Christian Apologetics Journal 4,2 (Fall 2005):29-44
This Journal is published by Southern Evangelical Seminary.

Winfried Corduan
Taylor University

(This version has been adapted in its formatting and by providing illustrations.)

“Krishna is Christ,” a Hindu priest confidently declared to my class visiting his temple. (He pronounced it so it would rhyme with “grist.”) “Krishna is Christ. He is God as human being.” With this dogmatic statement he was expressing a very common attitude: just as in Hinduism there is a belief in the incarnations of God--primarily the avatars of Vishnu--so in Christianity there is the belief in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. When you come right down to it, it’s the same thing, isn’t it?

In this paper, I would like to explore the idea of Christ as “avatar.” I am going to place the discussion into the larger circle of “incarnations” in various world religions and appraise how the incarnation of Christ fits into the specifically Hindu notion of avatar, both formally and informally. My final conclusion will be that, even if it were theoretically possible to come up with a neutral definition of “avatar,” in practice the term is far too loaded with Hindu connotations to find a place in a Christian conceptual scheme.

“Incarnations” in the World’s Religions

Guru NanakThere is certainly nothing novel in the history of religions about the idea that a god or goddess has come to earth in material form. Ultimately, this is the theory behind many forms of idolatry, in which the deity is said to be present by means of a physical object. It is only a small step from there to the notion that the physical object mediating the presence of the god is a living human being. Take, for example, the religion of Sikhism, the blend of Hinduism and Islam advocated by Guru Nanak in the sixteenth-century A.D. Sikhism is a religion that confesses a universal, unknowable God called Sat Nam,"The True Name" or Ekankar, "One and only One."1. It specifically repudiates the idol worship associated with Hinduism. Yet it teaches that its ten historical human leaders and the Adi Granth, its holy book (who together constitute the eleven gurus of Sikhism) are the very embodiment of God. As one website states, “The word Guru in Sikhism is composed two terms, Gu meaning darkness and Ru meaning light. Guru is the light that dispels all darkness. Guru Nanak was, therefore, the embodiment of Divine light.”2

BahaullahAnother example of incarnation in another religion might be the concept of “Manifestation” in Baha’i. According to Baha’i teaching, God has shown himself in past ages in nine prophets (Moses, Zoroaster, Abraham, Krishna, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, the Bab,3 and Baha’ullah). However, we should not think of these prophets as mere human beings with a message from God. They were, indeed, Manifestations of God himself.4 Baha’ullah states:

It is not that the Manifestations have ceased to be human,6 but that in their humanity they also embody the attributes of God.

And who can ignore the fact that in some religions where an incarnation seems impossible, the idea crops up nonetheless? In Islam, for instance, the accepted view of the Qur’an has been compared in a fairly loose way with the notion of an “incarnation.”7 Since in orthodox Islam the Qur’an is considered to be eternal, and since there cannot be two eternal beings, the Qur’an must be an attribute or thoughts of God himself. And in that case, the revelation of the Qur’an through Muhammad constitutes the arrival of God’s presence in the world. Frederick Denny states, “If in Christianity the ‘Word became flesh,’ in Islam it became a book.”8

Even more to the point, though, in less than orthodox contexts, Islam has seen its share of human contenders to incarnational status. There are a number of groups who recognize Ali, the fountainhead of Shi’ite Islam, as God.

Among these are the Nusayriyyah (Nusairis)--also called Alawis--who are said to comprise 11% of the population of Syria, 9 , and who trace themselves back to al-Hakim, a caliph within the Shi'ite Fatimid dynasty. They were associated with the Ismailites or "Seveners," but have now aligned themselves with the Twelvers, the dominant form of Shi'ite Islam in Iran." 10 . A similar group, prevalent in Turkey, are the Alevis.11 Finally, the Druze faith is also an off-shoot of the Isma’ilite branch of Shi’a, and it accepts numerous incarnations. Their list includes Jesus, but not Muhammad, and concludes with al-Hakim.12 The so-called “Black Muslim” movement, the Nation of Islam, began with the claim that its co-founder Wallace Fard was an incarnation of Allah.13 My point is then simply, that the idea of divine incarnation is not unheard-of in world religions. To be sure, Aldous Huxley’s assertion that “the doctrine that God can be incarnated in human form is found in most of the principal historic expositions of the Perennial Philosophy,”14 is overstated, as Geoffrey Parrinder has pointed out,15 but we do not have to confine ourselves to just Hinduism or Christianity on this topic. Nevertheless, let us now look more closely at incarnations in Hinduism.

