What are the implied meanings of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu ?


1. Personages and parts of Lord Vishnu

A. Personages : ‘Four personages of Lord Vishnu have been described in the Vishnu Puran, the first reclines on Shesh, the second nurtures creation, the third assumes an incarnation and reinstates Righteousness (Dharma) and the fourth destroys unrighteousness and demons.

B. Parts : Lord Vishnu has four main parts. With one He becomes the unmanifest Brahma, with the second Prajapati like Marich etc., with the third He is the time (kal) and with the fourth He is in the form of animate and inanimate creation. Thus in these four ways He exists in creation.’

2. The ten incarnations (dashavtar)

        All information regarding incarnations with regard to why they are assumed, their mission, types, characteristics, etc. are given in ‘Science of Spirituality : Vol. 7 – Supreme God, God, Incarnations and Deities.’ Here information only on the ten main incarnations of Lord Vishnu has been given.

Date of birth
according to
the Hindu
gy (%)
of the
Ability (%)
1. Matsya
  (The fish)
Third day
(trutiya) of the
bright fortnight
of Chaitra
(Matsya Puran)
Eleventh day
(ekadashi) of
the bright
fortnight of
(Varaha Puran)
Satya 20 20 40 50 10
2. Kurma
Full moon day
(pournima) of
Satya 30 30 30 50 20
3. Varaha
Third day
(trutiya) of the
bright fortnight
of Bhadrapad
Satya 40 40 20 50 30
4. Narsinha
Fourteenth day
of the bright
fortnight of
Satya 45 45 Sarasvati 20 50 30
5. Vaman
Twelfth day
(dvadashi) of
the bright
fortnight of
Satya 50 50 Brahm-
20 50 30
6. Parshu-
Third day
(trutiya) of the
bright fortnight
of Vaishakh
Treta 65 65 Bhumi 20 50 30
7. Rama Ninth day
(navami) of the
bright fortnight
of Chaitra
Treta 75 75 Sita 20 50 30
8. Krushna
Eighth day
(ashtami) of the
bright fortnight
of Shravan
Dvapar 100 100 The
eight and
ten great
20 50 30
9. Kalki        * Kali 80 100 15 50 35

* At the end of the Kaliyug on the third day of the bright fortnight of Shravan the incarnation, Kalki will be born (Kalki Puran).

2.1 Matsya (The fish)

        This is totally an idea from the Vedas.

A. Mission

  • Protecting the seed of creation at the time of dissolution of the universe (pralay). This is preserved at the time of every dissolution of the universe by the fish incarnation. The universe is then recreated from that seed by the next tortoise incarnation, Kurma.

  • Slaying of the demons Hayagriv (Bhagvat Puran), Shankhasur (Skand Puran).

B. Idols

  • Complete form of a fish

  • The torso is that of a man. Its four hands hold four instruments of Lord Vishnu.

C. Implied meaning : Just as a fish swims against the stream of a river, that is towards its origin so also a seeker should go to his place of origin, that is, to The Supreme God. This is what It teaches us.

2.2 Kurma (The tortoise)

A. Mission

  • Creation : ‘Assuming the form of a tortoise Prajapati created progeny. This was His duty (karma). His name Kurma was later derived from the word karma. Further He was also referred to as Kashyap. Kashyap was Prajapati, the creator of progeny. Since the entire creation was derived from Kashyap He was believed to be Kurma. From this, one will realise that the mission in the tortoise form was basically that of Prajapati. After the post-Brahman era Vishnu came into prominence overshadowing Prajapati and all the latter’s actions were attributed to Vishnu. Thus the Kurma incarnation became the second incarnation of Vishnu.

  • Supporting all functions : At the time of churning of the ocean (samudramanthan) the tortoise who supported the Mandar mountain vibrating with the sweat of deities and demons on Its back was the unrealisable Adikachchapa (Kurma incarnation) and It considered the churning of the mountain on Its back as mere scratching of Its body.

B. Idols : Idols of Nrusinha (the man-lion) and Varaha (the boar) are found all over India in abundance; however there are very few of the Kurma incarnation found separately.’

C. Implied meaning : Just as the tortoise withdraws its four limbs, head and tail into its shell so also one should control the six foes of the soul (shadripu).

2.3 Varaha (The boar)

A. Mission

  • Destruction of demons : A demon called Hiranyaksha abducted the earth and took it to hell (patal). Vishnu then assumed the form of a boar, retrieved the earth from hell with Its tusks and installed it on the head of the serpent, Shesh. It then slew Hiranyaksha. Vishnu assumed this incarnation at the beginning of the Varaha kalpa. (Vayu Puran 23.100-109)

  • Imparting spiritual knowledge : In this incarnation Vishnu preached Spirituality to Sanatkumar and narrated the Varahopanishad to Rubhu.

B. Idols : According to the text Vaikhanas Agam the idols are of the following types.

  • Yadnyavaraha : It is seated on a throne with the deity Shridevi on one side and Bhudevi on the other.

  • Pralayvaraha : Only Bhudevi is beside It.

  • Nruvaraha : The body is that of a man and the head that of a boar. Some idols also wield Vishnu’s instruments in Their hands.

