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Avatara - When, Why and How?

Article of the Month - August 2007
Viewed 57905 times since 2nd Oct, 2008

The literal meaning of the word ‘avatara’ is descent. It is no physical climb down however, but rather akin to the teacher, who, when instructing small children, has to come down to the "level" of the child, hold his hand and teach him how to write the alphabet. This is the teacher’s avatara in front of the child. A good guru too is one who first gets down to the level of his disciple’s ability of understanding and grants him knowledge accordingly.

The scriptures explicitly delineate as to when, why and how god takes avatara. In this regard, it is the Bhagavad Gita which gives the clearest picture:

When Does God Take Avatara?

Yada yada hi dharmasya glanir bhavati bharata
Abhyutthanam adharmasya tada atmanam srjamy aham. (Bhagavad Gita 4.7)

When when (yada yada), O Arjuna (bharata), there is (bhavati) a decline (glani) of dharma and the rise (abhyutthanam) of adharma, then (tada) I (aham) manifest (srjam) myself (atmanam).

This verse makes it very clear that there is not just any one exclusive incarnation of god at one instant of time. Actually, whenever adharma rises and dharma is subdued, god takes avatara to restore the balance. In fact, he may even take multiple incarnations to fulfill a single task. This is illustrated in the following story:

Once the devatas (demigods), in order to win over the demons threatening the world, set out to churn the ocean and extract from it the nectar of immortality. For this purpose, they carried on their backs a huge mountain, intending to use it as a churning rod. However, unable to support its weight they dropped it on the way. It was then that the Supreme Person, manifesting as Lord Vishnu, came to their rescue and carried across the mountain to the seashore.

The Legend of Samudra-Manthana
The Legend of Samudra-Manthana



Not only that, when the mountain started sinking into the sea because of the lack of a firm support, the same lord took on the form of the Kurma Avatara (Tortoise Incarnation), entered the waters and lifted the mountain firmly on its back.




Lord Vishnu as Mohini
Lord Vishnu as Mohini


When even after much effort, the churners were not successful, the lord took upon himself the job of churning. In the end, when there arose a dispute regarding the distribution of the nectar between the gods and demons, Lord Vishnu took on the form of the seductress Mohini and bewitched the villains by her charms making sure that it was only the gods who received the nectar of immortality. Thus we see that during this difficult task of churning the ocean, the great lord’s was a constant presence, materializing itself whenever the need arose.



To get to the root of the concept of avatara, we also have to understand the meaning of dharma. The Mahabharata says:

"Dharma is called ‘dharma’ because it upholds (dharan) the world. Therefore, whatever possesses this characteristic of support and sustenance is dharma." (Shanti Parva 109.11).

The thrust of avatara is always on upholding dharma, because it is dharma that upholds the world.

Objection: You seem to suggest that god takes a physical body, but god is formless, so how can he take a form?

Resolution: All religions agree that god is all-knowing and all-capable. If the formless god does not know how to take form then how can he said to know everything? If he cannot take any form at will, how can he be all-powerful or capable?

Objection: Agreed. But why will god take avatara?

Resolution: The deity who does not come to help us when we are in trouble or lift us up when we fall is perhaps heartless, which we all know god certainly is not.

The Indian tradition visualizes god and man as eternal companions (sakha), and this term of endearment is often used by Krishna and Arjuna towards each other. If only man be born, but not god, then it would be not be conducive to this eternal friendship.

Indeed, what kind of a friend is he who does not come to save us when we are in distress? What use is a master who does not look after the welfare of his servant? What kind of a husband is he who does not protect his wife? If god be the father (or mother) of all of us, what kind of a parent would he be if he does not heed to his child’s call of distress? Therefore, god takes avatara because he is full of compassion.

Why Does God Take Avatara?

Paritranaya sadhunam vinashaya cha dushkritam
Dharma samsthapana arthaya sambhavami yuge yuge (Bhagavad Gita 4.8)

"For the protection (paritranaya) of the good (sadhunam), the destruction (vinashaya) of the evil-doers (dushkritam) and (cha) for the (arthaya) establishment (samsthapana) of dharma, I come into being (sambhavami), from age to age (yuge yuge)."

