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Biographies > "Don't Worry, Be Happy" - Meher Baba and the Concept of the Avatar

By Peter Holleran

   The concept of an avatar is unique from the days of ancient Hinduism, but one that must be tackled head-on afresh to see if there is anything salvageable in it for those of us living in the twentieth-first century. The starting point of this essay will be to discuss the case of the mysterious Meher Baba. Then we will further attempt to demystify or examine the concept of avatar as far as is humanly possible. The reader will not be amiss if he realizes that this is all a rambling within the limits of the mind, with no satisfactory answers possible, and we may remain as ignorant as we began - if we are even so lucky. It is also somewhat against the grain of this author to depart from the attitude of devotion and wonder to offer an analytical discussion of such a one as the Baba. But if we are to speak at all about avatars to some extent it can't be helped.

   While similar to the teachings of the saints in that he posited a cosmology of a seven-storied creation, perhaps the most unique aspect of the teaching of Meher Baba (1894-1969) was in his claim to be an Avatar, indeed, the Avatar of the age, which he defined as God-become-man, in contrast to a Perfect Master, which is man-become-God. In actual practice the distinctions seem to blur, in as much as, while Baba stated that a Perfect Master was, in a sense, more valuable than the Avatar, since he could take one to the God-state, while the Avatar could not, but presumably had other duties. (This appears to be contradicting in one quote below, which states that this is indeed one of the duties of the Avatar). Baba did in fact appear to function as a Master as testified by many devotees. He held that there were always five Perfect Masters on Earth who prepare for the descent or advent of the Avatar, a somewhat unique and unusual claim.. These Perfect Masters in his time were Sai Baba of Shirdi, Upasani Baba (1), Narayan Maharaj (1), Tajuddin Baba, and Hazrat Babajan. At the age of twenty Merwan (Meher Baba) was said to have received a kiss on the forehead between the eyes by the old woman Hazrat Babajan, giving him the key to self-realization. For nine months he was in super-consciousness, lost to the world. Sri Upasani Baba brought him back to normal consciousness by hitting him on the head with a rock. Meher Baba stated that it took seven more years for him to stabilize this realization with ordinary life. Thus, by this example, it seems that even the avatar, however perfect he may be, must regain his enlightenment after taking a human birth. This would contradict any historical legends claiming such beings born fully developed and awakened.

   After this Baba spent many years travelling the length and breadth of India seeking out Masts (pronounced "Must"), somewhat extraordinary individuals, considered mad in their relationship to this world, but awake to the invisible realms within. Baba considered it part of his mission to find such people and help remove their spiritual obstructions. Many of them were essentially people who had not fulfilled earlier stages of practice, where bodily integration, ego development, and character building occur, and were stuck in an ascended state of one degree or another, without critical intelligence or the ability to function. Baba would tend to these individuals in a loving, motherly way, while working on straightening out their subtle neuro-anatomy.

   For several decades Baba maintained a vow of silence, communicating with the use of an alphabet board. He said, in God Speaks, that he would incarnate once more in seven hundred years. "Don't worry, be happy" became one of his more well-known sayings - and, who knows, perhaps his greatest legacy?

   Baba's level of realization is difficult to gauge, because certain aspects of his teaching are outside the mainstream of the traditional dharmas of the Hindu or Buddhist traditions. The Avatar theory, for instance, in which Baba claimed that he was the Ancient One, must (if it is meant to be taken in an exclusive sense, and not simply as an ecstatic proclamation) remain a mystery to the modern global mind, and may easily tend to confuse the universal truth and authenticity of the spiritual path with the enigmatic and occult. It keeps reappearing from time to time in the various traditions, however, and there may be some smoke behind that fire, but we hold that it is usually a human addition to Truth, and not Truth's dispensation to man.

   We are so far no closer to understanding what avatar means, but first, some more of Meher Baba's philosophy.

   From avatarmeherbaba.org:

   “The Avatar, according to Baba, is a special Perfect Master, the first soul to achieve God-realization. This soul, the original Perfect Master, or Ancient One, never ceases to incarnate. Baba indicated that this particular soul personifies the state of God called Vishnu in Hinduism and Parvardigar in Sufism, i.e. the sustainer or preserver state of God. The Avatar, in Baba's testimony, appears on Earth every seven to fourteen hundred years and is "brought down" into human form by the five Perfect Masters of the time to aid in the process of moving creation in its never-ending journey toward Godhood. Baba claimed that in other ages this role had been fulfilled by Zoroaster, Rama, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad.”

