A term used in Hindu religion to indicate the incarnation
of a deity. Avatara is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘‘descent,’’ and
the Hindu gods take on animal or human form in different
ages for the welfare of the world. In Hindu mythology, the god
Brahma (originally known as the creator Prajapati) became successively
incarnated as a boar, a tortoise, and a fish, to assist the
development of the world in prehistory.
Certain Hindu scriptures ascribe these incarnations to the
god Vishnu (the preserver), but since the manifestation of divine
power takes many different forms in Hindu mythology,
the distinction is academic. Various scriptures ascribe to Vishnu
ten major incarnations (1) Matsya (the fish), associated with
legends of a great deluge in which Manu, progenitor of the
human race, was saved from destruction; (2) Kurma (the tortoise),
whose back supported great mountains while the gods
and demons churned the ocean to retrieve divine objects and
entities lost in the deluge; (3) Vahura (the boar), who raised up
the earth from the seas; (4) Nara-sinha (the man-lion), who delivered
the world from the tyranny of a demon; (5) Vamana (the
dwarf), who recovered areas of the universe from demons; (6)
Parasu-rama (Rama with the axe), who delivered Brahmins
from dominion by the warrior caste during the second age of
the world; (7) Rama, hero of the religious epic Ramayana, who
opposed the demon Ravana; (8) Krishna popular incarnation
chronicled in the religious epic Mahabharata (especially in the
Bhagavad-Gita section) and Srimad Bhagavatam; (9) Buddha, the
great religious teacher; and (10) Kalki, an incarnation yet to
come, who is prophesied to appear on a white horse with a
sword blazing like a comet, to destroy the wicked, stabilize creation
and restore purity to the world.
In other religious works, as many as 22 incarnations are listed,
including various great saints and sages. According to
Hindu belief, a perfected human soul has no further karma (action
and reaction) and is absorbed into divinity at death, but
may elect to be incarnated for the good of the world. The deity
Shri Krishna, in the Bhagavad-Gita (47–8) specifically promises
‘‘Arjuna, whenever there is decline of dharma (righteous
duty), and unrighteousness is dominant, then I am reborn. For
the protection of the virtuous, the destruction of evil-doers, and
to reestablish righteousness, I am reborn from age to age.’’ Belief
in repeated divine reincarnations of the deities for the good
of the world, as distinct from one unique Messianic event, is
one of the major theological differences between Hinduism
and Western religions such as Judaism and Christianity.

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