Thus Krishna clearly states why he takes avatara:

1). Protection of the virtuous.

2). Destruction of the wicked, and

3). Establishment of dharma.

The third is but the consequence of the first two. Actually, the protection of the virtuous is but the protection of dharma itself and vice versa. The Mahabharata says:

Dharmo rakshati rakshitah: Dharma protects those who protect it. (Vana Parva 313.128)

Therefore, avatara is but the very embodiment of dharma. It is for this reason that god is called shashvat dharma gopta (protector of the eternal religion) in the Bhagavad Gita (11.18). With the lord constantly watching over dharma, one thing is sure that it will never be destroyed. It may decline; but whenever adharma overrides it, there will be an avatara at the opportune moment to reestablish it.

Avatara – Killing a Mosquito with a Missile?

The Death of Ravana
The Death of Ravana




The suppression of the evildoers of the world means the annihilation of villains like Ravana and Kansa.





Objection: Isn’t it strange that the great god, who by his mere resolve can create and destroy the world, has to come himself to kill a demon? This seems like using a missile to kill a mosquito?

Resolution: The Shrimad Bhagavata Purana says:

‘The incarnation of god in a mortal body is not merely for annihilating the demon race, but for teaching the ideal way of life to human beings. Otherwise, how could the self-contended Supreme Soul, when incarnated as Rama, be so distressed at separation from his wife Sita?’ (5.19.5)

Thus we see that the lord’s incarnation has a higher purpose than the mere killing of evildoers. The missile is fired, but is directed at a befittingly exalted target. We can see specifically this aspect of divinity in the Rama Avatara. In the Vedas it is said:

‘Anuvrata pitu putro ma bhraata bhraatram dvishat’

‘A son should follow his father and there should not be any animosity between brothers.’

The mere statement of this dictum would not have been as effective, as its establishment by setting an example. God says in the Gita:

"I have no duty, nothing to gain from this world, even then, I continue to do action because men and women in every way follow my example." (3.22-23)

Objection: The exemplary devotion of Rama to his father and brothers is well known. However, what kind of example can a god lamenting for his wife set for the world?

Rama and Sita - The Cosmic Parents
Rama and Sita - The Cosmic Parents






Resolution: Rama’s conduct gives a lesson for both worldly people and also those who have renounced the world. By his extreme distress he points out to the householders that a husband and wife should love each other in the same measure and with the same intensity as he does his wife.






For those who have given up the world, Rama’s intention is to dispel any notion they may harbor regarding the pleasures of household life. Actually, when celibate saints observed the lord tying himself in matrimony, they too were tempted to follow his example. Only when Rama performed his lila did the sages realize the sorrowful repercussions of excessive attachment between man and woman.

A Divine Musical Concert at Vrindavan
A Divine Musical Concert at Vrindavan




Objection: That’s wonderful. We will follow the conduct of Lord Krishna. He married sixteen thousand women and also sported with many more gopis in Vrindavana.




Resolution: Be careful. In all matters the scriptures are the authority. They are unanimous in declaring that each and every avatara of god has a different way of bringing home its lesson. Thus while we are to consider Lord Rama’s conduct as an ideal benchmark, Krishna’s lila is not to be emulated but meditated upon. According to that delightful biography of Krishna, the Shrimad Bhagavata Purana:





"Gods are often seen transcending dharma and indulging in overbold tasks. However, those deeds do not leave a blemish on their glory. Fire consumes everything, even impure substances such as filth and corpses, but remains ever auspicious and pure. Those of us who lack these qualities should not even think of doing these actions, let alone perform them. It is Lord Shiva who drank the poison threatening the world, anybody else would have been reduced to ashes if he tried the same." (10.33.30-31)




"He who reverentially listens and narrates Lord Krishna’s love games with the gopis speedily overcomes the malady of lust." (10.30.40)

The whole purpose of Lord Krishna’s lila is to eventually sow the seed of disenchantment with material pleasures. The Bhagavata Purana says:

"Krishna enjoyed all the pleasures of life, but remained unattached to them. He delighted everybody by his endearing smile and nectar-like words. At night he reveled with women, giving them the pleasure of his company, showing them momentary affection. After thus enjoying life for many years, he felt aversion (viraga) towards the life of a householder and the pleasures therein. Indeed, when Lord Krishna himself became disenchanted with material pleasures, how can we, who are devoted to him, trust them?" (3.3.19-23)

Varaha Avatara (The Ten Incarnations of Lord Vishnu)
Varaha Avatara (The Ten Incarnations of Lord Vishnu)







Objection: What sort of message does god when taking the form of a pig (Varaha), or a fish want to deliver?







