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Hinduism Avatāra
by
Tracy Coleman

Introduction

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.

General Overviews

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–.

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    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.

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  • 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.

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    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.

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  • Gonda, Jan. Aspects of Early Viṣṇuism. Utrecht, The Netherlands: Oosthoek, 1954.

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    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).

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  • Gupta, Shakti M. Vishnu and His Incarnations. Bombay: Somaiya, 1974.

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    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.

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  • 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.

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    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.”

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  • Mani, Vettam. Purāṇic Encyclopaedia: A Comprehensive Dictionary with Special Reference to the Epic and Purāṇic Literature. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975.

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    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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History of the Concept

The concept of the avatāra has a long and complex history in which various terms are used to describe divine manifestations in the world. The basic idea thus predates the classical avatāra doctrine expressed in Bhagavad Gita 4.7–8, and despite the power and popularity of this particular conception, saints, philosophers, and politicians have employed the term diversely to the early 21st century. Hacker 1960 explores the development of the avatāra doctrine through a study of the specific terms used to describe divine appearances or descents in the world. Examining prādurbhāva (manifestation) lists in epic and puranic literature, Brinkhaus 1993 contends that Vishnu and Nārāyaṇa were originally separate gods and that stages can be identified in the process of their merging and being associated with avatāras such as Rāma and Krishna. Exploring ancient archaeological evidence, Härtel 1987 argues that the Vṛṣṇi vīra (hero) Vāsudeva was already worshipped in the 2nd century BCE, before being associated with Bhāgavata vyūhas (emanations) or with the later doctrine of avatāras. Schrader 1973 discusses the Pāñcarātra doctrines of vyūha (emanation), avatāra (descent), and related concepts in the Ahirbudhnya Saṃhitā. Couture 2001 suggests that the avatāra concept may have ancient roots in epic conceptions of the world as Vishnu-Krishna’s stage, onto which the god descends disguised in order to play a purposeful role in earthly affairs. Stevenson 1983 briefly discusses the concept of avatāra in medieval and modern commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita, demonstrating how differently prominent Indian thinkers have understood the concept throughout history. Brown 2007a and Brown 2007b address the topic of “avataric evolutionism—the idea that ancient myths of Vishnu’s ten incarnations anticipated Darwinian evolution” (p. 423)—in colonial and postcolonial India. Besant 1900 presents a theosophical understanding of the avatāra, the outcome of a long evolutionary process in which human beings become divine.

  • Besant, Annie. Avatāras: Four Lectures Delivered at the Twenty-Fourth Anniversary Meeting of the Theosophical Society at Adyar, Madras, December 1899. London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1900.

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    Defines the avatāra as the divine outcome of an eons-long evolutionary process in which a human being ultimately realizes his or her essential divinity. Says the special avatāras, such as Krishna, are historical figures acting on the world stage to reveal spiritual truths. Four lectures define the avatāra, discuss the source and need for such, treat the classic avatāras, and finally Krishna.

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  • Brinkhaus, Horst. “Early Developmental Stages of the Viṣṇuprādurbhāva Lists.” In Proceedings of the VIIIth World Sanskrit Conference, Vienna 1990. Edited by Gerhard Oberhammer and Roque Mesquita, 101–110. Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasiens und Archiv für indische Philosophie, Band 36, suppl. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1993.

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    Examines early prādurbhāva (manifestation) lists in epic and puranic literature and proposes that in the oldest passages Vishnu and Narayana are distinct gods “within two separate mythological traditions” (p. 103) before becoming Vishnu-Narayana-Vasudeva in later avatāra traditions.

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  • Brown, C. Mackenzie. “The Western Roots of Avataric Evolutionism in Colonial India.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 42.2 (June 2007a): 423–448.

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    Explores the theological and political contexts of “avataric evolutionism,” a Hindu response to Western science that interpreted the Vaishnava avatāras in terms of Darwinian evolution and was elaborated in the latter 19th century by Keshub Chunder Sen, though denounced by other Hindu leaders. See Brown 2007b for a continuation of the study.

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  • Brown, C. Mackenzie. “Colonial and Post-Colonial Elaborations of Avataric Evolutionism.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 42.3 (September 2007b): 715–747.

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    A continuation of Brown 2007a that focuses on Narayana Bhavanrao Pavgee (1854–1935) and his nationalistic interpretation of avataric evolutionism, and Aurobindo Ghose (1872–1950), whose understanding of evolution involved the “spiritual liberation of the whole of humankind” (p. 715). With some attention to 21st-century ideas.

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  • Couture, André. “From Viṣṇu’s Deeds to Viṣṇu’s Play; or, Observations on the Word ‘Avatāra’ as a Designation for the Manifestations of Viṣṇu.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 29.3 (June 2001): 313–326.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1017540311388Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Considers the theatrical connotations of the terms avatāra and avataraṇa in the Mahābhārata and the Harivaṃśa and suggests that all of Vishnu-Krishna’s “descents” to earth and his acts on earth are also dramatic entrances onto a stage (raṅga) where līlā (divine play) thus takes place.

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  • Hacker, Paul. “Zur Entwicklung der Avatāralehre.” Weiner Zeitschrift für die Kunde Süd-und Ostasiens und Archiv für Indische Philosophie 4 (1960): 47–70.

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    Explores the “terminological history of the avatāra doctrine” (p. 68) through a study of the specific Sanskrit terms (such as rūpa, prādurbhāva, and aṃśāvataraṇa) used to describe divine appearances or descents in the world. Contends that terminology changed to distinguish divine manifestation in various forms from ordinary rebirth in saṃsāra.

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  • Härtel, Herbert. “Archaeological Evidence on the Early Vāsudeva Worship.” In Orientalia Iosephi Tucci Memoriae Dicata. Vol. 2. Edited by Gherardo Gnoli and Lionello Lanciotti, 573–587. Serie Orientale Roma 56. Rome: Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1987.

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    Contends that archaeological evidence from the 1st to 2nd century BCE demonstrates widespread Vasudeva-Krishna worship and that Vishnu becomes prominent only during the Gupta period. Reflects on the relations between archaeological and literary evidence in the development of the doctrines of vyūha (emanation) and avatāra.

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  • Schrader, Friedrich Otto. Introduction to the Pāñcarātra and the Ahirbudhnya Saṃhitā. Adyar Library Series 5. Madras: Adyar Library and Research Centre, 1973.

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    Discusses the Pāñcarātra view of cosmogony, including the doctrines of vyūha (emanation), avatāra, and other concepts related to manifestations, forms, and activities of the cosmic lord Vishnu-Narayana. Originally published in 1916.

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  • Stevenson, Robert W. “The Concept of Avatāra in Ancient and Modern Commentaries on the Bhagavadgītā.” Journal of Studies in the Bhagavadgītā 3 (1983): 56–86.

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    Briefly discusses the concept of avatāra in commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita by the medieval commentators Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja, and the modern commentators Bal Gangadhar Tilak, M. K. Gandhi, and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Shows how some see the avatāra theologically as God become human, while others see the avatāra humanistically as a human being become divine.

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Rāma and Rāmāyaṇa

Although Indian commentators of the Rāmāyaṇa, and Hindus more broadly, generally understand the popular figure of Rāma as divine, an avatāra of Vishnu, Western scholars analyzing the epic often disagree with this traditional reading. An early but influential argument for a theory of stages in Rāma’s deification, and thus a theory of interpolations in the epic narrative, is found in Jacobi 1893. Brockington 1984 similarly argues for an “evolution” in the development Rāma’s character from a human hero to an avatāra of Vishnu. Brockington 1998, a larger comparative study of the epics Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa, maintains the same position on Rāma’s deification. In his general introduction to the Princeton translation of the critical edition, Goldman 1984 likewise concludes that key theological and devotional elements related to Rāma’s association with Vishnu are later layers in the narrative. By contrast, Pollock 1984b argues that Rāma’s divinity is intrinsic to even the earliest core of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, which expresses a “political-theological orientation” (p. 523) in presenting Rāma as the divine king who saves the world from evil. Pollock 1984a elaborates further, presenting traditional interpretations focused on Rāma’s divine-human status, especially as found in the 18th-century commentary by Tryambaka Makhin. González-Reimann 2006 refutes Sheldon Pollock’s claims regarding Rāma’s divinity in the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, whereas Hiltebeitel 2003 understands Rāma’s epic divinity in relation not only to divine kingship but also to epic conceptions of the avatāra specifically. Goldman 1980 discusses Rāma and his brothers, the four sons of Daśaratha, as a “composite avatāra” of Vishnu in the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, each brother with distinct personality traits that inform the overall epic hero.

  • Brockington, John L. Righteous Rāma: The Evolution of an Epic. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1984.

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    A study of Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa “in its total context” that posits stages in the development of the epic and an “evolution” in the development Rāma’s character from a human hero to an avatāra of Vishnu. Two chapters discuss the story in later Sanskrit and vernacular literature and in Buddhist and Jaina traditions.

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  • Brockington, John L. The Sanskrit Epics. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1998.

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    A comprehensive study of both epics, with attention to the question of Rāma’s and Krishna’s divinity in relation to the avatāra theory and to other avatāras of Vishnu. Considers a variety of positions to the contrary but maintains that Rāma was originally a human hero eventually elevated to divinity.

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  • Goldman, Robert P. “Rāmaḥ Sahalakṣmaṇaḥ: Psychological and Literary Aspects of the Composite Hero of Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 8 (1980): 149–189.

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    Argues that Vālmīki presents the four sons of Daśaratha as a composite epic hero in order to portray a wide range of human psychological traits and emotional drives, including the aggressive and the erotic, while still constructing Rāma as the ideal man according to ancient Indian social codes.

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  • Goldman, Robert P., trans. The “Rāmāyaṇa” of Vālmīki: An Epic of Ancient India. Vol. 1, Bālakāṇḍa. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

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    See especially the second section of the introduction, where Goldman states that the “deification of Rāma appears to belong to the very latest stratum of the conflated epic” (p. 43). Key aspects of the story so important in later Vaishnava bhakti, such as Rāma’s identification with Vishnu, were thus not central to the early narrative.