   “The universal work of the Avatar has several levels of priority. Number one is to prepare his circle of 122 people for Realization, and then to give the Realization of God to these 122 people, and also to his very closest lovers. Number two is to give Liberation (Mukti) to many people, and free them forever from the rounds of births and deaths. Number three is to give a push to those in the inner subtle and mental planes, and they are of a fixed number. Number four is to take many people to the path of Truth, who thereby enter the planes. Number five is to awaken the whole of humanity toward the Truth of God's Existence. Number six is to give a universal push to all states of evolution in their progress toward higher evolutionary consciousness. Number seven is to allow new souls to enter the creation. In order to achieve all of this work, the Avatar has to remove binding impressions (sanskaras) from each individual, and therefore, he takes upon himself those divine free impressions (yogayoga sanskaras) which remove the bindings from others.”

   Given that Meher’s view is that the Avatar was the first perfect master to attain God-Realisation, it would not be confusing to find an avatar functioning both in its more traditional role as the restorer of righteousness as well as that of perfect master such as in the Sant Mat tradition.

   In terms of cosmology and metaphysics, Baba taught that there were seven hierarchical planes of consciousness and creation, and that full realization came when one re-entered all of the lower six planes while retaining the consciousness realized in the seventh. This is certainly an advance over non-transcendental schools that hold that God-Realization is attained only in the highest spiritual realm. Baba is rightly critical of ascended forms of trance meditation:

   "The aspirant who enters into trance-meditation may temporarily forget all his limitations while immersed in its light and bliss. But though the prisoner may have forgotten the prison, he has not escaped from it. ... the aspirant becomes conscious of all his failings as soon as he regains normal consciousness. The ascending forms of trance-meditation may bring the aspirant increasing occult powers but not that unending state of knowledge and bliss that is continuously accessible in Nirvikalpa Samadhi to the Siddha." (2)

   The question is, how to go up and come down and NOT still be deluded. Meher Baba defines Nirvikalpa samadhi rather uniquely, as "divinity in expression", the "I-Am-God state while retaining body and mind but without attachment or identification", and "uninterrupted spontaneous self-knowledge of a God-Realized being." (3) This is certainly an unusual definition of Nirvikalpa, which commonly refers to a state of bodily abstraction and mindless absorption, generally in an ascended mode. Baba's view sounds more like the philosophic definition of sahaj. But he is even more confusing, in as much as he goes on to describe Sahaj in a similar fashion, such that it is difficult to distinguish the two: "Divinity in action", "effortless and continuous state of Perfection of the Sadguru". This is not incompatible with the philosophic definition of Sahaj, but it could be made more precise. Baba's use of the term Nirvana is the closest he comes to describing traditional nirvikalpa samadhi (and in this use he was much like Sri Aurobindo who also described Nirvana in such a manner) : "absorption in divinity, consciousness withdrawn from body or mind.” This is not traditional Nirvana as described in Mahayana Buddhism, and will no doubt be confusing to many.

   Perhaps with his novel definition of Nirvikalpa as the "I-Am-God state while retaining body and mind, but without attachment or identification", Baba is referring to the Witness position of consciousness, known while one is in the embodied condition, yet prior to the realization of Sahaj. This would allow his definition of Sahaj to be uniquely descriptive of the realization where all arising conditions are known to be only modifications of the one divine reality. Baba becomes unnecessarily occult, however, when he claims:

   "Sahaj Samadhi comes to the very few souls who descend from the seventh plane of consciousness as Sadguru, while it is the very life of the Avatar." (4)

   He is doubly confusing, moreover, when he then states:

   "Ultimately the aspirant has to realize that God is the only Reality and that he is really one with God. This implies that he should not be overpowered by the spectacle of the multiform universe.

   In fact, the whole universe is in the Self and springs into existence from the tiny point in the Self referred to as the OM Point. But the Self as the individualized soul has become habituated to gathering experiences through one medium or another, and therefore it comes to experience the universe as a formidable rival, other than itself.

   Those who have realized God constantly see the universe as springing from this Om Point, which is in everyone.”
(DISCOURSES, p. 190)

   If the 'Om Point' is equivalent to the 'I-thought', or the place from where the 'I-thought' arises, Baba sounds close to the view of Ramana Maharshi. Ramana, however, held with the Brihadarankaka Upanishad that the "'I' comes before Om", i.e., "I becomes the name." The sages of Sant Mat hold that the power of Om arises from a plane lower than that of the absolute as well as the 'I'.

