The 10 Avatars of the Hindu God Vishnu
Vishnu is among the most important deities of Hinduism. Along with Brahma and Shiva, Vishnu forms the principal trinity of Hindu religious practice.
In his many forms, Vishnu is regarded as the preserver and protector. Hinduism teaches that when humanity is threatened by chaos or evil, Vishnu will descend into the world in one of his incarnations to restore righteousness.
The incarnations that Vishnu takes are called avatars. The Hindu scriptures speak of ten avatars. They’re thought to have been present in the Satya Yuga (the Golden Age or Age of Truth) when mankind was ruled by gods.
Collectively, the avatars of Vishnu are called dasavatara (10 avatars). Each has a different form and purpose. When men are faced with a challenge, a particular avatar descends to address the issue.
The avatars are not random, either. The myths associated with each reference a specific period of time when they were most needed. Some people refer to this as the cosmic cycle or the Time-Spirit. For instance, the first avatar, Matsya descended long before the ninth avatar, Balarama, who a more recent myth says may have been the Lord Buddha.
No matter the specific intent or place in time, the avatars are meant to re-establish the dharma, the path of righteousness or universal laws taught in the Hindu scriptures. The legends, myths, and stories that include the avatars remain important allegories within Hinduism.
The First Avatar: Matsya (The Fish)
Matsya is said to be the avatar that rescued the first man, as well as other creatures of the earth, from a great flood. Matsya is sometimes depicted as a great fish or as a human torso connected to the tail of a fish.
Matsya is said to have forewarned man about the coming flood and ordered him to preserve all the grains and living creatures in a boat. This story is similar to many deluge myths found in other cultures.
The Second Avatar: Kurma (The Tortoise)
The Kurma avatar of Vishnu is usually seen in a mixed human-animal form.
The Third Avatar: Varaha (The Boar
Varaha is the boar that raised the earth from the bottom of the sea after the demon Hiranyaksha dragged it to the bottom of the sea. After a battle of 1,000 years, Varaha raised the earth out of the water with his tusks.
Varaha is depicted as either a full boar form or as a boar head on a human body.
The Fourth Avatar: Narasimha (The Man-Lion)
The Fifth Avatar: Vamana (The Dwarf)
The Sixth Avatar: Parasurama (The Angry Man)
In his form as Parasurama, Vishnu appears as a priest (brahman) who comes to the world to kill bad kings and protect humanity from danger. He appears in the form of a man carrying an ax, sometimes referred to as Rama with an ax.
In the original story, Parasurama appeared to restore Hindu social order which had become corrupted by the arrogant Kshatrya caste.
The Seventh Avatar: Lord Rama (The Perfect Man)
Lord Rama is the seventh avatar of Vishnu and is a major deity of Hinduism. He is considered supreme in some traditions. He is the central figure of the ancient Hindu epic “Ramayana” and known as King of Ayodhya, the city believed to be Rama’s birthplace.
According to the Ramayana, Rama’s father was King Dasaratha and his mother Queen Kausalya. Rama was born at the end of the Second Age, sent by the gods to do battle with the multi-headed demon Ravana.
Rama is often depicted with blue skin and standing with a bow and arrow.
The Eighth Avatar: Lord Krishna (The Divine Statesman)
Lord Krishna (the divine statesman) is the eighth avatar of Vishnu and is one of the most widely revered deities in Hinduism. He was a cowherd (sometimes depicted as a charioteer or statesman) who shrewdly changes rules.
According to legend, the famous poem, the Bhagavad Gita, is spoken by Krishna to Ajuna on the battlefield.
Krishna is depicted in a variety of forms because there are so many stories surrounding him. The most common of these is as the divine lover in which he plays the flute, though his child form is very common as well. In paintings, Krishna often has blue skin and wears a crown of peacock feathers with a yellow loincloth.