Matsya, the Fish Incarnation of Vishnu
Matsya, the Fish Incarnation of Vishnu




Resolution: The message is obvious. The divine presence is present equally in the lowliest of creatures, each of which has an equally significant role in the rhythm of life. The fish too is considered an inauspicious race because as a general rule it feeds on its own species.




How Does God take Avatara?

"Though I am unborn and imperishable, and am the lord of all beings, yet, ruling over my own nature (prakriti), I take birth by my own maya." (Bhagavad Gita 4.6)

This verse speaks of the immanent-transcendent nature of the Supreme Lord, as the ruler of the world, and as an incarnation in the world. He is the infinite divine, but using his power of maya, becomes a finite individual. This is the nature of avatara.

The Indian tradition says that each of us mortals is born due to karmic residues (samskaras) piled up over numerous births. The karma we have performed over our many lifetimes is what makes up our natures (svabhava). Our birth is thus subservient to the samskaras thus accumulated. Not so for god.

The embodiments of mortals are not voluntary. The lord however assumes embodiment through his own free will. The difference between god and all of us is that we are subject to maya, but maya is subject to god. This is akin to the example of a jail. A jailor or senior officer can go in and out at their own will and convenience, but not so the prisoners, who are bound by the rules of the prison.

Indeed, man is born, but god takes avatara.

Objection: The scriptures say that god is present in all creatures equally, like salt dissolved in water. How then do you say that he takes a specific form or incarnation? Does it mean that only the avatara is divine but not the rest of the world?

Resolution: When electricity runs through wires, we cannot see it. However, when the same current lights up a bulb it becomes especially manifest, even while it continues to flow as usual. Similar is the case with avatara.

Avatara – Manifestation of the Unmanifest

The word that Krishna uses to signify his birth or manifestation is sambhavami (Bhagavad Gita 4.8). It thus suggests that the asambhav (impossible) becomes sambhav (possible).

For the evildoers in this world whatever they can perceive with their own senses is the only reality. They refuse to believe that there is a higher power beyond the perceivable world.

The lord of this manifested world is Brahma, by securing whose pleasure many a villain thought himself invincible. This is what happened when a demon pleased Lord Brahma by extreme austerities. This is the boon he asked for:

"Let not my death occur at the hands of any being created by you – either man or animal. My end should not take place inside nor outside, nor in the day or in the night. I should not be slain in the air or on the earth, nor by any weapon."

The demon took into account all he could see in this world, this was as far as his vision went. Thus empowered, he set out to conquer the four directions and under the impression of his invincibility, ruled ruthlessly over all. When however, the pot of his sins brimmed over, god had to take avatara, and annihilate him even while respecting the boons granted by Lord Brahma. This he did as follows:

a). Since he, the Supreme Person, is beyond Brahma, and not a creature created by him, he could kill the villain.

Lord Narasimha
Lord Narasimha







b). He took on a form, which had the face of a lion but the body of a human (neither man nor animal). This incarnation is known as Narasimha.






c). The lord killed the demon at the threshold of the house (neither inside nor outside).

d). He was killed just when the day was setting and the night rising (neither day nor night).

Narasimha Avatara (The Ten Incarnations of Lord Vishnu)
Narasimha Avatara (The Ten Incarnations of Lord Vishnu)







e). Lord Narasimha placed the villain on his knees (neither earth nor air).








f). The lord tore open the demon’s chest by using his nails (no weapon was used).

The theory of avatara is an eloquent expression of this law of the spiritual world: God being the savior of man will manifest himself whenever the forces of evil threaten to destroy eternal values sustaining creation. This is the promise of redemption made by avatara, that there exists, beyond the confines of the manifested world, a higher, infinitely potent and mysterious ineffable power, ever ready to spring to our defense.

