Avatars, in Hindu philosophy, usually refer to the earthly manifestation of a higher spirit or Supreme Being onto Earth. The word comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “descent”, referring to beings who come down to our plane, usually with a special purpose in mind. Vishnu, a Hindu God, commonly comes to Earth as an avatar, as do Shiva, Ganesha, and more. The word avatar has also been used to describe other figures, like Jesus.

Gods and higher spirits don’t always assume human form to do their work. Instead, they appear in a variety of forms throughout history. To the Hindus, worshipping the avatar is the same as worshipping the God – it all leads to the God in the end.

Vishnu’s avatars include Rama and Krishna. These avatars act as intermediaries between Vishnu, the God, and mortal man. For this reason, they are as beloved as Vishnu. In Hindu philosophy, the cycle of creation and destruction will culminate in a final avatar, Kalki, finally destroying the world.

Hanuman the monkey-god is another incarnation of Vishnu. Avatars occur in many forms, both human and animal. Here’s a further look at the ten avatars, or Dasavatara, in Hindu religion:

  1. Matsya, the Fish – as King Manu washed his hands in the river, a tiny fish swam into his hands, begging for help. The king scooped the little fish into a jar and took him home. Soon, the fish outgrew his jar, then outgrew the subsequent tank and river before the king returned him to the ocean. One day, the fish warned the king of a Great Flood, which would destroy all life. Manu gathered some “seeds of life”, built a boat, and waited. When the rains came, the fish towed him to the top of a mountain, where Manu waited until the floods retreated.
  2. Kurma, the Tortoise – Vishnu’s second avatar, who sat on the bottom of the ocean after the flood. In this form, Vishnu’s back holds Mount Mandara – placed there by the gods so they could search the sea for treasures.
  3. Varaha, the Boar – Vishnu’s third avatar, sent to defeat a demon that threatened to destroy the earth. He may appear as a boar, or as man with a boar’s head.
  4. Narasimha, the Man-Lion – A demon threatened the earth after obtaining a promise from Brahma that he would be slain by no man, animal, or god. Narasimha arrived to save the world.
  5. Vamana, the Dwarf – also known as Upendra, this fifth incarnation taught King Bali the foolishness of arrogance and pride.
  6. Parasu-rama, Rama witih the Axe – Vishnu, in the form of Rama, destroys the warrior caste to protect the sacred cattle of Hinduism.
  7. Rama, the King – Rama mas a king, though whether he was real or mythical is up for debate. His heroic deeds are told in the epic Sanskrit tale, Ramayana.
  8. Krishna – there is some disagreement over whether Krishna is an avatar or a god in his own right. He was a mischievous youth, with a naughty sense of humor.
  9. Balarama is the ninth avatar of Vishnu. He is physically powerful, often wearing blue clothes and a floral garland.
  10. Kalki – Vishnu’s final avatar will arrive on a white horse, waving a flaming sword and cutting down the wicked.