Twenty Six Avataras of Vishnu

Ramaswamy Sastry

The ten avataras of Lord Mahavishnu are famous. Even though the Lord has taken thousands of avataras, among them a total of twenty six are important. They are as below -

1 – 4. Sanaka, Sanandana, Sanatana, Sanatkumara – They are the manasa putras of Brahma and considered to be the amsha avataras of  Vishnu. They are collectively called the Kumaras. At a very young age they became well versed in the Vedas. They always moved around together and remained brahmacharis forever.

In Kaliyuga, there are four recognized Vaishnava Sampradayas or systems of worship of Vishnu. They are –

i. Sri Sampradya of Ramanujacharya

ii. Brahma Sampradaya of Madhvacharya

iii. Rudra Sampradaya of Vallabhacharya

iv. Sanakadi Sampradaya of Nimbarka

The Sanakadi Sampradaya was founded by the Kumaras. Sanatkumara Samhita of the Kumaras is the original scripture on the worship of Radha – Krishna in the system called Yugalopasana. In this sampradaya, the basic sadhana is of the eighteen syllable Gopala mantra which was handed down by the Kumaras to Narada. From Narada, it came to Nimbarkachrya of Nimbagrama near Vrindavan. Sri Kathia Baba of Vrindavan is the present acharya of this parampara.


5. Varaha ( Boar ) – Jaya and Vijaya were the gatekeepers of Vaikuntha. Once, when Sankadai Kumaras paid a visit to Vaikuntha they were treated with disrespect by Jaya and Vijaya. They got cursed by the Kumaras to take birth on earth. Kashyapa Prajapati was doing his evening prayers. His wife Diti wanted to have physical relation with him at that time. He said it is a forbidden time. Still she insisted. Two Asuras were born out of that relationship, Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu. They were very evil and started terrorizing the world.

Once, Hiranyakhsa grabbed earth ( Bhumi Devi ) and went under the ocean. Vishnu took avatara as Varaha and chased him. A fierce battle ensued between the two which lasted for thousand years at the end which Varaha killed Hiranyaksha. He brought back Bhumi Devi carrying her in his tusks. Later on, Bhumi Devi married him.

The important Varaha temples are –

i. Adi Varahaswamy Temple, Tirumala, Tirupati

ii. Jawad, Madhya Pradesh

iii. Bhuvarahaswamy Temple, Srimushnam, Tamil Nadu

iv. Adi Varahaswamy Temple, Kamakshi Amman Temple Complex, Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu

v. Muradpur, West Bengal


6. Narada – Narada was born out of Brahma’s lap. Subsequently, he took many more births in different manvantaras.

Brahma wanted Narada to share with him some responsibility of creation. Narada refused. Brahma cursed him to lose his jnana and take different births.

Narada was born as Gandharva Chitraketu’s son and was named Upabarhana. He was a staunch devotee Vishnu. He later married the fifty daughters of the Gandharva called Chitraratha. Once, while attending a celebration in Brahmaloka, he became attracted towards the apsara Rambha. Knowing this, Prajapati cursed him. He reached back home and fell dead. Eldest of his wives, Malati was enraged and she became ready to curse Prajapati and Yama. At this stage, Vishnu interfered and revived Upabarhana.

Durmila was the emperor of Kanyakubja. He did not have children. He and his wife Kalavati undertook many austerities and finally Kalavati got pregnant. In the mean time, Durmila decided to take up vanaprastha and left for the forests along with Kalavati. He died in the forest. Kalavati came and lived in the house of Brahmin. She delivered a baby boy. The land was suffering from lack of rains for a long time. As soon as the child was born, it started raining. The boy was named Narada, meaning giver of water. He grew up as a dedicated devotee of Vishnu and constantly sang his praises. Shiva himself taught him Bhagawatam.

Narada never stays at one place. This is because of a curse.

There are temples dedicated to Narada –

i. Chigateri near Davanagere, Karnataka

ii. Naradagadde near Raichur, Karnataka

7. Nara – Narayana

Dharmadeva was born from the chest of Brahma. He married ten daughters of Daksha. The great ascetics Nara and Narayana were Dharmadeva’s sons. They are always referred to as a pair. Their hermitage was in Badrikashrama ( Badrinath ). In the sanctum sanctorum of Badrinath temple, images of Nara and Narayana are also present.

