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Concept of divine incarnations in Hindu theology

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The concept of Incarnation (avataara) is the very cornerstone of Hindu theology. According to it, the Supreme power manifests itself in animal or human forms on earth, with the divine mission of cleansing it of the periodically increasing evil. Avataara concept has given scope for personal gods. Hindus believe in the concept of Personal God (Ishta Devata).

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The incarnation concept is closely related to the measurement of time in Hindu theology which has its basis on one working day of Brahma, the creator. According to Bhaagavata Puraana, Brahma, the creator, is the casual effect of the predetermined periodic creation and dissolution of the Universe.

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Each creation or Kalpa is equal to one day and each dissolution or Pralaya is equal to one night in the life of Brahma. A Kalpa and Pralaya last for 4,320 million human years each. Every Kalpa has 1000 cycles of four yugas (ages). Each cycle of 4 yugas is completed in 4,320, 000 human years. These are called Satya (Krita), Treta, Dwaapara and Kali.


Lord Krishna declares in Bhagawad-Gita thus;

Yadaa yadaa hi dharmasya glaanir-bhavati Bhaarata /
Abhyuttaana-madharmasya tadaatmaanam srijaamyaham //
Paritraanaaya saadhoonam vinaasaaya cha dushkritaam /
Dharma samsthaapanaarthaaya sambhavami yuge yuge //

“Whenever, O descendant of Bhaarata, there is decline of dharma and rise of adharma, then I body myself forth. For the protection of the good, for the destruction of the wicked, and for the establishment of dharma, I come into being in every yuga (age)”. This aspect of the Lord is called Incarnation or Avataara in Samskrit. The Samskrit word avataara has two syllables „ava‟ meaning to protect and „taara‟ meaning conquering or crossing over.


“The doctrine that God can be incarnated in human form is found in most of the principle historic expositions of the perennial philosophy—in Hinduism, in Mohammedanism of Sufis, Mahaayaana Buddhism, in Christianity……every human being thus can become an avataara by adoption” to quote Aldus Huxley from his Perennial Philosophy.


There are several beliefs regarding the divine incarnation. They are:

a) Supreme God- head comes down from the heaven and assumes the form of human beings;
b) All human beings evolve by leading a highly righteous and pious life. They get enlightened and become noble souls and finally release the people from worldly bondage (samsaara). They transform the society for a new world order. Hindus believe in both and there are umpteen illustrations for both views in Hinduism;
c) There is a theory of Avataaravaada. According to it the full development of avataaravaada seems to have been influenced by Buddhist conception of the former Buddhas, some of whom were worshipped in their own Stupas as early as 300 B.C., that a large number of Buddhists were admitted into the fold of Vaishnavism towards the close of Hindu period as suggested by the inclusion of Buddha in the list of Vishnu Avataaras.

Types of Incarnations Generally Incarnations fall under three categories:

1. Incarnations of Lord Vishnu;
2. Incarnations of Lord Shiva;
3. Incarnations of Devi especially that of Parvati consort of Lord Shiva.

Among the Hindu Trinity of Gods, Vishnu and Shiva incarnate sometimes with their consorts to free the people from bondage and to bestow on grace and salvation to the devotees.

Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, sacred scriptures (eighteen Puranas and Upa Puranas) and Tantra texts narrate countless myths about the incarnations of these Gods and, their purposes and messages.

Incarnation of Vishnu

Vishnu is first referred as the brother of Indra, the ruler of the vedic people. He is associated with the Lord Sun and traverses the sky. He is praised by the epithet Trivikrama, i.e., who had three giant strides (Rigveda I 154-156; 99-100). He helps Indra in killing the demon Vritra. Vritra appears in the form of massive serpent extending far and wide in the sky and blocking the light and radiance of the Sun. Indra wields his weapon of thunderbolt (Vajraayudha) and kills him. He thus releases the waters and light to mankind.

Rigveda Samhita extols the mighty acts of Vishnu several times and especially his placing the third stride, which is above the realms of the Earth and Nether regions. It declares, “He stepped forth over the realms of earth for freedom and for life (Rigveda I 155.4B).

