Avatar generally, the incarnation of a god as a human being or animal, and, more particularly, the several incarnations of the god vishnu as an animal or human being. According to Hindu belief, Vishnu manifested himself on earth on several occasions to destroy sin and evil. The bhagavadgita and Devimahatmya describe the different avatars or manifestations of Vishnu and the goddess Durga.

There are two kinds of avatars: partial and complete. For example, when Vishnu manifests just a few of his qualities, as for example, in the form of a fish or boar, the incarnation is a partial one. The most complete incarnation of Vishnu is as krishna. The figures of Vishnu's manifestations vary in different scriptures: four, six, ten, sixteen, twenty-two, twenty-three and even thirty-nine. However, the most well known of Vishnu's incarnations are the following ten: fish, tortoise, boar, lion-man, dwarf, Parashuram, Rama, Krishna, Buddha and Kalki.

Vishnu's first incarnation was during the great deluge when the entire world was submerged under water. Vishnu assumed the form of a horned fish and tied Manu's boat to his horns with a rope. He then showed Manu how to recreate the world. After deep meditation, Manu was able to recreate the world and kill the demon Hayagriva.

The second incarnation of Vishnu was in the form of a tortoise. According to the puranas, Vishnu appeared as a tortoise during the Satyayuga (the age of truth, the first age of the world) to rescue the world that had sunk to the bottom of the sea during the great deluge. Diving to the bottom of the sea, he carried up the world on his back. Thus Vishnu, in the shape of the tortoise, saved the world.

The third incarnation of Vishnu was in the form of a boar. After a demon named Hiranyaksa submerged the world under the sea, Vishnu assumed the form of a boar. After fighting the demon for a thousand years, Vishnu killed him and saved the world. His fourth incarnation was as a lion-man.When an invincible demon named Hiranyakashipu was about to kill his son Prahlad for his devotion to Vishnu, Vishnu appeared as half man-half lion and killed the demon and saved Prahlad.

Vishnu's fifth incarnation was as a dwarf. During the Tretayuga (the second age of the world), Vali, the king of the demons, was able through meditation to conquer the heavens, the earth and the underworld. To save the gods and human beings from Vali's oppression, Vishnu appeared before Vali as a dwarf and asked for three steps of land. Believing Vishnu to be an ordinary man, Vali readily agreed to what seemed a trivial request. Vishnu then appeared in his own image and, with one step, occupied the heavens and, with another, occupied the earth. Out of pity he left the underworld to Vali. Vali then recognized Vishnu and accepted him as lord.

Vishnu's sixth incarnation was as Parashuram. During the Tretayuga, Vishnu again manifested himself on earth in order to save human beings from the oppression of the ksatriyas. In this incarnation he was known as Parashuram because he used a parashu or axe as his weapon. In obedience to his father, Jamadagni, he killed his mother, Renuka, with an axe. For this sin of matricide, the axe stuck to his hand. He was able to release it only by diving into a Himalayan lake. The Ksatriya king Kartavirya stole the calf of a sacrificial cow belonging to Jamadagni. Vishnu as Parashuram killed Kartavirya to avenge this sacrilege. The sons of the slain king killed Jamadagni, Parashuram's father. To avenge his father's death, Parashuram killed the princes and other Ksatriyas loyal to them.

Vishnu's seventh incarnation was as Rama, again during the Tretayuga. Appearing in Ayodhya as a prince, he established truth, justice and peace in the world by killing Ravana and many other demons. The epic ramayana is an account of his life and deeds.

Vishnu's eighth and most complete incarnation was as Krishna during the Dvaparayuga (the third age of the world). Although his primary responsibility was to relieve the world of its ills, he engaged in many human activities. Himself a king, he also helped other kings. He killed the tyrant Kangsa (his own maternal uncle) and xhishupal and established peace in society by eliminating evil elements like Duryodhan and his 99 brothers as well as their supporters.

According to Hindu tradition, the ninth incarnation of Vishnu was as Buddha (623-543). Born a prince, he gave up princely comforts to seek the secret of salvation. After a long period of meditation, he concluded that human life was full of sorrows and salvation could only be acquired through non-violence and love and compassion for all living things.

Vishnu's tenth and final incarnation, it is believed, will be as Kalki. According to the Puranas and the mahabharata, Kaliyuga, or the fourth and last age of the world, will be full of sins and the entire human race will belong to a single caste. Vishnu will then be born to Sumati, wife of Vishnuyasha in the village of Sambhala. He will ride a two-winged white horse and, with the help of a flaming sword and chakra or wheel, destroy all evil and establish a reign of peace. The golden age of the world will then return again.

Rama and Krishna are the most important of the ten avatars of Vishnu. They not only influence the religious and spiritual aspects of Hindus but also their daily activities. In some places, Hindu festivals are held in honour of these avatars. In some areas of Faridpur, folk songs and dances in the names of the ten avatars are presented at chadak and gambhira festivals. [Dulal Bhowmik]

See also langalband; ramachandra; krishna; buddhism.