After Shiva destroyed Daksha’s Yaga with his trishula, it just flew about here and there and finally pierced the chest of Narayana who was sitting in meditation. By uttering a loud “Hum” Naryana took it out. The trishula went back to Shiva and its heat turned Shiva’s hair into what looked like dry grass. Shiva became known as “ Munjakesa ”. Shiva got offended by this. He came to attack Nara – Narayana. Nara took a grass and threw it at Shiva. The grass turned into an axe. Shiva broke it and thereafter he became known as “ Khandaparasu ”. It was one part of this parasu that was later given to Parasurama.

Indra became insecure about the spiritual powers of Nara -  Narayana. He wanted to obstruct their tapasya and sent Kamadeva and some apsaras to arouse passion in them. Narayana took a flower and kept it upon his thigh ( ऊरुः ) ‌and from that flower was born Urvashi. The apsaras who came to distract the hermit were humbled by Urvashi’s beauty and they all went back in shame. Nara – Narayana sent Urvashi along with them to swarga as their gift to Indra.

8. Kapilacharya – Kardamaprajapati was Brahma’s son. Devahuti was his wife. Kapilacharya was their son. After the demise of his father, he instructed his mother about Bhakti Yoga to attain moksha. He was also the propounder of one of the six primary schools of philosophy called Sankhya.

Sagara was a king of Suryavamsha. He once conducted Aswamedha yaga. Indra abducted the sacrificial horse and hid it in pathala. Sagara’s sixty thousand sons went about digging the entire world in search of the horse. They finally reached pathala and found Kapila observing tapasya there. The horse was grazing by his side. They tried to attack Kapila who burned them all down to ashes with his ascetic power.

Kapila Maharshi’s ashrama was located in the present day Sagar Island hundred kilometers south of Kolkata.

9. Dattatreya – There was a sage called Mandavya. He was sitting in mouna vrata. The king’s soldiers came there chasing a thief. They asked the sage about his whereabouts. The sage did not reply. The soldiers thought that he himself was the thief, tied him up and took him to the king’s court. The king sentenced him to death. The soldiers pierced him with a trident and left him to die on top of it. A lady called Shilavati, very famous for her chastity ( pativrata ) and her husband Ugrashravas were passing by the place where Mandavya was left to die. Ugrashravas abused Mandavya. The sage cursed him saying that he would die before the next sunrise. Shilavati with her power of chastity proclaimed that there will not be any more sunrise. The whole world sunk into darkness. The Devas did not know what to do. The Trimurthys conferred and decided to take Anasuya another lady famous for her chastity into confidence and convince Shilavati and withdraw her “ halt ” order on sunrise. Anasuya managed to convince Shilavati and the Trimurthys also assured the safety of Ugrashravas. In return for her favour, Anasuya got the boon that the Trimurhtys will take birth as her sons. Sage Atri was her husband. As per this boon, Vishnu took birth in her womb as Dattatreya, Shiva as Durvasa and Brahma as Chandra.

It was Dattatreya who blessed Karthaveeryarjuna with thousand hands. Dattatreya had cursed Ravana that monkeys will climb over his heads and dirty them after Ravana tried to steal a water filled kalasha from Dattatreya.

The famous temples of Dattatreya are –

i. Ganganapur, Maharashtra

ii. Narsobawadi, Kolhapur, Maharashtra

iii. Kuravpur, Raichur, Karnataka.

10. Yajna – Swayambhuva Manu had a daughter called Aakuti. She was married to Ruchi Prajapati. Their son was Yajna. His twin sister was Dakshina whom he later married. Their twelve sons are called Yamas. Yajna was later elevated to the status of Indra. Yajna is considered to be Mahavishnu and Dakshina to be Lakshmi.

11. Rishabhadeva – Son of King Nabhi and Merudevi. He instructed his sons to choose the path of tapasya and pursue the highest goals of knowledge and salvation.

