Dasa avatāra Overview

Dasa avatāra or ten incarnations

Any list of ten incarnations can be made from the lists of various avatāra of Viṣṇu indicated above. However for identifying the ten principal avatāra of Viṣṇu symbolizing the highest potentate of the ten variables of Jyotiṣa (navagraha and lagna), we need to ensure that they belong to principal list of 22 incarnations or find mention in the Bhagavat Purāṇa. Other factors to consider include-

Guṇa avatāra are not to be selected as they are much above the navagraha and lagna which are in the three modes of sattva, rajas and tamas. For example, Jupiter is strongly sattva guṇa and this does not exclude the presence of the other guṇa. Thus even at its highest potency, Jupiter cannot represent the guṇa avatāra.

Prabhava (mighty, potentate) forms must have a dominance over vaibhava avatāra and here again, permanent potency gets a natural choice over temporal potency as the navagraha symbolize permanency and exist over a long period of time through the kalpa whereas temporal  potency forms exist for short durations during the kalpa (life of creation).

For example, Mohini and Haṁsa avatāra exist for a short duration in every kalpa and cannot represent the potency of the graha. Similarly, Dhanvantari, Rsabha, Vyāsa, Dattātreya and Kapila are very specific purpose manifestations and cannot be symbolized by any one graha.

Among the vaibhava-prakāṣa forms are Kūrma, Matsya, Nara-Nārāyaṇa, Varāha, Hayagriva, Pṛṣnigarbha, and Balarāma, The manvantara avatāra Yajña, Vibhu, Satyasena, Hari, Vaikuntha, Ajita, Vāmana, Sarvabhauma, Rsabha, Visvaksena, Dharmasetu, Sudhama, Yogeśvara and Bṛhadbhānu.

List of eleven avatāra: Accordingly our list of twenty-two avatāra is reduced to eleven: (1) Catuḥsana, (2) Varāha, (3) Nārada, (4) Nara-Nārāyaṇa, (5) Kardami Kapila, (6) Dattātreya, (7) Yajña, (8) Rsabha, (9) Prthu, (10) Matsya, (11) Kūrma, (12) Dhanvantari, (13) Mohini, (14) Nṛsiṁha, (15) Vāmana, (16) Paraśurāma, (17) Vyāsa, (18) Rāmacandra (19) Balarāma, (20) Kṛṣṇa, (21) Buddha and (22) Kalki. There are three principal lists which take these avatāra into account – (1) Parāśara Dasa avatāra (2) Jayadeva Dasa avatāra stotra [Bengal School] and (3) Jagannāth temple [Orissa School].

Parāśara Dasa avatāra

Mahāṛṣi Parāśara speaks of the dasa avatāra at the beginning of the work Bṛhat Parāśara Horā Śāstra and dedicated a whole chapter titled avatārakathana adhyāyaḥ [Chapter 2] to the study of the incarnations (avatāra) of Viṣṇu. Of the list of eleven avatāra, Parāśara omits Balarāma as, strictly speaking, Balarāma is an incarnation of Vāsuki, the divine serpent guardian of Viṣṇu.

Table 2: Parāśara dasa avatāra

Graha Sun Moon Mars Mercury Jupiter
Avatāra Rāmacandra Kṛṣṇa Nṛsiṁha Buddha Vāmana
Graha Venus Saturn Rāhu Ketu Lagna
Avatāra Paraśurāma Kūrma Varāha Matsya Kalki

Jayadeva dasa avatāra stotra

Fig: Dasa avatāra (Depiction-Gīta Govinda) Śrī Kṛṣṇa at the centre surrounded by twelve gopi-jana (six male and six female indicating the alternating male and female signs of the zodiac).

Jayadeva was the court poet of King Lakshmanasena of Bengal and was not only adept at the Sanskrit language but also in poetry and prose, Gandharva Veda (music) and nṛtya śāstra (dance). His Gīta Govinda in 12 canto, is an all-time classic that has inspired themes for oḍisi dance. In the very first chapter (aṣṭa padi) he signs the glory of the dasa avatāra.

Of the eleven avatāra mentioned in Para 1.2, Jayadeva excludes Kṛṣṇa as he considers the remaining as avatāra of Kṛṣṇa. While this is fine from the bhakti viewpoint, it does not do justice to exclude Kṛṣṇa from any list of avatāra for the purpose of defining the highest potency of the graha as Kṛṣṇa alone is the highest potency of the Moon and His babyhood days show the greatest potency of the Moon.

