The Supreme Divinity Sri Krishna appears in unlimited different forms. The Vedas say the Absolute Truth is non-dual, advitīyam. However, that Absolute Truth expands into many for the purpose of enjoying loving relationships. The Bhagavata Purana confirms: bahu-mūrty eka-mūrtikam. “The Supreme Source is One, although appearing in many varieties of forms.”
In this article we discuss the prominent avatars of Kali Yuga.
A yuga is a cosmic age according to the Vedic system of measuring universal time. Unlike the Western concept of linear time, Vedic time is cyclical.
The four yugas are Satya, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali. Together they form a time-unit known as the chaturyuga. One chaturyuga lasts for 8.64 million years of our Earth years. Like the four seasons of the year, the four ages of a chaturyuga rotate without end.
In Satya Yuga, human beings were adept in meditation and possessed unbelievable strength and longevity. The Vedic texts state that humans during Satya Yuga, or the Golden Age, lived for up to 100,000 years. There was no disparity among cultures. Everyone enjoyed worldly comforts and lived in perfect harmony with the natural environment. There was no war, famine, or conflict among the human race. It was a time of complete peace on Earth. However, as time progressed, people became less inclined toward spiritual practices and wished to augment their material comforts beyond their needs. A spirit of competition arose among men and as a result the system of varnasrama, or class-based society, was introduced. This ushered in the Treta Yuga, or Silver Age.
LEARN MORE: The Puranas provide an advanced understanding of our universe, including descriptions of life on other planets. Check out our guide to Vedic Cosmology.
You may be wondering: what exactly is an avatar? The Sanskrit word avatara means one who comes down. An avatar is a manifestation of the Supreme Person, Krishna, who comes down to our universe to perform a specific task. There are different types of avatars mentioned in the Vedas. As an actor may wear a unique costume for each of the various roles they play, Krishna similarly adopts many different forms in His various incarnations, or avatars.
In every yuga cycle, or chaturyuga, there are ten prominent avatars known as the Dashavatar. Of these, four appear in Satya Yuga: Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, and Narasimha. Additionally, there are also several other prominent avatars in Satya Yuga, such as Dhanvantari, Mohini Murti.
Also known as the Fish Incarnation, Mastyadeva is the first of the Dashavatar. He appeared in Satya Yuga to retrieve the Vedas from the demon known as Hayagriva, and He also saved King Satyavrata from a torrential flood that submerged the Earth.
When this universe first began, Brahma received the Vedas from the Supreme Lord Vishnu, who is the expansion of Krishna that creates and monitors this material world. Brahma is the first created being and his body is made up of information, or buddhi in Sanskrit. In this sense, he is like a superconscious supercomputer.
After receiving the Vedas from Vishnu, Brahma laid down for a brief period to rest before beginning his work of engineering our universe. However, while he was sleeping a demon known as Hayagriva approached him and stole the Vedic texts.
Without the Vedas, Brahma knew that humanity would only become more and more degraded. Therefore he prayed to Vishnu to descend in order to defeat Hayagriva. Thus Matsya Avatar appeared, and after He killed Hayagriva and restored the Vedas to Brahma, He also saved His devotee, Satyavrata from the great flood caused by Lord Shiva.
Read more about Matsya Avatar in the Bhagavata Purana
Also known as the Tortoise Incarnation, Kurma is the second of the Dashavatar. He appeared in Satya Yuga to assist the demons and demigods in churning the ocean of milk.
After being defeated in battle by the demons, the demigods approached Vishnu for help. He advised them to make a truce with the demons. By cooperating with the demons to churn the ocean of milk, the demigods would be able to obtain immortal nectar.
The demigods and demons accepted the suggestion of Vishnu and began to prepare to churn the milk ocean. The great Mount Mandara was to be the churning rod, and the giant snake Vasuki the churning rope.
At first, the demons and demigods were unable to move Mount Mandara. Then Vishnu appeared on His carrier, Garuda, and easily lifted up the mountain and placed it in the ocean of milk. However, the mountain immediately began to sink. To support Mount Mandara as the churning rod, Vishnu manifested His form as Kurma, a giant tortoise, and He balanced the mountain on the back of His shell.
In this way the demons and demigods were able to obtain the immortal nectar.
Read more about Kurma Avatar in the Bhagavata Purana
Once the demons and demigods had churned the nectar of immortality from the milk ocean, immediately a dispute broke out regarding how it should be divided among them. At this time, Lord Vishnu disguised Himself as a breath-takingly beautiful woman, known as the Mohini Avatar.
The demons were lovestruck and were practically falling over themselves to please Mohini. They happily agreed to allow Her to divide the nectar. However, instead of dividing it evently among the demons and demigods, Mohini gave it all to the devas.
Read more about Mohini Murti in the Bhagavata Purana
Dhanvantari is a form of Vishnu who appeared to inaugurate the medical science of Ayurveda. He manifested from the churning of the milk ocean and was the one who carried the nectar of immortality coveted by the demons and devas. There is no extensive description of his pastimes given in the Puranas.
Read more about Mohini Murti in the Bhagavata Purana
Another of the ten major avatars of each chaturyuga is Varaha, or the third of the Dashavatars. Also known as the Boar Incarnation, Varaha appeared to rescue the Earth, which had sunk into the waters of cosmic creation. Later, Varaha defeated in battle the demon Hiranyaksha.
Read more about Varaha Avatar in the Bhagavata Purana
The final Dashavatar incarnation to appear in Satya Yuga is Narasimha. He is a half-man half-lion incarnation of Lord Vishnu who appears to slay the demon known as Hiranyakasipu.
The famous devotee of Narasimhadeva, Bhakta Prahlada, is famous for his mood of complete dependence on the Lord. Although Prahlada’s father, Hiranyakasipu, made many attempts to kill him, Prahlada was never fearful or disturbed. He simply continued to pray and meditate on the Supreme.
Read more about Narasimha Avatar in the Bhagavata Purana