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  • González-Reimann, Luis. “The Divinity of Rāma in the Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 34.3 (2006): 203–220.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10781-005-5018-4Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Refutes Sheldon Pollock’s position regarding Rāma’s divinity in the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa and basically portrays Pollock as a Vaishnava apologist who fails to assess critically both the epic and its traditional Vaishnava commentators.

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  • Hiltebeitel, Alf. “India’s Epics: Writing, Orality, and Divinity.” In The Study of Hinduism. Edited by Arvind Sharma, 114–138. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.

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    Agrees with Sheldon Pollock regarding Rāma’s divine status but contends that the avatāra is central to the Rāmāyaṇa’s conception of divinity and that the avatāra and the divine king have similar protective functions in the Brahmanical order.

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  • Jacobi, Hermann. Das “Rāmāyaṇa”: Geschichte und Inhalt nebst Concordanz der gedruckten Recensionen. Bonn, Germany: Friedrich Cohen, 1893.

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    Argues that epic passages proclaiming Rāma’s divinity are later interpolations in the narrative, as an epic hero merged with a popular deity in the process of deification. Translation: S. N. Ghosal, trans., The Rāmāyaṇa: “Das Rāmāyaṇa” of Hermann Jacobi (Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1960).

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  • Pollock, Sheldon. “Ātmānaṃ Mānuṣaṃ Manye: Dharmākūtam on the Divinity of Rāma.” Journal of the Oriental Institute 33.3–4 (1984a): 231–243.

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    Discusses Rāma’s humanity and his failure to recognize his own divinity in terms of the ignorance inherent in his human embodiment, a condition deliberately adopted by Vishnu for the slaying of Rāvaṇa, who chose a boon of invulnerability that did not to extend to humans because he disdained them. Shows how traditional commentaries, especially Tryambaka Makhin’s Dharmākūtam, support claims regarding Rāma’s divine status in the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa.

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  • Pollock, Sheldon. “The Divine King in the Indian Epic.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 104.3 (1984b): 505–528.

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    Contends that Rāvaṇa’s boon from Brahma necessitates a “divine solution” in the form of a god-man to overcome cosmic evil and that Rāma as the divine king who saves the world thus fulfills the soteriological functions typical of Vishnu’s later avatāras, antecedents for which Pollock finds in Vedic literature.

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Translations and Abridgments

Goldman 1984– is a full English translation (still in progress) of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, and Clay Sanskrit Library 2005– provides a partial English translation that includes the Sanskrit in transliteration on the facing page. Narayan 1977 is an engaging abridgment based on the Tamil narrative.

  • Clay Sanskrit Library. Rāmāyaṇa. 5 vols. New York: New York University Press, 2005–.

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    Offers a five-volume translation through the epic’s Sundarakāṇḍa by several translators. Hardcover, pocket-sized texts include the transliterated Sanskrit facing the English translation. Copublished by New York University Press and the JJC Foundation.

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    • Goldman, Robert P., trans. The Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki: An Epic of Ancient India. 6 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984–.

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      A verse-by-verse English translation of the critical edition, with extensive annotation. Detailed introductions to the volumes address the question of Rāma’s divinity, consider the epic’s historical context, and discuss the text of the critical edition. Includes glossary, bibliography, and index.

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    • Narayan, R. K. The “Ramayana”: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic (Suggested by the Tamil Version of Kamban). New York: Penguin, 1977.

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      An English abridgment based on Kamban’s 12th-century Irāmāvatāram in Tamil. Accessible and engaging, useful in introductory courses. Originally published in 1972 (New York: Viking).

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    Krishna: Mahābhārata, Bhagavad Gita, and Harivaṃśa

    Appearing dramatically in the epic Mahābhārata but absent in earlier Vedic literature, except apparently for a brief debut in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad, Krishna represents a puzzling figure for scholars, who propose various theories about his status as an avatāra and his association with Vedic deities such as Vishnu and Indra and the cosmic god Nārāyaṇa. Hiltebeitel 1979 discusses the history of epic studies in a seminal bibliographic essay focused specifically on Krishna in the Mahābhārata. Brodbeck 2009 examines the avatāra theory in relation to the Earth’s plight in the epic Mahābhārata. Biardeau 1994 explores the universalization of salvation in relation to the concepts of avatāra and bhakti. Goldman 1995 maintains that the avatāra is central to both epics and explores the concept in terms of disguised identity as divinities descend into human form, thereby fulfilling a purpose while concealing their true nature and partaking of human limitations. Brockington 1998, by contrast, interprets Krishna and Rāma as deified heroes according to historical layers in epic and puranic narrative; devotion to them as avatāras of Vishnu is thus a later development in epic redaction. A study of the yugas (world ages) in the Mahābhārata, González-Reimann 2002 likewise views the avatāra as a later conception emerging with a Vaishnava worldview in which the supreme God descends to restore the dharmic order. Viethsen 2009 discusses the reasons given in Harivaṃśa 40–45 for Vishnu’s descent, and Couture 2003 reflects on the ritual significance of Dvārakā as the avatāra’s city according to the Harivaṃśa. Sutton 2000 examines the concept of the avatāra within the context of a broad study on theism in the Mahābhārata.

    • Biardeau, Madeleine. Bhakti et avatāra. Études de Mythologie Hindoue 2. Pondicherry, India: École Française d’Extrême-Orient, 1994.

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      Suggests that while the epic avatāra descends in a militant form in order to enable good to triumph over evil, the avatāra’s being fundamentally a divine yogi allows for a universalization of salvation through bhakti even as hierarchies related to dharma remain foundational to the social structure. Originally published in 1976 and 1978 in Bulletin de l’École Française d’Extrême-Orient 63 and 65.

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    • Brockington, John. The Sanskrit Epics. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1998.

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      Surveys various scholarly positions on the problem of Krishna’s identity and on the historical connections among three main aspects of Krishna’s character: the epic prince, the nomadic hero, and the supreme God. Suggests that Krishna was originally considered a human hero and only later deified.

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    • Brodbeck, Simon. “Husbands of Earth: Kṣatriyas, Females, and Female Kṣatriyas in the Strīparvan of the Mahābhārata.” In Papers of the 12th World Sanskrit Conference, Vol. 2, Epic Undertakings. Edited by Robert P. Goldman and Muneo Tokunaga, 33–63. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2009.

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      Explores the avatāra rationale for the Kurukṣetra War (that is, to exterminate the incarnated Dānavas) and its role in the Mahābhārata narrative, with particular focus on the character of Earth, who effectively operates as an implicit rival to the good kṣatriyas’ wives, given the attentions of their husbands to the Earth’s plight.

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    • Couture, André. “Dvārakā: The Making of a Sacred Place.” In Pilgrims, Patrons, and Place: Localizing Sanctity in Asian Religions. Edited by Phyllis Granoff and Koichi Shinohara, 224–248. Asian Religions and Society Series. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2003.

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      Discusses Dvārakā as the “avatāra’s city,” a place built according to ritual procedures and an earthly manifestation of Krishna’s divine splendor and dharmic purpose. Compares such divine abodes to sacrificial altars, ritually appearing and disappearing with the avatāra.

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    • Goldman, Robert P. “Gods in Hiding: The Mahābhārata’s Virāṭa Parvan and the Divinity of the Indian Epic Hero.” In Modern Evaluation of the “Mahābhārata”: Prof. R. K. Sharma Felicitation Volume. Edited by Satya Pal Narang, 73–100. Delhi: Nag, 1995.

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      Argues that the “entire story” of both epics “centers on the notion of avatāra” (p. 87) and considers the Pāṇḍavas’ disguise in the Virāṭa Parvan of the Mahābhārata as exemplifying the process by which gods become humans to serve a specific purpose. Sees the avatāra as central to the epic’s devotional framework.

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    • González-Reimann, Luis. The “Mahābhārata” and the Yugas: India’s Great Epic Poem and the Hindu System of World Ages. Asian Thought and Culture 51. New York: Peter Lang, 2002.

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      Explores the avatāra theory in relation to the concept of cyclical time, arguing that neither is central to the early narrative core. Contends that both concepts were employed in the “Vaiṣṇava appropriation” of the epic by which Krishna-Narayana is conceptualized as the supreme God who periodically appears in time to restore dharma. Some treatment of the Buddha avatāra.

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    • Hiltebeitel, Alf. “Kṛṣṇa and the Mahābhārata: A Bibliographical Essay.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 60 (1979): 65–107.

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      Evaluates previous interpretive approaches (including those of Joseph Dahlmann, Edward Washburn Hopkins, Walter Ruben, and Vishnu S. Sukthankar), with a special focus on Krishna. Rejects analyses that relegate Krishna to the periphery (via theories of interpolation, for example) and argues that Krishna is central to the epic and deeply connected to the Vedic Vishnu.

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    • Sutton, Nicholas. Religious Doctrines in the “Mahābhārata.” Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2000.

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      Includes a chapter on theism in the epic. See especially pages 156–181, which compares avatāras mentioned in the Mahābhārata to accounts in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa; reflects on the concept based on various epic statements, including the Nārāyaṇīya, and explores the nature of Krishna (his form, humanity/divinity, and morality) in the epic.

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    • Viethsen, Andreas. “The Reasons for Viṣṇu’s Descent in the Prologue to the Kṛṣṇacarita of the Harivaṃśa.” In Parallels and Comparisons: Proceedings of the Fourth Dubrovnik International Conference on the Sanskrit Epics and Purāṇas, September 2005. Edited by Petteri Koskikallio, 221–234. Zagreb: Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts, 2009.

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      A text-historical study that discusses the explanations suggested by Walter Ruben and André Couture for the multiple reasons given in Harivaṃśa 40–45 for Vishnu’s descent as well as the Earth’s state of distress and her speech.

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    Editions, Translations, and Abridgments

    Sukthankar 1927-1966 is the critical edition of the Mahābhārata, and Vaidya 1969-1971 the critical edition of the Harivaṃśa. Ganguli 1972–1976 is a full English translation of the Mahābhārata that was first published in the 19th century. Partial translations are available at Clay Sanskrit Library 2005–, and in van Buitenen 1973–1978, the first five books in English following the critical edition. Fitzgerald 2003 continues the Chicago translation, presenting Mahābhārata 11 and 12, Part 1. Narasimhan 1998 and Narayan 2000 are manageable English abridgments in paperback editions that make the epic available to general readers and thus provide context for studies of the Bhagavad Gita in introductory Hinduism courses. Miller 1986 is a translation of the Bhagavad Gita in a pocket edition. Dutt 1897 provides a full translation of the Harivaṃśa in somewhat antiquated English, and Couture 1991 offers an annotated French translation of chapters 30–78, focused on Krishna’s childhood.