12. Prithu – Vena was a king in the lineage of Swayambhuva Manu. He was very wicked and proclaimed himself to be the almighty. He had all yajnas and charities stopped. The sages approached him and sought permission to conduct a Vishnu Yaga. He refused. The angry sages burned him to ashes with their spiritual power. Then there was arson and loot everywhere since there was no ruler. The sages churned the thigh of the dead Vena and from that came out Nishada who disappeared into the forest with all his sins. Then they churned his right hand and Prithu was born. Since Prithu did not have biological mother he is called ayonija.

Prithu was a very capable king keen on the welfare of his subjects. During the interval between Vena’s death and Prithu’s coronation, Goddess Earth had withdrawn all vegetation inside her. The land turned barren. Seeing his subjects hungry, Prithu went looking for Goddess Earth. Scared, she assumed the form of a cow and fled. Prithu started chasing her and went all over the worlds. Finally, Goddess Earth surrendered and asked Prithu to milk out of her whatever she had withdrawn inside. Prithu milked trees, plants etc. out and also created villages and towns for people to live in. Prithu’s rule was a golden period in Bharatavarsha’s history.

13. Matsya ( Fish ) – Brahma’s manasa putra was Marichi. His son was Kashypa. To Kashyapa and Aditi was born Vivasvan, one of the twelve Adityas. Vivasvan’s son was Vaivasvata Manu. Matsya Avatara took place in Vaivasvata Manvantara. Vedas always reside in Brahma’s mouth. At the end of his day, a tired Brahma yawned. At that time an Asura called Hayagreeva stole the Vedas from Brahma’s mouth and hid himself under the ocean.

Vaivasvata Manu was once offering arghya in Kritamala river. Kritamala is River Vaigai of Madurai in Tamil Nadu. At that time a small fish got caught in his palms when he lifted water to offer arghya. Manu was about to throw it away when the fish requested Manu to take it home with him. The fish was scared that bigger fish would eat him. Manu put the fish in a jar and took him home. The fish started growing larger and larger. Manu successively put it in a bigger jar, a pond, a lake, a river and finally the ocean. By this time, Many had realized that the fish was none other than Mahavishnu. Manu paid respects to the Lord. Bhagawan told him that there is going to be a huge deluge / pralaya after seven days. He should assemble a boat, take the saptarishis with him and also load the boat with all kinds of animals, birds, other living beings, seeds etc. Then the deluge started. The horn of a fish rose in the midst of rising waters. As instructed by Vishnu, Manu tied the boat to this horn using Vasuki as the rope. Vishnu protected the boat throughout the deluge, ie :- Brahma’s night. During the deluge Vishnu also killed Hayagreeva and retrieved the Vedas which he returned to Brahma at  the end of pralaya. While floating through the deluge waters, Matsya gave Manu discourses on Vedas, Shastras and the Supreme truth.

There are four temples dedicated to Matsyavatara –

i. Nagalapuram of Chittoor District, Andhra Pradesh

ii. Mannarkoil, Ambasamudram, Tirunelveli district, Tamil Nadu

iii. Mulakaluru, Narasaraopet, Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh

iv. Bet Dwarka island, off. Okha, Gujarat

14. Kurma ( Turtle ) – Devas and Asuras were churning the milky ocean to extract amruta. They used Mandara parvata for churning with serpent king Vasuki as the rope. Mandara started sinking. Vishnu took avatara as Kurma and supported Mandara from below. Thus the task of churning could be successfully accomplished.

There are three temples dedicated to Kurmavatara –

i. Kurmai if Chittoor district, Andhra Pradesh

ii. Sri Kurmam of Sri Kakulam district, Andhra Pradesh

iii. Gavirangapur of Chitradurga district, Karnataka

15. Dhanvantari - Lord Dhanvantari emerged with the pot of amruta in his hand during the churning of the milky ocean. As per Shree Mahadevi Bhagawata he is one among the twenty six avataras of Lord Vishnu. After he came out of the milky ocean, he bowed to Vishnu and asked for yajnabhaga ( his share of offerings made in yajna ). Vishnu said that all yajnabhagas have already been allotted and since he was born later than the Devas there wasn't left any. Vishnu told him that he will take one more birth in Dwapara yuga and write a book on the eight divisions on Ayurveda. Vishnu told him that his name will be famous and eternal because of this. Vishnu also gave Dhanvantari another name, Abjadeva.

