Types of Incarnations of Lord Vishnu are many in number. The term avatara refers to the coming down of the Supreme Being down to a lower level, in different forms. According to Vaisnavism the Supreme Deity manifests Himself in five forms. These are (1) Para, (2) Vyuha, (3) Vibhava, (4) Arca and, (5) Antaryami. The main basis for the fivefold conception of avatara is the Pancharatra Sarhhitas. There are also certain scriptural statements which refer to the different forms of the avataras. According to some of the Vaishnava Acharyas, the opening passage of the Taittiriya Narayana Upanishad refers to the fivefold manifestation of God. The same Upanishad also refers to Purusa Narayana or fivefold, implying the five forms of manifestation. These different forms are briefly discussed below.
(Last Updated on : 13/05/2010)
Para is the form of God that exists eternally in the parampada. It is regarded in a technical sense in that the manifested form of the Supreme Being in the paramapada serves a specific purpose. There a number of scriptural texts as well as the Agama treatises say that God exists in the transcendental realm in order to help the nitya-suris (eternally released souls) and the muktas (souls released from bondage) to offer divine service to the Lord. Being a transcendental human Supreme Being he is present everywhere and is and impersonal character. However, it is not possible for the individual souls to meditate or offer divine services and therefore the need arises for His manifestation as a personal God. This kind of a manifestation of the Supreme Being is regarded as para avatara which is known by the name of Para Vasudeva. The Paricharatra Sarhhitas describe Him as one endowed with all the six attributes- jhana, bala, aisvarya, virya, tejas, shakti. He is said to possess a spiritual body bedecked with the divine weapons and ornaments and also surrounded by His consorts, divine attendants and released souls.
The Vyuha Avatara is the manifestation of the Supreme Being in four different forms known by the names of Vasudeva, Pradyumna and Anirudha. Each vyuha is conceived with certain specific attributes and functions such as creation, sustenance, dissolution of the universe and promulgation of spiritual knowledge.
This is the third type of avatara. The term Vibhava means manifestation of the Supreme Lord by assuming bodies similar to those of human beings or other living beings. The need and purpose of such avataras have already been explained. The vibhava avatara constitutes the most important doctrine of Vaishnava theology. The number of such incarnations is considered to be infinite (ananta). According to the Sattvata Samhita which is the oldest Pancharatra text, enumerates thirty-nine as important avataras. The same is reiterated by the Ahirbudhanya Samhita.
The Visvaksena Samhita mentions thirty-six avataras. As there is some difference of opinion among the Sarhhitas regarding the exact number, Vedanta Desika states that the total number of vibhavas is above 30 and below 40.
The term arca refers to idol worship. It is believed that when God listens to the ardent prayers of his devotees he descends and enters into an idol created by human beings for the purpose of worship. The word area means the idol of worship (puja pratima). When God descends in response to our ardent prayers and enters into an idol created by human beings for the purpose of worship, it is considered as an Arca Avatara. Idols are generally made of a metal such as gold, silver, bronze and of stone as well as wood according to the choice of the individual devotee on the pattern of any manifested forms of Vishnu, such as, vibhavas and these are duly consecrated according to the religious rites prescribed for the purpose by the Agamas. In response to the prayers of the devotees, God who is omnipresent and who has a loving disposition towards His devotees condescends to be present in those idols by infusing into them His Divinity. The basis for this belief is the statement of the Sattvata Samhita, the oldest Pancharatra text, which says that God, by way of assuming a divine body corresponding to the idol made by an individual (bimba-sadarsa-vigrahena) enters into it by becoming indistinguishable (samagatya). When this takes place, the idol becomes sanctified with the divine presence in it (avatisthate). The Visnu-dharmottara enjoins that devotees should make an attractive idol of Vishnu out of any metal or stone, offer worship to it, prostrate before it, perform religious rites for it and meditate on it; by doing so they become free from all sins. This is the religious significance of the image worship.
This is the fifth kind of manifestation of God as indwelling in a subtle form in the inner recess of human hearts for purposes of meditation. The term antaryami also refers to the indwelling spirit, that is the Supreme Being who is immanent in all sentient as well as non-sentient entities in the universe and who as the inner self, controls everything from within (niyamayati), as stated in the Antaryami Brahmana of Brahadaranyaka Upanishad. As an avatara, the Supreme Being as residing in the inner recess of heart assumes a subtle divine bodily form (vigraha-visista) so as to enable the upashakti to meditate on God.
These are the various manifestations or avataras of Lord Vishnu.