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The list of Dashavatara varies across sects and regions. The standard list is: Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, Buddha and Kalki. Sometimes, Krishna replaces Vishnu as the source of all avatars and Balarama takes Krishna's place in the list. Buddha may be dropped from the list and substituted by regional deities like Vithoba or Jagannath, or Balarama.
The Dashavatara order is interpreted to convey Darwin's evolution.
The word Dashavatara derives from daśa, meaning 'ten' and avatar (avatāra), meaning 'descent'.
Incarnation of the Divine
Restoration of the Divine
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. Vishnu in his full avatar as Krishna speaks in the 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.
A similar mythological thread appears in Buddhism. The Pali Canon refers to 28 Buddhas, while the Mahayana tradition additionally has many Buddhas of celestial origin, for example Amitabha and Vairocana. The Mahayana tradition also knows the Eighteen Arhats who protect the Buddhist faith, and await on earth for the coming of Maitreya, a prophesied enlightened Buddha to arrive on earth many millennia after Gautama Buddha's death and nirvana.
The first four avatars 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
- Matsya, the fish, from the Satya Yuga. Vishnu takes the form of a fish to save Manu from the deluge, 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, from 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 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, from 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, from 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 and Bali promised him for 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.
- Parashurama, warrior with the axe, from the Treta Yuga. He is son of Jamadagni and Renuka and received an axe after a penance to Shiva. He is the first Brahmin-Kshatriya in Hinduism, or warrior-saint, with duties between a Brahmana and a Kshatriya). 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, rishi Rucheeka, appeared and made him halt. He is a Chiranjivi (immortal), and believed to be alive today in penance at Mahendragiri.
- Rama, the prince and king of Ayodhya, from the Treta Yuga. He 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, from the Dwapara Yuga. He is also a frequently worshiped deity in Hinduism and an avatar in Vaishnava belief. He appeared alongside his elder brother Balarama. Balarama is regarded generally as an avatar of Shesha. However, Balarama is included as the eighth avatar of Vishnu in the Sri Vaishnava lists, where Buddha is omitted and Krishna appears as the ninth avatar in this list. He particularly included in the lists, where Krishna is removed and becomes the source of all avatars.
- Buddha: Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, is generally included as an avatar of Vishnu in Hinduism. Buddha may be depicted in Hindu scriptures as a preacher who deludes and leads demons and heretics away from the path of the Vedic scriptures. Another view praises him as a compassionate teacher who preached the path of ahimsa (non-violence).
- Kalki ("Eternity", or "White Horse", or "Destroyer of Filth"), will be 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.
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.
Various versions of the list of Vishnu's avatars exist. Some lists give Krishna as the 8th avatar and the Buddha as the 9th avatar, while others, such as the Yatindramatadipika, a 17th-century summary of Srivaisnava-doctrine, give Balarama as the 8th avatar and Krishna as the 9th.
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. By the 8th century CE the Buddha was declared an avatar of Vishnu in several Puranas. The mythologies of the Buddha and Vishnu share a number of structural and substantial similarities, which contributed to the assimilation of the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu. This assimilation is indicative of the Hindu ambivalence toward the Buddha and Buddhism. Conversely, Vishnu has also been assimilated into Sinhalese Buddhist culture, and Mahayana Buddhism is sometimes called Buddha-Bhagavatism. By this period, the concept of Dashavatara was fully developed.
Some Vaishnavas refuse to accept the Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu, and instead believe that Balarama is the 8th incarnation, and Krishna the 9th. The Buddha is also not considered as an avatar of Vishnu in Madhva (Dvaita), Smarta and Advaita traditions.
In Maharashtra and Goa, Vithoba's image replaces Buddha as the ninth avatar of Vishnu in some temple sculptures and Hindu astrological almanacs. In certain Oriya literary creations from Orissa, Jagannath has been treated as the Ninth avatar, by substituting Buddha.
Status of Krishna
In traditions that emphasize the Bhagavata Purana, Krishna is the original Supreme Personality of Godhead, from whom everything else emanates. Gaudiya Vaishnavas 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.
Some modern interpreters sequence Vishnu's ten main avatars in a definitive order, from simple life-forms to more complex, and see the Dashavataras as a reflection, or a foreshadowing, of the modern theory of evolution. Such an interpretation was first propounded by Theosophist Helena Blavatsky in her 1877 opus Isis Unveiled, in which she proposed the following ordering of the Dashavataras:
- Matsya - fish, the first class of vertebrates; evolved in water
- Kurma - amphibious (living in both water and land; but not to confuse with the vertebrate class amphibians)
- Varaha - wild land animal
- Narasimha - beings that are half-animal and half-human (indicative of emergence of human thoughts and intelligence in powerful wild nature)
- 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
- Buddha - humans finding enlightenment
- Kalki - advanced humans with great powers of destruction.
This interpretation was taken up by other Orientalists and by Hindus in India, particularly reformers who sought to harmonize traditional religion with modern science. Keshub Chandra Sen, a prominent figure in the Brahmo Samaj and an early teacher of Swami Vivekananda, was the first Indian Hindu to adopt this reading. In an 1882 lecture he said:
The Puranas speak of the different manifestations or incarnations of the Deity in different epochs of the world history. Lo! The Hindu Avatar rises from the lowest scale of life through the fish, the tortoise, and the hog up to the perfection of humanity. Indian Avatarism is, indeed, a crude representation of the ascending scale of Divine creation. Such precisely is the modern theory of evolution.