In Dwapara yuga, in the lineage of the kings of Kashi was born Dhanwa also known as Deerghatapas. He did not have children for a long time. He observed tapas to propitiate Abjadeva / Dhanvantari. Bhagawan Dhanvantari himself took incarnation as Dhanva's son and was named Dhanvantari. He had sidhis like anima and garima even while in the womb. Dhanvantari taught Sushrutha and his other disciples Ayurveda and wrote the first book on Ayurveda.

Once, Dhanvantari along with his disciples was going to Kailasa. The serpent, Takshaka made a loud hiss to scare them. One of Dhanvantari's disciples went and plucked the nagamani from his head. When Vasuki, the king of serpents came to know of this, he sent thousands of serpents to attack them. The poisonous fumes that came out of the hissing of all these serpents made the disciples to faint. With medicinal concoction made out of herbs, Dhanvantari brought them all back to senses, but the effect of the medicine made the serpents to faint. When he Vasuki heard  about this, he sent Manasa Devi and Gadoora to challenge Dhanvantari. They were both disciples of Lord Shiva. Manasa Devi again made Dhanvantari's disciples to faint ,but Dhanvantari brought them back just as before with his medicine. An angry Manasa Devi aimed at Dhanvantari  the trishoola that she had got from Shiva. At this point, Shiva and Brahma appeared and dissuaded them both from the fight.

16. Mohini - Indra was cursed by Durvasa that he would lose all his prosperity. Yajnas and danas stopped being performed. Yama, niyama and tapas disappeared. Brahmins became greedy and faithless. The earth became barren. The Sun and Moon became dull. Agni lost his brilliance. The sky lost its pristine clarity and the Devas became weak.

A group of demons led by Malaka entered Devaloka. They destroyed Nandanodyana the garden of Devaloka, started beating up the guards, looting and  forcefully taking away the apsaras. The Devas screamed in fear and ran to Indra. Indra abandoned his throne and along with them ran away.

They all approached Brahma and narrated the incidents to him who in turn advised them to approach Vishnu. Brahma also accompanied them. Vishnu advised them to propose a compromise with the Asuras. He said all the herbs should be put into the milky ocean and it should be churned with the mountain Mandara using Vasuki as the rope. The Asuras should be promised an equal share of the amrita that would emerge from churning. However, Vishnu would ensure that they get nothing. By drinking amruta, the Devas would become strong and immortal and they could regain all their lost glory. Accordingly a truce was arrived at between Devas and Asuras. While churning, the Asuras were tricked into taking the head  side of Vasuki while Devas held the tail. Poisonous fumes coming out of  Vasuki's mouth burned  and destroyed a lot of Asuras.

Vishnu assumed his kurma form and supported the Mandara mountain from below and Brahma kept it lifted up from above. Vishnu manifested himself as Mohini. Wearing enticing attire and ornaments, she stood there as the epitome of feminine beauty. Her appearance brought the battle to a sudden halt. She mesmerized the Asuras with her pretty smile and said, " you both are not going to gain anything out of this fight. Let me mediate between you. I shall rightfully distribute the amruta among all of you." The Asuras handed over the amruta pot to Mohini. She made the Devas and Asuras to sit in two separate lines and standing between them told them to observe silence while she served them the amruta taking turns. With a golden spoon she started serving the Devas first, The Asura called Rahu disguised himself and sat among the Devas. As soon as he drank amruta, he was spotted by Sun and Moon and Mohini chopped off his head with the edge of the spoon. Even after seeing this, the Asuras mesmerized by the beauty of Mohini did not utter a word. After distributing the entire amruta among Devas she kept the empty pot before the Asuras. The enraged Asuras again engaged in battle, but this time they were devastated by  Devas who had become strong by drinking amruta.  Malaka was defeated by Indra and he occupied the throne at Amaravati once again.

There is a temple dedicated to Mohini avatara at Ryla, East Godawari district, Andhra Pradesh.