    • Buitenen, J. A. B. van, ed. and trans. The Mahābhārata. 3 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973–1978.

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      An annotated translation with a detailed introduction; includes a glossary of names and a concordance of the critical and Bombay editions.

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    • Clay Sanskrit Library. Mahābhārata. New York: New York University Press, 2005–2010.

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      Offers a multivolume translation by numerous translators. Hardcover, pocket-sized texts include the transliterated Sanskrit facing the English translation. Copublished by New York University Press and the JJC Foundation.

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    • Couture, André. L’enfance de Krishna: Traduction des chapitres 30 à 78 (éd. cr.). Quebec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 1991.

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      A careful, annotated French translation, including passages from the appendices of the critical edition. A lengthy introduction treats major leitmotifs, previous scholarship on Krishna’s childhood, and late-20th-century research.

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    • Dutt, Manmatha Nath, ed. and trans. A Prose English Translation of “Harivamsha.” Calcutta: Dass, 1897.

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      An old but readable English translation of the Harivaṃśa. In introducing the text, Dutt contends that Krishna was a historical person, a politician and a prophet, not simply a mythical figure.

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    • Fitzgerald, James L., ed. and trans. The Mahābhārata. Vol. 7. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

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      An annotated translation of the Mahābhārata’s Book 11 (The Book of the Women) and Book 12 (The Book of Peace, Part 1) with a detailed introduction that sets the epic in its historical context.

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    • Ganguli, Kisari Mohan, trans. The “Mahabharata” of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa. 3d improved ed. 12 vols. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1972–1976.

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      An old but eminently readable English translation based primarily on the Bengal and Bombay editions. The translator attempted to offer “as literal a rendering as possible” (p. vii), with some reliance on the commentator Nīlakaṇṭha (p. ix). Originally published in 1883–1896 by P.C. Roy (Calcutta: P.C. Roy).

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    • Ganguli, Kisari Mohan, trans. 1972-1976. The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa. Third improved edition. 12 vols. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

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      An old, but eminently readable English translation, based primarily on Bengal and Bombay editions. Translator attempted to offer "as literal a rendering as possible" (vii), with some reliance on the commentator Nīlakaṇṭha (ix). Originally published in 1883-1896, P.C. Roy.

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    • Miller, Barbara Stoler, trans. The Bhagavad-Gita: Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War. New York: Bantam, 1986.

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      Pocket edition that includes an introduction suitable for general readers, a consistent translation, and a useful glossary of key terms.

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    • Narasimhan, Chakravarthi V. The “Mahābhārata”: An English Version Based on Selected Verses. Rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

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      An abridged version of the main narrative based on a liberal translation of select verses taken primarily from the critical edition. Useful in introductory courses though somewhat more challenging for beginning students than Narayan 2000. Includes an index of verses. Originally published in 1965 (New York: Columbia University Press).

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    • Narayan, R. K. The “Mahabharata”: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

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      A highly engaging and accessible abridgment focused on the main narrative. Useful in introductory courses, especially when time is limited. Originally published in 1978 (New York: Viking).

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    • Sukthankar, V. S., ed. The Mahābhārata. 25 vols. Pune, India: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1927–1966.

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      Critical edition of the Sanskrit text, widely used by scholars, though some prefer northern or southern “vulgate” editions. Some hold that passages excised from the critical edition are important to the Mahābhārata tradition. Others hold that the critical edition reconstitutes a baseline text far vaster than its editors anticipated that can take us close to the epic as it was first written.

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    • Vaidya, P. L., ed. Harivaṃśa. 2 vols. Pune, India: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1969–1971.

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      Critical edition of the Sanskrit text with appendices. Introduction refers to the text as the first Purana, primarily intended to describe the Vṛṣṇi lineage, with Krishna featured most prominently.

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    Krishna: Puranas and Sectarian Literature

    Although Krishna is sometimes understood as an avatāra of Vishnu, in some texts and traditions he is considered the supreme God, and the classic Vaishnava avatāras are thus his various descents. Matchett 2001 centrally employs the concept of avatāra in order to examine the relationship between Krishna and Vishnu in the Harivaṃśa, the Viṣṇu Purāṇa, and the Bhāgavata Purāṇa; and Sheth 1984 offers a theological study of Krishna’s divinity in these same Sanskrit texts. Bryant 2007 provides a selection of primary readings on Krishna from Sanskrit and vernacular sources spanning the ages, with essays on various regions, sampradāyas (sects), and philosophical schools. Hawley and Goswami 1981 is a study of four rāslīlās, dramatizations of popular episodes from Krishna’s līlā (divine play), in which brāhmaṇa boys play the parts of Krishna and his entourage in Vraja and thereby become svarūps (forms embodying Krishna) through drama. Corcoran 1995 discusses the relationship between Vishnu and Krishna, the concept of avatāra, and the nature of Krishna and Vṛndāvana in puranic and later sectarian literature.

    • Bryant, Edwin F., ed. Krishna: A Sourcebook. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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      Includes twenty-two selections of primary texts in translation representing various traditions. Four parts: classical sources (epics and Puranas), regional sources (Orissa, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Vraja, Rajasthan, Gujarat), philosophy and theology, and hagiography and praxis.

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    • Corcoran, Maura. Vṛndāvana in Vaiṣṇava Literature: History, Mythology, Symbolism. Reconstructing Indian History and Culture 6. Vrindaban, India: Vrindaban Research Institute, 1995.

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      Examines the “symbolic and mythic significance” of Vṛndāvana through a comparison of the concepts of avatāra and līlā in puranic and later sectarian literature, both Braj Bhāṣā and Sanskrit, noting similarities and differences among various interpretations (Gauḍīya, Vallabha, Rādhāvallabha, etc.). Includes some discussion of Rādhā and Krishna as a divine couple.

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    • Hawley, John Stratton, with Shrivatsa Goswami. At Play with Krishna: Pilgrimage Dramas from Brindavan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.

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      Introduces and translates the performance scripts of four rāslīlās, dramatizations of popular stories in which brāhmaṇa boys play the parts of Krishna and his entourage in Vraja, thus embodying the dramatic role-playing of the avatāra in his descent onto the earthly stage.

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    • Matchett, Freda. Kṛṣṇa, Lord or Avatāra? The Relationship between Kṛṣṇa and Viṣṇu. Richmond, UK: Curzon, 2001.

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      A careful examination of Krishna’s divinity in the Harivaṃśa, the Viṣṇu Purāṇa, and the Bhāgavata Purāṇa that focuses on the concept of avatāra and changing constructions of Krishna’s identity and supremacy over time. With attention to various avatāra lists in each text and to different Sanskrit terms describing Krishna’s embodied forms and descents.

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    • Sheth, Noel. The Divinity of Krishna. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1984.

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      A useful and detailed study of various narratives in the Sanskrit texts (Harivaṃśa, Viṣṇu Purāṇa, and Bhāgavata Purāṇa) but marred by Sheth’s own presuppositions regarding “divinity,” which prompt him to discuss narrative changes in terms of “evolution” and in terms of believers becoming “more enlightened and refined” over time (p. xiv).

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    Translations and Abridgments

    Wilson 1980 provides a full-length, annotated English translation of the Viṣṇu Purāṇa. With respect to the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, Tagare 1976–1978 is a full, verse-by-verse translation in English, while Sanyal 1984 offers a prose version that privileges ease of reading over direct translation. Bryant 2003 provides a readable translation of the famous Book 10 that is the most accessible and the most suitable for beginning students. Miller 1977 delivers a superb English translation of the Gītagovinda, a 12th-century Sanskrit lyric that celebrates the romance of Rādhā and Krishna and that presents the classic ten avatāras (including the Buddha) as manifestations not of Vishnu but rather of Krishna, here conceptualized as the supreme God.

    • Bryant, Edwin F., trans. Krishna: The Beautiful Legend of God; Śrīmad Bhāgavata Purāṇa, Book X with Chapters 1, 6, and 29–31 from Book XI. London: Penguin, 2003.

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      Lengthy introduction, highly readable translation of Book 10 in its entirety, the most popular source of stories about Krishna’s childhood and youth; includes select chapters from Book 11. No index.

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    • Miller, Barbara Stoler, ed. and trans. Love Song of the Dark Lord, Jayadeva’s “Gītagovinda.” New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.

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      A beautiful translation prefaced by a detailed introduction with sections on Jayadeva and his kāvya (poetry), Krishna’s tenfold incarnate forms (daśarūpa), and Rādhā’s brief literary appearances preceding the Gītagovinda. Includes the text in Devanāgarī.

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    • Sanyal, J. M., trans. The “Srimad-Bhagvatam” of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa. 2 vols. 3d ed. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1984.

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      A readable prose translation that groups series of verses together, making identification of individual verses more difficult, but gives a good sense of the Purana overall. No commentarial insertions or references. Includes an index. Originally published in 1970 (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal).

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    • Tagare, Ganesh Vasudeo, trans. The Bhāgavata-Purāṇa. Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology Series 7–11. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1976–1978.

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      Helpful, annotated verse-by-verse translation, heavily dependent on Śrīdhara’s commentary with reference to other commentators as well. Introduction discusses the Bhāgavata’s genre as Purana, its date and authorship, its theology, and briefly the commentarial traditions. Includes an index.

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    • Wilson, H. H., trans. The Viṣṇu Purāṇa: A System of Hindu Mythology and Tradition. 2 vols. Delhi: Nag, 1980.

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      An old but readable English translation including the Devanāgarī. Useful and learned footnotes provide information on many related texts. Includes an index. Originally published in 1840 (London: Murray).

