Dashavatara (IAST: Daśāvatāra) refers to the ten avatars of Vishnu, the Hindu God of universal preservation. Etymologically, Dashavatara (Sanskrit: अवतार, derives from daśa, meaning 'ten' and avatāra, meaning 'descent'). God Vishnu incarnates on Earth from time to time to eradicate evil forces, to restore the dharma and to liberate the worthy ones or devotees from the cycle of births and deaths. The avatars in this list are also described as lila-avatars.
The first four incarnations of Vishnu appeared in Satya or Krita Yuga, the first of the four Yugas, also called 'The Golden Age'. The next three appeared in Treta Yuga, the eighth and ninth in Dwapara Yuga and the tenth will appear in Kali Yuga. The time till completion for Kali Yuga is in 427,000 years. In the Vishnu Purana and the Bhagavata Purana, the Kali-yuga is described as ending with the appearance of Kalki, who will defeat the wicked, liberate the virtuous, and initiate a new Satya or Kalki Yuga.
At that time, the Supreme Personality of Godhead will appear on the earth. Acting with the power of pure spiritual goodness, He will rescue eternal religion. Lord Viṣṇu — the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the spiritual master of all moving and nonmoving living beings, and the Supreme Soul of all — takes birth to protect the principles of religion and to relieve His saintly devotees from the reactions of material work. - Bhagavata Purana, 12.2.16-17
The adoption of Buddha as one of the avatars of Vishnu under Bhagavatism was a catalyzing factor in assimilation during the Gupta period between 330 and 550 CE. Mahayana Buddhism is sometimes called Buddha-Bhagavatism. By this period, the concept of Dashavatara was fully developed.
The evolution of historical Vishnuism produced a complex system of Vaishnavism, often viewed as a synthesis of the worship of Vishnu, Narayana, Vasudeva and Krishna, and which was well established by the time of the Bhagavad Gita from 4 BCE to the 3rd century CE.
Twelve alvars, or saints, spread the sect to the common people with their devotional hymns. Early alvars did not distinguish or list the Dashavatara, nor did they distinguish Krishna. Their poems in praise of Vishnu and Krishna in Tamil language are collectively known as Naalayira Divya Prabandha.
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- Matsya, the fish, from the Satya Yuga. Lord Vishnu takes the form of a fish to save Manu from apocalypse, after which he takes his boat to the new world along with one of every species of plant and animal, gathered in a massive cyclone.
- Kurma, the tortoise, appeared in the Satya Yuga. When the devas and asuras were churning the Ocean of milk in order to get amrita, the nectar of immortality, the mount Mandara they were using as the churning staff started to sink and Lord Vishnu took the form of a tortoise to bear the weight of the mountain.
- Varaha, the boar, from the Satya Yuga. He appeared to defeat Hiranyaksha, a demon who had taken the Earth, or Prithvi, and carried it to the bottom of what is described as the cosmic ocean in the story. The battle between Varaha and Hiranyaksha is believed to have lasted for a thousand years, which the former finally won. Varaha carried the Earth out of the ocean between his tusks and restored it to its place in the universe.
- Narasimha, the half-man/half-lion appeared in the Satya Yuga. The rakshasa(An evil person) Hiranyakashipu, the elder brother of Hiranyaksha, was granted a powerful boon from Brahma, not allowing him to be killed by man or animal, inside or out, day or night, on earth or the stars, with a weapon either living or inanimate. Vishnu descended as an anthropomorphic incarnation, with the body of a man and head and claws of a lion. He then disembowels the rakshasa at the courtyard threshold of his house, at dusk, with his claws, while he lay on his thighs.
- Vamana, the dwarf, appeared in the Treta Yuga. The fourth descendant of Hiranyakashyap, Bali, with devotion and penance was able to defeat Indra, the god of firmament. This humbled the other deities and extended his authority over the three worlds. The gods appealed to Vishnu for protection and he descended as the dwarf Vamana. During a yajna of the king, Vamana approached him in the midst of other Brahmins. Bali was happy to see the diminutive holy man, and promised whatever he asked. Vamana asked for three paces of land. Bali agreed, and the dwarf then changed his size to that of a giant. He stepped over heaven in his first stride, and the netherworld with the second. Bali realized that Vamana was Vishnu incarnate. In deference, the king offered his head as the third place for Vamana to place his foot. The avatar did so and thus granted Bali immortality. Then in appreciation to Bali and his grandfather Prahlada, Vamana made him ruler of Pathala, the netherworld. Bali is believed to have ruled Kerala and Tulunadu. He is still worshiped there as the king of prosperity and recalled before the time of harvest.
- Parashurama, Warrior with the axe, appeared in the Treta Yuga. He is son of Jamadagni and Renuka. He received an axe after a penance to Shiva. Parashurama is the first Brahmin-Kshatriya in Hinduism, or warrior-saint, with duties between a Brahmana and a Kshatriya). His mother was from the Kshatriya Suryavanshi clan that ruled Ayodhya, of the line of Rama. King Kartavirya Arjuna and his army visited the father of Parashurama at his ashram, and the saint was able to feed them with the divine cow Kamadhenu. The king demanded the animal, Jamadagni refused, and the king took it by force and destroyed the ashram. Parashurama then killed the king at his palace and destroyed his army. In revenge, the sons of Kartavirya killed Jamadagni. Parashurama took a vow to kill every Kshatriya on earth twenty-one times over, and filled five lakes with their blood. Ultimately, his grandfather, the great rishi Rucheeka, appeared and made him halt. He is a Chiranjivi, and believed to be alive today in penance at Mahendragiri.
