flow any more. Their love is so matured now that it is no longer dependent on verbal expressions. In the same way, when a bhakta’s love on God matures into Jnyana (spiritual knowledge), then the devotee no longer feels the urge to keep praising the lord. He turns inwards; he silently meditates on God and start feeling the Sat-chit-Ananda inside.

What is the difference between a Guru, Sadguru and Acharya?

The word Guru means one who dispels darkness – a teacher.

The word Acharya means one who teaches the right conduct – again a teacher, basically.

But other than the straight meaning, in Hinduism both Guru as well as Acharya are associated with a master to whom a religious/ spiritual aspirant goes and seeks guidance in the matter of divine/ spiritual/ adyatma knowledge.

In certain sampradayas (traditions) (e.g. Vaishnava), the master is referred to as Acharya rather than Guru.

Again there are finer differences.


Normal Gurus may or may not have the divine authority to teach spirituality to others, but they may act as guru based on appointment as a spiritual heirs of their gurus, or by the strength of whatever spiritual experience or workable knowledge they have gained through experience. Whatever they have gained or experienced through the path or technique they followed or received from the blessings of their Gurus, they will teach to their followers and it could be limited and narrow too (example: worshiping a specific God form only, instructing a specific mantra only, teaching a specific pranayama method only, instructing a particular meditative method only, vouching on a particular religious path and discipline only).

The normal Guru is likely to spread his knowledge as well as his ignorance to his followers (e.g. refusing to acknowledge or approve any other path, any other God forms, any other sadhana technique etc; he may even criticize and condemn others). (Please note: Not all Gurus may behave like this). A normal Guru may also be very possessive about his cult and followers and if any of them leave in search of anything better, they may condemn and criticize them. (Please note: Not all Gurus may behave like this).

In some cases, a guru may not be very learned in scriptures, but he may have personally experienced God. His experience could be anywhere from getting a glimpse of God/divinity, a sighting of light to the highest knowledge, to the highest state of ‘sahaja nirvikalpa samadhi‘ — remaining permanently immersed in the state of unity with God without any duality. A guru of the highest state of personal experience/ attainment is known as Sadguru. (Explained at the end).


At the elite level, an Acharya is the one who, by deeply learning scriptures from competent Gurus and through dedicated self-study, analysis, understanding, tapas (practicing austerities), prayers, meditation and so on gets a very clear idea about a particular school of thought or philosophy that he feels extremely sure of. Then he goes about (by divine will) to teach his school of thought to ardent seekers and followers. He engages himself in intellectual arguments with pundits of different other schools and establishes supremacy of his ideas. (Ex: Sankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, Madhvacharya).

On the other hand, on a normal practical level, an Acharya is invariably quite learned (intellectually) in scriptures and most probably with adequate Sanskrit knowledge. He might have gained quite some sound theoretical knowledge about a particular sect, school of philosophy, Worship of god-form, a specific scripture etc .

An acharya, may or may not have had any personal experience of God or divinity; yet, by virtue of certain sampradayas (traditions) an Acharya may get appointed as the chief of a Mutt by purely the strength of his scriptural knowledge and capacity to lecture. He may take up sanyas by leaving behind his erstrwhile grihasthasrama (house holder life) in order to don that post. (e.g. South Indian Vaishnava Mutts like Srimad Andavan Ashram or Jeeyar).

There may also be certain traditions where only a Brahmachari (unmarried) sanyasin will be appointed as the head/ future head i.e. Acharya of the mutt and not Grihasthas. (e.g. Sankara Mutt).

Acharyas of formal Mutts will strictly teach their sampradaya only to their followers. Depending on their spiritual attainment (if and when they get it) they may or may not acknowledge other paths and methods as valid or acceptable, but they will be strictly bound by their tradition and will not recommend or suggest or openly acknowledge any other method, practice or path as a valid one.

In certain mutts (example: Ramakrishna mutt), there may be several sanyasins, but only some will be authorized act as gurus and acharyas. Those who are recognized as Gurus alone will be authorized to give Mantra diksha to their disciples. Those who are recognized as acharyas will be the ones who have acquired good scriptural knowledge and they will be the ones to conduct scriptural classes, give discourses and lectures etc. Some acharyas may evolve into diksha Gurus too.

A SADGURU (Satguru)

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa — “As many faiths, so many paths”.

Sadguru indeed is the Guru of the highest order; he/she is the one who has experienced divinity in full and remain ever immersed in it. In the path of bhakti he/she will be the one who has attained prema bhakti and attained union with his personal God. In the path of Gnana, he/she  will be the knower of Self , the one who has personally experienced the state of Advaita. In the path of yoga, he/she is the one who is established in Sahaja Nirvikalpa Samadhi. A satguru is one in whom the mind has been annihilated. He/she is the one who has totally eradicated ego; he/she is totally freed of vasanas. He/she is a jeevan mukta (liberated while being alive).

