Christianity is centered on the belief that God uniquely became incarnate (literally “in flesh”) as Jesus Christ. The incarnation, with its related concepts of atonement and resurrection, forms the core of traditional Christian theology. Hinduism, with its polytheism, image veneration and syncretism, seems at first glance to have little in common with Christian monotheism. Yet the idea that God became incarnate as a human in order to save the world binds Hinduism and Christianity together in a subtle way.
In Hinduism, the god Vishnu is said to have entered into 10 incarnations, known in India as “avatars” (literally “descent”). These 10 avatars of Vishnu (“dashavatara”) have occurred throughout cosmic history, sometimes in animal form rather than human. The list of the 10 avatars differs somewhat in various Indian traditions but, in each, Vishnu came to save the world and mankind from demonic evil and cosmic destruction.
Many of the avatars of Vishnu are “mythic,” representing him as having become incarnate in primordial ages (yugas), before the beginnings of recorded history. Vishnu’s first avatar appears as a fish (Matsya) to save Manu — the Hindu Noah — from the cosmic deluge. Incarnate as a giant tortoise (Kurma), Vishnu bore the weight of the world on his back, thus stabilizing the cosmos. The fifth avatar, Narasimha, was half-man and half-lion and was thus able to destroy the demon Hiranyakashipu, who could not be defeated by either man, god or animal. Narasimha was, uniquely, a mixture of all three.
By far the two most important avatars of Vishnu are Rama and Krishna, the heroes, respectively, of the great Hindu epics called the “Ramayana” and the “Mahabharata.” Rama, the rightful king of India and the perfect manifestation of kingship, was married to his beloved Sita, the most beautiful woman in the world. However, the terrible cosmic demon Ravana, lusting after her, kidnapped Sita and imprisoned her in his impregnable island fortress at Sri Lanka. Fortunately, with the help of the faithful monkey-god Hanuman, Rama was able to defeat Ravana, who had been plundering and devastating the world at the head of his invincible demon army, destroying justice and true religious practice. The just order in the world was thus restored.
When righteousness collapsed throughout the world during a civil war over the succession to the throne of India between two rival families of cousins, Vishnu again became incarnate. This time, however, rather than becoming a hero who personally battled demons, Vishnu became incarnate as Krishna, the charioteer for Arjuna, the greatest warrior of the Pandava clan. In the “Bhagavad Gita,” the core section of the “Mahabharata,” Krishna fully reveals his divine nature as Vishnu incarnate, teaching mankind the four pathways of righteousness (dharma), which will allow anyone to achieve salvation. Whenever unrighteousness (adharma) prevails in the world, Krishna proclaims, lord Vishnu will again become incarnate to restore righteousness.
Krishna is venerated throughout India, but most especially in Mathura, his birthplace, and Vrindavan, where he spent his youth — rather like Bethlehem and Nazareth for Christians. There, Hindu pilgrims gather in the millions, visiting dozens of temples to celebrate the incarnation, the life and teachings of Krishna and the salvation he brought to mankind.
The veneration of Krishna has also made its way to Spanish Fork, Utah, at the Radha Krishna Temple, where the lives and exploits of Rama and Krishna are celebrated in story, art, and drama.
Some might find it strange that the ninth avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu is Siddhartha Gautama, who is better known as the Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. It is perhaps the supreme manifestation of Hindu syncretism that Buddhism — historically the most important religious rival of Hinduism in the Indian subcontinent until the coming of Islam in the 12th century — should be absorbed into Hinduism, with the Buddha himself transformed into a Hindu god.1 comment on this story
Whatever the theological implications, however, in practical terms Hindus view Buddhism as, simply, the way in which some Hindus worship Vishnu via his incarnation as the Buddha. The mixture of Hindu and Buddhist temples and rituals is especially notable in Nepal.
Vishnu’s 10th avatar, Kalki, is a future apocalyptic figure, who will appear at the end of days wielding a sword and riding upon a white horse. At this time, he will bring about the final destruction of evil in the world, allowing the regeneration of the cosmos into a more perfect form. (Compare Christ’s apocalyptic appearance on a white horse in Revelation 19:11-16.)
Daniel Peterson founded the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.