Wednesday, 18 August 2004  
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God Vishnu and his ten 'Avatars'

by Aryadasa Ratnasinghe

"Whenever there appears
A languishing of righteousness,
And a rising of unrighteousness
Then I generate myself".
- Bhagavad Gita

Belief in an 'Avatar', a down-coming, descent or manifestation of a deity, either in human or animal form, is characteristic of Hinduism.

God Vishnu, the second godhead of the Hindu Triad ('Trimoorti'), manifesting the cosmic functions of a Supreme Being, is considered by the Hindus as the preserver of the universe and the embodiment of goodness, mercy and compassion, unlike other deities of the Hindu pantheon.

According to Hinduism, god Vishnu has assumed visible manifestations ('avatars') in nine descents to earth. They were Matsya (fish), Kurma (tortoise), Varaha (boar), Nursinha (man-lion), Vamana (dwarf), Parasurama (Rama with an axe), Ramachandra (the warrior Rama), Balarama (Sri Krishna) and Buddha (Gautama Buddha).

Among these, Rama and Krishna are the most important 'avatars', and with Sita and Radha hold the centre of devotion.

Rama was a prince (an 'avatar' of god Vishnu) and was born to overcome evil, and the story is told in the epic Ramayana. Rama was married to Sita, herself an 'avatar' of a goddess.

Being debarred from his throne, Rama, with his wife and brother Luxmana, lived in exile in the forest for 12 years.

She was abducted by the demon-king of Lanka. Ravana and Rama pursued them with the help of the monkey-god Hanuman.

Finally, she was rescued, and the royal couple returned to rule their rightful kingdom.

God Vishnu's next and the last 'avatar' is Kalki, who will appear in the world, riding a white horse symbolic of peace, with a flaming sward, to restore peace and order in the world that had become chaotic and given to evil.

Kalki is identified as Bodhisatva Natha alias Avalokitheswara Natha of the Mahayanists, and future Buddha Maitreya by the Theravadins, as last in the lineage of Buddhas belonging to the 'Maha Bhadra Kalpa' (the Great Aenion Cycle). Thus ends the last 'Avatar' of god Vishnu as well as the lineage of the Buddhas.


According to E.G. Parrinder, Professor of Comparative Study of Religions in King's College, University of London, and a world authority on the doctrine of 'avatars', "the 'avatar' concept appeared relatively late, somewhere during the last centuries before the Christian Era." He is also of the view that "the belief in 'avatars', did not figure in the Vedas sacred books of the Hindus) dating from c.1,500 BC."

The Vedas constitute the Rigveda (sacred sayings and hymns sung in praise), the Samaveda (melodies and chants used by Hindu priests during sacrifices), the Yajurveda (sacrificial formulae) and the Atharvaveda (spells and charms and exorcistic chants).

The belief in 'Avatars' emerged with the Great Epic Mahabharatha, belonging to the Heroic Age of India, and developed through later writings.

The 'avatar' concept is particulary associated with god Vishnu, but he was, according to Prof. Parrinder, "a quite minor god mentioned in the Vedas, in a few hymns, but he was specially credited with the taking of the three great strides across the universe, as the Sun-god, whose light illuminates the whole cosmos. The name 'Vishnu' indicates pervasiveness, for the deity had pervaded all things.

Though a Hindu deity, Buddhists worship god Vishnu, next in order of merit to the Buddha, as he is believed to be the protector of the Buddha Sasana.

But, according to the Mahavamsa, "Devassuppalavannassa lanka rakhkam samappayi", the name refers to god Upulvan (the god of lotus hue), but, in later times, god Upulvan has been identified synonymous with Vishnu, perhaps, in keeping with Hindu tradition. But, the two are not identical. Neither the chronicles nor the ancient treatises mention the name Vishnu, but there is reference to Upulvan.