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    Classical Avatāras

    Although lists vary and Vishnu’s forms are occasionally said to be countless, the standard number of Vishnu’s incarnations is generally accepted as ten. The classic daśāvatāra (ten descents) or daśarūpa (ten forms) are listed thus: (1) Matsya, Fish; (2) Kūrma, Tortoise; (3) Varāha, Boar; (4) Narasiṃha, Man-Lion; (5) Vāmana, Dwarf; (6) Paraśurāma, Rāma with the Axe; (7) Rāma (of the epic Rāmāyaṇa); (8) Krishna; (9) Buddha; and (10) Kalkin (the avatāra still to come at the end of the Kali Yuga). Studies of Rāma and Krishna are numerous by comparison to the others. Included in this section, then, are works on some of the classic daśāvatāra as well as other descents not generally included in this list. Dimmitt and van Buitenen 1978 is a reader in the Sanskrit Puranas that includes translations of different avatāra lists and various avatāra myths, including the classic ten. Mani 1975 is an encyclopedia that includes detailed descriptions of Vishnu’s avatāras, including Kapila, Dattātreya, Gaṅgā, and others generally excluded from the typical daśāvatāra list. Couture 2009 is a relatively brief but highly informative encyclopedia article on Vishnu that discusses the concepts of the avatāra and the daśāvatāra, some in detail. Granoff 2004 explores the relationship between Shaiva and Vaishnava mythologies in a study of Shiva and the Vaishnava avatāras, especially Varāha and Narasimha, in the early Skanda Purāṇa. The Buddha avatāra is treated in Buddhism and Jainism.

    • Couture, André. “Viṣṇu.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, 787–800. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

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      An overview of Vishnu and the development of Vaishnavism that includes significant discussion of specific avatāras within the context of Vishnu’s changing forms from the Rig Veda to early-21st-century cults.

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    • 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.

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      Chapter 2 (on Vishnu) includes avatāra lists from the Mārkaṇḍeya, Matsya, and Garuḍa Purāṇas; translations of the Vaishnava avatāra myths from various sources; and the churning of the ocean from the Viṣṇu Purāṇa. Chapter 6 includes the Gaṅgā avataraṇa (descent) from the Padma Purāṇa.

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    • Granoff, Phyllis. “Saving the Saviour: Śiva and the Vaiṣṇava Avatāras in the Early Skandapurāṇa.” Paper presented at the XIIth World Sanskrit Conference, Helsinki, 13–18 July 2003. In Origin and Growth of the Purāṇic Text Corpus, with Special Reference to the “Skandapurāṇa.” Edited by Hans T. Bakker, 111–138. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2004.

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      Explores the development of Shaiva mythology in relation to the Vaishnava avatāras and argues that the early Skanda Purāṇa resists constructing Shiva as an active god who intervenes to save the world from evil and demons but who sometimes intervenes to save the world from a Vaishnava incarnation gone wild and thus become demonic.

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    • Mani, Vettam. Purāṇic Encyclopaedia: A Comprehensive Dictionary with Special Reference to the Epic and Purāṇic Literature. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975.

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      See the general entry “Avatāra” and separate entries on most of the individual avatāras. Summarizes the stories in detail, noting variants, and indicates references to specific primary sources, generally the Mahābhārata and various Puranas.

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    Matsya

    Matsya is Vishnu’s Fish avatāra, descended to rescue the Vedas from the demon Hayagrīva and to save Satyavrata Manu from the deluge that destroys the universe at the end of the kalpa (cosmic cycle). González-Reimann 2006 examines various versions of the story from Vedic and puranic literature. Magnone 2000 is a brief comparison of deluge stories from Near Eastern, Indian, and classical Greek and Latin literatures.

    • González-Reimann, Luis. “Viṣṇu as Fish: The Growth of a Story from the Brāhmaṇas to the Purāṇas.” Journal of Vaishnava Studies 15.1 (Fall 2006): 221–237.

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      Compares versions of the Fish story from the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa and the Mahābhārata to the Matsya and Bhāgavata Purāṇas, noting how early Vedic ritualism gives way to devotionalism as Vishnu is conceptualized as the world’s savior and devotion to him inspires his compassion in the form of the Matsya avatāra.

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    • Magnone, Paolo. “Floodlighting the Deluge: Traditions in Comparison.” In On the Understanding of Other Cultures. Edited by Marek Mejor and Piotr Balcerowicz, 233–244. Studia Indologiczne 7. Warsaw, Poland: Oriental Institute, Warsaw University, 2000.

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      A comparative study of deluge stories that gives primacy to those in ancient Indian literature and considers the question of possible common origins, closely comparing the myth in the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa and Akkadian sources and considering epic and puranic variants as well.

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    Kūrma

    Vishnu’s Tortoise avatāra, Kūrma, appears in the famous episode of the churning of the ocean, when the gods are seeking the nectar of immortality and Vishnu’s tortoise shell supports the sinking mountain used for churning the sea. Rüping 1970 is a brief monograph (in German) on various puranic versions of the myth.

    • Rüping, Klaus. Amṛtamanthana und Kūrma-Avatāra: Ein Beitrag zur puranischen Mythen-und Religionsgeschichte. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1970.

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      Considers the background of the churning of the ocean story, including Saiva myths, and then examines the churning myth and the Kūrma avatāra in the Viṣṇu, Padma, and Bhāgavata Purāṇas with some attention to further developments in other Vaishnava and Shaiva Puranas, including the Liṅga and Śiva.

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    Varāha

    Varāha is Vishnu’s Boar avatāra who dives into the ocean and rescues the Earth from sinking. Prasad 1989 says that this myth developed in two phases with the identification of Varāha as an avatāra of Vishnu coming later, when the basic cosmogonic myth was interpreted through the theory that Vishnu descends periodically to restore dharma and eliminate evil. Biardeau 1981 compares Brahma and Varāha, and de Jong 1985 briefly considers the common theme of the overburdened Earth in the ancient literatures of India and Greece.

    • Biardeau, Madeleine. Cosmogonies puraniques. Études de Mythologie Hindoue 1. Paris: École Pratique d’Extrême Orient, 1981.

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      Includes discussion of Brahma as the cosmogonic boar in relation to Vishnu as the avataric boar on pages 44–66.

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    • De Jong, J. W. “The Over-Burdened Earth in India and Greece.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 105.3 (July–September 1985): 397–400.

      DOI: 10.2307/601515Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Mentions the Varāha story in a brief comparison of myths from ancient India and Greece that relate the plight of the overburdened Earth. Discusses the Sanskrit Mahābhārata and the Greek Cypria, in both of which “the supreme God (Brahma in India and Zeus in Greece) brought war to lighten the earth of her burden” (p. 400).

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    • Prasad, Maheshwari. Some Aspects of the Varāha-Kathā in Epics and Purāṇas. Delhi: Pratibha Prakashan, 1989.

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      Examines the early history of the Varāha story in the Rāmāyaṇa, the Mahābhārata, and the cosmogonical sections of numerous Puranas, arguing that the story originates as a cosmogonic myth that is only later associated with Vishnu via the classical avatāra theory. Originally a doctoral dissertation (Göttingen University, 1973).

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    Narasiṃha

    Narasiṃha is Vishnu’s avatāra in the form of a Man-Lion—half man, half lion—thus embodied to kill the demon Hiraṇyakaśipu. The classical story is well known and found in numerous Puranas, but Narasiṃha has also become a popular deity in Andhra Pradesh, with local myths and traditions dramatically transforming his puranic character and endearing him to local people. Soifer 1991 studies the story in its brief epic and prolific puranic contexts, comparing the avatāras Narasiṃha and Vāmana. Biardeau 1975a reviews the Narasiṃha myth in the Viṣṇu and Bhāgavata Purāṇas, and Biardeau 1975b explores modern Narasiṃha shrines in Andhra Pradesh. Together Biardeau 1975a and Biardeau 1975b show how the violent god depicted in the puranic myth is transformed into an auspicious and accessible god in contemporary practice, as Vaishnava bhakti in shrines across Andhra Pradesh takes priority over the murderous mythical defense of dharma portrayed in the puranic stories. Vemsani 2009 examines temple myths, ritual practices, and folk mythologies to determine why Narasiṃha is the most popular Vaishnava deity in Andhra Pradesh. Murty 1997 likewise studies Narasiṃha in the local traditions of Andhra Pradesh, arguing that the Brahmanical avatāra of Vishnu becomes subordinated to popular culture, even as the tribal deity Narasiṃha is integrated into Vaishnavism more broadly.

    • Biardeau, Madeleine. “Narasiṃha, mythe et culte.” Puruṣārtha: Recherches de Sciences Sociales sur l’Asie du Sud 1 (1975a): 31–48.

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      A structuralist study of the myth in the Viṣṇu Purāṇa and the Bhāgavata Purāṇa focusing on the avatāra in relation to dharma and bhakti and considering the necessity of dharmic violence in relation to yoga.

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    • Biardeau, Madeleine. “Narasiṃha et ses sanctuaires.” Puruṣārtha: Recherches de Sciences Sociales sur l’Asie du Sud 1 (1975b): 49–66.

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      A study of Narasiṃha shrines in modern Andhra Pradesh that explores how tribal and Brahmanical gods merge, thereby allowing a broad range of followers access to the (universal, yogic) savior who also protects specific territories from enemies.

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    • Murty, M. L. K. “The God Narasimha in the Folk Religion of Andhra Pradesh, South India.” South Asian Studies 13 (1997): 179–188.

      DOI: 10.1080/02666030.1997.9628535Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Discusses Narasiṃha in Andhra Pradesh as a tribal deity associated with forests, caves, and mountains and shows how the folklore of the Census and Gollas localizes Vishnu through marriage and thus integration “into the pantheon of local gods” (p. 188). Reflects as well on Narasiṃha’s affinities with Rudra-Shiva.

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    • Soifer, Deborah A. The Myths of Narasiṁha and Vāmana: Two Avatars in Cosmological Perspective. SUNY Series in Hindu Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.

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      Explores the antecedents of the avatāra concept in Vedic literature and then analyzes various puranic versions of Narasiṃha and Vāmana, showing how bhakti influences the development of the myths within a cosmological context as Vishnu appears periodically to restore order and enable salvation. Considers the violent, animalistic form of Narasiṃha in contrast to Vāmana. Appendices include translations of numerous puranic versions of each myth.

