The Avatars and Incarnations of Vishnu

01
of 11

Vishnu in Many Forms

Vishnu is of the most important deities of Hinduism. Along with Brahma and Shiva, Vishnu forms the principal trinity of Hindu religious practice. 

In his many forms, Vishnu is regarded as the preserver and protector who appears whenever we are threatened with evil and chaos.Hinduism teaches that when humanity is threatened by wickedness, Vishnu will descend into the world in one of his forms to restore righteousness.  

The following ten avatars of Vishnu thought to have been present in the found in the Satya Yuga--the Golden Age. or Age of Truth, when mankind was ruled by the gods.

02
of 11

Matsya (the Fish)

Matsya
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Matsya is said to be the avatar that rescued the first man from a great flood, as well as the other creatures of the earth. Matsya is sometimes depicted as a great fish, or sometimes as a human torso connected to the tail of a fish, as shown here. 

Matsya is said to have forewarned Man about the coming flood and ordered him to preserve all the grains and living creatures in a boat. This story is similar to many deluge myths found in other cultures.

03
of 11

Kurma (the Tortoise)

Vishnu Kurma avatar
© Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Kurma is the tortoise incarnation that relates to the myth of churning the ocean to obtain treasures dissolved in the ocean of milk. In this myth, Vishnu took the form of a tortoise upon which to support the churning stick on his back.

The Kurma avatar of Vishnu is usually seen in a mixed human-animal form. 

04
of 11

Varaha (the Boar)

Varaha (the boar) Avatar
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Varaha is the boar that raised the earth from the bottom of the sea after the demon Hiranyaksha dragged it to the bottom of the sea. After a battle of 1,000 years, Varaha raised the earth out of the water with his tusks. 

05
of 11

Narasimha (the Man-Lion)

Narasimha
© Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

As the legend goes, the demon Hiranyakashipiu obtained a boon from Brahma that he could not be killed or harmed by any means. Now arrogant in his security, Hiranyakshipiu began to cause trouble both in heaven and on earth.  However, his son Prahlada was devoted to Vishnu, and one day when the demon challenged Prahlada, Vishnu emerged in the form of a man-lion to slay the demon. 

 

06
of 11

Vamana (the Dwarf)

Vamana
Angelo Hornak/Corbis via Getty Images

In the Rig Veda Vamana (the dwarf) appears when the demon king  Bali rules the universe and the gods lost their power. One day, Vamana visited the court of Bali and begged for as much land as he could cover in three steps. Laughing at the dwarf, Bali granted the wish. 

Upon which, the dwarf assumed the form of a giant and took the whole earth with the first step and the entire mid world with the second step. With the third step, Vamana sent Bali down to rule the underworld. 

07
of 11

Parasurama

Parasurama
© Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

In his form as Parasurama, Vishnu appears as a priest (brahman) who comes to the world to kill bad kings and protect humanity from danger. He appears in the form of a man carrying an ax. 

In the original story, Parasurama appeared to restore Hindu social order being corrupted by the arrogant Kshatrya caste. 

 

08
of 11

Rama

Lord Rama
© Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Rama is the seventh avatar of Vishnu, and is a major deity of Hinduism. He is considered supreme in some traditions. ​He is the central figure of the ancient Hindu epic Ramayana.

According to the Ramayana, Rama’s father is King Dasaratha and his mother is Queen Kausalya. Rama was born at the end of the Second Age, sent by the gods to do battle with the multi-headed demon Ravana.

09
of 11

Krishna

Lord Krishna
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Lord Krishna (the divine statesman) is the eighth avatar of Vishnu and is one of the most widely revered deities in Hinduism. He a cowherd (sometimes depicted as a charioteer or statesman) who shrewdly changes rules.

According to legend, the famous poem, the Bhagavad Gita, is spoken by Krishna to Ajuna on the battlefield. 

10
of 11

Balarama

Balarama
Wikimedia Commons

Balarama is the elder brother of Krishna ​and engaged in many adventures with his brother.  In representations, he is usually shown with pale skin in contrast to Krishna's blue skin. 

Balarama is rarely worshiped independently, but stories always focus on his prodigious strength.

11
of 11

Kalki

Kalki avatar
The San Diego Museum of Art

Kalki (meaning “eternity” or "mighty warrior") is the last incarnation of Vishnu, who is expected to appear at the end of Kali Yuga, the time period in which we currently exist. He will come, it is believed, to rid the world of oppression by unrighteous rulers. 

It is said he will appear riding a white horse and carrying a fiery sword.