The earliest extant treatise which refers to god Vishnu is the 'Dasa-jataka-katha-vastuva' (14th century) and the later treatise 'Sarvagnagunalankaraya' (18th century). So, an attempt has been made to identify god Vishnu with Upulvan, in support of Hinduism.

The Upulvan 'deva mandiraya' came to be known as Vishnu 'deva mandiraya' in the South. In the treatise 'Nikaya Sangrahaya', there is mention about god Upulvan along with the gods Saman, Vibhishana, Skanda kumara. In the 'Paravi Sandesaya', the consort of god Upulvan is mentioned as Sandavat-biso, and they were blessed with a son named Dhanu alias Janak. But god Vishnu's consort is Lakshimi, goddess of fortune.


In the epic Mahabharatha, the association of numerous deities as 'avatars' has done great deal to bring the god into prominence and power, and today, he is worshipped by millions of Hindus, above the other gods, who belongs to the Hindu pantheon.

The mythical conception is that god Vishnu came down to earth in different manifestations to destroy evil demons that harassed mankind.

The first three 'avatars' (Matsya, Kurma and Varaha) figure in stories in which the god fought evil or saved the earth from the Great Deluge (Flood), and in each case, it was Vishnu himself who transformed into one of these animals and saved all from disastrous situations, that endangered life.

The god appeared as a man-lion to destroy a demon who could not be killed by ordinary men or animals, and as a dwarf, he strode over the three worlds (as Vishnu did) and, so, won them back from another terrible demon, who could not be subdued by any man or animal.

God then appeared as a warrior (Rama) with an axe, fighting oppressive armies. The citing of Buddha, as an 'avatar' of god Vishnu is, doubtless, an attempt made to attract Buddhists to Hinduism by showing that Buddha was the ninth 'avatar' of the god who had descended to earth to bring peace and happiness to mankind, and to show the path of liberation from earthly bondage.

The significance of 'avatars' is explained clearly in the Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Lord), which comes in the middle of the Great Epic Mahabharatha. The god is supposed to have appeared among mankind for the specific purpose of devotional worship, beseeching help to relive from all calamities.

This eternal being is not bonded to any other divine power, and is believed to come down to earth, by his own will and might, to protect the righteous, destroy the wicked, and establish what is right.

Krishna, as an 'avatar' of Vishnu, appears in more elaborate tales of spiritual value. The Mahabharatha mentions little about the birth of Krishna and his childhood days, but in later stories these became, and remain, elaborated by popular devotion.

He is mentioned as a mischievous child, stealing butter, upsetting milk churns, breaking trees, fighting demons, and during his youth, he became the favourite of the milkmaids (gopis). He is, usually, represented as a youth blowing the 'bata nalava' (bamboo musical instrument).

Youthful games

Devotion came to centre on his youthful games. His dancing and hiding with 'gopis' were seen as symbolic of divine love for the soul. Krishna and Radha, his special paramour, symbolised love, separation and rapturous reunion of god and the soul. He was a great hero with many adventures.

Disguised as a charioteer in an eve-of battle dialogue with Arjuna, he delivered the great moral discourse of the Bhagavad Gita.

Most Hindus regard this epic, with its teaching, that there are many valid ways to salvation.

From a critical and scientific point of view, some scholars think that 'avatars' are simply stories, without any concrete historical foundation, and, sometimes, with dubious morality.

According to Prof. Parrinder, "The Hindu believer would say that Rama and Krishna were mere historical figures, heroes and kings, though it would be difficult to establish their dates or precise history.

To their worshippers, Rama and Krishna really lived, came down to earth and went through many experiences, all with the aim of destroying evil and showing the divine care for man".

The early Indian Vedas were psalms addressed to many gods of the Hindu pantheon, and in the philosophical Upanishads, they were reduced to unity in the impersonal divine essence called Brahman, who was not a personal God, but an individual and world-soul (Atman). Buddhists do not believe that Buddha was an 'avatar' of Vishnu, because gods are subordinate to the Buddha.

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