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    • Vemsani, Lavanya. “Narasiṃha, the Supreme Deity of Andhra Pradesh: Tradition and Innovation in Hinduism; An Examination of the Temple Myths, Folk Stories, and Popular Culture.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 24.1 (January 2009): 35–52.

      DOI: 10.1080/13537900802630489Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Shows how Narasiṃha becomes established as a specifically local deity whose stories differ considerably from Sanskrit versions, as diverse representations in Andhra Pradesh portray Narasiṃha “as a human who lived among them” (p. 50) and who cares for people personally in their everyday lives.

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    Vāmana

    Vāmana is Vishnu’s Dwarf avatāra, a myth based on the ancient story of Vishnu’s three strides in the Rig Veda. Kuiper 1962 discusses the three strides of Vishnu in accounts found in the Rig Veda and the Brāhmaṇas. Tripathi 1968 provides a substantial study (in German) of the development of the Vāmana legend from Vedic through puranic literature. Soifer 1991 considers Vedic antecedents of the Vāmana story in a detailed comparative study of Vāmana and Narasiṃha in the Sanskrit Puranas.

    • Kuiper, F. B. J. “The Three Strides of Viṣṇu.” In Indological Studies in Honor of W. Norman Brown. Edited by Ernest Bender, 137–151. New Haven, CT: American Oriental Society, 1962.

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      Reflects on Vishnu’s significance in Vedic literature—on his relationship with Indra and on the meaning of his third step in a bipartite cosmos. Contends that already in the Rig Veda Vishnu represents the totality of the cosmos and is the supporting pillar upon which the entire universe rests.

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    • Soifer, Deborah A. The Myths of Narasiṁha and Vāmana: Two Avatars in Cosmological Perspective. SUNY Series in Hindu Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.

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      Explores the antecedents of the avatāra concept in Vedic literature and then analyzes various puranic versions of Narasiṃha and Vāmana, showing how bhakti influences the development of the myths within a cosmological context as Vishnu appears periodically to restore order and enable salvation. Considers Vāmana’s identity as a brāhmaṇa in contrast to Narasiṃha. Appendices include translations of numerous puranic versions of each myth.

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    • Tripathi, Gaya Charan. Der Ursprung und die Entwicklung der Vāmana-Legende in der indischen Literatur. Freiburger Beiträge zur Indologie, Band 1. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1968.

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      A comprehensive comparative study of the Vāmana myth treating the Rig Veda and the Brāhmaṇas, the epics and the Harivaṃśa, various Puranas (such as Matsya, Vāmana, Kūrma, Bhāgavata, and Skanda), and other minor Vaishnava and Shaiva texts. Includes an English summary of each chapter and a bibliography of major primary and secondary sources.

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    Paraśurāma

    Born in the Bhārgava clan as the son of Jamadagni and Reṇukā, Paraśurāma (or Rāma Jāmadagnya) is celebrated as the brāhmaṇa avatāra of Vishnu, descended to annihilate the malevolent kṣatriya varṇa (warrior class). Choudhary 2010 studies the Paraśurāma legend in diverse versions, from ancient texts to modern cults, in an effort to delineate a social history of the story and its strategic uses by various groups. Gail 1977 is a monograph (in German) that examines the origin and development of the Paraśurāma story in the epics and numerous Puranas, and Fitzgerald 2002 is a study of 130 references to Paraśurāma in the critical edition of the Mahābhārata. Based on a study of both the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, Thomas 1996 suggests that Paraśurāma is the avatāra who guards the transitions from one yuga (cosmic cycle) to the next. Biardeau 1968 reflects on various versions of the decapitation of Reṇukā, Paraśurāma’s mother, and suggests that the meaning of the story lies in the tensions between the ideal of nonviolence and the violent realities of everyday life, a tension resolved by making kṣatriyas and avatāras responsible for dharmic violence that maintains the proper social order. Fitzgerald 2010 explores the Cirakārin story in the Mahābhārata, comparing this to the Reṇukā decapitation story. Dejenne 2009 discusses a modern Hindi version of the Paraśurāma story.

    • Biardeau, Madeleine. “La décapitation de Reṇukā dans le mythe de Paraśurāma.” In Pratidanam: Indian, Iranian, and Indo-European Studies Presented to Franciscus Bernardus Jacobus Kuiper on His Sixtieth Birthday. Edited by J. C. Heesterman, Godard H. Schokker, and V. I. Subramoniam, 563–572. The Hague: Mouton, 1968.

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      Reads classical (epic and puranic) versions of the Reṇukā story through the lens of the Reṇukā Māhātmya (an appendix to the Skanda Purāṇa) and reflects on the contrast between the dharmas of brāhmaṇas and kṣatriyas, the former embracing the ideal of nonviolence (ahiṃsā) while making the latter responsible for the inevitable violence required to maintain the social order.

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    • Choudhary, Pradeep Kant. Rāma with an Axe: Myth and Cult of Paraśurāma Avatāra. Delhi: Aakar, 2010.

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      Examines the Paraśurāma story in various versions—from ancient and medieval texts to folk narratives, performances, and temple myths—in an effort to reconstruct a social history of the story and thereby determine “how the idea of Paraśurāma was utilised by various social groups to further their own socio-political agenda” (p. 22).

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    • Dejenne, Nicholas. “Paraśurāma as Torchbearer of a Regenerated Bhārat in a Contemporary Rewriting of His Narratives.” In Parallels and Comparisons: Proceedings of the Fourth Dubrovnik International Conference on the Sanskrit Epics and Purāṇas, September 2005. Edited by Petteri Koskikallio, 447–468. Zagreb: Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts, 2009.

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      Discusses a modern Hindi poem (mahākāvya) on the subject of Paraśurāma, placing it in its social and historical context.

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    • Fitzgerald, James L. “The Rāma Jāmadagnya ‘Thread’ of the Mahābhārata: A New Survey of Rāma Jāmadagnya in the Pune Text.” In Stages and Transitions: Temporal and Historical Frameworks in Epic and Purāṇic Literature; Proceedings of the Second Dubrovnik International Conference on the Sanskrit Epics and Purāṇas, August 1999. Edited by Mary Brockington, 89–132. Zagreb: Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts, 2002.

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      Identifies and classifies passages related to Paraśurāma in the critical edition of the Mahābhārata to determine how the story of the earlier avatāra becomes part of the epic, “deliberately woven into the literary fabric” (p. 92). Compares Rāma Jāmadagnya to Yudhiṣṭhira and notes that both stories justify violence for the maintenance of world order.

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    • Fitzgerald, James L. “The Boy ‘Slowpoke’ as Deep Thinker: In Defence of ‘Straying’ Wives against a Father’s Uxoricidal Rage.” In Epic and Argument in Sanskrit Literary History: Essays in Honor of Robert P. Goldman. Edited by Sheldon Pollock, 31–59. New Delhi: Manohar, 2010.

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      A study of the Cirakārin story in Mahābhārata 12.258, in which a son, ordered by his father to decapitate his mother, delays doing the deed, and the father relents. Discussion includes reference to the Reṇukā decapitation story, of which Fitzgerald sees the Cirakārin story to be a commentarial variant.

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    • Gail, Adalbert. Paraśurāma Brahmane und Krieger: Untersuchung über Ursprung und Entwicklung eines Avatāra Viṣṇus und Bhakta Śivas in der indischen Literatur. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1977.

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      A text-historical examination of the Paraśurāma legend in the Sanskrit epics, including the Harivaṃśa, and in numerous Puranas, including the Viṣṇudarmottara, Nṛsiṃha, Bhāgavata, Padma, Brahmavaivarta, Brahmāṇḍa, Skanda, and others. Develops a puranic chronology and discusses the relationship between Shaivism and Vaishnavism.

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    • Thomas, Lynn. “Paraśurāma and Time.” In Myth and Mythmaking. Edited by Julia Leslie, 63–86. Collected Papers on South Asia 12. Richmond, UK: Curzon, 1996.

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      Examines Paraśurāma’s intervention in the affairs of later avatāras, namely Rāma and Krishna (p. 63) in the epics, and concludes that Paraśurāma’s appearances at three yugānta, transitional periods between yugas (cosmic cycles), marks him as the guardian of such cosmic transitions, the passage from one yuga to the next.

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    Kapila

    A mythological sage credited with the founding of the classical philosophy Sāṃkhya, Kapila is considered an avatāra of Vishnu in epic and puranic texts. Jacobsen 2008 offers a study of various representations of Kapila, including but not limited to the avatāra of Vishnu, and shows how the different figures become identified in popular devotional traditions. Bronkhorst 2007 examines Kapila in relation to what the author deems non-Vedic culture in ancient northeastern India.

    • Bronkhorst, Johannes. Greater Magadha: Studies in the Culture of Early India. Handbook of Oriental Studies, sec. 2, India, Vol. 19. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.

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      Presents Kapila’s status as a divine incarnation as one of four features by which Bronkhorst seeks to identify a distinctive non-Vedic culture in late Vedic and early classical northeastern India that he calls “Greater Magadha” (pp. 61–68).

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    • Jacobsen, Knut A. Kapila, Founder of Sāṃkhya and Avatāra of Viṣṇu: With a Translation of “Kapilāsurisaṃvāda.” New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 2008.

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      Draws on numerous sources (such as Sanskrit texts, pilgrimage traditions, and interviews) to demonstrate the diversity of beliefs and practices focused on the figure(s) of Kapila. Includes a transliteration and an English translation of the “Dialogue of Kapila and Āsuri,” found in the southern recension of the Mahābhārata.

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    Dattātreya

    An enigmatic figure at the center of a popular cult in western India, primarily Maharashtra and Gujarat, Dattātreya has been little studied despite having a long history in the tradition. A ṛṣi (sage) in the Mahābhārata and then an avatāra of Vishnu in the Puranas, Dattātreya is a complex character historically associated with yoga and Tantra, and his modern image has three heads—of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Rigopoulos 1998 is an accessible and detailed monograph exploring diverse representations of Dattātreya from puranic texts to contemporary bhakti cults in Maharashtra. Raeside 1982 examines Mahānubhāva texts from roughly the 14th century CE. Pain and Zelliot 1988 is a brief study of Dattātreya temples in Pune, Maharashtra.