Bhagwan Ramana Maharshi — “When Palaniswami came and read out various scriptures brought from library, I was surprised: “How come whatever I have experienced are mentioned in these books?”

A satguru may even be unlettered or hardly be educated in primary school. But he/she would have the entire knowledge of scriptures contained in a nutshell in his personal experience. You will find learned pundits and Acharyas falling at his/her feet to get get clarifications and insight into scriptures that they have been learning life long.

A satguru has reached the peak and from the peak, he/she sees that all the paths are leading to just one end. He/she is not bound by any specific sampradaya through which he may have attained the highest state. He/she acknowledges and accepts all the valid paths, gurus, scriptures, techniques and his only interest is to guide people from any path, any sampradaya to follow their path with true understanding and attain God. He/she is not compartmentalized. He/she accepts one and all. He/she goes even beyond boundaries of religion and attracts people from all religions. Love for mankind flows unconditionally from their heart.

A satguru may not really appear in any Guru or Acharya Parampara. A Satguru in all probability will be a swayambu (self existing). A Satguru may be born in a remote village to simple and unassuming parents who have least to exposure to anything divine. A Satguru could be an avatara purusha. He/she arrives by divine will to teach the mankind. To show a new path. To cleanse a stagnant and dirtied religion or a religious sect. He/she is like a large steamer that can carry hundreds of ardent devotees and disciples across the sea of Samsara.


Sadguru Mata Amritanandamayi Devi

When a Sadguru or Avatara Purusha comes, their basic mission is to elevate humankind spiritually. Yet, they may also act in the worldly plane in providing means for common people to meet their essential worldly needs, and in undertaking large scale socially beneficial acts of philanthropy. They may engage themselves in activities like building educational institutions, hospitals, home for destitutes and so on. They may actively engage themselves in relief works after natural disasters. Further, they are also capable of using their extraordinary spiritual powers in helping individual devotees to overcome griefs and sufferings in their personal lives like severe diseases, extreme poverty, emotional problems, addictions, depression and so on. This way, they tend to elevate people’s focus from the mundane issues to more spiritually progressive way of life.

A satguru may come first and a Guru-Sishya Parampara may get established after him. The parampara of his/her main sishyas (future gurus) will spread his light to more and more people. The guru parampara may run for hundreds of years; it may or may not produce any more satgurus in this tradition. It may also get deteriorated and decimated over a period of time.

Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev

Then comes another avatara, another satguru at some other location, at some other context to re-establish dharma suited to the times. It keeps happening so in India from time immemorial. That is the greatness of Bharat and the Sanatana Dharma – Hinduism.

The concept of Avatar in Hinduism

A fundamental belief in Hinduism is that God descends to earth to take birth as human (or other) forms whenever the good and pious people suffer and the evil ones have an upper hand. The word Avatar means descending (to earth). God descends to earth based on the needs of time, protects the good, destroy the evil and restore dharma (righteousness). Such a person/ being is known as an avatar. An Avatar of God takes birth in earth in some form (human form and also other forms) and carry out a specific mission and then return to the heavenly abode.

At the core of Hinduism, God is only one. He is called Brahman in Upanishads. Brahman is beyond name and form, all pervading, all encompassing and all knowing. Everything living and non-living are verily different expressions of Brahman. The entire cosmos is an expression of Brahman. Brahman is smaller than the atom and yet bigger than the cosmos.

Since Brahman encompasses everything, any concept of God with name and form is also within the scope of Brahman only. In Hinduism God with name and form is also real and such a God is known as Ishwara.

Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the sustainer) and Shiva (the destroyer) are the three prime forms of God conceived in Hinduism. In Hinduism’s Vaishnava tradition, Vishnu is considered the one and only prime God and he is verily the Brahman. In this tradition, Brahma was created by Vishnu for the purpose of creating the entire universe. In Shaiva tradition, Shiva is considered the one and only prime God and He is verily the Brahman. He is the Supreme Reality; He is the one who creates, sustains and destroys.

We also have Shakta tradition where Divine mother Parashakti is considered the Prime God and she is the one who creates, sustains and destroys.

As per the above concept, the Prime Gods (be it Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva or Shakti) are NOT really avatars (even though some scriptures call them Gunaavatars (Brahma representing Satva Guna, Vishnu, the Rajo Guna and Shiva, the Tamo Guna). They are eternal Gods, not subjected to birth cycle.

Interestingly,  in the 4 Vedas inclusive of  Vedanta (Upanishads) which are the earliest sources of spiritual scriptures, there is no concept of Avatar being mentioned! The concept of Avatars came into vogue only in later historic periods of Itihas and Puranas (scriptural mythologies).

