Lord Vishnu is said to have manifested himself in various incarnations, called Avatars, for the destruction of evil or restoration of faith and justice in the world. These incarnations are said to have been in the human form, in the animal form and even in the combined human-animal form.Â It is believed that out of the ten incarnations (called Dashavatar) that are popularly believed in, nine have already been manifested while the tenth is yet to appear. This list is included in the Garuda Purana (1.86.10-11) and denotes those avatars most prominent in terms of their influence on human society.
The majority of avatars in this list of ten are categorised as â€˜lila-avatarsâ€™. The first four are said to have appeared in the Satya Yuga (the first of the four Yugas or ages in the time cycle described within Hinduism). The next three avatars appeared in the Treta Yuga, the eighth incarnation in the Dwapara Yuga and the ninth in the Kali Yuga. The tenth is predicted to appear at the end of the Kali Yuga in some 427,000 years time. Also according to the Vishnu Purana and Bhagavata Purana, the Kali-yuga will end with the apparition of Kalki-avatara, who will defeat the wicked, liberate the virtuous, and initiate a new Satya Yuga.
At that time, the Supreme Personality of Godhead will appear on the earth. Acting with the power of pure spiritual goodness, He will rescue eternal religion. Lord Viá¹£á¹‡u â€" the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the spiritual master of all moving and nonmoving living beings, and the Supreme Soul of all â€" takes birth to protect the principles of religion and to relieve His saintly devotees from the reactions of material work. (Bhagavata Purana)
In the first incarnation the Lord rescued the Vedas during the apocalypse, saving the most sacred and ancient scriptures from the demon Sankhasura, who had stolen the same. The demon had the shape of a conch and was hiding in the bottom of the deep ocean. The Lord vanquished the demon and taking the form of a giant Fish, he negotiated the turbulent apocalyptic deluge or pralaya with utmost ease. Assuming the character of a boat, the Lord in his Fish form saved the Vedas for his devotees.
In his second incarnation the Lord assumed the form of a giant tortoise. During the process of the new creation, His vast back was the base on which stood the Mandara Mountain. The latter was used as the staff for churning the milk ocean with the divine serpent Vasuki being pulled by the gods and the demons on two sides. This yielded the nectar, the Kamadhenu or the wish-fulfilling sacred cow, the Parijata flower and the Airabata elephant among others. The process of churning left on the vast back of the Lord large calluses in the shape of a wheel. The wheel mark also indirectly alludes to the celestial wheel, which is a mark of Vishnu-Krishna and the Sudarsana Chakra, their ayudha or weapon.
During the apocalyptic deluge mother earth sank to the bottom of the ocean. The Lord emerged as tiny boar from the nasal cavity of Brahma and soon grew in size to huge proportions. He rushed into the raging sea to rescue Mother Earth. As he emerged out of the sea, carrying Mother Earth at the tip of his great tusk, he was challenged by the demon Hiranakshya. The Lord vanquished the demon and killed him. In the Puri temple, the Varaha Avatara is one of the Parswa Devatas, the other two being Trivikrama or Vamana and Narasimha. Mother Goddess Earth is conceived as a spouse of Lord Vishnu-Jagannatha. She is called Bhudevi, and a small metal image of the Goddess is placed on the Ratna Simhasana in Srimandira along with the principal Deities. The exquisitely beautiful visual imagery presented by Jayadeva brings out the tender love of the divine couple.
As the fourth Avatara, the Lord vanquished Hiranyakashipu, the brother of the demon Hiranakshya, who fought with him in his Boar incarnation. Hiranyakashipu, the demon king was totally opposed to Hari but his young son Prahlada, was devoted to the Lord and constantly chanted Hari Nama. The demon king was furious that his son was devoted to his enemy and forbade him from doing so. His father in many ways tortured the child devotee without any success in changing his loyalty to Hari. The demon king, who had himself done great penance had been granted a boon that he could not be killed by man or animal, in day or night and neither inside the house nor outside it. He therefore considered himself invincible. Prahlada saw God everywhere and his father challenged him by asking if he saw him in the pillar of the palace. On Prahladaâ€™s reply that indeed the Lord was present there, in a fit of rage, he kicked the pillar and the Lord taking the form of a Man-Lion, emerged from the pillar. It was the twilight hour, neither day nor night and the Lord carrying the demon in one sweeping movement reached the threshold of the palace. With one foot outside and one inside the house he gored the heart of the demon with his sharp nails and killed him at once. Prahlada and Dhruva, another child devotee, are considered as being the greatest of bhaktas.
Narasimha is identified with Vishnu and as a cult Deity, predates Jagannatha. The making of the images of Srimandira was done after initially worshipping Narasimha and a temple dedicated to him exists close to the Gundicha temple to the east of the sacred Indradyumna tank at Srikshetra, Puri. This is known as the Yagna Narasimha temple. Within the Srimandira, a temple of Narasimha to the south of the Audience Hall of the main temple stands even today, and this is older than the main temple. This temple has numerous stone inscriptions inscribed over centuries. Some scholars believe that this was perhaps the original temple and site where Nilamadhava, the precursor of Lord Jagannatha, was worshipped.
Bali, a progeny of Prahlada, was a demon king who had terrorized the gods. He was well known for his charity and never refused anything asked for as a gift. The Lord took the body of a dwarf and approached Bali as a Brahmin seeking alms. When the demon king took a vow that he will not disappoint the holy Brahmin and give him whatever he asked for, the Lord asked for land equal to his three footsteps. With his first step he covered heaven and with his next he covered the whole earth. The king had no more land to offer and proffered his own head for the Lord to cover his third footstep. The Lord placed his foot on the head of Bali and pressed him to the nether world and thus rid the world of the oppression of the demon king. At the same time the Lord emancipated Bali.