    • Pain, Charles, with Eleanor Zelliot. “The God Dattatreya and the Datta Temples of Pune.” In The Experience of Hinduism: Essays on Religion in Maharashtra. Edited by Eleanor Zelliot and Maxine Berntsen, 95–108. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988.

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      Zelliot provides a brief introduction to Pain’s account of Datta temples in Pune—temples dedicated both to Dattātreya and to historical avatāras of Dattātreya. With attention to pūjā, mūrtīs (images), participants, and the physical appearance of the temples and shrines.

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    • Raeside, I. M. P. “Dattātreya.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 45.3 (1982): 489–500.

      DOI: 10.1017/S0041977X00041537Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Examines Mahānubhāva texts dating to roughly the 14th century CE for early evidence of the Dattātreya cult, with some attention to epic, puranic, and modern Marathi literature. A dense article for scholars and others with significant background in the topic.

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    • Rigopoulos, Antonio. Dattātreya: The Immortal Guru, Yogin, and Avatāra; A Study of the Transformative and Inclusive Character of a Multi-Faceted Hindu Deity. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

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      Explores various representations of Dattātreya from the Puranas and minor Upanishads through the devotional movements in Maharashtra, to popular traditions and contemporary figures, including avatāras, associated with Dattātreya worship and the diverse Dattātreya movement. Draws on numerous texts and traditions from various regions in South India; includes a discussion of iconography.

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    Gaṅgā

    The descent (avataraṇa) of the Ganges River, or Gaṅgā, is a popular story found in the epics and the Puranas that in part explains the purificatory power of water, as Gaṅgā falls from heaven onto Shiva’s locks and then flows through the Himalayas to the northern and northeastern plains of India. Eck 1981 situates the Gaṅgā within India’s sacred geography in a brief study of tīrthas, places of pilgrimage and power, such as rivers. King 2005 explores bhakti to the Gaṅgā, especially at the tīrthas of Hardwar and Kankhal. Eck 1986 reflects on the significance of the Gaṅgā as a living goddess who is central to India’s sacred landscape. Dimmitt and van Buitenen 1978 includes a translation of the Gaṅgā avataraṇa from the Padma Purāṇa. Alley 2002 is an anthropological study of the Gaṅgā that explores multiple discourses (religious, political, legal, environmentalist, and so forth) on the sacred river, traditionally understood as purifying although now highly polluted.

    • Alley, Kelly D. On the Banks of the Gaṅgā: When Wastewater Meets a Sacred River. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2002.

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      Explores the Hindu categories of purity and pollution through a study of multiple discourses on the Gaṅgā, including religious, scientific, and political understandings of the river, its history, and its place in India’s contemporary environmentalist movements.

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    • 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.

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      Includes a translation of the brief story of the Gaṅgā avataraṇa from the Padma Purāṇa that tells of the power of the Gaṅgā to relieve suffering, bestow blessings, and wash away the karmic effects of bad deeds.

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    • Eck, Diana L. “India’s Tīrthas: ‘Crossings’ in Sacred Geography.” History of Religions 20.4 (May 1981): 323–344.

      DOI: 10.1086/462878Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Discusses the history of tīrthas, or crossings, in India with attention to Vedic, Upanishadic, and epic literature and to modern pilgrimage practices at sacred places, including rivers. Addresses the connections between tīrthas and avatāras, both of which enable others to “cross” beyond ordinary reality.

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    • Eck, Diana L. “Gaṅgā: The Goddess in Hindu Sacred Geography.” In The Divine Consort: Rādhā and the Goddesses of India. Edited by John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, 166–183. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

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      Portrays the river as a goddess situated within a sacred, living landscape and considers various epic and puranic perspectives on her waters and their powers for pilgrims. Originally published in 1982 (Berkeley, CA: Graduate Theological Union).

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    • King, Anna S. “The Ganga: Waters of Devotion.” In The Intimate Other: Love Divine in Indic Religions. Edited by Anna S. King and John Brockington, 153–193. Hyderabad, India: Orient Longman, 2005.

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      Employs history and anthropology in exploring bhakti to the Gaṅgā, the origins of which King finds in Vedic reverence for rivers. Attention to pilgrimage and festival and to the symbolism of the Gaṅgā in Hindu nationalism and the Hindu diaspora. Focuses especially on the tīrthas (places of pilgrimage and power) of Hardwar and Kankhal.

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    Buddhism and Jainism

    Whether the Buddha is considered the ninth avatāra of Vishnu or simply an enlightened teacher who rejected Brahmanical tradition, similarities exist between the Buddha and the avatāra, as both enter the world to teach dharma and offer a path to salvation. Competition, then, is perhaps the reason that the Buddha was eventually incorporated into the Vaishnava pantheon, simultaneously subordinated to Vishnu yet demonized as the avatāra who deludes by false teachings. Doniger O’Flaherty 1976 (especially chapter 7) provides a broad study of myths in which gods corrupt their enemies by various means, including ascetic avatāras, who delude demons with false teachings and thus destroy them. Saindon 2004 finds a Brahmanical strategy in the puranic claim that the Buddha is an avatāra of Vishnu and says that the popularity of the Buddha and his anti-Vedic teachings prompted a Brahmanical appropriation as a means of subverting his message. Holt 2004 explores the assimilation of Vishnu into Buddhism within the context of Sri Lankan religious and political history. Jaini 1993 argues that Krishna and Rāma were originally human heroes celebrated widely in India, irrespective of religious affiliation, and were only later claimed as Hindu gods, avatāras of Vishnu, which then provoked Jainas to claim them as specifically Jaina heroes. Jaini 1977 examines the Bhāgavata Purāṇa’s account of the Jina Ṛṣabha as an avatāra of Vishnu. Geen 2009 compares Krishna traditions in Hinduism and Jainism and suggests that their mythologies were mutually influential, with Jaina traditions affecting Vaishnava conceptions of the avatāra.

    • Doniger O’Flaherty, Wendy. The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

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      See especially chapter 7, “The Corruption of Demons and Men: The False Avatar,” which discusses the stories of Raji, the Triple City, and Divodāsa before reflecting in some detail on the historical context of the Vaishnava Buddha avatāra, his relationship with Kalkin, and the Kali Yuga more generally.

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    • Geen, Jonathan. “Kṛṣṇa and His Rivals in the Hindu and Jaina Traditions.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 72.1 (2009): 63–99.

      DOI: 10.1017/S0041977X09000044Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Compares Krishna’s rivalry with Jarāsandha as depicted in a 12th-century Jaina text by Hemacandra to Krishna’s rivalries with Jarāsandha, Śiśupāla, and Pauṇḍraka in the Mahābhārata and select Hindu Puranas, and suggests that the development of Krishna mythology in the Jaina tradition influenced the Vaishnava avatāra doctrine.

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    • Holt, John Clifford. The Buddhist Viṣṇu: Religious Transformation, Politics, and Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

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      A study of the Vishnu cult in Sri Lanka and Sinhala Buddhism that explores the political and economic dimensions of religious belief and practice as well as the historical roots of modern controversies in Sri Lanka regarding deity worship.

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    • Jaini, Padmanabh S. “Jina Ṛṣabha as an Avatāra of Viṣṇu.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 40.2 (1977): 321–337.

      DOI: 10.1017/S0041977X00044074Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Relates the Jaina understanding of Ṛṣabha as the first Tīrthaṅkara, a king become mendicant who established the order of naked ascetics, and then describes the Bhāgavata Purāṇa’s appropriation of Ṛṣabha as an avatāra of Vishnu who glorifies brāhmaṇas and thus challenges the authority of śramaṇas (ascetics).

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    • Jaini, Padmanabh S. “Jaina Purāṇas: A Purāṇic Counter Tradition.” In Purāṇa Perennis: Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jaina Texts. Edited by Wendy Doniger, 207–249. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

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      Contends that Rāma and Krishna were originally human heroes later appropriated within Brahmanical texts and divinized by association with Vishnu, thus prompting Jainas to incorporate the erstwhile universal heroes into Jainism and subordinate them to the Jinas.

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    • Saindon, Marcelle. “Le Buddha comme avatāra de Viṣṇu et le mythe de Raji.” Indo-Iranian Journal 47 (2004): 17–44.

      DOI: 10.1023/B:INDO.0000024425.00243.21Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Reviews puranic avatāra lists and their inclusion of the Buddha as a descent of Vishnu intended to lead evildoers astray; the Buddha as avatāra thus discredits Buddhism and Jainism. Compares this appropriation of the Buddha to the myth of Raji found in the Harivaṃśa, where māyā similarly seduces by means of false teachings.

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    Historical Avatāras

    Epic and puranic stories about gods’ various manifestations and descents to earth represent only one side of the avatāra and divine interaction with the world. Historical avatāras—human beings believed to be incarnations of the divine, manifest on earth for some particular purpose—continue to appear, imparting wisdom and revealing salvific paths to seekers of liberation, providing inspiring models of peace and enlightenment, engaging in humanitarian service, and sometimes performing miracles, but sometimes being imputed in unscrupulous schemes and sex scandals. With roots no doubt extending to ancient ascetic traditions and powerful yogic teachers, the avatāra as saint, swami, or guru remains a compelling figure in South Asia and beyond. The three works in this section briefly introduce a number of such avatāra figures in single chapters, while those in the separate subsections provide more detailed studies from various methodological perspectives on a selection of prominent avatāras from the 15th to the 21st century. A classic study, Harper 1972 provides a glimpse of several charismatic figures with a following in the United States, and Forsthoefel and Humes 2005 is an edited volume that likewise profiles prominent gurus with movements in the United States, each essay explicitly examining the novel constructions of “Hinduism” in modern American culture. Pechilis 2004 is an edited volume with nine essays on various women gurus, most still living and actively teaching.

    • Forsthoefel, Thomas A., and Cynthia Ann Humes, eds. Gurus in America. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.

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      A multidisciplinary edited volume with essays on Gurani Anjali, Ramana Maharshi, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Transcendental Meditation (TM), A. C. Bhaktivedanta and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), Sathya Sai Baba, Ammachi, Siddha Yoga and its gurus Muktananda and Gurumayi, Osho or Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and Adi Da or Bubba Free John.

