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An Anglicized form of the Sanskrit, avatara, "descent", from the root tr, "pass" (cf. Latin in-trare), and the preposition ava, "down".
The word is used, in a technical sense, in the Hindu re!igion to denote the descent upon earth of a portion of the essence of a god, which then assumes some coarser material form, be it animal, monster, or man. Such descents are ascribed in the mythology of Hinduism to various gods, but those ascribed to Vishnu are by far the most important. They are believed to have taken place at different ages of the world, and to have consisted of different proportions of the essence of Vishnu. Their number is variously stated, ranging from ten to twenty-eight, finally becoming indefinitely numerous. Any remarkable man is liable to be regarded as a more or less perfect avatar of Vishnu, and the consequence one of the worst features of Hinduism--has been the offering of divine homage to men, especially the founders of religious sects and their successors.
The ten most famous avatars are:
The importance of this theory of avatars to Hinduism is the way in which it has contributed to the wonderful adaptability of that religion. In the Buddha avatar the fact is particularly patent, but, in the Rama and Krsna avatars also, we clearly have the adoption into Hinduism of the cults of these heroes. It is a mere guess that similar compromises with some totemistic forms of religion are to be seen in the Fish, Boar, and Tortoise avatars, and the same might be said of an attempt to see in the Man-lion and Dwarf avatars, traces of the aboriginal religions. The resemblance of these avatars to the doctrine of the Incarnation is most superficial, and as the theory of the avatars has a sufficient basis in Hindu philosophy, several points of contact with the earlier mythology, it is unnecessay to suppose with Weber (Indische Studien, II, 169) that it is the result of an imitation of this dogma.
GEORGE MELVILLE BOLLING