   At first glance, Baba's view appears similar to the philosophic view of the sages, whereby formless absorption leads to re-entry into the plane of manifestation while simultaneously abiding in consciousness itself. Yet on closer inspection there is an important distinction between the two. With Baba one needs to ascend to the seventh plane and then descend to the first while retaining the realization of the seventh. It may be argued that this is really equivalent to realizing Nirvikalpa samadhi and then coming down from that without losing its form of consciousness. Yoga masters such as Swami Sivananda [for a short sketch of his life and teachings, see the second half of the article Kundalini:Up, Down, or ? ] have argued that this is possible. It is here suggested that this is generally not the case. The usual result is that one descends from Nirvikalpa samadhi and does not retain its bliss and consciousness, although ones ego is 'dented' to varying degrees. Ramana was adamant about the fact that even repeated episodes of Nirvikalpa samadhi would not give jnana. [Even so, there were devotee’s of Ramana who experienced Self-realization after an ascended trance state; see the story of Janaky Matha ]. The conclusion about such things is that much depends on the prior metaphysical understanding of the individual, as well as what actually happens during such experiences, as to what he derives from Nirvikalpa samadhi.

   Adi Da argued that even in the highest ascended realization (Nirvikalpa ), attention is generally still “extended outside of the Heart as a gesture towards an independent object,” and must, in the manner of Ramana and Lakshmana Swamy, eventually resolve in its source at the heart-root for Self-realization to occur and subsequently allow the awakening to Sahaj, or “open eyes.” (Nirvikalpa could also be bypassed by going directly to the Witness position and thence to Sahaj; others have since argued that even passing through the Witness is not absolutely necessary in every case). The experience of Nirvikalpa samadhi can mark a significant turning point in the course of sadhana for one rightly prepared and rightly oriented, however, for it gives the aspirant an intuitive certainty of the fulfillment of the process of realization, and greatly increased powers of concentration, most useful for spiritual inquiry.

   Meher’s language may not have been precise enough for us to clearly understand his position on when and how direct cognition of the Self is realized. That is not necessarily a major flaw in terms of his mission and impact in the lives of his followers. Unfortunately, however, Baba is gone and can not be asked to explain further. Such mystical vagueness is often the inheritance of one such as he, born under a Piscean sky, but in any case, he won the hearts of many throughout the world.

   The concept of Avatar is a difficult and vague one to illucidate. “When righteous declines,” said Krishna, “I come to reestablish the dharma.” There are, as far I can see, two main views on avatars. One is found in the Sant Mat tradition, beginning with Kabir, where the Sants are agents of the "Positive Power,” commissioned directly by Sat Purush to bring souls back to God from their current bondage the lower three worlds, or the domain of Kal, the "Negative Power", with avatars being agents of Kal, who come with certain purposes to help maintain order in the created realms; and, two, the conventional Hindu idea that avatars are special incarnations of the divine, be it Vishnu or Shiva, that periodically appear at crucial ebbs in the state of the world, to establish a new dispensation or dharma for that age. Both of these views were evident in Meher Baba’s teachings, for, as stated, he said that the Perfect Master was even more valuable than an Avatar, in that he could take one to the “God-state,” whereas the avatar could not, and two, the Avatar was God-become-man, as opposed to man-become God.

   Neither of these views are philosophical, says Brunton, if viewed as they are commonly understood. Philosophy, he says, proclaims that the divine itself does not compress itself into a human form in the case of an avatar any more than it does so with each individual man. Indeed, Krishna, in Discourse 7, Shaloks 24-25 of the Bhagavad-Gita, may have revealed the true mystery behind such fantastic claims for an avatar:

   "Not knowing my transcendent, imperishable, supreme character, the undiscerning think me who am unmanifest to have become manifest. Veiled by the delusive mystery created by my unique power, I am not manifest to all; this bewildered world does not recognize me, birthless and changeless." (5)

   This appears more as a non-dual confession rather than the dogma that an absolute Godhead had limited himself to a human form. After granting Arjuna the stupendous Cosmic Vision, an ego-threatening form of savikalpa samadhi (6), Krishna resumed his ordinary mortal form and then said," Now, I will teach you." Teach what, one might ask? - advaita vedanta, according to philosopher V.S. Iyer. (7) "Through Buddhi (Reason or discrimination) you will come to me," said Krishna.