The famous Purusha Sukta of Rigveda Samhita describes the Vishnu‟s body forms the entire Universe. He transforms his body into the entire animate and inanimate objects of the World. This thought gave room for the theory called Brahmaparinaama Vaada (Brahman manifesting into the world) in the Vedanta. The word Vishnu is derived from the root of the Samskrit word „vish‟ to enter. It also means „all pervading‟, which can be applied to the “Sun God who is everything and contained in everything”.

The following ten Incarnations of Vishnu are considered most significant and are celebrated in sacred hymns composed by great many saints. Some scholars believe that these ten incarnations of Vishnu depict the evolution of life on earth and compare with the Evolution Theory of Charles Darwin.

Sl. no. Epoch Incarnation Darwin's Theory
1 Krita Yuga Fish (Matsya) Life starts in water 600-400 million years ago
2 Krita Yuga Tortoise (Koorma) First amphibians emerge 100 million years ago
3 Krita Yuga Boar (Varaaha) First mammals evolve 60 million years ago
4 Krita Yuga Half-man, half-lion (Narasimha) Our Earliest ancestors
5 [[Krita] Yuga]] Dwarf Man (Vamana) Homo erectus, upright, short and weaponsless 5-2 million years ago
6 Tretaa Yuga Parasurama Bronze age;
the coming of Ramapithecus, development of first weapons such as axe
Homo Sapiens 35000-100000 years ago
7 Tretaa Yuga Rama Fully developed human being
8 Dwaapara Yuga Krishna
9 Kali Yuga Buddha
10 Kali Yuga Kalki

In the words of Naval K Prinja, “other avataaras such as Rama, Krishna and Buddha can be seen as the continuous process of the mental, moral, intellectual and spiritual development of humanity. The tenth avataara, Kalki, is meant to mark the end of the present cycle of creation.

Adhyaatma Ramayana gives symbolic meaning where Rama and Sita are considered as the very embodiment of Brahman in his dual aspect as the manifest (saguna or vyakta) and the un-manifest (nirguna or avyakta). Rama is the representation of an impersonal absolute existence, where as Sita is personal, creative and self-projecting aspect of Brahman.

Gita makes a distinction between the divine descents of Rama and Krishna, and reincarnation of individual common souls tainted with Maaya who attain salvation through a continuous struggle. The reason assigned for this is the divine descent has no accumulated actions of the past called praarabhda karma in sanskrit. The [[empirical] reality]] of the descent as animal or human being (the mortals) is not due to karma as is believed in Sanatana Dharma. Divine descents here do not imply any genetic relationship. The incarnation of the Supreme are not considered as individual souls or jeevas born due to the force of individual karma. Sometimes they are the incarnations of exalted souls like Buddhaavataara. The birth of a descent or avataara is taken as praatibhaashika. It is a role being played as an actor in a play. Puranas say that before every incarnation there is a collective prayer to the Supreme in the form of prayers on the part of all dharmic people including Devas. The very prayer becomes the material cause for the Supreme to assume a body to protect the people by reestablishing Dharma.

Analysing the technical aspects of Evolution Theory it follows:

1) the first born one cell microorganism may only grow bigger but it can never produce sense organs on its own;
2) the adaptation or natural selection process can only effect to change the body color or a slight change in the appearance of the body behaviors;
3) technically the mutation process has a very narrow margin of DNA alterations. So it is unable to create a brand new species. It could only multiply the number of species of only one category.

Some religious leaders and philosophers therefore do not like to compare divine descents with the materialistic doubtful scientific postulations. The avataaras of fish to half-lion half-man took place with specific purposes at celestial level and are not related to the evolution process on the earth in their opinion. Also according to them our Puranas and Vedas say that the Supreme creator Brahma, in turn created Swayambhuva and Sataroopa. The creation started from them with four wise sages of highest intellectual order who were not interested in procreation further. It is therefore not logical to think that evolution started with low order of fish, tortoise and boar etc. even though the pattern from the fish working up to nobleman fits very well with much questioned Evolution Theory.

According to Bhagavata purana, there are twenty-two incarnations of Lord Vishnu. They consist twelve more incarnations besides the ten principle avataaras popularly known as Dasavataaras.

