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.
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).
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.