   A god like Brahma or Vishnu or Shiva, however, might possibly incarnate, but this is hopelessly complicated because the parts of this triune “God” are supposedly in actuality personifications of aspects of the Divine itself. In Sant Mat, moreover, even Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, as gods, reside below the home of the Sants - Sach Khand, or Sat Lok. Sant Kirpal Singh once referred to Krishna, great as he was, as being at one with Kal, the Negative Power:

   "Blessed indeed is the man who is ready for immediate transformation into God, for to such an individual he [a Sant] at once reveals his Godhood, as Krishna revealed his oneness with Kal to Arjuna, when through ignorance he hesitated to do his duty as a Kshatriya prince." (8)

   The latter raises a few problems, such as what to do with Krishna’s dictum, “Few know me in truth,” or “ few know me as I am,” and, “through knowledge (Buddhi) you will come to me.” The multi-levelled greatness of the Bhagavad-Gita seems to be taken down a notch if Krishna is just an agent of the Negative Power. According to Hinduism, the Buddha was also an avatar, and maybe Jesus, too, as is Kalki, the coming tenth avatar of Vishnu. If Jesus and Buddha were avatars, then according to the terminology of the Sants, as given above, they wouldn't have taught Surat Shabd Yoga, as the mystics of that path sometimes assert. Paramhansa Yogananda once implied to a disciple that he himself was an avatar, saying that it would take such a being to do the work he did spreading the teachings of Kriya Yoga far and wide. Yogananda's guru, moreover, was known as "Jnanavatar Sri Yukteswar". Sri Ramakrishna was hailed by the woman who was his first teacher as an avatar, a claim which he then vigorously denied, but later near his death he told Vivekananda that he was Krishna. What is the ordinary individual to do with all of these claims?

   It is much easier to believe that an avatar is a Bodhisatva or enlightened being who incarnates with a special purpose for the benefit of humanity than that God himself so incarnates. [ on the other hand, who could possibly incarnate than God - which admitedly is only a concept to us - wherefore how could we possibly say no either?] The entire claim appears wrapped up in spiritual story-telling. For an example of the confusion caused by the term “avatar”, just consider how many persons today claim to be the Kalki avatar - many - with their stated missions different as well?

   Paul Brunton spoke eloquently on the philosophical conception of the avatar:

   ”Philosophy displaces the belief in Divine Incarnations by belief in divinely inspired men. Although it refuses to deify any man into being fully representative of the Infinite Consciousness, it affirms that any man may approach nearer to and be uplifted by that Consciousness.

   The popular Hindu belief that God reincarnates himself periodically as an Avatar is a Puranic one, which means that taken literally it is sheer superstition. If it is to be correctly understood, it must be taken as really being an oversimplification of psychological truth for the benefit of simple minds. Hence it is inevitably misleading if its surface interpretation is taken to exhaust its entire significance.

   If the Divine Essence could really subject itself to the limitations of human existence, this could only be achieved at the cost of impairing its own infinitude and absoluteness. But even to comprehend the hint of a hint about it, which is all that we may hope to do, is enough to show how utterly impossible such subjection would be. The notion that the infinitude of Deity can be compressed and contained within a special human organism is unphilosophical. Whether such an avatar be Krishna in India, Horus in Egypt, or Jesus in Palestine, there has never been any ground for raising one above the others, for the simple reason that there have never been any avatars at all. And if the doctrine of divine incarnations is irrational, the sister doctrine of predicted and messianic second advent is partly a wish-fulfilment and partly a miscomprehension. If a divinely inspired being first appears visibly in the flesh of his own body, his second appearance is invisibly in the heart of his own worshippers.

   The downfall of every faith began when the worship of God as Spirit was displaced by the worship of Man as God. No visible prophet, saint, or saviour has the right to demand that which should be offered to the Unseen alone. It is not true reverence but ignorant blasphemy which could believe that the unattainable Absolute has put itself into mortal human form however beneficent the purpose may be. The idea that God can enter the flesh as a man was originally given to most religions as a chief feature for the benefit of the populace. It was very helpful both in their mental and in their practical life. But it was true only on the religious level, which after all is the elementary one. It was not quite true on the philosophical level. Those few who were initiated into the advanced teaching were able to interpret this notion in a mystical or metaphysical way which, whilst remote from popular comprehension, was closer to divine actuality. They will never degrade the Godhead in their thought of it by accepting the popular belief in personification, incarnation, or avatarhood. It is a sign of primitive ignorance when the humanity of these inspired men is unrecognized or even denied, when they are put on a pedestal of special deification. The teaching that Godhead can voluntarily descend into man's body is a misunderstanding of truth. The irony is that those who try to displace the gross misunderstanding by the pure truth itself are called blasphemous. The real blasphemy is to lower the infinite Godhead to being directly an active agent in the finite world.