C. Implied meaning

  • Varaha is a one tusked wild boar. The boar does not accept defeat even at the cost of its life. Similarly a seeker too should not give up spiritual practice even if on the verge of death when doing so.

  • The seventh chakra of the spiritual energy flow system (kundalini) is called Ekadanta or Narayan.

2.4 Narsinha/Nrusinha (The man-lion)

A. Mission

  • Slaying the demon Hiranyakashipu

  • Lakshmi-Narsinha is the family deity of some. Narsinha is the family deity of the royal family of Vijaynagar.

B. Idols :The body is that of a man and the head that of a ferocious lion.

C. Implied meaning of some incidents

  • Manifestation of Narsinha from a pillar shows the existence of The Lord in animate as well as inanimate creation.

  • Hiranyakashipu signifies ignorance. Narsinha slew him by tearing open his abdomen thus liberating the embodied soul situated in the chakra of spiritual energy (kundalini) at the level of the navel.

D. Ritualistic worship : Since it is difficult to tolerate the radiance of Nrusinha, He is worshipped after the back of His idol is adorned with eyes, whiskers, etc. Similarly the eyes of Balaji of Tirupati are half open as one cannot tolerate His radiance.

E. Nara-Narayan : Nara was created from the human part of Narsinha and Narayan from the face of a lion (Kalika Puran 29). Refer point ‘Nara-Narayan’.

2.5 Vaman (The dwarf)

        Vaman is the son of Kashyap and Aditi. His other name is Urukram. Urukram means one having a wide stride.

A. Mission : He kept Bali a demon king, in bondage.

B. Idols

  • Idols of Vaman : Short, with a paunch, the facial expression of a child, adorning the sacred thread holding an umbrella in one hand and a baton with the other.

  • Trivikram : An expansive form

C. Implied meaning : The three footsteps that Vaman asked King Bali for, describe the all pervading nature of Vishnu. With His three footsteps Vaman encompassed the earth, space and the sky (or the earth, heaven and hell). (Refer point ‘Vishnu’s advance (Vishnukram) ’.)

2.6 Parshuram

        One comes across stories about Parshuram in the Ramayan, the Mahabharat and in some Purans. There is no separate mythological text (Puran) about Him unlike the incarnations preceding Him.

A. Parents : Sage Jamadagni of the Bhrugu dynasty and Renuka were the parents of Parshuram. Renuka was the daughter of a Kshatriya (warrior). However Jamadagni being a Brahman Parshuram too became a Brahman. The ashram of Sage Jamadagni was situated on the banks of the river Narmada. Parshuram was born there in the nineteenth Tretayug (in the transitional period between the Treta and Dvaparyugs according to the Mahabharat). Renu means particles of earth. Renuka undertook spiritual practice of the water element. Hence she could fetch water in pots made of wet clay. Jamadagni had done spiritual practice of the fire element. Jamat is a type of fire. Jamat also means a resolve made with a definite purpose.

B. Mission

  • Slaying of unrighteous Kshatriyas (warriors) : ‘Valmiki has referred to Him not as a slayer of Kshatriyas but of kings. From this an inference can be made that Parshuram did not kill all Kshatriyas, but only those Kshatriya kings who were evil.’

    Kartavirya abducted the divine wish-fulfilling cow (kamadhenu) and her calf from Sage Jamadagni’s ashram. This incident occurred in Parshuram’s absence. On His return, realising what had happened, He vowed to slay Kartavirya. In the ensuing battle between the two on the banks of the river Narmada, Parshuram slew Kartavirya. Thereafter complying with His father’s directives He embarked on a pilgrimage and to undertake austerities.

    After Parshuram left, to avenge Kartavirya’s death, Haihayas beheaded Sage Jamadagni. When this news reached Parshuram He returned to the ashram. There were twenty-one injuries made with arrows on the dead body of Jamadagni. Seeing them Parshuram instantly pledged that ‘He would circumambulate the earth twenty-one times to punish and rid the earth of evil Kshatriyas and Haihayas because of the slaying of a Brahman by them.’ According to this vow He would slay the unrighteous Kshatriyas and then retreat for penance to the Mahendra mountain. When there was an upsurge in evil warriors He would return and slay them. He completed twenty-one such missions. He fought the last battle on the Samantpanchak. There He washed His axe (parshu) soaked with the blood of the Kshatriyas and laid it down.

  • Erecting temples of deities of territories (kshetrapaldevata) : While circumbulating the earth twenty-one times He established one hundred and eight seats of pilgrimage with divine energy (tirthakshetra), that is temples of deities of territories (kshetrapaldevata). Before that saints only knew about these places but had not erected temples or established holy seats (piths) there.

C. Characteristics

      • अग्रत: चतुरो वेदा: पृष्‍ठत: सशरं धनु: ।
        इदं ब्राह्‍मं इदं क्षात्रं शापादपि शरादपि ।।

        Meaning : Parshuram who is verbally well versed with the four Vedas and sports the bow and arrow upon His back (that is the one who has the radiance of both the Brahman and the Kshatriya) will vanquish the one who dares to obstruct Him either with a curse or an arrow.

