What is an Avatar?

Author : Rami Sivan

“Avatāra” as has already been pointed out means “descent” and refers to a particular manifestation of Divinity or an Enlightened being in the material ream. Given that every living being is a manifestation of Divinity some are more so that others.

There are different degrees of avatāra.

Pūrṇa-avatāra – this is a complete descent of the Godhead into the world and there has only ever been one such avatāra and that is Krishna.

Aṁśa-avatāra – is a partial manifestation like celebrated Rama who shared the avatāra with his three brothers.

Āveśa-avatāra – is when a particular person is invested with Divinity for a short period of time for a specific purpose.

Gauṇa-avatāra – is a individual who manifests a “quality” of the Divine and produces something, or discovers something that benefits humanity. They are not specifically “God” but they are higher beings whose life purpose is to discover stuff and to uplift humanity. The founders of following can be considered as gauṇa-avatāras.

  • Anaesthesia (1846)
  • Germ theory (1861)
  • Medical imaging (1895)
  • Penicillin (1928)
  • Organ transplants (1954)
  • Stem cell therapy (1970s)
  • Immunotherapy (1970s)

In the Gita Krishna has promised that in every age avatāras will appear for the benefit of the world – all such great and magnanimous persons are considered as avatāras of his.


Jan 31st, 2020

The Avatara doctrine of divine descent of Vishnu into the world for the establishment of Dharma, protection of devotees and the vanquishing of Adharma is unique to Vaishnavism. There are millions of staunch Shaivites who do not accept the theory of Avatars nor do they accept the authority of the Gita.

Of the trinity only Vishnu is believed to take Avatars not Shiva or Brahma.

There is no theory of Avatara in the Vedas and neither in the Shaiva Agamas and Tantras. It is elaborated upon in the Puranas, Epics and the Vaishnava Pancharatra Agama.

The Arya Samaji also reject the Avatara doctrine because of its absence in the Vedas.

The first 6 avatāras are all totally mythical and bear a remarkable resemblance to the theory of evolution.

matsya – fish, kūrma – turtle, varāha – boar, narasiṁha – man-lion, vāmana – dwarf, paraśurāma – angry retributive man.

They are also linked to the 10 manifestations of Kali (Daśa-mahāvidyas) as well as have a connection an overlay with the planets.

Rama and Krishna are quasi-historical (without any concrete evidence), and some include the Buddha (a political expedient) and the mythical Kalki due to come in 25,000 years or so.

So in short Shaivites, Shaktas and Arya Samaji Hindus do not believe in any of the Avatars.


The Gita has been commentated on by non-Vaishnavas like Shankaracharya and the great Kashmiri Shaivite theologian and polymath Abhinavagupta – both of them take Krishna to be the “Ātman”, or impersonal Parameśvara – Supreme Lord (non-specific – fill in the name and form yourself).

The culminating verse of the Gita for Vaishnavas is 18:66 where Krishna says:–

sarva dharmān parityajya mām ekaṁ śaraṇā vraja | ahaṁ tvā sarva-pāpebhyo mokṣayiṣyāmi mā śuca || 18:66 ||

Completely relinquishing all Dharmas (self initiated means of achieving liberation), take refuge in Me alone. I will release you from all sins, grieve not.

For vaishnavas this is an emphasis on the personal nature of Krishna and it is him alone one should take refuge.

For Shankaracharya and Abhinavagupta this verse means one can take refuge in any form of the Supreme Being that one chooses since Krishna is speaking not as a Personal historical Being, but as the Multi-form Krishna of the 10th Chapter and the Cosmic Krishna of the 11th Chapter.

Some cult Vaishnavas consider this to be an heresy and a cause for holy war of vituperative abuse! For them, Krishna being an historical character as per the Bhagavata Purana therefore is paramount in spite of any evidence to the contrary.

The value of the Gita is not in it’s being an accurate recording of a real-time conversation between Arjuna and Krishna sitting in their chariot and talking to each other in poetry just before a real battle. Its value lies in the teaching itself, which one may add is not unique but is found throughout the vast library of Hindu sacred literature. There are dozens of “GITAs” not one. The teaching is not subject to “belief” but rather “practice” and personal experience (anubhava).

The Gita summaries and codifies teaching, doctrines and philosophical postulates which are found in the Upanishads and its greatest contribution is BHAKTI – the Love of God. But again it is not unique to the Gita, Bhakti is expounded upon in the Bhakti Sutras of Narada and Shandilya and several other texts as well. And there are also SHIVA and DEVI Bhakti movements.

So in summary the Gita is not unique in the Hindu library it is just convenient and handy. Whether Krishna was a real person or just an archetype is not relevant, since one has the choice of surrendering to the Impersonal Absolute or the Personal God in any form you choose or even just surrender to the Ātman.

Krishna never says that those who refuse to surrender to him will be in any way sanctioned on the contrary he says all jīvas will be ultimately united with the Godhead.