17. Garuda – Kadru and Vinata were wives of Kashyapa Prajapati. There had always been rivalry between Kadru and Vinata. While Kadru wished for a thousand children of great power and strength, Vinata prayed for two sons who would outshine Kadru's thousand sons. Upon being blessed by Kashyapa, Kadru laid one thousand eggs and Vinata two eggs. They both placed the eggs in pots for hatching. Kadru’s eggs hatched after five hundred years and one thousand snakes came out. Vinata became anxious to see that her eggs were not hatching. She opened the pot and broke open one of the eggs. Out came Aruna with body under the hip still undeveloped. He cursed his mother for being impatient that she would become Kadru’s slave but also told that his brother who will come out of the other egg after five hundred more years will secure her release.

Once Kadru and Vinata spotted in the sky Uchhaisravas the divine horse which came out when the milky ocean was being churned. An argument broke out between them. Vinata said the horse was white in colour while Kadru disagreed. They reached an agreement that whoever loses would become the slave of the other. Kadru knew that the horse was actually white. She told her serpent sons to go and attach themselves to the tail of the horse like hair so that the tail looked black. There were many honest and noble minded among the serpents who did not want to do this. Kadru cursed them that they would all perish in fire. When Devas brought this curse to the notice of Brahma he said that it was not totally inappropriate as the serpents had grown cruel, evil minded and short tempered harming all other living beings. He said that however the serpent clan will not be exterminated as steps have already been planned to prevent it.
Due to the fear of the curse of their mother, the serpents went ahead and turned the tail of the horse black by attaching themselves to it. When the time for inspection came,Vinata was established incorrect and she was doomed to servitude.

Balakhilyas were a group of sixty thousand hermits who were just the size of the thumb. Once, Kashyapa asked Indra and the Balakhilyas to collect firewood for a yajna. While Indra got big logs of wood, Balakhilyas with their small size could bring in only twigs. Indra laughed at them. The insulted Balakhilyas started a yajna of their own to destroy Indra. Kashyapa made them to stop it and transferred all the power of that yajna to himself, but then Balakhilyas got an assurance in return that a son to be born to Kashyapa in the future would defeat Indra.

The price that Kadru asked to release Vinata was to get amruta from the heaven. Garuda defeated Devas and brought the amruta kalasha. He handed it over to Kadru and got his mother released. During this time, Indra and Garuda had become friends. After securing the release of his mother, Garuda asked the nagas to go and take bath before having amruta. When they went away, Indra took the amruta back to heaven. Pleased with all these, Vishnu gave Garuda immortality and status of his vehicle.

There is a famous Garuda temple at Koladevi, near Mulbagal, Kolar, Karnataka.

18. Narasimha – Hirayaksha was the very first to be born among Asuras. He was killed by Varaha avatara. After this, his brother Hiranyakashipu took over. He did severe tapas to propitiate Brahma on top of mountain Mandara and got a boon that he can not be killed by anyone other than Vishnu. Prahlada was Hiranyakashipu’s son, a born devotee of Vishnu. Hiranyakashipu tried very hard to change the mind of Prahlada and make him to hate Vishnu. Whoever was deputed for this task turned to worship Vishnu being impressed upon by Prahlada. An angry Hiranyakashipu threw his son before violent elephants, poisonous snakes and into blazing fire. Nothing happened to him. Enraged with all these Hiranyakashipu screamed “ Where is this Vishnu of yours ? ”. Prahlada said he is everywhere. Hiranyakashipu kicked at a pillar and asked “ Is he in this pillar ? ” When Prahlada replied “ Yes he is even in this pillar ” the horrifying form half man – half lion of Vishnu, Narasimha broke open the pillar and came out. He caught the demon king, pierced his heart with claws and wore his intestines as garland. He later blessed Prahlada and disappeared.

