Vishnu, one among the Trimurti, is the Preserver. He is the Supreme Being, and whenever there has been chaos on earth, he has taken an incarnation and come to resolve the problem. There have been innumerable times when the world has faced calamities, with darkness cast over light, evil triumphing over good. God has appeared when tyranny has prevailed, with evil kings, rulers, and demons creating havoc on earth and terrorizing the people. Mother Earth has faced the burden of carrying the weight of evil, sin, and the darkness that has enveloped her several times.
The Bhagavatha Purana mentions Vishnu as the Supreme Being who descends to earth in an incarnation to set right things. According to the Puranas, Vishnu has taken several Avatars (manifestation). So far, they say there have been 23 essential incarnations, and the 24th incarnation will take place now, in Kalyug, when God comes in the form of Kalki.
The 24 incarnations of Vishnu, and how each of them varies in form and purpose are given below.
The primary and first Avatar of Vishnu is that of the Adi Purush. He is lying on the body of a serpent and depicts the source of all creation on earth. One can see in the image of the Adi Purush that a lotus sprouts from God’s navel, and Brahma resides here. Vishnu is all-powerful.
Brahma, God of Creation, created the first four conscious beings – the Four Kumars, naming them Sanaka, Sanatana, Sanandana and Sanat Kumara. Although they were infants, it was they who helped Brahma in his creation of life.
Narada was one of the incarnations of Vishnu. He appeared in the form of a sage, and with a Tambura (string instrument) and Kartal (percussion instrument) in his hands, he could travel between different worlds in moments. Narada was considered the messenger of the Gods and was a storyteller and musician. He was considered the first journalist as he could broadcast news from one God or Devta to another effortlessly.
Vishnu, the Supreme Being, took on the avatar of two twin sages – Nara and Narayana. The twin sages were born to establish justice, righteousness, and rectify wrongdoings. They founded Dharma on earth. Such was the might of Nara and Narayana that through meditation, they could destroy the destructive weapon used by Shiva – the Pashupathastra.
Kapila was a revered sage of Vedic times and found mention in the Mahabharata. He founded the Samkhya (formula) School of Philosophy. Samkhya was the formula for gaining knowledge concerning perception, inference, and proof of the sources.
A sage with mastery over Yoga, Dattatraya was also a Triimurti and a saint depicted with three heads with six hands. Each of them represented Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. He was a combination of the three principal deities of the Hindu Dharma.
Vishnu is a representation of Yajna, the sacrificial fire, and is called Yajneshwra. People light a sacrificial fire and offer sacrifices to have their wishes fulfilled by the Gods. In some ancient Vedic texts, Indra, King of the Gods, is called Yajna.
One of Vishnu’s incarnations was that of a spiritual leader and a preacher. He was Rishabha, the founder of Jainism. He guided people on the path to salvation, having escaped the cycle of birth and death himself.
Vishnu took the avatar of Prithu, the first sacred King on earth. He was responsible for creating all the greenery and the cultivation of crops. It was Prithu who initiated farming and agriculture on the face of the entire earth. This sacred King dedicated his life to the service of God and taught people the religious ways.
Vishnu incarnated as the God of Ayurveda. He emerged from the ocean, after the rigorous churning of the sea called Amrit Manthan by the Devas and Asuras. He is the God who appeared with the pot of Amrit (nectar of immortality). People worship him for attaining good health.
The one avatar Vishnu took in the form of a woman was that of Mohini. The Asuras(demons) had forcefully taken the pot of Amrit (nectar) from the Devas. The latter were helpless and pleaded with God to come to their rescue.
Vishnu turned into a beautiful damsel, Mohini. She played a trick on the Asuras (demons) to hand over the pot of Amrit to her. She then distributed the nectar to all the Gods. As Mohini, Vishnu also cut off the head of Rahu with his Sudarshan Chakra.
Vishnu, in this incarnation, took on the form of an animal and human. He was Hayagreeva, known for his knowledge and wisdom. He appeared with the head of a horse and had the body of a man. He restored understanding when he retrieved the Vedas, which were stolen by the demons – Madhu and Kaitabha. He restored light and wisdom.