“Incarnations” in Hinduism

In Hinduism, incarnations are referred to with the term “avatar,” which literally means “descent.” For purposes of this paper, it may be helpful to consider its usage on three levels: loose, looser, and loosest.

“Avatar”--the “Loose” Usage

What I’m referring to as the “loose” usage here is what is in many ways today’s standard understanding of the term “avatar,” the usual centerpiece of textbook discussions. I am calling it “loose” because, like all aspects of Hinduism, it has had a long period of development, is associated with specific schools and writings, and is subject to constant modifications. The phenomenon in question is, of course, the idea that the god Vishnu has incarnated himself at ten (or more) different times in history in order to save the world.

GitaIn the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna, "Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O descendant of Bharata, and a predominant rise of irreligion—at that time I descend Myself.To deliver the pious and to annihilate the miscreants, as well as to reestablish the principles of religion, I Myself appear, millennium after millennium".(4:7-8)16

Similarly, in the Ramayana we read: “Whenever there is loss of dharma on earth, the Lord incarnates himself in order to destroy the demons and to restore dharma.” (Uttara 8)17

Thus, there are specific instances where Vishnu, while in heaven, became convinced that the dharma needed to be rescued, and so he clothed himself in physical form in order to bring off this feat. These “incarnations” are Vishnu’s “avatars,” and they are not confined to the human species.

The ten most commonly recognized avatars of Vishnu are these:18

  1. Matsya, the fish. Vishnu disguised himself as a fish and implored the hero Manu to rescue him from predators. By constantly increasing his size, he induced Manu to take him all the way to the ocean, where he instructed Manu to build himself a large boat in order to escape from the impending cosmic flood.

  2. Varaha decorationKurma, the turtle. Certain very attractive items (such as medicine) had been dissolved in the cosmic ocean of milk. Both devas (good gods)and asuras (evil lords) attempted to coagulate these boons by churning the milk, using a sacred mountain as their tool. However, this process was not possible until Vishnu, in the form of a turtle, allowed the mountain to rest on his back so that it could swivel.

  3. Varaha, the boar. Once, when the earth was immersed completely under water, Vishnu became a boar in order to root out the earth and bring it back to the surface.19

  4. Narasimha, the man-lion. A certain evil king was invulnerable to defeat because a Brahmin had promised him that he could not be killed during either day or night, by god, man or beast, or inside or outside of his house. Vishnu took on the combined form of man and lion, thus not being either just god, man or beast; he hid himself inside of a column of the demon’s palace, whereby he was neither inside nor outside his house, and he killed him at dusk, which meant that it was neither day nor night.

  5. Vamana, the dwarf. Bali, an asura, albeit a righteous one, had conquered the entire universe, even including the realm of the devas. Vishnu approached him in the form of a hunchbacked dwarf and requested that he might receive as much real estate as he could cross with three steps. The asura did not think that this little person could step very far and consented to the request. Was he ever surprised by Vamana’s first step, let alone his second and (possibly) his third!20 Vishnu had reclaimed the cosmos for the gods!

  6. Parashurama, Rama with an axe. The axe in question was a gift from Shiva, which this avatar used in order to eradicate every last male member of the Kshatriya caste from the face of the earth, reestablishing the dominance of the Brahmin caste over the upstart caste of warriors and rulers.

