Lord Vishnu is one of the principal Hindu deities. It is said he appeared many times on the Earth plane as a physical incarnation (known in Hinduism as an Avatar). Vishnu is said to manifest a portion of himself upon the Earth whenever evil pervades. One of his major roles is to uphold dharma (moral and religious law).
This is said to have taken on 10 avatars in total.
1. Matsya, the colossal fish. In some cases, Matsya was depicted as a human-fish hybrid (similar to a merman). He rescued Manu, the first man, from a great flood (similar to the Abrahamic story of Noah). It is likely both these stories were influenced by a common source.
2. Kurma, the great turtle. This avatar is associated with the very famous churning of the ocean story. While the devas and asuras were churning the ocean for the nectar of immortality, the mountain they were using began to sink in the soft ocean floor, so Vishnu became a turtle and rested the mountain on his back.
3. Varaha, the giant boar. In this incarnation, Vishnu’s lover was the Earth herself, known as Bhudevi. They lived at a time when the universe was full of primordial waters and the earth so small that it became engulfed by it. Varaha dove in and rescued the earth goddess, and the two lovers wed one another for life.
4. Narasimha, the Lion-man. This avatar was a great protector of the people, who safeguarded all devotees who needed his help. There was once a demon who was upset with his son worships of Vishnu, and planned to punish him. The demon was made immortal by Brahma, who said he could not be killed by human or beasts. Narasimha overcame this power by assuming the form of both, and vanquishing the demon, thus protecting his son from harm.
5. Vamana, the cosmic dwarf. In this incarnation, Vishnu visited Bali, the demon king, who had taken control of the entire universe. Vamana begged of him as much land as he could step over in three paces. Amused, the demon granted the request, only to be tricked when Vamana grew into a giant, and with one step covered the whole earth, and with the second step the heavens. With his last step, Vamana stepped on the demon king Bali, sending him down to the netherworld, where he rules today.
6. Parasurama, the superb warrior. Parasurama was a descendant of Brahma, and a student of Shiva. He was immortal, and lived during several other incarnations of Vishnu (including Krishna and Rama). He received a powerful axe after undertaking terrible penance to please Lord Shiva, who in turn taught him the martial arts. He trained for many decades before he mastered the secrets of kalaripayattu (said to be the first martial art).
7. Rama, the lord of virtue. The 7th incarnation of Vishnu was considered the perfect man. His devotion to and respect for his father is highly praised. His wife, Sita, was kidnapped by a demon and rescued by Rama and his monkey servant, Hanuman. He became one of the most widely worshipped Hindu deities, the embodiment of chivalry and virtue.
8. Krishna, the divine lover. Krishna was a mischievous child who grew to be a beautiful herdsman, whose music made the hearts of women swoon. A prophecy said he was born to overthrow an evil king and was overcome an army of demons. As an adult, he became a great warrior and culture hero, and in his later years he became a great teacher and philosopher.
9. Buddha, the great sage. Buddha was originally a Hindu prince named Siddhartha, born into a rich family. He had an easy life, living in Nepal. However, when he saw the suffering of old age, sickness and death, he decided to renounce his life in the palace and live among the holy men of the day in search of truth and enlightenment. After six years meditating, he became enlightened whilst sitting under a Bodhi tree.
10. Kalki, the harbinger. It is said that Kalki will appear at the end of the Kali Yuga (the last age, which we are currently in) to herald the end of the world. Prophecy dictates he will come riding to Earth upon a great white horse, wielding a blazing sword to destroy the darkness of the last age.
Vishnu by Cristian Chihaia
Matsya by Cory Trego-Erdner
Kurma by Tim Kongart
Varaha by Cristian Chihaia
Narasimha by Anirudh Sainath
Parasurama by Tim Kongart
Kalki by Syed Jeem
Article written by Simon E. Davies, contributor to Ancient Code.