   Nothing can contain the divine essence although everything can be and is permeated by it. No one can personify it, although every man bears its ray within him. To place a limitation upon it is to utter a blasphemy against it. The infinite Mind cannot be localized to take birth in any particular land. The absolute existence cannot be personified in a human form. The eternal Godhead cannot be identified with a special fleshly body. The inscrutable Reality has no name and address. It cannot be turned into an historical person, however exalted, with a body of bones nerves muscle and skin. To think otherwise is to think materialistically. The notion which would place the Deity as a human colossus amongst millions of human midgets and billions of lesser creatures shows little true reverence and less critical intelligence.”

   It may be possible, one may posit, that the One may "birth" a perfect soul with no previous incarnations as an ordinary mortal to evolve through. Who really knows? The problem is, 'reasonable' and $4.00 will get us a cup of coffee at Starbucks. "Concepts, concepts, concepts," says the great Nisargadatta.

   The legends of Krishna and other divine avataras born already enlightened, being lost in the mists of time, are of precious little help to us now. Anthony Damiani states:

   "Anyone who is born into a physical body has to go through the search of finding himself all over again. Remember, the first link in the nidana chain is avidya [ignorance]. He has got to go into a physical body, he's got to to get acquainted with the brain, he has to go through the whole mess like everyone else [definitely the case with Meher Baba, who needed a guru(s); also, according to the Sants, every Master must have a Master]. He may be perfectly aware of who he is and what he is until that moment when he is in the body. As far as I know, there is no awareness in the sense of an unbroken thread of continuity of Soul awareness. It's broken when you are born. Then you have to institute the search for self-discovery. In the case of a sage, of course, it's more immediate, and the prevalence is something that is obvious to those that are spiritually oriented. But everyone has to go through that. I might make the exception of the avatar, but I don't understand anything about avatars." (10)

   In conclusion, the process and teachings of enlightenment may, one dares to say, be evolving along with the cosmos and require new definitions of divinity and avatara to serve us in the modern era. Perhaps Everyman is the new avatara with unique avataric work to do. If so, may each of us stand forth as consciousness with his own unique gifts to share. As John Wheeler said:

   " 'Enlightened beings' are fine as far as they go, but they are still appearances that come and go in the only real light there is - your own awareness. People search for enlightened ones, not realizing that they could not even appear without one's own being. So being is the source." (11)

   Discourses represents a broad selection of Baba's views on many aspects of his take on the spiritual path. Lord Meher, a recent biography, wonderfully reveals the human and spiritual dimensions of his life. This book has the quality of generating a heartfelt attraction for Baba in the reader, and I, too, years ago, fell prey to its magical spell for a time. [God Speaks has done the same for many others; see Pete Townsend of the Who]

   I can’t seem to relocate it, but last night in one of the source materials I read on Meher Baba he is quoted late in life as saying to someone, “you are all avatars.” !

1. Sri Upasani Baba
2. Discourses (Myrtle Beach, S.C.: Sheriar Press, 1987), p. 244
3. Ibid, p. 216
4. Ibid, p. 251
5. Kirpal Singh, Godman (Franklin New Hampshire: Sat Sandesh Books, 1971), p. 148
6. Mark Scorelle, "The Cosmic Vision", commentary on T. Subba Row's essays on the Bhagavad-Gita, Summer program at Wisdom's Goldenrod, 2000
7. V.S. Iyer, Commentaries (edited by Mark Scorelle, 1999)
8. Kirpal Singh, op. cit., p. 153
9. The Notebooks of Paul Brunton (Burdett, New York: Larson Publications 1988), pp.
10. Anthony Damiani, Standing In Your Own Way (Burdett, new York: Larson Publications, 1993), p. 139
11. John Wheeler, You Were Never Born (Salisbury, United Kingdom: Non-Duality Press, 2007, p. 222

Wikepedia entry on the Avatara is extensive, well-written, and perhaps as good as it gets for the subject at hand. It is an excellent completion to this essay, saving the author much further research. The link material is reprinted in full below (external links and artwork within it not included).

