Avatar

In Sanskrit avatar literally means «descent,» or, in a broader sense the term means the reincarnation of the same soul in a different body. In Hinduism avatar is a human incarnation of the Divine who functions as a mediator humans and God. The incarnations Vishnu, the sky god and protector of the universe, are examples of avatars.

This «descent» meaning of the word is expressed in the sacred writings of the Ramayana and Mahabharata (the latter includes the Bhagavad-Gita); however this meaning is not present in the Vedas nor the Upanishads.

The avatars appearing in the previous mentioned sacred writings are Rama and Krishna the last incarnations of Vishnu and the of the most beloved and worshiped gods in the Hindu pantheon. Krishna is considered the perfect example of the Divine.

Vishnu is believed to have had anywhere from ten to thirty-nine incarnations, although the potential number of avatars are numerous. Each avatar appears when the world is in crisis. Vishnu’s final avatar is believed to be Kali, appearing at the end of Kali Yuga, a present era, and will destroy the wicked to usher in Maha Yuga, a new era.

Hindus believe Gautama Buddha to be an avatar. There are devotional movements, called bhakti, in Hinduism which center themselves around avatar figures. Such movements claim to derive the avatar’s siddhis or psychic abilities and paranormal powers such as to levitatebilocate, and such.

 

Definition and meanings of Avatar

The concept of «Avatar» in Hinduism is rich and multifaceted, symbolizing the incarnation of the divine in a human form to restore cosmic balance and provide guidance to humanity. Here’s an in-depth look at the significance and attributes of avatars in Hindu theology:

  • Meaning of Avatar: In Sanskrit, «avatar» literally means «descent.» It represents the concept of a deity descending to Earth in a physical form. While it can broadly imply reincarnation, in Hinduism, it specifically denotes a divine incarnation.
  • Role in Hinduism: Avatars are seen as incarnations of the divine, particularly of Vishnu, who is one of the principal deities of Hinduism, revered as the preserver and protector of the universe. These incarnations serve as mediators between humans and the divine, providing guidance, restoring dharma (righteousness or moral order), and combating adharma (evil or chaos).
  • Famous Avatars of Vishnu: The most famous avatars of Vishnu are Rama and Krishna, central figures in the epic narratives «Ramayana» and «Mahabharata» (which includes the «Bhagavad Gita»), respectively. Krishna, in particular, is considered a perfect embodiment of the divine.
  • Scriptural References: While the concept of avatars is not explicitly mentioned in the earliest Hindu scriptures like the Vedas, it becomes prominent in later texts such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Puranas. The Bhagavad Gita, part of the Mahabharata, discusses the concept of divine incarnation in depth, especially in the context of Krishna.
  • Number of Incarnations: There is a traditional enumeration of ten principal avatars of Vishnu, known as the Dashavatara. However, some texts and traditions mention more incarnations, ranging up to thirty-nine or even more. The idea is that Vishnu incarnates whenever there is a crisis to restore cosmic balance.
  • Kali and the Kali Yuga: The avatar Kalki is often associated with the end of the current epoch, Kali Yuga, and is believed to appear to destroy evil and usher in a new era, the Satya Yuga or Maha Yuga.
  • Gautama Buddha as an Avatar: Some Hindu traditions recognize Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, as an avatar of Vishnu. This inclusion reflects the assimilative and inclusive nature of Hindu theology.
  • Bhakti Movements: Devotional (bhakti) movements in Hinduism often focus on particular avatar figures like Rama or Krishna. These movements emphasize personal devotion and emotional connection to the divine, and sometimes attribute siddhis (supernatural powers) to these avatars, such as levitation or bilocation.

 


Sources:

Guiley, Rosemary Ellen, Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience, New York: HarperCollins, 1991, pp. 48-49
Riland, George, The New Steinerbooks Dictionary of Paranormal, New York, Warner Books, Inc., 1980, p. 20
Walker, Barbara G, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, New York, HarperCollins, 1983, p, 80