Similarly, Monier Monier-Williams wrote "Indeed, the Hindus were ... Darwinians centuries before the birth of Darwin, and evolutionists centuries before the doctrine of evolution had been accepted by the Huxleys of our time, and before any word like evolution existed in any language of the world." J. B. S. Haldane suggested that Dashavatara gave a "rough idea" of vertebrate evolution: a fish, a tortoise, a boar, a man-lion, a dwarf and then four men (Kalki is not yet born). Nabinchandra Sen explains the Dashavatara with Darwin's evolution in his Raivatak. C. D. Deshmukh also remarked on the "striking" similarity between Darwin's theory and the Dashavatara.
- 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
- "Bhagavata Purana, 12.2.16-17".
- Wuaku 2013, p. 148.
- Carman 1994, p. 211-212.
- Britannica Balarama
- Literature review of secondary references of Buddha as Dashavatara which regard Buddha to be part of standard list:
- A Dictionary of Asian Mythology By David Adams Leeming p. 19 "Avatar"
- Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide By Roshen Dalal p. 112 "Dashavatara" ""The standard and most accepted list found in Puranas and other texts is: ... Rama, Krishna, Buddha, Kalki."
- The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism: A-M p. 73 "Avatar"
- Hindu Gods and Goddesses By Sunita Pant Bansal p. 27 "Vishnu Dashavatara"
- Hindu Myths (Penguin Books) pp. 62-63
- The Book of Vishnu (see index)
- Seven secrets of Vishnu By Devdutt Pattanaik p. 203 "In the more popular list of ten avatars of Vishnu, the ninth avatar is shown as Buddha, not Balarama."
- A Dictionary of Hinduism p. 47 "Avatara"
- Gavin D. Flood (13 July 1996). An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge University Press. p. 116. ISBN 978-0-521-43878-0.
- Beck, Guy L. (1993). Sonic theology: Hinduism and sacred sound. Columbia, S.C: University of South Carolina Press. p. 170. ISBN 0-87249-855-7.
- Holt 2013, p. 14.
- Holt 2013, p. 3.
- Hāṇḍā, Omacanda (1994). Buddhist Art & Antiquities of Himachal Pradesh: Up to 8th Century A.D. Columbia, Mo: South Asia Books. p. 40. ISBN 81-85182-99-X.
- Indian, History. "(Prabha IAS-IPS Coaching Centre - Indian History 2003 exam - "The crystallization Of the Avatara Concept and the worship of the incarnations of Vishnu were features of Bhagavatism during the Gupta period"". Arumbakkam, Chennai. Retrieved 1 January 2008.
- Krishna 2009.
- Pathak, Dr. Arunchandra S. (2006). "Junnar". The Gazetteers Dept, Government of Maharashtra (first published: 1885). Retrieved 2008-11-03.[dead link]
- Mukherjee, Prabhat The history of medieval Vaishnavism in Orissa. P.155
- Sullivan 2001, p. 32.
- Orissa Review
- Religion of the Hindus By Kenneth W Morgan, D S Sarma p.55
- Iconography of Balarama By N.P. Joshi p.25
- Kennedy, M.T. (1925). The Chaitanya Movement: A Study of the Vaishnavism of Bengal. H. Milford, Oxford university press.
- Flood, Gavin D. (1996). An introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 341. ISBN 0-521-43878-0. Retrieved 2008-04-21."Early Vaishnava worship focuses on three deities who become fused together, namely Vasudeva-Krishna, Krishna-Gopala and Narayana, who in turn all become identified with Vishnu. Put simply, Vasudeva-Krishna and Krishna-Gopala were worshiped by groups generally referred to as Bhagavatas, while Narayana was worshipped by the Pancaratra sect."
- Essential Hinduism S. Rosen, 2006, Greenwood Publishing Group p.124 ISBN 0-275-99006-0
- Nanda, Meera (19 November 2010). "Madame Blavatsky's children: Modern Hinduism's encounters with Darwinism". In James R. Lewis; Olav Hammer. Handbook of Religion and the Authority of Science. BRILL. pp. 279–344. ISBN 90-04-18791-X.
- Brown, C. Mackenzie (June 2007). "The Western roots of Avataric Evolutionism in colonial India". Zygon 42 (2): 423–448. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9744.2007.00423.x.
- Brown, C Mackenzie (19 November 2010). "Vivekananda and the scientific legitimation of Advaita Vedanta". In James R. Lewis; Olav Hammer. Handbook of Religion and the Authority of Science. BRILL. p. 227. ISBN 90-04-18791-X.
- "Cover Story: Haldane: Life Of A Prodigious Mind". Science Reporter (Council of Scientific & Industrial Research) 29: 46. 1992.
- Amiya P. Sen (2010). Explorations in Modern Bengal, C. 1800-1900: Essays on Religion, History, and Culture. Primus Books. p. 196. ISBN 978-81-908918-6-8.
- Chintaman Dwarkanath Deshmukh (1972). Aspects of Development. Young Asia Publication. p. 33.
- Carman, John Braisted (1994), Majesty and Meekness: A Comparative Study of Contrast and Harmony in the Concept of God, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing
- Holt, John C. (2013), The Buddhist Visnu: Religious Transformation, Politics, and Culture, Columbia University Press
- Klostermaier, Klaus K. (2007). A survey of Hinduism. Albany: State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-7081-4.
- Krishna, Nanditha (2009), Book of Vishnu, Penguin UK
- Sikand, Yoginder (2004). Muslims in India since 1947: Islamic perspectives on inter-faith relations. London: RoutledgeCurzon. ISBN 0-415-31486-0.
- Sullivan, Bruce M. (2001), The A to Z of Hinduism, Scarecrow Press
- Wuaku, Albert (2013), Hindu Gods in West Africa: Ghanaian Devotees of Shiva and Krishna, BRILL
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