   From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The ten avatars of Vishnu: Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Vamana, Krishna, Kalki, Buddha, Parshurama, Rama and Narasimha; Avatar or Avatara, often translated into English as incarnation, literally means descent (avatarati) and usually implies a deliberate descent from higher spiritual realms to lower realms of existence for special purposes. Descents that are of importance are mainly those of the Supreme Being which are plenary and marked with superhuman qualities. Other types of descents are limited expansions of Ishvara, and some that are descents of lesser empowered divinities. The term is used primarily in Hinduism for descents of Vishnu whom Vaishnava Hindus (one of the largest branches of Hinduism)[1] worship as the Supreme God, a distinctive feature of Vaishnavism. While Shiva and Ganesha are also described as descending in the form of avatars, with the Ganesha Purana and the Mudgala Purana detailing Ganesha's avatars specifically, the avatars of Vishnu carry a greater theological prominence than those of Shiva or Ganesha and upon examination relevant passages are directly imitative of the Vaishnava avatara lists.[2]

   • 1 Avatars of Vishnu
   • 1.1 Dasavatara: Ten Avatars of Vishnu in the Garuda Purana
   • 1.2 Avatars of Vishnu in the Bhagavata Purana
   • 2.0 Other kinds of Avatars within Vaishnavism
   • 2.1 Purusha avatars
   • 2.2 Guna avatars
   • 2.3 Manvantara avatars
   • 2.4 Shaktyavesa and Avesa avatars
   • 3 People who have been considered avatars outside the orthodox tradition of Hinduism
   • 4 Criticism of Avatars in contemporary Hinduism
   • 5 References

Avatars of Vishnu

   The most traditional form of Avatar within Hinduism is the descents of Vishnu, the preserver or sustainer aspect of God within the Hindu Trinity or Trimurti.

Dasavatara: Ten Avatars of Vishnu in the Garuda Purana

   The ten most famous descents of Vishnu are collectively known as the "Dasavatara" ("dasa" in Sanskrit means ten). This list is included in the Garuda Purana (1.86.10"11) and denotes those avatars most prominent in terms of their influence on human society.[3] The first four are said to have appeared in the Satya Yuga (the first of the four Yugas or ages in the time cycle described within Hinduism). The next three avatars appeared in the Treta Yuga, the eighth descent in the Dwapara Yuga and the ninth in the Kali Yuga. The tenth is predicted to appear at the end of the Kali Yuga in some 427,000 years time.[4]

   1. Matsya, the fish, appeared in the Satya Yuga.
   2. Kurma, the tortoise, appeared in the Satya Yuga.
   3. Varaha, the boar, appeared in the Satya Yuga.
   4. Narasimha, the half-man/half-lion appeared in the Satya Yuga.
   5. Vamana, the dwarf, appeared in the Treta Yuga.
   6. Parashurama, Rama with the axe, appeared in the Treta Yuga.
   7. Rama, Ramachandra, the prince and king of Ayodhya, appeared in the Treta Yuga.
   8. Krishna (meaning "dark coloured" or "all attractive") appeared in the Dwapara Yuga along with his brother Balarama.
       According to the Bhagavata Purana Balarama is said to have appeared in the Dwapara Yuga (along with Krishna)
       as a descent of Ananta Shesha. He is also counted as an avatar of Vishnu by the majority of Vaishnava movements
       and is included as the ninth Dasavatara in some versions of the list which contain no reference to Buddha.
   9. Gautama Buddha (meaning "the enlightened one") appeared in the Kali Yuga (specifically as Siddhartha Gautama).
  10. Kalki ("Eternity", or "time", or "The Destroyer of foulness"), who is expected to appear at the end of Kali Yuga, the time
       period in which we currently exist, which will end in the year 428899 CE. In some versions the 9th avatar is Balarama
      (elder brother of Krishna).

Avatars of Vishnu in the Bhagavata Purana

Twenty-two avatars of Vishnu are listed numerically in the first Canto of the Bhagavata Purana as follows:[5]

   1. Catursana [SB 1.3.6] (The Four Sons of Brahma)
   2. Varaha [SB 1.3.7] (The boar)
   3. Narada [SB 1.3.8] (The Traveling Sage)
   4. Nara-Narayana [SB 1.3.9] (The Twins)
   5. Kapila [SB 1.3.10] (The Philosopher)
   6. Dattatreya [SB 1.3.11] (Combined Avatar of The Trimurti)
   7. Yajna [SB 1.3.12] (Vishnu temporarily taking the role of Indra)
   8. Rishabha [SB 1.3.13] (Father of King Bharata and Bahubali)
   9. Prithu [SB 1.3.14] (King who made earth Beautiful and Attractive)
   10. Matsya [SB 1.3.15] (The Fish)
   11. Kurma [SB 1.3.16] (The Tortoise)
   12. Dhanvantari [SB 1.3.17] (Father of Ayurveda)
   13. Mohini [SB 1.3.17] (Beautiful/Charming Woman)
   14. Narasimha [SB 1.3.18] (The Man-Lion)
   15. Vamana [SB 1.3.19] (The Dwarf)
   16. Parasurama [SB 1.3.20] (The Rama with an Axe)
   17. Vyasa [SB 1.3.21] (Compiler of the Vedas)
   18. Rama [SB 1.3.22] (The King of Ayodhya)
   19. Balarama [SB 1.3.23] (Krishna's Elder Brother)
   20. Krishna [SB 1.3.23] (The Cowherd also Svayam Bhagavan)
   21. Buddha [SB 1.3.24] (The Enlightened)
   22. Kalki [SB 1.3.25] (The Destroyer)