References and Further Reading:

  • Atmananda, Swami. Gita Tattva Chintan (2 Volumes): Calcutta, 2000.
  • Avatar Katha Ank: Special Issue of the Spiritual Journal 'Kalyan': Gorakhpur, 2007.
  • Badrinath, Chaturvedi. The Mahabharata An Inquiry in the Human Condition. New Delhi, 2006.
  • Chaturvedi, Giridhar Sharma. Gita Vykhyan Mala (Discourses on the Bhagavad Gita): Varanasi, 2006.
  • Chinmayananda, Swami. The Holy Geeta: Mumbai, 2002.
  • Devi, Shrimati Dayakanti. Shrimad Bhagavata Mahapurana (With Word to Word Meaning in 8 Volumes): Allahbad, 1993.
  • Goswami, C.L. and Shastri, M.A. Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana (English Translation in Two Volumes) Gorakhpur, 2005.
  • Goyandka, Jayadayal. Shrimadbhagavadgita with word-to-word translation: Gorakhpur, 2004.
  • Radhakrishnan, S. The Bhagavadgita: New Delhi, 2004.
  • Ram, Pandit Ramnarayan Dutt Shastri (tr.) The Mahabharata (Hindi Translation in Six Volumes): Gorakhpur, 2004.
  • Ramsukhdas, Swami. Gita Darpan (Essays on the Gita): Gorakhpur, 2003.
  • Ramsukhdas, Swami. Gita Gyan Praveshika: Gorakhpur, 2004.
  • Ramsukhdas, Swami. Sadhaka Sanjivani Commentary on the Bhagavad Gita (2 vols.) Gorakhpur, 200.
  • Ranganathananda, Swami. Universal message of the Bhagavad Gita (3 vols.) Kolkata, 2003.
  • Saraswati, Swami Akhandanand. Avatar Rahasya: Vrindavana, 1994.
  • Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda. Bhagavata Vimarsha (Collection of Discourses in Two Volumes): Mumbai, 2003.
  • Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda (tr). Shrimad Bhagavata Purana (2 Volumes): Gorakhpur, 2004.
  • Tagare, G.V. (tr). The Bhagavata Purana (5 Volumes (Annotated)) Delhi, 2002.
  • Vanamali. Nitya Yoga Essays on the Sreemad Bhagavad Gita New Delhi, 2004.
  • Yogananda, Sri Sri Paramahansa. God Talks with Arjuna (2 vols.): Kolkata, 2002.
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    Many Blessings!
    by 7Towers on 22nd Dec 2007
  • i do agree with Adbhut Applause. The teachings of Islam is the same as Hinduisum. Both do teach about truth,justice,peace,love and happiness. But still i am both surprise and disappoined that both Moslem and Hindus do not this truth. I am from Singapore and a born Hindu and when I c my fellow friends who are Moslem themselves they choose to ignore the truth of Islam and continue their ways of sins.
    by BARATHI on 4th Nov 2007
  • Jesus never said he was GOD..he was messenger of GOD. Jesus when he was not in Jerusalem ...was actually in himalayas. In bhrigu rishis bahvishya Purana its mentioned that Jesus or Ishaputra meets Raja Bhoja in Himalayas. Onasking who he is...Jesus replied that he was enlightened or benedicted by Isha(or mother Parvati-Lord Shivas wife). Hence in India Jesus is also known as Isa massiha or Ishaputra. Ishaan is word for GODs personal name in Sanskrit as well as in Arabic.

    Lord MahaVishnu incarnates on earth after every 5000 years. Ramayana happened 8000BC, Krishna avtar around 3100 BC and now too its around 5000 years past the Krishna avtaar. Krishna avatar is true as even the famous Greek traveller Megasthanus has mentioned in his book about meeting Krishna.
    He travelled a lonfg distance to meet the Lord incarnate. Krishna was definitly GOD coz no other being at the age of 5 could kill a huge 10 headed snake Kalia who torented the river Yamuna and its dwellers. How can a normal human being carry a huge mountain Govardhana on his little finger at a tender age to protect his followers and beleivers?

