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CONCEPT OF DIVINE INCARNATIONS IN HINDU THEOLOGY

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).

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.

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.

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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.

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Sl. no. Epoch Incarnation Darwin‟s Theory

1. Krita Yuga Fish (Matsya) Life starts in water


600-400 million years ago
2. ,, Tortoise (Koorma) First amphibians emerge
100 million years ago
3. ,, Boar (Varaaha) First mammals evolve
60 million years ago
4. ,, Half man-half lion Our earliest ancestors
Narasimha
5. ,, Dwarf man Homo erectus, upright,
Short and weaponless
5-2 million years ago
6. Treta Yuga Parashurama Bronze age; the coming
of Ramapithecus, development
of first weapons such as axe.
Homo sapiens—350, 000 to
100,000 years ago
7. Treta Rama Fully developed human being

8. Dwapara Yuga Krishna

9. Kali Yuga Buddha


10. Kali Yuga Kalki Yet to incarnate

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 samskrit. 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

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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

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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

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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
concept “tat 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. 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

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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 Kasahmir 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.

This lecture has been prepared by extracting, abridging and editing from the following
texts by N.R.Srinivasan for the Vedanta class at Sri Ganesha Temple, Nashville;

1. Dr M.K.Sridhar, Kumbhabhishekam Souvenir, May 2004, The Hindu Temple of


Atlanta, Ga., U.S.A.
2. Ed. Viswanathan, Am I A Hindu? Rupa & Co., New Delhi, India.
3. T.K.Mukundan, A Concept of Hinduism, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, India.
4. Pratap Mulick, Dasha Avatar, Amar Chitra Katha, India Book House, New Delhi,
India.
5. Swami Prakashanand, The True History and Religion of India, International
Society of Divine Love, Barsana Dham, Tx., U.S.A.

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