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    • Harper, Marvin Henry. Gurus, Swamis, and Avataras: Spiritual Masters and Their American Disciples. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1972.

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      A sympathetic study that briefly profiles Shirdi Sai Baba and Sathya Sai Baba, Upasani Baba Maharaj, Meher Baba, Ramakrishna, Aurobindo, Swami Sivananda, and Soamiji Maharaj and the Radhasoami Satsang; final chapters reflect on the reasons for the increasing popularity of such charismatic figures in the United States.

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    • Pechilis, Karen, ed. The Graceful Guru: Hindu Female Gurus in India and the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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      Includes an introduction with a lengthy list of suggested readings and a useful appendix of related web pages. Figures discussed from a variety of methodological perspectives include Sita Devi, Gauri Ma, Anandamayi Ma, Jayashri Ma, Mother Meera, Shree Maa, Ammachi, Gurumayi, Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, and Ma Karunamayi.

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    Caitanya

    The 15th- to 16th-century Bengali saint Caitanya (1486–1533) is remembered as an ecstatic mystic intoxicated by the name and vision of Krishna, and his distinctive devotional practices continue to inspire contemporary Vaishnavas in India and beyond. Caitanya’s life is portrayed in Dimock 1999, the definitive English translation of the Caitanya Caritāmṛta, which presents Caitanya as an avatāra of Krishna and Rādhā in one body. Hein 1976 offers a study of Caitanya’s ecstasies and kīrtan, the devotional singing of Krishna’s names and deeds, a practice still popular today. Stewart 1991 explores Caitanya’s death as variously depicted (or not) in Vaishnava hagiographies in light of the claim that Caitanya was Krishna.

    • Dimock, Edward C., Jr., trans. “Caitanya Caritāmṛta” of Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja: A Translation and Commentary. Edited by Tony K. Stewart. Harvard Oriental Series 56. Cambridge, MA: Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, Harvard University, 1999.

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      The standard scholarly translation of this central text of Bengal or Gauḍīya Vaishnavism with comprehensive introductory and commentarial material. Includes śloka (verse) and subject indexes as well as detailed bibliographies on biographical and related literatures in Indic and European languages.

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    • Hein, Norvin J. “Caitanya’s Ecstasies and the Theology of the Name.” In Hinduism: New Essays in the History of Religions. Edited by Bardwell L. Smith, 15–32. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1976.

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      A study of nāmkīrtan, Caitanya’s ecstatic singing of Krishna’s names and the traditions following from this practice. Addresses the theological claim in Bengal Vaishnavism that Krishna himself is present during such devotional chanting, as if the name itself were “an avatāra of the Lord in the form of syllables” (p. 29). Alternatively, the singer becomes an āveśāvatāra, one possessed by Krishna.

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    • Stewart, Tony K. “When Biographical Narratives Disagree: The Death of Kṛṣṇa Caitanya.” Numen 38.2 (December 1991): 231–260.

      DOI: 10.1163/156852791X00141Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Examines differing accounts of Caitanya’s death in 16th-century hagiographies in view of the “orthodox position” that Caitanya, as an avatāra of Krishna, simply descended to earth and later ascended to Vaikuṇṭha, his heavenly abode. Shows how even “heterodox narrative(s)” that treat Caitanya’s death conform to the prevailing “orthodox mold” (p. 255).

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    Ramakrishna

    Made famous worldwide by his celebrated devotee Swami Vivekananda, who brought Vedānta to the West in 1893, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836–1886) is perhaps the most well-known charismatic figure of India’s modern era. Nikhilananda 1984 provides an English translation of Mahendranāth Gupta’s Bengali Śrīśrīrāmakṛṣṇakathāmṛta, a record of Ramakrishna’s teachings to his disciples. Kripal 1998 is a provocative and controversial study that finds ill-understood homoerotic desire at the heart of Ramakrishna’s ecstatic experience. Sil 1998, in part a critical response to Kripal 1998 (and with a foreword by Kripal), likewise seeks to humanize the saint, finding in Ramakrishna’s childhood and his adult neuroses explanations for his unusual behavior and deification. Sil 1993 reflects on Swami Vivekananda’s deliberate transformation of Ramakrishna’s image to serve his own ambitious aims in India and the West. Chetanananda 1990 is a documentary DVD produced by the Vedanta Society. Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission offers a wealth of information on the international movement.

    • Chetanananda, Swami, dir. Ramakrishna, A Documentary: “As Many Faiths, So Many Paths.” DVD. St. Louis, MO: Vedanta, 1990.

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      A reasonably informative DVD produced by the Vedanta Society, thus presenting a traditional hagiographical portrait of Ramakrishna. With good historical footage, photographs of Ramakrishna and his entourage, and modern images of sites historically associated with the saint. Seventy-eight minutes.

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    • Kripal, Jeffrey J. Kālī’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

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      Controversial and provocative study that deconstructs the hagiographical tradition surrounding Ramakrishna and offers a psychoanalytic reading that exposes Ramakrishna’s “secret”: the homoerotic desire underlying his ecstatic experience. The second edition includes a new preface in which Kripal addresses his critics, referring in footnotes to their published responses to the first edition, published in 1995.

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    • Nikhilananda, Swami, trans. The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1984.

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      English translation of Mahendranāth Gupta’s Bengali Śrīśrīrāmakṛṣṇakathāmṛta, a record of Ramakrishna’s teachings. In dialogue form, with a lengthy introduction (also by Nikhilananda) on Ramakrishna’s life, his environment, and his disciples. Originally published in 1942.

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    • Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission.

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      The website of the headquarters in West Bengal, India, with information on the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission and links to branch centers worldwide. Biographical information on Ramakrishna, his wife (Sarada Devi), and Swami Vivekananda. Links to publications, photo galleries, and the women’s monastic organization.

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    • Sil, Narasingha P. “Vivekānanda’s Rāmakṛṣṇa: An Untold Story of Mythmaking and Propaganda.” Numen 40.1 (January 1993): 38–62.

      DOI: 10.1163/156852793X00040Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Argues that Vivekananda deliberately distorted Ramakrishna’s image, transforming a “rustic ecstatic” (p. 38), who was both casteist and misogynist, into a modern prophet of Vedanta and social change, despite Ramakrishna’s own asocial bhakti. Shows how Vivekananda strategically employed the symbol of the avatāra in representing Ramakrishna as both yogi and kṣatriya (warrior).

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    • Sil, Narasingha P. Ramakrishna Revisited: A New Biography. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1998.

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      A historical study that seeks to humanize the saint and divest him of his hagiographical heritage associated with Vedanta by exploring Ramakrishna’s “psychosis” in relation to his sexuality but drawing different conclusions from those in Kripal 1998 about Ramakrishna’s “homosexuality.”

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    Anandamayi Ma

    Born in the village Kheorā in what is now Bangladesh, Ānandamayī Mā (1896-1982) is remembered by many as one of the greatest Indian saints, her name meaning “mother whose nature is bliss.” Hallstrom 1999 gives considerable attention to gender issues and women’s traditional roles in relation to the divine feminine in her study of Anandamayi’s life and message. Fitzgerald 2007 presents in a single volume, with numerous photographs, both Alexander Lipski’s 1977 biography of Anandamayi Ma and translations of her teachings. The Ānandamayī Mā archives at Andover-Harvard Theological Library hold a wealth of documents, including audiovisual material.

    • Ānandamayī Mā. Papers, 1950–1981. Call number bMS 556. Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard University.

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      Donated by the parents of an American devotee, a significant collection of films, audiotapes, and photos, the exact contents of which are listed online.

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      • Fitzgerald, Joseph A., ed. The Essential Śrī Ānandamayī Mā: Life and Teachings of a 20th Century Indian Saint. Biography by Alexander Lipski. Words of Śrī Ānandamayī Mā translated by Ātmānanda. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2007.

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        Contains Lipski’s biography (based on study and personal contact) and English translations of Anandamayi Ma’s discourses, mostly in the form of her responses to various questions.

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      • Hallstrom, Lisa Lassell. Mother of Bliss: Ānandamayī Mā (1896–1982). New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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        Based on interviews with devotees, archival materials, and sacred biographies, a sympathetic study that explores Anandamayi Ma’s ambiguous identity in terms of familiar categories, including woman, saint, guru, avatāra, and divine mother, with attention to gender and the phenomenon of descent/incarnation in the female body.

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      Sai Baba

      Born in 1926 and known for his miracles, big hair, and long scarlet robes, Sathya Sai Baba is a popular figure among India’s urban middle class and now a global religious icon as well. Srinivas 2008 investigates Sai Baba and his movement within the context of modern urbanization and globalization, exploring how devotion is constructed and embodied in transnational religious economies. Urban 2003 examines how Western capitalist ideals are appropriated by Sai Baba and deployed in a conservative context that defends traditional social and religious values. Based on fieldwork in north central India (largely Delhi and New Delhi), Babb 2000 compares three modern movements: Radhasoami, Brahma Kumari, and Sathya Sai Baba. Kent 2005 studies the Sai Baba movement in Malaysia, while Klass 1991 focuses on Trinidad and Tobago. Murphet 1971 is a devotionalist reflection on Sai Baba as a miracle man set loosely in a comparative study of miracles in religion. The website of the International Sai Organization provides a window onto the movement worldwide.

      • Babb, Lawrence A. Redemptive Encounters: Three Modern Styles in the Hindu Tradition. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland, 2000.

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        Explores unity and diversity in three expressions of modern Hinduism, comparing the Radhasoami, Brahma Kumari, and Sathya Sai Baba movements and addressing themes of identity, authority, self-recognition and self-transformation, and community. Originally published in 1986 (Berkeley: University of California Press).

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      • International Sai Organization.

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        A window onto the organization worldwide with links to websites in numerous countries, information on service projects and other activities, and various publications, including Sai Baba’s voluminous discourses in several languages.

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      • Kent, Alexandra. Divinity and Diversity: A Hindu Revitalization Movement in Malaysia. Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2005.