      • Imparting energy to Rama : Once hearing about the fame of Rama (the son of Dasharath) in order to test His bravery Parshuram obstructed His way. Then He offered His bow to Rama and told Him to bend it and mount an arrow onto it. When Rama complied and asked where He should shoot an arrow, Parshuram told Him, ‘Nullify My activity on this land of Kashyap.’ Rama obliged Him. Then Parshuram gifted that bow to Rama and thus imparted His energy of destroying evildoers to Rama.

      • The best archery teacher : After laying down His arms He gave up His feeling of hatred for Kshatriyas (warriors) and began teaching archery to both Brahmans (priests) as well as Kshatriyas with equality. Great archers from the Mahabharat such as Bhishmacharya, Dronacharya, etc. were all disciples of Parshuram.

      • Generous : Due to His mission of destroying the Kshatriyas He became the master of the entire earth. As a result He also acquired the privilege to perform the Ashvamedh sacrificial fire (yadnya). So He first bathed in all the places of pilgrimage, circumambulated the earth thrice and then performed the sacrificial fire. The altar (vedi) of the sacrificial fire was made of gold and was ten vave (the distance between arms extended sideways) long and nine vave high. At the end of the sacrificial fire Parshuram offered the entire land which He had acquired to the officiating priest of the sacrificial fire, Kashyap.

      • Creation of new land : Kashyap realised that as long as Parshuram continued to live on earth the Kshatriyas would not prosper. Hence He told Parshuram ‘The land which you have offered to Me in the sacrifice now belongs to Me. You have no right to stay on My land anymore.’ So making the sea recede Parshuram created His own new territory. The area from Vaitarana to Kanyakumari is referred to as Parshuram’s territory (Parshuramkshetra).

      • Creation of Brahmans : Since there were no Brahmans in the new land created by Him the pure-minded Parshuram killed everyone there, cremated them and made them pure Brahmans.

      • He is one of the seven immortal ones (saptachiranjiva); however the Mahabharat states that during the manvantar (a period of time) He will renounce His body.

D. ‘The territory of Parshuram : The Salher mountain is situated at the northern end of the Sahyadri range. Over there, there is a fort from the middle ages with a temple of Parshuram at its peak. Two footsteps four times the size of the footstep of an average person are engraved in the earth at a distance of 100 feet to the north of the temple. They are designed in the stance adopted by a person while shooting an arrow from a bow. It is said that Parshuram shot an arrow into the ocean from here and made it recede.

        An ancient temple of Parshuram is located in the Kangada district of Punjab. In the Konkan there is one on a mountain situated five miles from Chiplun. The temple has three idols standing in a row, their names being Kama, Parshuram and Kal. The idol of Parshuram is a little taller than the others. The three idols are arranged such that they represent Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva respectively.’

E. Idols: The body of the idol is huge like that of Bhim. It has matted hair locks and sports a bow on the shoulder and an axe in the hand.

F. Ritualistic worship : Parshuram being an incarnation of Lord Vishnu is worshipped as a deity worthy of worship. His birthday (jayanti) which falls on the third day (trutiya) of the bright fortnight of the Hindu lunar month of Vaishakh is celebrated both as a vowed religious observance (vrat) and a religious festival (utsav).

2.7 Rama

        Information on Rama is given in ‘Rama’.

2.8 Krushna

        Information on Krushna is given in ‘Krushna’. Krushna being an absolute incarnation (purnavtar) is not referred to as an incarnation but as Lord Vishnu Himself who has assumed an incarnation.

2.9 Kalki

A. Birth : ‘He is the tenth or twenty-first incarnation of Lord Vishnu. He will be born on the third day (trutiya) of the bright fortnight of the Hindu lunar month of Shravan at the end of the Kaliyug to a Brahman named Vishnuyashas in the village Shambal of Kikat. His lineage (gotra) will be Parashar.

B. Mission : He will embark on the conquest of the earth on His horse named Devdatta. He will destroy the evil and unrighteous and reinstate Righteousness (Dharma). He will destroy His enemies, the evildoers and rule the world. The priest Yadnyavalkya will assist Him in this mission and finally at the age of twenty-five He will renounce His body at the confluence of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna. The Bhavishya Kalki Puran predicts that after this the Krutyug (Satyayug) will commence.

        Various holy texts such as the Vishnu Puran (4.24.98), the Shrimadbhagvat (1.3.25), the Matsya Puran, the MahabharatVanaparva (190. 96-97), etc. predict the future exactly like the Kalki Puran.

C. Idols : The Hayshirsha Pancharatra and the Agni Puran describe the image of Kalki in two different ways – one with two arms and the other with four arms. The Chaturvarga Chintamani describes His idol with two arms as –

खड्‌गोद्यतकर: क्रुध्‍दो हयारूढो महाबल: ।
म्‍लेंच्‍छोच्‍छेदकर: कल्‍की व्‍दिभुज: परीकीर्तित: ।।

Meaning : Kalki wields a sword in one hand, is seated on a horse, is mighty, is the destroyer of evildoers and has two arms.’

|| Shri Vishnave Namaha ||

Reference : Sanatan Sanstha’s Holy textVishnu and His forms