The term avatāra is derived from the Sanskrit ava√tṝ cross down or descend, thus commonly referring to a god’s “descent” to earth, often called an “incarnation.” The concept of such divine intervention has a long history in South Asian religions, and avatāra is just one term used to describe divine manifestations in the world. Among the most well known of mythological avatāras are the Vaishnava daśāvatāra, the “ten descents” of Vishnu into various embodied forms whose general purpose is to rectify the balance of good and evil in the world. The classic expression of the avatāra doctrine thus says that whenever dharma declines and evil spreads, Vishnu descends to restore dharma and the proper social order, thereby protecting the good and punishing the bad. Stories of such descents are popular in India and date to the ancient epics and Puranas, where the heroic exploits of the most beloved avatāras, Rāma and Krishna, are described in thrilling detail. Beyond such textual accounts, however, are the lives of historical figures considered avatāras --- the medieval Bengali saint Caitanya, for example, and the modern gurus Anandamayi Ma and Sathya Sai Baba, often identified with the more familiar term avatar. If the avatāra concept was originally a Brahmanical device by which indigenous deities were assimilated into the orthodox pantheon and thus subordinated to Brahmanical gods who supported a highly ritualized religiosity within a hierarchical social order, then the popular avatars of the 20th and 21st centuries have universalized the ancient concept and made the benefits of divine descent and embodiment available to spiritual seekers worldwide, irrespective of traditional social and religious codes.
Most overviews of avatāra privilege the classical Vaishnava avatāras, with little or no discussion of the history of the concept or the phenomenon of modern avatāras. Dimmitt and Buitenen 1978 is a reader in the Sanskrit Puranas that includes translations of various avatāra myths, with extensive treatment of Krishna. Gupta 1974 includes a number of monochrome plates in a summary treatment of Vishnu’s major and minor incarnations. In a history of early Vaishnavism, Jaiswal 1981 includes a brief but well-annotated section (pp. 129–147) on the development of the avatāra theory in the epics and the Puranas, with some discussion of Buddhism. A substantial encyclopedia article on Vishnu, Couture 2009– discusses the major avatāras, with useful references to scholarly studies. Mani 1975 is an encyclopedia that includes detailed descriptions of Vishnu and his avatāras. Gonda 1954 explores connections between the Vedic Vishnu and the later avatāras, noting how Vishnu’s protective capacity develops in the early avatāra myths and finding in these the foundations for the salvific activities of the Vaishnava deities later elaborated in the traditions of bhakti.
Couture, André. “Viṣṇu.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, 787–800. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009–.
An excellent overview of Vishnu and the development of Vaishnavism that includes discussion of specific avatāras within the context of Vishnu’s changing forms from the Rig Veda to early-21st-century cults.
Dimmitt, Cornelia, and J. A. B. van Buitenen, eds. and trans. Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Purāṇas. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978.
Chapter 2 (on Vishnu) presents translations of the Vaishnava avatāra myths from various Puranas, and chapter 3 treats Krishna exclusively, with stories from his childhood, youth, and adulthood in Dvārakā. Chapter 6 includes the Ganġā avataraṇa (descent) from the Padma Purāṇa. Endnotes identify specific sources of translations.
Gonda, Jan. Aspects of Early Viṣṇuism. Utrecht, The Netherlands: Oosthoek, 1954.
Selectively discusses the classical avatāras—Kūrma and Vāmana briefly, Varāha and Krishna at some length—as well as other associated forms and figures (such as Śeṣa and Arjuna) and reflects on the continuities between the Vedic Vishnu and the later avatāras. Second edition published in 1969 (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass).
Gupta, Shakti M. Vishnu and His Incarnations. Bombay: Somaiya, 1974.
Summarizes the stories of the major and minor avatāras and includes fifty-two monochrome plates of sculptural works dating from the ancient to the modern periods.
Jaiswal, Suvira. The Origin and Development of Vaiṣṇavism: Vaiṣṇavism from 200 BC to AD 500. 2d rev. and enlarged ed. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1981.
Includes numerous references to epic and puranic texts and to secondary studies, with attention to specific avatāras and discussion of Buddhism and the Buddha avatāra. Contends that the avatāra doctrine and particular avatāras reconciled Brahmanical and regional or tribal traditions, thus effecting a pan-Indian “cultural unity.”
Mani, Vettam. Purāṇic Encyclopaedia: A Comprehensive Dictionary with Special Reference to the Epic and Purāṇic Literature. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975.
See the general entry “Avatāra” and separate entries on most of the individual avatāras. Summarizes the stories in detail, noting variants, and indicates specific primary sources, generally the Mahābhārata and various Puranas.
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