AVATAR (Sanskrit, descent to earth)—the incarnation of a God in order to restore order in the world; especially the incarnation of Vishnu, who is worshipped (to a certain degree in opposition to Shiva) under different forms occurring in Hinduism.
We may see in these incarnations not only the abstract Highest Being of the philosophers and dogmatists, but God prepared to make friendly contacts with people of earth, who descends in human or animal form to save people and the world. The images associated with the avatar drawn from various myths, legends, and cults, were raised gradually to a somewhat higher ethical sphere, and in their mythical content there is expressed a moral feeling that was not deformed by poetic fantasy or human accretions and results from an understanding of the dependence of what is transitory upon what is eternal. Avatars are regarded as culminating moments in the battle of the holy ideal with evil. At the same time an avatar is regarded as God revealing himself in an increasingly perfect way. The conception of the avatar allows people to worship the one God under different forms with individual features without departing too much from the ability to conceive of God in general terms. This has an essential psychological meaning, because it presents man in his struggle for liberation with ideals that he can imitate. In both great Sanskrit epopees, Mahabharata and Ramayana, Vishnu occurs several times, but the classical system of his incarnations is contained first in the Puranas. In them, as the result of a long development, ten avatars appear in an established sequence. The first four avatars contain reminiscences of totemistic beliefs. The sixth to eighth (Rama, Krsna, Parashurama) refer to heroic figures. The penultimate (Buddha) was intended to win Buddhists over to Hinduism. The last (Kalki), later and less important, probably refers once more to Krsna. The above list was sometimes expanded, including, for example, Christ or Gandhi.
H. von Glasenapp, Der Hinduismus, Religion und Gesellschaft im heutigen Indien, Mn 1922; L. Renou, J. Filliozat, L’Inde classique, I, P 1947; H. von Glasenapp, Die Religionen Indiens, St 1955; J. Gonda, Die Religionen Indiens, I–II, St 1960–1963; V. Ions, Indische Mythologie, Wie 1967; G. Parrinder, Avatar and Incarnation, Lo 1970; Bhagawadgita [Bhagavadgita], Wr 1988; J. Sachse, Ze studiów nad Bhagawadgitą [From studies on the Bhagavadgita], Wr 1988.