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
ii. Brahma Sampradaya of
iii. Rudra Sampradaya of
iv. Sanakadi Sampradaya of
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
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,
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
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,
ii. Naradagadde near Raichur,
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
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
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
The famous temples of Dattatreya are –
i. Ganganapur, Maharashtra
ii. Narsobawadi, Kolhapur,
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
There are four temples dedicated to Matsyavatara –
i. Nagalapuram of Chittoor District,
ii. Mannarkoil, Ambasamudram,
Tirunelveli district, Tamil Nadu
iii. Mulakaluru, Narasaraopet,
Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh
iv. Bet Dwarka island, off. Okha,
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,
ii. Sri Kurmam of Sri Kakulam
district, Andhra Pradesh
iii. Gavirangapur of Chitradurga
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
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
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,
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
ii. Ugra Narasimha temple,
Raybagh, Belgaum, Karnataka
iii. Ugra Narasimha temple, Anji,
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
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,
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.