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        An ethnographic study focused on Malaysia that explores the growth of globalized religiosity in modernity, as new religious movements appeal to universal ideals that transcend early-21st-century geopolitical boundaries; with attention to Islam and to interethnic participation in the movement.

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      • Klass, Morton. Singing with Sai Baba: The Politics of Revitalization in Trinidad. Conflict and Social Change Series. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1991.

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        An anthropological study of the movement in Trinidad that considers Sai Baba’s reception among different ethnic and religious groups in light of his own claims to be a universal avatāra, with attention to caste and hierarchy and their roles in this movement of “revitalization.”

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      • Murphet, Howard. Sai Baba: Man of Miracles. London: Muller, 1971.

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        A classic study of Sai Baba as a miracle man by a spiritual seeker who had significant contact with Sai Baba and his devotees in India; some attention to Shirdi Sai Baba. Includes numerous accounts of various “miracles” and compares Sathya Sai Baba to Krishna and Christ.

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      • Srinivas, Smriti. In the Presence of Sai Baba: Body, City, and Memory in a Global Religious Movement. Numen Book Series, Studies in the History of Religions 118. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008.

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        A detailed study of Sai Baba and his global following, with attention to his relationship to Shirdi Sai Baba. Based on fieldwork at Sathya Sai Baba’s ashram in Puttaparthi, India; as well as in Bangalore, India, Atlanta, Georgia, and Nairobi, Kenya. Numerous photos and a comprehensive bibliography of secondary sources.

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      • Urban, Hugh B. “Avatar for Our Age: Sathya Sai Baba and the Cultural Contradictions of Late Capitalism.” Religion 33 (2003): 73–93.

        DOI: 10.1016/S0048-721X(02)00080-5Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        Reflects on globalization in relation to indigenous traditions through an analysis of the contradictions embodied in Sai Baba: his seeming embrace of capitalism and consumer culture alongside his conservative, anti-Western rhetoric upholding traditional caste, gender, and religious values.

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      Ammachi

      Born in 1953 in Kerala, South India, Mata Amritanandamayi (also Ammachi or simply Amma, “Mother”), is known as the “hugging saint” because of her distinctive form of darśan that entails embracing all who come to see her, offering everyone a mother’s healing, unconditional love. Still based in Kerala but popular around the world, Ammachi embarks on a global tour each year that attracts thousands of devotees. Warrier 2005 is a monograph based on ethnographic fieldwork amid devotees in Ammachi’s transnational devotional movement, and Warrier 2003 explores Ammachi’s “mission” in terms of the privatization of Hinduism in the modern world. Raj 2004 is a brief article that discusses Ammachi’s programs in the United States and gender roles in the Hindu tradition. Tobias 2000 is a documentary about Ammachi’s life, her message, and her charitable works in India. The website of the Mata Amritanandamayi Center provides a wealth of information about Ammachi and her movement worldwide.

      • Mata Amritanandamayi Center.

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        Provides information on Ammachi’s life and teachings, her humanitarian activities (in education, health care, disaster relief, and so forth), and her yearly world tours; links to centers worldwide, including the Ammachi ashram in Kerala, India.

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      • Raj, Selva J. “Ammachi, the Mother of Compassion.” In The Graceful Guru: Hindu Female Gurus in India and the United States. Edited by Karen Pechilis, 203–218. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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        Briefly treats Ammachi’s life and movement with attention to her unique form of darśan (hugging each person who comes to see her) and her programs in the United States. Considers her role as a woman/goddess in relation to gender norms in Hindu traditions.

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      • Tobias, Michael, dir. River of Love: A Documentary Drama on the Life of Ammachi. VHS. New York: Mystic Fire Video, 2000.

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        An eighty-seven-minute VHS that includes a dramatization of Ammachi’s life (with devotees playing Ammachi at various ages), interviews with Ammachi’s family and devotees, clips of darśan and Ammachi’s charitable projects in India, and interviews with Ammachi herself.

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      • Warrier, Maya. “Processes of Secularization in Contemporary India: Guru Faith in the Mata Amritanandamayi Mission.” Modern Asian Studies 37.1 (2003): 213–253.

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        Explores contemporary devotion to gurus in terms of “secularization,” a privatization and internalization of Hinduism that allows for significant personal choice and expression, which takes priority over tradition and communal affiliation. Contends that this trend contrasts with Hindu nationalism and thus demonstrates alternative forms of modern Hinduism.

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      • Warrier, Maya. Hindu Selves in a Modern World: Guru Faith in the Mata Amritanandamayi Mission. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2005.

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        An ethnographic study based on fieldwork in Kerala, Delhi, and London that explores Ammachi’s teachings and intimate accessibility and her urban transnational following of largely middle-class devotees. Insightfully situates guru bhakti within the context of modern globalization.

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      Arcāvatāras

      Temple worship centers on an image of god, arcā, considered an avatāra. The arcāvatāra, image descent or image incarnation, is thus another worldly manifestation of the divine with which human beings can interact, thereby participating in bhakti. Narayanan 1996 describes arcāvatāras as the most significant manifestations of Vishnu for Śrī Vaishnavas in Tamil Nadu. Hopkins 2002 studies the devotional works of the influential 14th-century philosopher Vedāntadeśika, including his songs in praise of Vishnu’s iconic bodies housed in temples, and Hopkins 2007 provides an anthology of Vedāntadeśika’s poems in English translation.

      • Hopkins, Steven Paul. Singing the Body of God: The Hymns of Vedāntadeśika in Their South Indian Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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        A study of Vedāntadeśika that revisits claims regarding the philosopher’s Vaṭakalai or “northern” orientation in Śrī Vaishnavism’s two schools and that presents contextualized translations of Deśika’s lush poems (composed in Sanskrit, Tamil, and Prakrit) in praise of Vishnu’s iconic body, including his Raṅganātha form at Śrīraṅgam.

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      • Hopkins, Steven Paul, trans. An Ornament for Jewels: Love Poems for the Lord of Gods by Vedāntadeśika. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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        Beautiful, sensuous English translations of five of Vedāntadeśika’s long poems (in Sanskrit, Tamil, and Prakrit), each with commentary and detailed annotation; includes a helpful introduction and a glossary. Makes Vedāntadeśika’s songs accessible to a broad audience.

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      • Narayanan, Vasudha. “Arcāvatāra: On Earth as He Is in Heaven.” In Gods of Flesh, Gods of Stone: The Embodiment of Divinity in India. Edited by Joanne Punzo Waghorne and Norman Cutler with Vasudha Narayanan, 53–66. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

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        Describes the Śrī Vaishnava understanding of the arcāvatāra as an accessible form of Vishnu “superior to all other forms of God” (p. 54). Discusses various categories of arcās (images in temples and homes, for example) and their power to attract devotees in the world. Originally published in 1985 (Chambersburg, PA: Anima).

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      Comparative Studies: Hindu Avatāra and Christian Incarnation

      Numerous studies have long compared the concept of the avatāra in Hinduism with the Christian doctrine of Jesus’s incarnation; the works in this section therefore represent only a limited selection on the broad topic. Brockington 1992 is a thematic comparison of Hinduism and Christianity that includes a chapter on avatāra and incarnation. Carman 1994 compares Śrī Vaishnava conceptions of avatāra and Protestant Christian theologies of incarnation. Parrinder 1970 is a classic study of Hindu avatāras in comparison to Buddhist, Jaina, Muslim, and Christian doctrines. The 1987 special issue of Dialogue and Alliance is devoted to diverse studies of Hindu avatāra and Christian incarnation. Sheth 2002 compares similarities and differences in Hindu and Christian notions of descent and incarnation and reflects on the mutual benefits of comparative religion and interreligious dialogue. Thangaraj 1994 is a cross-cultural Christology of Jesus as guru (teacher) as opposed to avatāra (incarnation).

      • Brockington, John. Hinduism and Christianity. New York: St. Martin’s, 1992.

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        A thematic comparison of Hinduism and Christianity that recognizes diversity and historical variation in each tradition, identifying common themes without over-generalizing. See especially chapter 2, “Divine Interaction with Mankind,” for a discussion of avatāras variously represented and compared to Christian understandings of Jesus’s incarnation.

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      • Carman, John B. Majesty and Meekness: A Comparative Study of Contrast and Harmony in the Concept of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994.

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        Includes one chapter comparing Hindu avatāra and Christian incarnation with special reference to Śrī Vaishnava and Protestant Christian theologies. Discusses both similarities and differences and recognizes alternative views in each tradition; briefly discusses such divine embodiment as “sacrifice.”

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      • Parrinder, Geoffrey. Avatar and Incarnation. Wilde Lectures in Natural and Comparative Religion. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970.

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        A classic comparative treatment that considers various examples and interpretations of the avatāra in Hinduism and reads these in relation to Buddhist, Jaina, Muslim, and Christian texts and concepts.

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      • Sheth, Noel. “Hindu Avatāra and Christian Incarnation: A Comparison.” Philosophy East and West 52.1 (January 2002): 98–125.

        DOI: 10.1353/pew.2002.0005Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        Reflects on the similarities and differences between the Hindu avatāra and the Christian incarnation with attention to cyclical and linear conceptions of time and their effects on images of divine intervention in history. Emphasizes the mutual benefits of comparison and interreligious dialogue.

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      • Special Issue: Avatara and Incarnation. Dialogue and Alliance 1.2 (Summer 1987).

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        With an introduction by Gene James and essays by Eric J. Lott on avatāra as a mythic symbol, Larry D. Shinn on Krishna in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, Quentin Quesnell on Thomas Aquinas, Regunta Yesurathnam on comparing the concepts, Vitaliano R. Gorospe on the Bhagavad Gita and the Gospel of John, and Daniel E. Bassuk on modern Indian avatāras.

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      • Thangaraj, M. Thomas. The Crucified Guru: An Experiment in Cross-Cultural Christology. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1994.

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        A South Indian Christian elaborates a cross-cultural Christology of Jesus as guru (teacher) as opposed to avatāra (incarnation), drawing largely on the South Indian tradition of Shaiva Siddhānta for his conception of guru. Thus presents a Christology for Indian Christians that relativizes Western portrayals that claim (explicitly or implicitly) to be universal.

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      LAST MODIFIED: 01/27/2011

      DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195399318-0009

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