Vyasa was an immortal sage who was responsible for the composition and compilation of several Vedas. Called Ved Vyasa, he wrote the Mahabharata and appeared as a character in it himself- as the father of Pandu and Dhritarashtra.
The Matsya Purana states that Vishnu appears in the form of Matsya, a half-man, and half-fish. When the great floods occur, Matsya informs Manu, the leader of human beings, and aids him in saving mortals in this natural calamity. He helps Manu save the Vedas, as well as the seeds of all plants on earth.
Vishnu took on the form of a half-human, half-tortoise. When the Devas and Asuras churned the ocean, Vishnu took on the incarnation so that he could steady the mountain, Mount Mandara, on his shell, aiding the celestial beings and demons to churn the ocean. Vishnu took on the weight of the universe on his back during this occurrence.
Vishnu took the form of a half-man, half-boar with tusks. He slays the demon Hiranyaksha when he rolls Bhoodevi, who represents the earth, into the depths of the ocean. He rescues Bhoodevi from sinking and brings her back to the surface with his tusks.
Vishnu attained this fearful and fierce incarnation and ended the reign of the evil demon king Hiranyakashipu, who believed no one could be greater than him. He scorned the idea of God, the Supreme Being, and challenged his son Prahlad about His existence. Prahlad, a devout worshipper of Vishnu, said God was omnipresent, at which an enraged Hiranyakashipu kicked the pillar near him. Vishnu emerged in the form of Narasimha and proceeded to kill Hiranyakashipu violently. Vishnu destroyed the demon king to establish peace, justice, and other types of Dharma on earth
Vishnu took on the Vamana avatar in the form of a dwarf Brahmin. He took this incarnation to quell the growing power of the demon king Mahabali. King Mahabali offered Vamana, the dwarf boy, anything he desired. Vamana responded, saying that all he needed was a piece of land that measured three paces. Vamana then increased his form and took two giant steps, scaling the entire universe. The King kept his word and offered his head. Vamana placed his foot on Mahabali’s head, and with that action, Vishnu sent Mahabali to the netherworld.
Parashurama was a fierce Brahmin Kshatriya, wielding an ax. It was a double-edged avatar, as Parashurama was a sage using the shaft so that he could put an end to the tyranny of evil Kshatriyas. The Kshatriyas had become evil and were misusing their power to make people suffer in misery.
Rama is a significant character in the epic Ramayana and a principal Hindu deity. Born into a Kshatriya family as the eldest son of King Dasharatha, he finally puts an end to the evil demon king of Lanka, Ravana. He then rescues his wife Sita, who was kidnapped by Ravana. Rama is considered the perfect example of a man. However, he goes through excruciating circumstances, but he upholds his duty to be a fair and just ruler of the people of his kingdom, Ayodhya., in the process, losing Sita.
The elder brother of Krishna, Balarama, is a significant avatar of Vishnu. In the epic Mahabharata, he appears as the elder brother of Krishna. Balarama was the Guru (teacher) for both Bhima of the Pandavas and Duryodhana, eldest of the Kauravas, in wielding the weapon Gadha(mace). He also shares many adventures with Krishna in bringing the evil King Kansa to justice.
A major incarnation of Vishnu is Krishna, who plays a pivotal role in the epic, Mahabharata, where he plays the advisor to the Pandavas and acts as a charioteer for Arjuna in the Kurukshetra war. He also ends the reign of his evil maternal uncle, Kansa. Krishna’s childhood has been distinctly etched in the Puranas too.
God was born as Siddhartha, a prince in a royal family. He gained wisdom under the Bodhi tree and was called Gautama Buddha. Siddhartha taught the ways of Buddhism to people from all walks of life. Buddhism ends human suffering by embracing the Noble Eightfold Path.
People are anticipating the Kalki avatar, and Vishnu has not yet been born in this incarnation. Vishnu is depicted on a white horse and holding a shining sword in his hand. Vishnu takes on this incarnation to defeat all evil combined in the demon Kali and initiate the start of a new Yuga, called Kalkiyuga or Satyayuga. Vishnu reincarnates time and again to put an end to everything evil and re-establish Dharma. He is the Supreme Protector and Preserver of the universe.