These are:

1) Sanatkumara (earliest creation)

2) Sage Narada (exponent of Bhakti and Tantras)

3) Saints Nara and Narayana

4) Sage Kapila (founder of Samkhya system)

5) Dattatreya (the great magician who restored Vedic rites and originated Tantric rites

6) Yagna Purusha (Lord Vishnu identified as the Sacrifice)

7) Rishabha (founder of the pre-Aryan Jain philosophy

8) King Prithu

9) Dhanvantari (founder of Ayurveda—he came from the Ocean of Milk holding the divine elixir, Amrita

10) Balarama (came as the brother of Lord Krishna. He is the embodiment of virtues.)

11) Sage Vedavyasa (author of Mahabharata and Bhagavata purana)

12) Mohini (the enchantress who deprived the demons of the divine elixir Amrita).

There are still more Avataaras of Lord Vishnu like Hayasirsha or Hayagreeva (horse headed) who killed the demons Madhu and Kaitabha and rescued Vedas from them. Vedanta Desika does not consider Buddha amongst most important Dasaavataara. Instead he has glorified Balarama in his Dasaavataara hymns. Some other saints have included Mohini avataara amongst Dasaavataara deleting Buddha because of his silence over God.

Incarnations of Shiva

Shiva is the annihilator of the World. He destroys the world at the end of every epoch and helps Brahma in the new creation. He is called Rudra in the Rigveda and they are eleven in number. The forms of Rudra appear terrible and graceful also. Satarudriya hymn of the Yajurveda portray many aspects of Shiva and classical Shaivism. The deadly form of

Rudra in the Vedic age was transformed into the pleasant form of auspiciousness, Shiva, during the epics as opined by a number of scholars. Shiva‟s forms are many. Many are the places in which he resides. Many are the forms of his grace. Shiva assumes all the forms i.e. of animate and inanimate beings. He represents the transformation of the World from Microcosm to Macrocosm.

Shiva Purana deals with many of his incarnations. The main among them are:

1. The incarnation of Nandi (bull) who is the son of Silada.
2. Bhairavanatha, son of Suchchismati.
3. The incarnation of mythical animal (Saardulaavataara).
4. The incarnation of Yaksha (Demi-god, Guardian of the Treasures).
5. The incarnation of a hunter (Kiraataavataara).
6. The symbol of a Linga (abstract form).

The profounders and the interpreters of Vedanta Schools namely Adi Sankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya are considered to be the incarnations of Shiva, Adisesha and Vayu respectively. Madhvacharya according to some is the incarnation of Vishnu, Hayagreeva. The followers of Buddhism and Jainism believe that Buddha and Mahavira are incarnations. In fact Buddha assumed several births such as Amitabha, Avalokitesvara, Bodhisatva and other beings before attaining Buddhahood in his birth.

Incarnation of Devi

Since the time of the Indus-Saraswati civilization, Mother Goddess Sampradaya (tradition) has been prominent. The Goddess is called Devi in Samskrit (one who shines). The worship of Goddess began with the Rigveda in the form of a hymn offered to Earth Goddess, Prithvi. Uma is the supreme deity, the primordial power (Adi Parasakti). She plays the dual role of virgin and a mother. Goddess Earth is referred to as Uma, the daughter of Himavan in Kenopanishad; the shaivites made her consort of Shiva popularly called Parvati, the daughter of Mountain King. Shakti schools term her as an active principle of the entire universe (Prakriti or Maya). Without her grace or help the Trinity of Gods cannot perform their duties.

Goddess Parvati, Uma had several ioncarnations. Among them most popular one is that of Mahishasuramardhini who kills the demon Mahishasura and frees the triple world from the terror penetrated by him and his deadly tribe. Although she assumed several forms, they are but manifestations of Supreme Goddess. Shiva is the male principle and Shakti is the female principle. He is representative of Purusha and she is that of Prakriti according to Samkhya Philosophy. He is the bondage where as she is the liberation and Mahamaya. She is both ignorance (avidya) and higher knowledge (vidya).

