Lord Vishnu's Incarnations

Hindus believe in the incarnation of God upon earth. When God incarnates himself upon earth, it is called avatar. The Bhagavadgita declares that whenever there is an ascendance of adharma (injustice and disorder), God reincarnates Himself on earth in an earthly form to restore balance and reestablish Dharma. The concept probably originated in the early Vedic period as is evident from the incarnations of Brahma stated in the Vedas. The idea gained further acceptance with the emergence of Trimurthis in the Hindu pantheon, namely Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva as the highest manifestations of Isvara Brahman, and Vishnu as the preserver of the worlds. The Vedas, the Puranas, the Epics and the Bhagavadgita acknowledge the incarnations of Vishnu as an essential and important function in creation to ensure the order and regularity of the worlds and keep the chaos and demonic forces under control.

The epic Ramayana is based on the life story of Lord Rama who was an incarnation or avatar of Lord Vishnu. In Bhagavatapurana and the Mahabharata we come across the miraculous life and achievements of Lord Krishna who was also considered to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu only. Most of the Puranas deal with the accounts of creation of the worlds and a particular incarnation of God.

Among the Trinity only Lord Vishnu, being the preserver and upholder of creation, incarnates, to ensure that righteousness and the world order are well maintained. But whenever there is a disorder that starts troubling the worlds, He descends directly into a physical body and removes it. There is a main difference between an incarnation and other manifestations of God. In an incarnation He retains His full potentialities and consciousness while assuming the mortal birth and maintains a firm hold over the play of the gunas of Prakriti (Nature). Some times if the need is not that urgent or acute, He may either manifest Himself partially in a physical body or may just materialize without any physical body.

The Puranas describe ten main avatars or incarnations of Lord Vishnu of which His last incarnation is yet to manifest. The ten incarnations are briefly described below:

Matsyavatara (The incarnation as a fish): The purpose of this incarnation was to save Manu (the first born) and the seven sages from a deluge.

Kurmavatara (The incarnation as a tortoise): The purpose was to save mount mandara at the time of churning of the oceans by the demons and the devas for Amrit, the elixir of life.

Varahavatara (The incarnation as a boar): The purpose was to slay a demon called Hiranyakasipu and save the earth from flood waters into which it had submerged.

Narasimhavatara (The incarnation as part man and part lion): The purpose was to slay Hiranykasipu who was subjecting his son Prahlada who was a great devotee of Lord Vishnu to great harassment and to prove to the world that God would be always willing to help His dear devotees.

Vamanavatara (Incarnation as a dwarf brahmin): The purpose was to assist and help Indra to retain his lordship over the heavens by eliminating his rival Bali, the famous demon king from the competition.

Parasurama: The purpose was to destroy some warrior kings (kshatriyas) who were becoming a menace to the society and restore the social order.

Ramavatara: The purpose was to slay demon king Ravana who had obtained a boon from Lord Shiva to the effect that no god or demon or any creature in any of the worlds would be able to kill him. He forgets to mention the human beings while seeking the boon. Ravana captures Sita, the wife of Rama, who them proceeds with his brother Lakshmana and with the help of innumerable forest tribes, releases the world and his own wife from the clutches of Ravana.

Balarama: He was the elder brother of Sri Krishna. The main purpose of this incarnation was to kill the demon king Dhenuka, the ape Dvivida and change the course of Yamuna. The plough was his main weapon which is suggestive of the fact that probably he played a key role in the introduction of agriculture among the people.

Srikrishna: The purpose was to restore order by killing many demon kings who were troubling the earth and also help the Pandavas of the Mahabharata fame in their against their own cousins the Kurus headed by the famous warrior and egoistic king Suyodhana or Duryodhana. His teachings are now available to us in the form of the Bhagavad-Gita, which provide inspiration to millions of Hindus even today.

Kalki: This incarnation is yet to take place. God would descend upon the earth on a while horse probably at the end of Kaliyuga to restore order and destroy evil people whose number would gradually increase during this phase.

Variations: The above ten incarnations are among the most acceptable list of Vishnu's incarnations. Some variations are also worth mentioning. According to some accounts the Great Buddha was also an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, but this idea is not acceptable to many Buddhists. Others like Hamsa, Satvata, Yagna, Dattatreya, Vedavyasa are also said to be His incarnations only and are sometimes included in the list of the first ten. Among his partial manifestations (amsavataras) the most important are kapila, Hayagriva, Dhanvantari, Mohini and Naranarayana who are worth mentioning.

Incarnations of Brahma and Shiva: We do not hear much about the incarnations of either Brahma or Shiva. The reason being that among the three it is only Lord Vishnu who is the preserver and maintainer of the creation and whose primary responsibility it is to maintain law and order. Lord Shiva is also credited with many manifestations in the mortal world, but they are not referred as incarnations in the strictest sense of the word.

Shakti Incarnations: The incarnation of Lord Vishnu is mostly concurrent with the incarnation of His consort and principal Shakti, Shri Lakshmi, the goddess of opulence and abundance. Thus for each of His incarnation we have corresponding incarnation of this goddess: Padma or Kamala for Vamana, Dharani for Parasurama, Sita as the consort of Lord Rama, and Rukmini of Sri Krishna. She is also worshipped as Varahi and Narasimhi in some parts of India.

Conclusions from the Incarnation: We can draw many conclusions from the incarnations of Lord Vishnu. They are briefly stated below:

1. God is not a mere mute witness, but an active and dynamic principle maintaining a firm hold on the process of His creation.

2. The evil somehow has the tendency to prevail over good from time to time and cannot be dealt with on our own without the help and assistance of God.

3. Just as there are incarnations in the external worlds, there can be incarnations of God within the human consciousness. Sometimes God may descend into the lower consciousness of a being in His full intensity to purify him. But this can happen only when there is an intense aspiration for the divine and a feeling of complete surrender by the lower self.

4. The stories of incarnations help the ordinary mortal to know how to conduct themselves in their day to day lives. Just as God incarnates and assumes many forms and roles to help the good and destroy the unrighteous, man too has to assume many roles in his family to help his relations and ancestors, and in his society to help the poor and the needy.

5. God is righteous, a wielder of moral law, not a neutral Being unconcerned with the virtues of the mankind.

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