The commonly accepted list of Avatars of Vishnu includes 9, with the tenth, Kalki yet to come. This list of ten is called Dashavatar. But the Bhagavata Purana and other scriptures list 14 more avatars of Vishnu, for a total of 24. The ten have always appeared to me to put on display the evolution of the natural world as we know it. And while the 24 kind of puts that in disarray, I thought I’d take some time to discuss the oft-unrecognized 14. I will try to avoid myth, but will include it when it provides some esoteric substance and background for the importance of the particular avatar.
As I said in my last post, Mahavishnu was called the first purusha, or person. But then again so is Manu in other sources. Adi Purush was the first of the 24 avatars and is also considered the “first person”. He is the avatar of desire for creation, and had the 16 supernatural powers with which to do so. It would seem that before the perceivable universe was created there was already the raja guna embodied in Adi Purush.
Sanatkumar was the Brahma manasputra, or “born by a wish” by Lord Brahma. He taught the brahmins the importance of penance through celibacy.
Narada was a rishi, obtaining the status as “devarishi” above all others and showed them the way to Liberation, moksha. Hinduism has its basis in the meditations of the Rishis, and one could say that the teachings of Narada is the basis of all of their meditations. He was an bhaktavatar, an avatar of devotion.
Nara-Narayana was a Karmavatar in that His incarnation was to demonstrate the importance of penance, or work in the world. Nara-Narayana did one thousand years of tapas (spiritual austerity) followed by one thousand years of fighting against rakshasas (demons) over and over until the demons were destroyed.
Kapila was a Jnanavatar. First he compiled all divine knowledge in the world which had been destroyed. But secondly, he was he founder of Sankhya rationalism. He expounded his own philosophy to the Brahmins, preserving and rejuvenating Hindu Brahmin-hood.
Dattatraya taught the philosophy that Man can learn from every single thing in the world. He, therefore brought the philosophy of non-discrimination. This “non-discrimination” is not the opposite of the “discernment” that is meant by the word “viveka” let it be known. Dattatraya’s non-discrimination is the ground for the understanding that all is Brahman. Dattatraya was the guru of Prahlad, who was such a deep devotee of Narayana, it angered his father, King Hiranyakashyap so much that he tried to have him killed by fire, a failed act which lead to the celebration of Holika Dahan.
Yajna was the embodiment of the “ritual sacrifice” which Lord Krishna expounds in chapter four of the Gita. He also embodied the ideal of protectiveness to mankind in times of crisis. He was the only avatar to attain the post of Indra (king of Heaven). Vishnu is sometimes referred to as Yagneshwar, Lord of Sacrifice.
Rishabh is the spiritual father of the Jain religion, which takes its name from the same root word as “jnana.” His lesson is that of the true path of yoga, the controlling of the mind. In this case specifically, controlling of anger. The path of wisdom (jnana) and the subdued reflex of anger are compatible, which is why Rishabh’s title “Paramahansa” is so appropriate. It means one who is able to separate real from the unreal, a must for controlling anger.
Prithu is one of my favorite stories of all of the extra-Dashavatar avatars. The Earth had become barren, and its people were starving. Prithu originally planned to slay the earth take its fruits and start over. But the earth turned into a cow and ran away. It was then that the cow convinced Prithu that destroying the earth would not be practical as He would be destroying all of its inhabitants as well, for no reason. Prithu’s heart softened and he went from being a destroyer to a guardian. The Earth (cow) gave her “milk” (in the form of abundant vegetation and grain) to provide for all mankind. This was the mythological beginning of agriculture. Today, the earth (prithvi, in Sanskrit) is named for this avatar. It is from this incarnation where the sacredness of the cow in Hinduism originates. This is also one of the most specific scriptural reasons for Hindus being vegetarian.
Dhanvantari was the founder of Ayurvedic medicine. The same way that Vishnu manifests to re-establish dharma from time to time, Dhanvantari re-emerges when needed to re-establish Ayurvedic principles of wellness, thus preserving humanity. In this way He gives us a way to relieve suffering of others, and ourselves. Today many medical schools in India are named for Him. His appearance during the churning of the cosmic ocean of milk (sumudra manthan) is celebrated with the Kumbh Mela festival every dozen years. He is said to have manifested holding a vessel full of ambrosia. Today ambrosia is used as an antacid, as well as a diaphoretic, expectorant, anti-fungal, and antispasmodic agent.
Mohini is the only female avatar of Vishnu. She came to distract and charm the demons in order to steal back the very same pot of ambrosia from the last incarnation, thereby saving and preserving mankind from destruction. This incarnation may very well be an allegory for mankind’s overcoming of a plague in time out of mind.
Hayagreeva was Narayana in disguise (depicted as having a horse’s face. When the night of Brahma fell and the universe was about to shrink back into the Brahman, Brahma yawned and from his mouth came the four Vedas. Hayagreeva protected the Vedas from being corrupted or misappropriated.
Vyasa is known for “dividing the Vedas” into their appropriate form in which they are still read to this day, as well as writing the major Puranas and the entire Mahabharata. Whether one person was capable of writing all of these works, or had time in one lifetime to do so, is debatable. And it is often cited that Vyasa’s name means “arranger” or something to that affect. So it could be that anyone who wrote these works could have been referred to as a “vyasa”. But again, debatable.
Balarama often is placed in the Dashavatar just before Krishna, with Krishna then usurping the Buddha as the last avatar before Kalki. Many Buddhists take no issue with this, recalling that Buddha did not claim divinity and commanded his students not to worship or deify him. Lord Balarama is often cited as the “second body” of Krishna. Many siblings feel a very close kinship, but in this case it is meant as a literal expansion of the presence of the Lord incarnate at the time they walked the earth. He is called the “source of the entire spiritual world” and the “first guru”. Gaudiya Vaisnavs say that Krishna himself re-emerges from time to time and whenever he does, his closest associates come with him. Balarama is the closest of the close each time.
And so, with that, there you have the 14 lesser-known avatars of Vishnu. This is an abridged overview, of course. Because regrettably, were I to write expansively on all 14 of these avatars, I’d break the internet. But I find that in reading and pondering their stories, they have every bit as much spiritual wisdom to offer Vaisnav devotees as the Dashavatar. My horizons have been expanded.
Vande Vishnum bhava-bhaya-haram sarva-lokaika-naatham