Important Narasimha temples are –

i. Ahobilam, Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh

ii. Ugra Narasimha temple, Raybagh, Belgaum, Karnataka

iii. Ugra Narasimha temple, Anji, Yavatmal, Maharashtra

19. Vamana – Prahlada’s grandson Mahabali was very righteous and valorous king. He dethroned Indra and established his kingdom in all the three worlds. Parents of Devas, Kashypa and Aditi were saddened by this and prayed to Vishnu to intervene. Vishnu took birth in the womb of Aditi as the dwarf Vamana. While Mahabali was conducting a yaga, Vamana reached there as a brahmachari and as per practice Bali asked him for anything that he wished. Vamana asked for three feet of space to build an agnishala. Upon being promised by Bali, he suddenly grew in size and covered all the three worlds. The measure of his three feet was sufficient to cover everything. Thus Vamana got back the three worlds and gave them to Indra. Bali was to live in exile in pathala till the end of the manvantara and then he would become the next Indra.

Famous Vamana temples are at –

i. Thrikkakkara, Enakulam Kerala

ii. Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh

20. Parasurama – Once, Agni approached Karthaveerayarjuna the mighty king with thousand hands and asked for food. He was told to take as much as he wanted and Agni started consuming all that grew on earth from one end. He reached a forest where a rishi called Apava was observing tapas. When the rishi saw his ashrama being burned down he became angry and told that this was all because of the arrogance of the kshatriya king and cursed that the entire kshatriya vamsha will be destroyed.

Parasurama was born as the son of sage Jamadagni and Renuka on the banks of river Narmada. From childhood he showed interest only in martial arts and warfare. Once, Shiva asked him to go and engage in battle with demons which he did with no weapons in hand. Parasurama defeated the demons with the blessings of Shiva alone. After this Shiva gave him a lot of divine weapons. Since Shiva also gave him an axe ( Parasu ) he became known as Parasurama.

Once, Karthaveeryarjuna and his entourage paid a visit to Jamadagni’s ashrama while returning from a hunting expedition. The sage received them very well and all kinds of delicacies were served to them. They realized that this was made possible because Jamadagni possessed the all wish granting cow, Kamadhenu. While returning they forcibly took Kamadhenu away. Jamadagni went after them crying and requesting to give the cow back. He eventually fell down and died. When Renuka was getting ready to immolate herself on his funeral pyre, Sukracharya came and revived Jamadagni. When Parasurama came back he became agitated. By this time, Kamadhenu managed to free herself and come home but her calf was left behind. Parasurama went in search the calf, killed Karthaveeryarjuna and got it back. When Parasurama went away to observe tapas, son of Karthaveeryarjuna – Shurasena attacked the ashrma and killed Jamadagni. Renuka self immolated. In revenge of this, Parasurama destroyed the complete kshatriya vamsha and he did this twenty one times again and again.

Famous Parasurama temples are –

i. Chiplun, Maharashtra

ii. Thiruvallam, Trivandrum, Kerala

21. Vyasa – The author of Mahabharata was the son of sage Parashara and a fisherwoman called Kali ( Matsyagandha ). His childhood name was Krishna and since he was born in an island became known as Krishnadwaipayana. Parashara got attracted to Matsyagndha while she was ferrying him across the river and Vyasa was born out of this relation. Parashara blessed her that she would not lose her virginity on account of this. As soon as Vyasa was born, he grew up into a ascetic. He divided the vedas into four and became known as Vedavyasa.

There is a famous Vyasa  temple at Ramnagar, Varanasi,Uttar Pradesh.

22. Sri Rama – The legend is well known.

23. Balarama – The seventh pregnancy of Vasudeva and Devaki as per Vishnu’s orders was taken out of the womb and placed in Rohini’s womb. Rohini delivered this child who became known as Balarama. It was thought that Devaki aborted the seventh child. When Vasudeva came to know about the secret behind Balarma’s birth, he was also brought home. Thereafter, he was part of every adventure of Krishna.

Temples of Balarama are  –

i. Puri Jagannatha temple, Orissa

ii. Nenmini, Guruvayur, Kerala

iii. Icchapur, Kebdrapara, Orissa


24. Sri Krishna – The legend is well known.

25. Buddha – Gautama Buddha is considered to be an avatara of Vishnu.

26. Kalki – At the end of Kali yuga when unrighteousness would have crossed all limits, Vishnu would take avatara in the form of Kalki as the son of Vishnuyashas and re-establish dharma. Once this is done, Kritayuga will start.



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