Besides these, another three avatars are described later on in the text as follows:

   1. Prshnigarbha [SB 10.3.41] (Born to Prshni)
   2. Hayagriva [SB 2.7.11] (The Horse)
   3. Hamsa [SB 11.13.19] (The Swan)

   After Kalki avatar is described in the Bhagavata Purana it is declared that the avatars of Vishnu are 'innumerable.'[6] However the above list of twenty five avatars is generally taken as of those of greatest significance. According to Gaudiya Vaishnava interpretation of a verse in the latter texts of the Bhagavata Purana,[7] and a number of texts from the Mahabharata and other Puranic scriptures,[8] Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is also listed as an avatar and is worshiped as such by followers of the tradition. In this connection Chaitanya is often referred to as the Golden Avatar.

Other kinds of Avatars within Vaishnavism:

   Although it is usual to speak of Vishnu as the source of the avataras, within the Vaishnavism branch of Hinduism Vishnu is only one divine being that manifests in form. In that tradition Narayana, Vasudeva and Krishna are also seen as names denoting divine aspects which take avataric form.[2] In addition there are other senses and shades of meaning of the term avatar within Hinduism.

Purusha avatars are sometimes described as the original avatars of Vishnu or Krishna within the Universe:[9][10]

   • Vasudeva
   • Sankarshan
   • Pradyumna
   • Aniruddha

Guna avatars

   The personalities of the Trimurti (Hindu trinity) are also sometimes referred to as Guna avatars, because of their roles of controlling the three modes (gunas) of nature,[10] even though they have not descended upon an earthly planet in the general sense of the term 'avatar'.

   • Vishnu - As controller of the mode of goodness (sattva)
   • Brahma - Controller of the mode of passion and desire (rajas)
   • Shiva - Controller of the mode of ignorance (tamas)

Manvantara avatars:

   Manvantara avatars are beings responsible for creating progeny throughout the Universe, said to be unlimited in number. [11] They do not take birth.

Shaktyavesa and Avesa avatars

Avataric incarnations are classified as two kinds
   • direct (sakshat)
   • indirect (avesa).

   When Vishnu himself descends, he is called sakshat or shaktyavesa-avatara, a direct incarnation of God. But when he does not incarnate directly, but indirectly empowers some living entity to represent him, that living entity is called an indirect or avesa avatar.[12] There are said to be a great number of avesa avatars. Examples include Narada Muni, Shakyamuni Buddha, and Parashurama. Parashurama is the only one of the traditional ten avatars that is not a direct descent of Vishnu.

   According to the Sri Vaishnavism sect of Hinduism, there are two types of primary or direct avatars, Purna avatars and Amsarupavatars:

   1. Purna avatars are those in which Vishnu takes form directly and all the qualities and powers of God are expressed, (e.g. Narasimha, Rama and Krishna). [13]
   2. Amsarupavatars are those in which Vishnu takes form directly but He is manifest in the person only partially. (e.g. avatars from Matsya to Parashurama).

   The avesa or indirect avatars are generally not worshiped as the Supreme being. Only the direct, primary avatars are worshiped in this way. In practice, the direct avatars that are worshiped today are the Purna avatars of Narasimha, Rama and Krishna. Among most Vaishnava traditions, Krishna is considered to be the highest Purna avatar. However, followers of Chaitanya (including ISKCON), Nimbarka, and Vallabha Acharya differ philosophically from other Vaishnavas, such as Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya, and consider Krishna to be the ultimate Godhead, not simply an avatar. That said, all Hindus believe that there is no difference between worship of Vishnu and His avatars as it all leads to Him. According to Madhvacharya (chief proponent of Dvaita or school of differential monism), all avatars of Vishnu are alike in potency and every other quality. There is no gradation among them, and perceiving or claiming any differences among avatars is a cause of eternal damnation. See Madhva's commentary on Katha Upanishad, or his Mahabharata-Tatparya-Nirnaya.

