Incarnation is an important and unique aspect in sanatana dharma. The meaning of incarnation (avatar) is steping down. Baghavan steps down or comes down from the purna swarupa (complete flawless nature) to transactional reality to help humanity in many ways.
Before explaining avatar I shall give the concept of God in sanatana dharma in a nutshell.
Nirguna nirakara is Brahman. It has no attributes or qualities. The power is not manifest at this stage.
It becomes saguna nirakara Brahman– at this stage it has attributes, qualities and form though not prominent. It is called Ishwara at this stage. We assume a form for Ishwara based on the concept in order to gather that concept in our mind.
Ishwara becomes saguna sakara Brahman – it has prominent attributes, qualities and a distinct form. At this stage it is called Bhagavan. The difference between Ishwara and Bhagavan is only a hair line difference and very hard to trace. Even though Bhagavan has attributes and qualities it has a very pure nature and the difference in the three gunas make a minute difference.
Ishwara manifests as Bhagavan; Bhagavan takes avatars by exhibiting its numerous attributes and qualities. Each avatar has a distinct form.
There are countless avatars. The entire creation is his avatar; in other words, it is his manifestation. But the sastras give importance to nine avatars. We will see the different types of avatars very briefly.
- Guna avatar – there are three gunas namely sattva, rajas and tamas. One particular guna dominates the other two gunas. For example, Lord Sri Ram is the sattva avatar of Bhagavan Vishnu, Lord Rudra is the tamasic avatar of Bhagavan Shiv. In fact, Bhagavan Shiv is also said as Ishwara in its very pure form. Lord Narashimha murty is the rudra avatar of Bhavan Vishnu.
- Amsa avatar – one part or quality of Bahgavan manifests for a particular purpose and does the karma and disappears after a very short time. For example, Vamana avatar, matsya avatar etc
- Kala avatar – one particular quality or power takes form to help the Universe survive from complete destruction. For example, Narashimha avatar, Krishna avatar.
- Jnana avatar – Bhagavan takes a form and appears among human beings as a guru or a teacher to impart them knowledge. For example, Guru Dattatreya, Sri Adi Sankaracharya.
- Spurthi avatar – Bhagavan descends to exhibit the powers of nature and as a result there are many scientifically unexplainable mysteries of the nature. Like black holes, depth of the ocean etc.
- Archa avatar – A devotee can invoke the presence of the Lord (avahana) in a murti like saligram, vigraha. One could feel the presence of the Lord for a particular period and it is mainly used for worship and it elevates the mind of the devotee.
- Aavesha avatar – When the devotee unites his mind with the Lord, sometimes the Lord descends in the devotee for some time. One could witness such incidents in temple festivals and in certain poojas.
- Poorna avatar – The entire power of the Lord (sixteen powers) are manifest in a form. It is said that the perfect purna avatar is Lord Krishna.
- Nitya avatar – As jivas he is manifest in every being. Some realize it and some don’t realize it.
These are the nine types of avatars in Sanatana dharma. Taking these avatars the Lord helps the human being in many ways, which I will explain in my next article.