    Arjuna was not the only person to see HIS actual form. Before the war of Mahabharata..Krishna tried to convince the Kauravas about whom they were going to go on war with. He showed them HIS actual form of Lord Narayana.
    They thought Krishna is a mystic and result was destruction of the whole Kaurava clan.

    Similarly LORD has said in Bhavishya Puran that he will rise from the Clan of Kalki Kings in Bharata in the Kali Yuga (Machine or Stans age). He will ride a celestial horse who flies in the air. He will carry a weapon and slay all the fanatics and politicians.

    Same is mentioned by Nostradamus.

    Islam says GOD has no form. They dont beleive in rebirth. But now im going to write the truth itslef. Anyone can go and check in this book or any other Koran book.

    read about rebirth in KORAN:

    "Rabbanaa' aatinaa fid-dunyaa hasantaan wa fil' - aakkhirati hasanatan wa qinaa ' athaaban-naar" which means as translated in the book itself.
    Above translation in english:
    "Our Lord, grant us the good things in this world and the good things in the next life and save us from the punishment of fire".

    Now u all please let me know what makes this tell us all?

    all religions are same. Surely this is the work of Satan to divide the whole world in the anme of religions.

    In the Kali Yuga almost all preists, sadhus and maulavis are interested in sle importance, greed and money.

    For this they can dupe their own religions

    The best way is to practice our own religions in our own way, be good to people and be toghether as humans.

    This is what GOD wants! We see and do what we want , but does anyone realise the importance of avtaara?

    HE just wants his children to live in peace harmony and as good souls which deserve to return to HIM in VAI(Age)KUNTHA(Less) planet, HIS own home.

    Sai Ram
    Let the pillars of Mankind be:
    Dharma(Righteous thinking)

    Love ALL Hurt Never
    by Adbhut Applause on 11th Sep 2007
  • respected JI,

    i am really thank ful to u people. i really liked all your article....

    i am a 20 year old settled in Fiji i am exploring myself in hinduism....

    i want to read some articles, realting hinduism with science....

    please try to write atricles regarding this topic. if u have any, relating to this, plz e-mail me @

    by karthik ravi on 28th Aug 2007
  • All your articles are very educative for all religions. I hope all the christian evangelists read these articles and share with the fellow human beings instead of telling there is only one god by name Jesus. We have no problem in accepting Jesus as one of the Avathara if there was one. We embrace Christianity but not the churchianity.

    Thank you for the good article.
    by srinivasa gowda on 23rd Aug 2007
  • As usual a very good article and informative. On a spiritual plane it explains a lot for me. There had been some questions that I have had that have been answered. Thanks and keep the good work coming. In this world we all need to know that deliverance is on its way! Because the world is in a mess. I would like to understand about ones birth little bit more.
    by Colleen on 22nd Aug 2007
  • Thanks for those wonderful and interesting article. I honestly enjoyed this very much.
    by Cindy on 21st Aug 2007
  • Your writing is beautiful and I sometimes share these with my apprentices... I am a Shaman DreamKeeper of the Mysteries, believing and practicing all traditions, but belonging to none, this way I am able to teach the collective truth to those who wish to go to the deepest level of the inner realms. Thank you for your giving.
    by Mary on 21st Aug 2007
  • Thank you, thank you for the great article on avatar et al.

    I do so enjoy the many articles you send me even though I have trouble sometimes remembering names, but I keep them all and reread them.

    I wish I could afford the paintings, but I can't. I would be satisfied to get small prints of them if possible.

    But if not, I want you to know how much I enjoy reading the articles you send, and seeing the beautiful paintings.

