Dashavatara ( दशावतार ) refers to the ten primary avatars of Vishnu, the Hindu god of preservation. Vishnu is said to descend in form of an avatar to restore order on this earth.
Following are the main avatars of Lord Vishnu:
- Matsya (मत्स्य) – Vishnu takes the form of a fish to save Manu from the deluge (Pralaya), after which he takes his boat to the new world along with one of every species of plant and animal, gathered in a massive cyclone.
- Kurma (कूर्म) -When the devas and asuras were churning the Ocean of milk in order to get Amrita, the nectar of immortality, the mount Mandara they were using as the churning staff started to sink and Vishnu took the form of a tortoise to bear the weight of the mountain.
- Varaha (वराह) – He appeared to defeat Hiranyaksha, a demon who had taken the Earth, or Prithvi, and carried it to the bottom of what is described as the cosmic ocean. The battle between Varaha and Hiranyaksha is believed to have lasted for a thousand years, which the former finally won. Varaha carried the Earth out of the ocean between his tusks and restored it to its place in the universe.
- Narasimha (नरसिंह) – The Hiranyakashipu, the elder brother of Hiranyaksha, was granted a powerful boon from brahma, not allowing him to be killed by man or animal, inside or out, day or night, on earth or the stars, with a weapon either living or inanimate. Vishnu descended as an incarnation, with the body of a man and head and claws of a lion. He then disembowels the rakshasa at the courtyard threshold of his house, at dusk, with his claws, while he lay on his thighs.
- Vamana (वामन) – The fourth descendant of Hiranyakashyap, Bali, with devotion and penance was able to defeat Indra. The gods appealed to Vishnu for protection and he descended as a boy Vamana. During a yajna (यज्ञ) of the king, Vamana approached him and Bali promised him for whatever he asked. Vamana asked for three paces of land. Bali agreed, and the dwarf then changed his size to that of a giant. He stepped over heaven in his first stride, and the netherworld with the second. Bali realized that Vamana was Vishnu incarnate. In deference, the king offered his head as the third place for Vamana to place his foot. The avatar did so and thus granted Bali immortality. Then in appreciation to Bali and his grandfather Prahlada, Vamana made him ruler of Pathala.
- Parashurama (परशुराम) – He is son of Jamadagni and Renuka and received an axe after a penance to Shiva. King Kartavirya Arjuna and his army visited the father of Parashurama at his ashram, and the saint was able to feed them with the divine cow Kamadhenu. The king demanded the cow, but Jamadagni refused. Enraged, the king took it by force and destroyed the ashram. Parashurama then killed the king at his palace and destroyed his army. In revenge, the sons of Kartavirya killed Jamadagni. Parashurama took a vow to kill every Kshatriya on earth twenty-one times over, and filled five lakes with their blood. Ultimately, his grandfather, rishi Rucheeka, appeared before him and made him halt. He is a Chiranjivi (immortal), and believed to be alive today in penance at Mahendragiri.
- Rama (राम) – the prince and king of Ayodhya. He is a commonly worshipped avatar in Hinduism, and is thought of as the ideal heroic man. His story is recounted in one of the most widely read scriptures of Hinduism, the Ramayana. While in exile from his own kingdom with his brother Lakshman and the God Hanuman, his wife Sita was abducted by the demon king of Lanka, Ravana. He travelled to Lanka, killed the demon king and saved Sita.
- Balarama (बलराम) the elder brother of Krishna, is regarded generally as an avatar of Shesha. However, Balarama is included as the eighth avatar of Vishnu in the Sri Vaishnava lists.
- Krishna (कृष्ण) was the eighth son of Devaki and Vasudeva. A frequently worshipped deity in Hinduism.
- Kalki (कल्कि)- will be the final incarnation of Vishnu, foretold to appear at the end of Kali Yuga. He will be atop a white horse and his sword will be drawn, blazing like a comet. He is the harbinger of end time in Hindu eschatology, and will destroy all unrighteousness and evil at the end of Kali Yuga.
The Bhagavata Purana claims that Vishnu has infinite avatars which he takes whenever there is a need to restore cosmic order, however, it still goes on to numerically list out 22 Vishnu avatars in chapter 1.3
Following are those 22 avatars mentioned in Bhagavata Purana:
- Four Kumaras – the four Sons of god Brahma and exemplified the path of devotion
- Varaha- The divine warthog who lifts earth from cosmic waters
- Narada – the divine-sage who travels the worlds as a devotee of Vishnu
- Nara-Narayana – the twin-sages
- Kapila – a renowned sage spoken of in the Mahabharata, son of Kardama Muni and Devahuti and sometimes identified with the founder of the Samkhya school of philosophy
- Dattatreya – the combined avatar of the Hindu trinity Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. He was born to the sage Atri became a great seer himself
- Yajna – the lord of fire-sacrifice, who was also a previous Indra – the lord of heaven
- Rishabha – the father of Bharata Chakravartin and Bahubali
- Prithu – the sovereign-king who milked the earth as a cow to get the world’s grain and vegetation and also invented agriculture
- Matsya – A narwhal who guided Manu’s ark during the pralaya (deluge) and also killed demon Hayagriva
- Kurma – A giant tortoise who balances Mount Mandara atop his caprice during the churning of the cosmic ocean of milk
- Dhanvantari – the father of Ayurvedic medicine and a physician to the Devas
- Mohini – the enchantress
- Narasimha – The man-lion who kills demon Hiranyakashpu
- Vamana – The dwarf
- Parashurama – The Brahmin warrior with an axe who kills Kartyavira Arjuna and his Kshatriya allies
- Rama – ‘Perfect King’ from Suryavansha, Subject of Ramayana
- Vyasa – the compiler of the scriptures – Vedas and writer of the scriptures Puranas and the epic Mahabharata
- Balarama – Elder brother to Krishna
- Krishna – Subject of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita
- Buddha – The enlightened teacher
- Kalki – The future lawgiver