In Bhagavad Gita, which is part of the Itihas Mahabharata (that is like a Purana containing historical cum mythological story), the concept of God arriving from time to time to protect the righteous people and punish the evil doers gets mentioned. It comes through the statement of Lord Krishna, who is considered the Avatar of Vishnu:

Whenever there is decay of righteousness, O Bharata,
And there is exaltation of unrighteousness, then I Myself come forth ;

For the protection of the good, for the destruction of evil-doers,
For the sake of firmly establishing righteousness, I am born from age to age

                                                                                              –  Bhagavad Gita 4-7&8

Avatars Of Vishnu

In Puranas primarily, Lord Vishnu has been attributed to taking Avatars. His 10 Avatars are considered to be important which are listed below:

(You can click on the respective names to know more details)

1) Matsya  2) Kurma  3) Varaha    4) Narasimha   5) Vamana 6) Parashurama  7) Rama  8) Krishna   9) Balarama  10) Kalki.

Kalki Avatar is yet to happen and is expected to take place in this yuga (Kali Yuga).

However, Srimad Bhagavatam which is one of the most widely accepted Puranas as an important reference book in the matters of Hinduism’s mythologies associated with practical  teaching of devotion, dharmas and philosophies, Vishnu’s avatars are not restricted to 10, but the following 14 more are also included.

(You can click on the respective names to know more details)

11) Sanaka 12) Sananda 13) Sanatana 14) Sanatkumara, 15) Narada, 16) Nara, 17) Narayana 18) Kapila, 19) Dattatreya, 20) Yajna, 21) Rshabha, 22) Prthu, 23)  Mohini, 24) Garuda, 25) Dhanvantri, 26) Vyasa, 27) Buddha

Scope of divine expression in Avatar – Purna, Amsa and Kala

In scriptures it is said that divine/spiritual power (Chaitanya Shakti)  in the various creations gets expressed in different measures. They are expressed in kalas. As per this concept, plants have 2 kalas, animals 2 to3 kalas, human beings 5 to 6 kalas, saints and sages 7 to 8 kalas and so on. Sri Rama Avatar is said to have taken place with 12 kalas. Sri Krishnavatar is hailed as a Purna Avatar  where the highest measure of 16 kalas got expressed through this avatar.

An Amsa Avatar is where a partial divinity gets expressed. Thus Kapila, Kurma, Balarama etc are considered to be Amsa Avatars.

Then there is also a mention of Shaktiavesha Avatar where in God’s ferocious aspect gets expressed in an Avatar that engages in large scale destruction of evil forces. Parashurama Avatar is stated to be such.

Avatars are countless

Srimad Bhagavatam also states that Avatars are countless. Such a statement too is logical considering the fact that Puranas were written thousands of years ago. Naturally, more Avatars coming to earth is quite in order because Avatars, by definition come to earth whenever dharma is in danger and the wicked and evil forces are in the rise. Avatars do come to show the right path of dharma suited to changing times.

Avatara Purushas

Thus in Hinduism, ardent devotees hail several Mahatma’s of later periods as Avatara Purushas. Their lives and teachings too become extremely important as puranas and scriptures. Unlike old puranas and shastras that are in Sanskrit language, the Avatara Purushas give teachings in their local languages and their teachings are far more simpler to comprehend and to put to practice in life because they are in tune with the needs of the time. Invariably, their teachings are totally in resonance with the different aspects of scriptures.

  • Shri Shankaracharya is hailed as an Avatar of Lord Shiva
  • Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is hailed as an Avatar of Radha.
  • Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa is considered a divine Avatar with Devi’s amsa.
  • Shirdi Saibaba is considered an Avatar of God, whose appeal broke the barriers of Hindus and Muslims
  • Sri Satya Saibaba is considered an Avatar of Shiva-Shakti
  • Swami Vivekananda is hailed as an Avatar of Shiva by some of his guru bhais and devotees.
  • Bhagwan Ramana Maharshi – though he is a Purna Jnani (who is beyond the concept of Avatars) , there are some devotees who consider him an Avatar of Lord Subrahmanya.
  • Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma) is considered an the Avatar of Devi Parashakti.

One commonly observed feature amidst these Avatara Purushas is that even though they may appear to follow a specific religious path, practice or worship during their evolving stages, their demeanor as realized mahatmas will not get cocooned to any limited school, sect or traditional compartments. Their  appeal and attraction towards earnest devotees will cut across all barriers; their level of spiritual knowledge will be so elevated and all pervading that they would be able to drive away doubts from the minds of different seekers with different tastes, temperaments and affinity to philosophies and concepts. Their appeal is universal. They attract people from other religious faith too.

Most of these Avatara Purushas are in fact swayambus — meaning, they were self-made, born with wisdom (not acquired through the teachings of a guru).

Please Note

It is quite natural in a vast and complicated religion like Hinduism (that has so many facets, tenets and schools) that there will be conflicts and disputes in accepting some great saints who are hailed as Avatara Purushas by one group of devotees, by the followers of other saints or people belonging to different other sects or schools of philosophies.

Instead of breaking our heads about these disputes, it is always better to focus on the core teachings of these great Mahatmas and see whether they are in tune with Sanatana Dharma’s time tested truths given in the various  scriptures and whether they are elevating their respective followers towards the higher goal of life — God realization/ self-realization.