    Thank you again.
    by Jeanne Rheam on 18th Aug 2007
  • Dear Nitinji,

    Congratulations! Your article is so beautiful. Very simple and full of everyday lessons. This article will be very useful for the youth of today. They keep saying its very hard to understand the the holy books, your article will change that now. Thank you a million times.
    by Pushpa Naresh on 17th Aug 2007
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"No one spends even a single moment without doing some action or the other....We generally notice in history that almost all civilizations acquire a lot of material affluence in the beginning and after sometime they go into oblivion....We very well know that it is only the work based on well thought plan that solves problems and not our worry.....The success of any action depends not only on visible parameters but also invisible one....We are carried by the slogans of the times and move in the turbulent waters of life in a rudderless boat.....Want to give us a state of pleasure which is constant and never ending."
Dharma: The Only Remedy for Modern Man
"Here is a fragment from one of the most poignant episodes of Indian history…. This piece of history is from the Mahabharata…. She was dying with shame but inside, like a true kshatrani (woman of the warrior race), she was burning with anger…. I have heard that women who follow dharma were never brought before a public court….Greed is the destroyer of dharma. I do not desire a third boon…. Draupadi was as forgiving as mother earth herself…. Just then Arjuna saw his dear friend Bhagawan Krishna approaching him…. “Leave him, leave him. He is a brahmin and worthy of our worship. Their mother should not cry, like I have at the death of my children."
Analyzing the Eternal Dimensions of Dharma Through Itihasa (History)
"Both the Mahabharata and Shrimad Bhagavatam give a vivid description of how things are like in Kaliyuga…. The following is a list of features typical to Kaliyuga…. A man will consider only those people to be his relatives who are related to him through….The ashrams will be full of show-offs who are experts in the art of living off the food of others….. We can save ourselves from Kaliyuga."
50 Characteristics of Kaliyuga
"A man receives a wife given by the gods... Where women are revered, there the gods rejoice; but where they are not, all efforts are unfruitful…. The husband, tradition says, is the wife, They can never be cut loose from one another. This is the dharma made by Brahma himself….he king who bears patiently when those in anguish insult him will be exalted in heaven…. If the driver of a vehicle injures a man, animal or property, he needs to be punished along with the owner of the vehicle…. This in a nutshell, is the definition of suffering and happiness."
Living According to Manu: God’s Manual of Instruction for Life
"Bhishma undoubtedly is one of the central figures of the Mahabharata.…. One should not venture out too early in the morning…. But one should not go to sleep with wet feet….A person who desires to live long should never irritate the following three…. One must shun company of people who criticize the Vedas…. If we are traveling, one must find shelter inside a house…."
Living the Full Life: 50 Instructions from the Mahabharata
"This middle path lies in between extreme asceticism on one side, and extreme indulgence on the other…. When standing under a Ashok tree, tired and exhausted, she raised her right hand for seeking support of a branch of the tree…. The unique balance that defined his entire life was pre-determined in this duality….One day, in the palace garden he frightened his attendants…. He ate less and less till his diet reduced to a sesame seed, and himself, to a mere skeleton…. Seven days after the attainment of enlightenment gods sent food for breaking his fast…. However, he postponed his ‘nirvana’ for three months till he visited the places he had reminiscences of."
The Light That Enlightened Millions
(The life of Buddha in the popular mind)
"Her epithet in the Devi-Mahatmya is Mahalakshmi. She is the wrathful four-armed goddess of battlefield represented holding in them various weapons…. A form of Lakshmi seated over a lotus laid over a golden seat and a pair of white elephants…. Except in some classical forms in Lakshmi-Narayana imagery Lakshmi is ordinarily two-armed…. Incarnation theory is the crux of Vaishnavism. Vishnu incarnates alone but Lakshmi also incarnates in simultaneity…. Though very rare some enthused artists have conceived on Ardhanarishvara line also Vishnu’s Ardhanarishvara images."
Iconography of Vaishnava Deities: Goddess Lakshmi
"One uniqueness of our Vedic religion is that it allows for salvation not only through renunciation (nivritti) but also through the path of material happiness (pravritti).... If dharma makes it mandatory that conjugal pleasure be restricted to the life partner, how is it that Krishna indulged in the amorous sport of Rasa with others' wives?.... Some stopped cooking, some stopped feeding, some stopped eating, some stopped washing clothes etc. and ran away.... Upanishads call the jiva in waking state as Vishwa and the dreaming jiva as Taijasa (Mandukya Upanishad Mantras 3-4)."
Krishna's Rasa Lila: The Vedantic Perspective
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