Avatar or Avatara (अवतार, IAST ) is often inaccurately translated into English as incarnation. The Sanskrit word 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 that 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) 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.
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.
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.
In some versions the 9th avatar is Balarama (elder brother of Krishna).
Besides these, another three avatars are described later on in the text as follows:
After Kalki avatar is described in the Bhagavata Purana it is declared that the avatars of Vishnu are 'innumerable.' 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, and a number of texts from the Mahabharata and other Puranic scriptures, 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.
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, even though they have not descended upon an earthly planet in the general sense of the term 'avatar'.
Avataric incarnations are classified as two kinds
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.
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.
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 Madhva, 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.
Besides the avatars of Hinduism listed in the Puranas and Vedas, some other Indian people are considered to be avatars by themselves or by others. Some of these include:
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: