Lord Vishnu descends on earth whenever there is a decline in religious practice and a predominant rise of irreligion. In the Vedas, it is said that the Lord, although one without second, manifests himself in innumerable forms. Each and every incarnation has a particular mission, and all these forms and their missions are described in the revealed scriptures. The essence of each mission is to restore people’s obedience to religious principles, leading them to God consciousness.
Sometimes Vishnu descends personally, sometimes he sends his bonafide representative in the form of his son or servant, and sometimes he comes himself in a disguised form. The ten major incarnations of Vishnu are collectively known as the Dasavatara.
The Dasavatara incarnations also represent ten different conditions that living beings may generally experience, from the beginning of their bondage up to the end:
1. Invertebrate – Matsya
2. Testaceous, shelly – Kurma
3. Vertebrate – Varaha
4. Crectly vertebrate, half man, half beast – Narasimha
5. Manikin – Vamana
6. Barbaric – Parasurama
7. Civilized – Sri Rama
8. Wise – Krishna
9. Ultra-wise – Buddha
10. Destructive – Kalki
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1. Matsya (The Fish)
Matsya is said to be the avatar that rescued the first man, as well as other creatures of the earth, from a great flood. Matsya is sometimes depicted as a great fish or as a human torso connected to the tail of a fish. 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.
2. Koorma (The Tortoise)
Kurma (or Koorma) 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.
3. Varaha (the Boar)
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. Varaha is depicted as either a full boar form or as a boar head on a human body.
4. Narasimha (The Man-Lion)
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. One day, when the demon challenged Prahlada, Vishnu emerged in the form of a man-lion known as Narasimha to slay the demon.
5. Vamana (The Dwarf)
In the Rig Veda, Vamana (the dwarf) appears when the demon king Bali ruled 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. The dwarf then assumed the form of a giant. He took the whole earth with the first step and the entire middle world with the second step. With the third step, Vamana sent Bali down to rule the underworld.
6. Parasurama (The Angry Man)