Tracy Coleman

in Hinduism

ISBN: 9780195399318
Published online January 2011 | | DOI:


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.

Article.  13396 words. 

Subjects: Hinduism

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