  7. Rama (Ramachandra), the ideal king. Rama (who, incidentally, was a Kshatriya) was rightful heir to the throne of Ayodhya. However, he was compelled to spend fourteen years as forest hermit. Adding further injury to this injury, the demon king Ravana kidnapped his wife, Sita. With the help of many gods, and--most notably thanks to the grand vizier of the monkeys, Hanuman--Rama was able to defeat Ravana and preside over a millennium of peace and prosperity with Sita by his side.

  8. Krishna, the lover. Krishna, the most popular of the avatars, manifests two sides to his personality, which admittedly become difficult for an outsider to reconcile. On the one hand, he is the one who revealed the lofty wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita, a sublime compilation of Hindu philosophy and devotional practice. On the other hand, Krishna demonstrated the pleasures of unrestrained sexual indulgence with the gopis (milkmaids). He had seven wives, including Rukmini who was the incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi; however, the great passion of his life was Radha, who was also married to someone else. “Radhakrishna,” the union of the two, represents the highest from of transcendental love for many Hindus, and it is Radha who is usually displayed as Krishna’s consort in temples.

  9. Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. The usual explanation for including someone who specifically contradicted the dharma in his teaching among the avatars of Vishnu is that through him Vishnu was showing the world how serious an error it was to depart from the truth. Undoubtedly, the Brahmin priests, during the era of Buddhism’s ascendancy in India, used this teaching as a device to neutralize the Buddha’s influence by claiming him as one of their own.

  10. Kalki, the coming one. The last of the ten avatars is “messianic” in nature in that he is still going to come in the future. He will come riding on a white horse (hence he is also usually depicted with the head of a horse), and he will defeat Yama, the god of death. Then, for a brief time, he will rule over a time of truth and bliss for the entire cosmos, but he will not put an end to the ongoing cycle of destruction and recreation that the universe must go through.

“Avatar”--the “Looser” Usage

However, this list of ten avatars is only a loose set; it is a collection of convenience only. Consider the following factors:

a) There are many other beings, including a large number of human persons, who are referred to as avatars of Vishnu;

b) Some of the stories to which we just alluded are also attributed to some other gods; e.g., Brahma played the part of Matsya, the fish that saved Manu, long before Vishnu slipped into the title role.

Narasimhac) Even within the very myths that give us these avatars, other avatars of Vishnu appear. A good example is the story of Kurma, the turtle that enabled the devas and asuras to use a mountain to churn the cosmic milk. Subsequently, when the drink was ready, Vishnu reappeared, this time as Mohini, a female temptress, who with her trickery made the evil asuras miss their fair portion of the potion.

d) Speaking of simultaneous incarnations, Krishna had a brother by the name of Balarama (Rama the Strong), who was known for his fierce temper and his love of intoxicants. He, too, was an incarnation of Vishnu, and when he did not go out on his own exploits, he accompanied Krishna on his, thus giving us two avatars side by side. A common explanation of this apparent paradox is that neither Krishna nor Balarama are full avatars of Vishnu, but that each of them only incarnates half of the aspects of Vishnu. In a different explanation, ISKCON (the “Hare Krishna” group), which proclaims Krishna as the highest form of godhead, holds that Balarama is Krishna’s (not Vishnu’s) first avatar. But I have also seen iconographic depictions of the ten avatars in contemporary temples that simply substitute Balarama for the somewhat inconvenient Buddha.

e) And what would one make of the idea that perhaps two of the above ten avatars actually met in a hostile confrontation, and one defeated the other? This is precisely what happened. Remember that Parashurama attempted to kill all Kshatriyas, and then take note of the fact that Rama, the king of Ayodhya, was a Kshatriya. In the Ramayana, Parasurama actually did come calling on Rama, and Rama defeated him by firing an arrow from the bow of Vishnu--which Parasurama had just handed him.21

In short, anyone looking for systematic orderliness here will be disappointed. As Thomas wryly observes, “Coherency is not one of the strong points of Hindu mythology.”22 And Daniélou sums up matters thus:

At all crucial moments of the world’s history the Pervader [usually, the Preserver, Vishnu] appears as a particular individuality who guides the evolution and destiny of the different orders of creation, of species and forms of life. Hence “the story of his ‘descents,’ of his ‘incarnations,’ of his ‘manifestations,’ is endless. It would ever be impossible to give a full account of the descents of the limitless Pervader into the world of form.23

