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The Avatar

The Divine Incarnation

Krishna revealing His cosmic form

"Whenever the Law declines and the purpose of life is forgotten, I manifest myself on earth.
I am born in every age to protect the good, to destroy evil, and to reestablish the Law."

Lord Krishna
Bhagavad Gita 4.7-8

According to Vaishnavite doctrine, of the ten classical avatars of Vishnu, nine have come in the past: the fish, the tortoise, the boar, the man-lion, the dwarf, Rama, Rama-with-the-Axe, Krishna, and the Buddha. The tenth avatar is the future savior, Kalki. In addition, many leaders of sectarian Hindu movements such as Chaitanya (1486-1533), Ramakrishna (1836-1886), Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), his co-worker Mira Alfassa "the Mother" (1878-1973), Meher Baba (1894-1969), and Sathya
Sai Baba (1926-) are revered as avatars whose missions will culminate in the coming of a new age for humanity. Cf. also Srimad Bhagavatam 1.1, p. 564.

Professor Andrew Wilson
Unification Theological Seminary
(slightly modified)

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Hindu tradition tells about complete (mukhya) and partial (gaguna) incarnations of the Godhead (avatara). The incarnation is the descent of the God from the supernatural (aprakrita) to natural (prakrita) order of things. The manifestations (vyuha) of the God in sacred statues, images, etc. are called pratima or vigraha (according to Ramanuja's vishishtadvaita vedanta doctrine).

In the Vishnava Hindu tradition Buddha is the 9th incarnation (avatara) of Vishnu (Krishna was the 8th one). In the late Shaivaic tradition there were attemps to equate Buddha in his Cosmic Body (Dharmakaya) and Shiva. In pre-Islamic Indonesia (Majpahit State) there even was a state cult of the syncreic Deity Shiva-Buddha.

external linkEvgueni Tortchinov

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The Avatar and the Great Religious Traditions

In this investigation, we are faced with the historically interesting phenomenon of two of the great orthodoxies embracing some form of incarnation explicitly, namely Hinduism and Christianity, two denying its very possibility outright, namely Judaism and Islam, and a third being somewhat ambivalent toward it, namely Buddhism. Being majority positions, the orthoxies tend to have an implicit notion of incarnation that is not metaphysically developed. Most of the orthodox just hear the word and react appropriately, either offering reverence or screaming "blasphemy."

However, in all of these "great religions" there is a mystical core which is expressed to some degree in metaphysical models, either explicitly as in Vedanta, or implicitly as in Sufi poetry, Hindu iconography and mythology, and the metaphors of Kabbalah. Similarly, in more developed theories, the notion of incarnation is developed and articulated. It would be of great interest if it could be shown that the major models are based on a unifying experience, but this remains a presupposition of one school of universalism. Analysis of the texts, however, seems to suggest that mystics differ over significant points, lending credibitility to the position that there may be a similarity of underlying experience but not a unity. In a similar vein, it would tie things up neatly if the notion of incarnation in Christianity and Hinduism were the same, but Hindu-Christian dialogue reveals significant differences.

Tom Hickey 1998

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The avatar is a very popular meme.  Even religions such as Judaism and Islam, which demands that the Absolute Reality, in the form of a personal God, remain eternally transcendent, have an avatar-like figure in the form of a messiah or prophet.  The Christians have a more Hindu-like conception in the figure of Christ, although they make they make the claim that there is only one single Avatar, which is the person of Jesus.  But the Indian tradition is much freer, and allows for a multiplicity of Avatars throughout the endless cyclic history of the Cosmos.

Many gurus claim, or have claimed, to be avatars; or it is said concerning them by their followers that they are. I beleve that a tiny proportion of them are, but the vast majority are not.

M.Alan Kazlev

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Wikipedia link Wikipedia page on Avatars


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page by Andrew Wilson, Evgueni Tortchinov, Tom Hickey (all 1996), and M.Alan Kazlev 1998-2003
page uploaded 1998, last modified 16 July 2006