Table 3:Jayadeva dasa avatāra (Bengal)

Graha Sun Moon Mars Mercury Jupiter
Avatāra Rāmacandra Buddha Nṛsiṁha Balarāma Vāmana
Graha Venus Saturn Rāhu Ketu Lagna
Avatāra Paraśurāma Kūrma Varāha Matsya Kalki

Jyadeva shows the way for the Bhakti path where once the Iṣta devatā has been chosen then the avatāra rises to the top and goes beyond the list of eleven while the remaining ten avatāra are used for worship of the graha and karma. This process has also been supported by Mahindara in the classic Mantra mahodadhiḥ wherein Mahindhara speaks of the avatāra of Nṛsiṁha where Nṛsiṁha is the iṣta devatā. Similarly, Tulasidas saw all of them as avatāra of Rāmachandra as Rāma was his Iṣṭa devatā.

This process of evolution of the individual in the spiritual path of Bhakti should be understood to appreciate the lists of dasa avatāra of Parāśara and Jayadeva and the reasons for their difference. Parāśara list is the most primary or fundamental list in determining the Iṣṭa devatā while Jayadeva would show the next stage where the bakti leads the individual to place the iṣṭa devatā at a very high pedestal, above everybody and everything.

Jagannāth & Tirupati temples

At the entrance of the Jagannāth temple at Puri (the foremost of pilgrimages of the Hindu) as well as inside we find the dasa avatāra depicted. A copy of the painting on a wall of the temple is at Fig.2.  and we find that from the dasa avatāra list of Parāśara, Buddha has been replaced by Balarāma.

Figure 3: Dasa avatāra Jagannāth temple

Table 4: Jagannāth temple dasa avatāra

Graha Sun Moon Mars Mercury Jupiter
Avatāra Rāmachandra Kṛṣṇa Nṛsiṁha Balarāma Vāmana
Graha Venus Saturn Rāhu Ketu Lagna
Avatāra Paraśurāma Kūrma Varāha Matsya Kalki

Mercury has various attributes including learning ability and perfect non-violence (ahimsa) which are seen in Gautama Buddha and his teaching of ahimsa was so strong that he caused a whole generation of people to become vegetarians including taming and transforming the violent king ‘chanḍa’  Ashoka to ‘dhamma’  Ashoka or stopping a mad elephant in its tracks and making it completely peaceful or converting a serial killer like Anguli-mala (who wore a garland of the fingers chopped off his victims) into a peaceful sage. Parāśara has aptly chosen Buddha as the Mercury avatāra of Viṣṇu for Iṣṭa devatā reckoning.

Figure 4: Dasa avatāra Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh

However, Balarāma transformed the agricultural economy by designing the plough and using draught animals in fields. He is depicted with the Plough and the exaltation of Mercury is in Virgo, the granary of the world. The Brahmins of the Jagannāth temple are also justified in depicting Balarāma as the Mercury avatāra of Viṣṇu.

The reason for omitting Buddha is that Buddha caused the people to go away from the Vedas and cannot be depicted as a Dharma avatāra.  Even though in doing so, Buddha actually got the people closer to the essence of the Vedas by teaching them the value of non-violent sacrifice.

Thus the list of dasa avatāra in the Jagannāth temple is for the dharma devatā and not for the Iṣṭa devatā. This list of dasa avatāra is also supported by the Veṇkaṭeśvara Balaji temple at Tirupati (another important vaiṣṇava shrine, see fig.3).

To Do

Prepare a write-up about each of the Parāśara dasvatāra and list their attributes and a picture.

Make the nine Bengal (Jayadeva) school list of dasa avatāra for the bhakti path.

List the mantras of each of the dasa avatāra (both Parāśara & jagannāth Schools)- Purāṇic, Vedic, Dvādasākṣari and vija (seed).

List the dasa avatāra mantra for the bhakti path (Jayadeva school).

List the 72 forms of Nṛsiṁha and 9 forms of Nṛsiṁha. Although Mars is the chief planet, can you assign other planets to these forms? Please make lists of Nṛsiṁha forms and planetary combinations.

List all forms of (a) Rāma, (b) Kṛṣṇa, (c) Vāmana, (d) Varāha and planetary combinations that can indicate these forms. Can you list the mantras for these forms also?

2 thoughts on “Dasa avatāra Overview

  1. Hi Rathji, in table 2/3/4 of Parāśara dasa avatāra for Kalki graha is mentioned as Langa instead of any planet. What that mean? Which planet is associate with lord Kalki.

    1. Kali avatara is associated with Lagna. It is the decimal system where the zero (shunya) is associated with Kalki as well as Bhairavi of Das Mahavidya. These shakti manifest with the avatara.

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