“Avatar”--the “Loosest” Usage

NarasimhaStill, the above “looser” usage is associated with particular persons in mythology, and it specifies in some (often unexplained) way that we are encountering an embodied form of a certain god, usually Vishnu. However, many people have started to use the term with even less specificity. Norvin J. Hein states,

Thus “avatar” becomes a courtesy title, which can be earned by an individual through great spiritual achievement. It is not so much a matter of a god entering earth in human form as a human being demonstrating extraordinary spiritual capacity. Perhaps it is in this way that we can understand the unsupported comment in the Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion, made right after enumerating the ten classic avatars: “Independent of this tradition, however, Hindus also view Jesus as an avatara.”25

Jesus as Avatar

This last quote, ignoring its unwarranted universality for the moment, brings us to the climax of our discussion. To what extent does it make sense to apply the term “avatar” to Jesus Christ? Frederic Spiegelberg relates the following historical precedent, which I will present as an illustration without vouching for its accuracy:

Let me make two stipulations:

1. The intent of my question is not to decide the matter of truth. I am assuming at the moment that Christianity is true and Hinduism false. There is no Vishnu; therefore, there can be no avatars of Vishnu; and, therefore, Christ could not have been an avatar of Vishnu. The question is the conceptual one of whether the category of “avatar” can be helpfully applied to Christ--in which case Christ (from the perspective of truth) would paradoxically turn out to be the lone true avatar.

2. Obviously, the very nature of this paper requires that there be some very broad inclusive concept of “incarnation” or “embodiment” that cuts across different religions. Otherwise, this topic could not even be discussed. And, if “ avatar” should turn out to be a term that can represent this vague notion sufficiently, then it is certainly appropriate to use. But therein lies the question.

Now let us take note of a fundamental fact concerning cross-religious theological terminology. Most likely, a term is going to have a conceptual home in a specific religion, and it is going to be very hard, if not impossible, for that term ever to lose all of its original meanings. Consider the following two statements concerning the divine triad in Christianity (one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and Hinduism (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, who are emanations of the impersonal Brahman):

When laid out side-by-side like this, it becomes apparent that there is more going on in each case than a simple substitution of words. These two sentences do not mean the same thing. There is a basic theological category derived from its religion of origin, trimurti in Hinduism and trinity in Christianity, and each statement seeks to use that concept in characterizing the other religion. And there is no denying the fact that in the process the determining concept will bring some of its specific features with it. Otherwise, there would be no point in making the statement. A Hindu might say that there is enough commonality between the two ideas, so that the Christian trinity qualifies for inclusion in the category of trimurti, and the Christian could say that the Hindu trimurti is sufficiently like the Christian trinity that it is appropriate to use the Christian term for the Hindu idea. In each case the predicate has conceptual control over the subject because the subject has become a subset of the predicate, as illustrated in the Figure 1.

Thus statements of conceptual equivalence, if not highly qualified, can easily become acts of conceptual assimilation instead. If we were to apply the term “avatar” in reference to Christ’s incarnation, the sentences in question now would be:


And again, the predicate has conceptual control over the subject because it is the part of the sentence that determines whether the subject fits into its frame of reference, as displayed in Figure 2.

Then the question simply becomes one of whether the idea of “avatar” carries too much Hindu conceptual baggage to be able to carry it over without harming either its integrity or that of the Christian doctrine.

Geoffrey Parrinder, in his classic treatment of this subject, Avatar and Incarnation, lists twelve important Hindu beliefs concerning avatars:27

  1. “The Avatar is real.

  2. “The human Avatars take worldly birth.

  3. “The lives of Avatars mingle devine [sic] and human.

  4. “The Avatars finally die.

  5. “There may be historicity in some Avatars.

  6. “Avatars are repeated.

  7. “The example and character of the Avatars is important.

  8. “The Avatar comes with work to do.