- Rama, Ramachandra, the prince and king of Ayodhya, appeared in the Treta Yuga. Rama is a commonly worshiped avatar in Hinduism, and is thought of as the ideal heroic man. His story is recounted in one of the most widely read scriptures of Hinduism, the Ramayana. While in exile from his own kingdom with his brother Lakshman and the monkey king Hanuman, his wife Sita was abducted by the demon king of Lanka, Ravana. He travelled to Ashoka Vatika in Lanka, killed the demon king and saved Sita.
- Krishna, was the eighth son of Devaki and Vasudev. Krishna is the most commonly worshiped deity in Hinduism and an avatar inVaishnava belief. His name means 'dark' or 'attractive', and he appeared in the Dwapara Yuga alongside his brother Balarama (generally included as one of Dashavatara in Sri Vishnava lists, instead of Buddha), and was the central character of the Bhagavad Gita, the most published Hindu canon. He is mentor to Arjuna, delivering him the Gita at the Battle of Kurukshetra. He is often depicted playing the murali and having a mischievous spirit.
- Buddha is the ninth incarnation of lord Vishnu.He is the son of Queen Anjana and took life long penance to get pure bliss.He sacrificed his pleasure of being in a palace as well as his wealth that he had.After years of penance,he finally found enlightment and was therefore called Bhuddha.He was a monk and had a lot of bliss and wisdom to share with everyone.
- Kalki ("Eternity", or "White Horse", or "Destroyer of Filth"), is the final incarnation of Vishnu, foretold to appear at the end of Kali Yuga, our present epoch. He will be atop a white horse and his sword will be drawn, blazing like a comet. He is the harbinger of end time in Hindu eschatology, and will destroy all unrighteousness and evil at the end of Kali Yuga.
In Vishishtadvaita tradition, Balarama is considered an incarnation, while Buddha is not included. and Krishna is the ninth. Buddha is not considered as an avatar of Vishnu in Madhva (Dvaita), Smartha and Advaita traditions. The Bhagavata Purana describes Balarama as appearing in the Dwapara Yuga, with Krishna, as an incarnation of Shesha.
Gaudiya Vaishnavas, for example, worship Krishna as Svayam Bhagavan, or source of the incarnations. The Vallabha Sampradaya and Nimbarka Sampradaya, (philosophical schools) go even further, worshiping Krishna not only as the source of other incarnations, but also Vishnu himself, related to descriptions in the Bhagavata Purana. The first lines of the Bhagavata Purana open:
Om namo bhagavate vasudevaya ete
Camsah kalah pumsah krishna stu bhagavan svayam
I bow to God, Krishna, who appeared as the son of Vasudeva
In traditions that emphasize the Bhagavata Purana, Krishna is the original Supreme Personality of Godhead, from whom everything else emanates. The Jayadevas Dasavatara Stotra Pralaya Payodhi Jale (from Gita Govinda) byJayadeva concludes after listing the ten avatars each with a separate stanza:
- vedān uddharate jaganti vahate bhū-golam udbibhrate
- daityaṁ dārayate baliṁ chalayate kṣatra-kṣayaṁ kurvate
- paulastyaṁ jayate halaṁ kalayate kāruṇyam ātanvate
- mlecchān mūrchayate daśakṛti-kṛte kṛṣṇāya tubhyaṁ namaḥ
In his opinion the ten avatars of Vishnu are Shri Kṛiṣhṇa, Matsya, Varāha, Narasiṁha, Vāmana, Paraśurāma, Shri Rāma, Balarāma, Buddha and Kalki.
In Maharashtra and Goa, Vithoba's image replaces Buddha as the ninth avatar of Vishnu in some temple sculptures and Hindu astrological almanacs. Maharashtra scholars have also praised Vithoba as a form of Buddha. In Orissa, Jagannath is sometimes depicted as the ninth avatar instead of Buddha. Jayadeva, a great Vaishnava saint and renowned poet of 12th century from Orissa, included Buddha as the ninth avatar in the famous song Gita Govinda.
The order of Vishnu's ten main avatars has significance in the sense that the avatars evolve from simplistic life forms to more complex life-forms in a definitive order. Therefore, it is speculated that the Dasavatara story is a symbolization of the modern theory of evolution.   
- Matsya - fish, the first life in water
- Kurma - amphibians, living in both water and land
- Varaha - wild land animal
- Narasimha - beings that are half-animal and half-human
- Vamana - short, premature human beings
- Parasurama - early humans living in forests and using weapons
- Rama - humans living in community, beginning of civil society
- Krishna - humans practicing animal husbandry, politically advanced societies
- Bhuddha - humans finding enlightment
- Kalki - advanced humans with great powers of destruction
- Lord Vishnu in his full incarnation as Lord Krishna speaks in Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 4 Shloka 8: "To deliver the pious and to annihilate the miscreants, as well as to reestablish the principles of religion, I manifest myself, millennium after millennium".
- Garuda Purana 1.86.10-11
- B-Gita 8.17 "And finally in Kal-yuga (the yuga we have now been experiencing over the past 5,000 years) there is an abundance of strife, ignorance, irreligion and vice, true virtue being practically nonexistent, and this yuga lasts 432,000 years. In Kali-yuga vice increases to such a point that at the termination of the yuga the Supreme Lord Himself appears as the Kalki avatara"
- Klostermaier (2007) p. 495
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- Essential Hinduism S. Rosen, 2006, Greenwood Publishing Group p.124 ISBN 0-275-99006-0
- Evolutionary explanation — only through Darwinism
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