While many Hindus reject the idea of avatars outside of traditional Hinduism, some Hindus with a universalist outlook view the central figures of various non-Hindu religions as avatars. Some of these religious figures include:

   • Jesus whose teachings inspired Christianity.[14] See also Incarnation (Christianity).
   • Zoroaster (Zarathustra) the prophet of Zoroastrianism.[15]

Criticism of Avatars in contemporary Hinduism

   Within a number of Hindu traditions, both presently and in the past, living people have claimed (or are claimed by followers) to be avatars of a divine or Supreme being. In these cases followers have then in some instances worshipped these individuals as Ishta-devas or prefered form of God. Although these tend to be minority groups within Hindism, it has been a growing tendency in modern times (the followers of Sai Baba being one such example). This often attracts criticism from other Hindu traditions who do not share the same belief.

   Swami Tapasyananda of Ramakrishna Mission, in his book, Bhakti Schools of Vedanta, pg. 50, on commentating about this phenomenon, said:

   "The avatar doctrine has been excessively abused by many Hindus today and we have the strange phenomenon of every disciple of a sectarian Guru claiming him to be an avatar. Christianity has therefore limited the Divine Incarnation as a one-time phenomenon. The theory has strong points and equally strong defects but it surmounts the gross abuse of the doctrine indulged in by many Hindus."

   Thus, if followers respect and revere the guru, it is only proper if they are using him as a conduit to God, and respect him as a teacher. However, Swami Sivananda has said that a guru can be likened to God if he himself has attained realization and is a link between the individual and the Absolute. Such a guru, according to his definition and interpretation, should have actually attained union with God, inspire devotion in others, and have a presence that purifies all. Such a case is limited in contemporary times.

   As early as the seventeenth century, a Vaishnavite saint, Raghavendra Swami, in his last speech before departing from the mortal world, warned about the dangers of fraudulent gurus by saying:

   "The search for knowledge is never easy. As the Upanishads say it is like walking on the razor's edge. But for those who have strong faith and put in sustained effort and have the blessings of Shri Hari and guru this is not difficult. Always keep away from people who merely perform miracles without following the shastras and yet call themselves God or guru. I have performed miracles, and so have great persons like Shrimadacharya. These are based on yoga siddhi and the shastras. There is no fraud or trickery at all. These miracles were performed only to show the greatness of God and the wonderful powers that one can attain with His grace. Right knowledge (jnana) is greater than any miracle. Without this no real miracle can take place. Any miracle performed without this right knowledge is only witchcraft. No good will come to those who perform such miracles and also those who believe in them."


   1. Major Branches - Hinduism from adherents.com
   2. a b Matchett, Freda, Krsna, Lord or Avatara? the relationship between Krsna and Visnu: in the context of the Avatara myth as presented by the Harivamsa, the Visnupurana and the Bhagavatapurana, Routledge, 2000
   3. Garuda Purana (1.86.10–11)
   4. B-Gita 8.17 "And finally in Kali-yuga (the yuga we have now been experiencing over the past 5,000 years) there is an abundance of strife, ignorance, irreligion and vice, true virtue being practically nonexistent, and this yuga lasts 432,000 years. In Kali-yuga vice increases to such a point that at the termination of the yuga the Supreme Lord Himself appears as the Kalki avatar."
   5. Bhag-P 1.3 Canto 1, Chapter 3
   6. Bhag-P 1.3.26
   7. Bhag-P 11.5.32 "In the age of Kali, intelligent persons perform congregational chanting to worship the incarnation of Godhead who constantly sings the names of Krishna. Although His complexion is not blackish, He is Krishna Himself."
   8. Vedic Encyclopedia "Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu predicted"
   9. Avatar - Categories of Incarnations
   10. a b gaudiya.com - theology
   11. Avatar - Categories of Incarnations, by Atmatattva Das, 06/17/2005 [1]
   12. Teachings of Lord Chaitanya - Avatars
   13. Types of Avatars; answers to questions #67-70.
 &nsp 14. Meher Prabhu: Lord Meher, The Biography of the Avatar of the Age, Meher Baba, Manifestation, Inc. 1986, by Bhau Kalchuri, p. 5054.
   15. Ibid, p. 223.

"I do not seek from the Supreme Lord Moksha attended with the attainment of eight powers or even the absolute release. I would like to be present in all beings and undergo the sufferings for them, so that they may be free from misery."   - Rantidevi