A Tantra text namely Tripura Rahasya declares: “there is no such thing as bondage or liberation. There is no such thing as seeker and the means of seeking. Part less non-dual consciousness, Tripura alone provides everything. She is knowledge and ignorance, bondage and liberation too. She is also the means of liberation. This is all one has to know.” The power to release oneself from bondage is within himself is in the form of

Kundalini. It is coiled up potential energy, which can be harnessed by practicing Hata and Kundalini Yogas”.

In his Brahmasutra Bhashya, Sankaracharya recognizes Shakti as the root of all phenomenal existence as the root of bondage and creation. This world is dissolved to that extent that only that the shakti of the world remains and produced from the root of the Shakti. Adishakti is identical to Brahman, who is the creative force behind creating the world and creation is one with the force that pervades it”.

Incarnation of Lakshmi

Whenever Vishnu was born as an Avataara, his wife Lakshmi also assumed the human form. Hence, we have Sita and Radha. Although Rukmini happened to be the lawful wife of Krishna, Radha, childhood friend assumes a great role in the Bhakti traditions of Hinduism and their erotic love is described with all fanfare. This relationship of Krishna and Radha outside the purview of marriage is philosophically interpreted as the union of the individual soul (jeevaatma) with the Supreme Soul (Paramaatma).

Avataaras are not limited to Hinduism alone. They happen worldwide. Holy Koran tells Moslems that the last Judgment will come at the end of this age and that Allah will pronounce judgment on every one. Hindus believe that at the end of Kaliyuga that is, about 427,000 years from today, Supreme will descend as Kalki on a white horse. Similarly Christians also believe the appearance of Christ within one thousand years on a white horse (Revelation 6:1-2).

Christians all over the world generally believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who came to this world to save humanity from deep suffering. Jesus said, “I and my father are one”. Moses said the same when he uttered the prophetic words earlier: “I am that I am”. Both of them are implying the mystic vision of oneness with God which in Upanishadic thinking is termed as: “Tat tvam asi”, “Thou art That”or “You are That”. Professor J.B. Haldane, a world renowned biologist used to begin his class every year explaining the concepttat tvam asi” to his students. The idea of one immutable God and yet impersonal in his nature pervades all advanced religions, so the conception of avataara, the Supreme Being descending upon Earth in human form seems to be universal. God descends upon Earth in the form of man to instruct man how to ascend towards him. [[Wikipedia:Christianity|Christianity]] believes in a personal God, i.e. Jesus Christ just as Shankara‟s concept of Lord Shiva, Ramanuja‟s personal God Sriman Narayana and Madhvacharya‟s personal God Sri Krishna.

The concept of a Personal God or a Theistic God is a natural outcome of Incarnation, which all the sampradayas (traditions) in Hindu Theology present in their interpretations of Vedanta. This God is personalized, worshipped, praised and meditated upon by the devotees or spiritual seekers striving hard for salvation.

Regarding the question of the absence of the incarnation of Brahma, one possible answer is that Brahma had occupied a predominant position in the early phases of the vedic

period but was replaced by Indra, Vishnu and Rudra in the later phases and by Rama, Shiva and Krishna in the Epic and Puranic age. Hence Lord Brahma is not regularly worshipped in India although there is a temple dedicated to him in Pushkar Rajasthan. The reason for Brahma having very few temples is explained in the legends. But why Brahma‟s spouse Saraswathi, has very few temples is not mentioned anywhere. There is probably no Hindu house which does not honor Saraswathi and Lakshmi, at least by having pictures of these Goddesses in some room or other. Saraswathi Puja is widely observed, yet it is strange that there are only three temples for this Goddess in India.

These are: one at Panchikad near Kottayam in Kerala, second in Kashmir and the third on the banks of the river Gautami in the village Basra in Madhol Taluq of Adilabad district in Andhra Pradesh.

Divine Incarnations gave ample scope and creativity to Hindu artists and sculptors to represent in manifold ways the Ten Avataaras in the temples all over the country and in South-East Nations. The outer walls, the bass relief, the inner walls of many temples have a number of sculptures depicting the various aspects of avataaras. There are also exclusive temples for the various avataaras the most popular being that of Rama, Krishna and Narasimha. [[Vedanta Desika[[ and Jayadeva have composed stotras, sacred hymns in praise of the most celebrated Dasaavataaras of Lord Vishnu which are chanted regularly by ardent devotees.