There are two variations of this theme depicted in sacred art â€" one showing the Lord as a dwarf Brahmin with an umbrella and a kamandalu, a water pot with a spout, and another showing the Lord in his normal shape but with one of his legs raised to cover the skies. Sculptures of the latter, known as Trivikrama, are ubiquitous in Orissan temples and one is worshipped as one of the three principal parswa devatas in the Srimandira.
In his incarnation as Parasurama, the sage and priest, the Lord relieved the agony of the earth suffering from the excesses of the Kshatriyas, a warrior class. Parasurama means Rama with the Parasu or battle-axe. He was the son of sage Jamdagni, a descendant of Bhrigu, and was a great scholar and master of all the Vedas. His wife was Renuka, who bore him five sons, including Parasurama. Once her mind had been disturbed and excited by the sight of a pair of Gandharvas engaged in love play. As her thoughts were polluted, she lost her natural lustre. Jamadagni, on noticing this became wild and in a fit of anger ordered his sons to cut off her head. The first four sons refused to carry out this horrible command of their father but Parasurama promptly severed her head with one stroke of his battleaxe without the slightest hesitation. Jamadagni, pleased with his loyalty and obedience offered him a boon and Parasurama asked for the life of his mother to be restored and the sage granted this immediately.
Once the king Kartavirya, visiting the hermitage of Jamadagni, took away Kamadhenu, the sacred cow, which could fulfill any wish. On learning this, Parasurama fought with the king and killed him. The sons of the king took revenge by killing Jamadagni when Parasurama was absent from the ashram. Confronted with this catastrophe, Parasurama took a vow that he would destroy the Kshatriya race twenty-one times from the earth. Eventually he fulfilled his vow. The sage, although a Brahmin, is considered as one of the greatest warriors of all times in the legendary accounts. Interestingly a few temples dedicated to Parasurama can be found in Kerala where he is worshipped as a cult Deity by some.
Rama is the hero of the famous epic Ramayana. He was the prince of Ayodhya, the eldest son of King Dasaratha and queen Kaushalya. His stepmother, Kaikeyi, wanted her son Bharata to become the king and Rama to remain in exile in the forests for fourteen years. She asked for this boon from Dasaratha in fulfillment of a promise he had made to her. Lord Rama left Ayodhya along with his wife Sita and younger brother Lakshman to keep the words of his father. Ravana, the demon king of Lanka sent Maricha, who appeared in the forest as a golden stag and Sita asked Rama to get her this strangely beautiful animal. Rama reluctantly left her in the care of Lakshman and chased the golden stag. Later the demon through his tricks pretended as if Rama was crying for help and Sita forced Lakshman to leave her to help his elder brother. Taking advantage of this situation, the demon appeared in the guise of a mendicant seeking alms and cajoled Sita to step out of the protective circle drawn to shield her. He then carried her away in his flying chariot to Lanka. Lord Rama came to know of this from Jatayu, an aged eagle who had fought with Ravana in the skies but was fatally wounded by him. Rama befriended the monkey prince Sugriva and after killing his brother Bali, took help of his monkey followers to build a stone bridge across the seas. Eventually Ravana, the ten-headed demon, was vanquished and Sita rescued.
Krishna Avatar - Lord Vishnu in the form of a Cowherd's Boy
Krishna appeared in the Dwapara Yuga along with his brother Balarama. According to the Bhagavata Purana Balarama is said to have appeared in the Dwapara Yuga (along with Krishna) as an incarnation of Ananta Shesha. He is also counted as an avatar of Vishnu by the majority of Vaishnava movements and is included as the ninth Dasavatara in some versions of the list which contain no reference to Buddha. Because of his great Godly power, Lord Krishna is another of the most commonly worshipped deities in the Hindu faith. He is considered to be the eighth avatar of Lord Vishnu. He played a huge role in the Battle of Kurukshetra and helped the Pandavas defeat the Kauravas. He is also a significant character in the epic of Mahabharata. Shree Krishna delivered Bhagwad Gita on battlefield of the Battle of Kurukshetra to Arjun. He, like Lord Rama, is also known for his bravery in destroying evil powers throughout his life. The Lord is usually depicted as playing the flute (murali), indicating spread of the melody of love to people.
Buddha Avatar - Lord Vishnu in the Form of Buddha
Buddha is accepted as an incarnation of Krishna-Jagannatha. Adi Shankaracharya, who visited Puri in the early ninth century, restored the pride of traditional Hinduism and effectively eclipsed the influence of the Buddhists. Perhaps he was also responsible for the eventual assimilation of the Buddhist faith in the Hindu belief and acceptance of the Buddha as a god in the Hindu pantheon. This is clear from the depiction of Buddha as the ninth avatara in the sequence of avataras in the walls of the Deul in Srimandira and in other Orissan temples and other sculptural depictions of the ten incarnations.
Kalki Avatar - Lord Vishnu in the form of Horse
The Kalki Avatar is the only avatar of Vishnu that is set in the future. It is believed that at the end of the present age (Kali Yug), there will be a deluge when Kalki , the tenth and the last avatar of Vishnu, will ride forth on a horse to redeem humankind and re-establish righteousness. Riding on the back of a white horse, with a drawn sword, he will destroy the enemies of Dharma and re-establish it in all its glory. The name Kalki is often a metaphor