  9. “The Avatars show some reality in the world.28

  10. “The Avatar is a guarantee of divine revelation.

  11. “Avatars reveal a personal God.

  12. “Avatars reveal a God of grace.”

It is the sixth point that reveals a fundamental distinction between the incarnation of Christ and the idea of an avatar. Parrinder declares elsewhere that “the avatar is a theophany, an appearance of God to men.”29 He points to the way in which an avatar’s life merely runs out, only to be replaced by another avatar, with no permanent accomplishment. On the other hand, he says in Avatar and Incarnation,

To amplify this point, we can emphasize that the incarnation of Christ is final (Heb. 1:1) and permanent (1 Tim. 2:2), whereas there will always be more avatars, and the avatar’s embodiment ceases immediately upon his death (if not sooner). To use the term “avatar” concerning Christ is always going to be more of an assimilation to Hindu thought patterns than conceptual bridge-building.

Similarly, Timothy C. Tennent mentions three points that set the incarnation of Christ apart from Hindu avatars.31

1. “Avatars are repeated endlessly throughout each cycle of history, whereas the incarnation is a unique, singular act in history.

2. “An avatar comes forth because of accumulated karma and is therefore not a free act of God.

3. “An avatar is a mixture and blending of the divine and human,” as opposed to the two-nature understanding of Christ’s incarnation.

Again, the observations make it clear that there are substantive differences between an “avatar” and the incarnation of Christ--too substantive to use the term “avatar” for Jesus without distorting what Christian theology understands his person and work to be.

Salvage Attempt: Modifying the Religions

So, is there some way of bringing the two concepts of incarnation and avatar together, nonetheless? Clearly there is, and it involves the not-so-uncommon procedure in religious studies of simply modifying one or both religions until they dovetail each other sufficiently. One could, for example, remove the historicity and singularity from the Christian understanding. John Hick, whose understanding of religion is based on an attempt to transcend the particularities of specific religions, gives himself a creative license on this issue as well. “We should never forget,” he confidently reminds us, “that if the Christian gospel had moved east, into India, instead of west, into the Roman empire, Jesus’ religious significance would probably have been expressed by hailing him within Hindu culture as a divine Avatar.”32 But this statement is really not saying much more than that Hindus like to believe in avatars; this is true enough, but it provides no compelling reason for Christians to lessen their understanding of Christ as something different from an avatar.

The attempt to make one religion more congenial to another is not a one-sided effort. Some writers have also asked us to take a fresh look at Hinduism in order to find a more suitable accommodation for Christ there. Hein makes an audacious claim and I'm going to make his pronouncement stand out a little. Too often people get by with statements involving vectors or trajectory lines, and it seems as though, if things do not go into their direction, they are not held sufficiently accountable for their assertions.

But has Hinduism truly been afflicted by this supposed “general distaste for myth and miracle” that is so frequently attributed to contemporary Christian belief? Has there really been a significant reduction in the worship of animal avatars? No. This is stuff and nonsense, easily shown to be untenable as soon as one enters a Hindu temple. The last impression one picks up is a general distaste of the mythological. Statements such as these are desparate attempts by Western anti-supernaturalists to find an echo for their preferences in a religious context, but, if they're not going to find it in Christendom, they are certainly not going to encounter it in the religious practice of Hinduism. I believe that this assertion has no more validity than Rudolf Bultmann’s declaration fifty years ago that, since we can now listen to the radio, it is impossible for us to believe the Bible any longer.34 Not only are the elephant-headed Ganesha and the monkey Hanuman among the most popular deities of Hinduism today (although, admittedly they are not avatars in the usual sense), worship of the animal avatars continues to be practiced. That's why I have deliberately inserted pictures of aimal avatars from contemporary temples. Thus, the idea that somehow Hinduism is slowly purging itself of some of the mythological elements that might stand in the way of incorporating Jesus among the avatars is highly questionable.


More specifically, similar things can be said of the attempt to find more common ground between Krishna and Christ by a selective use of the Krishna sources. As we mentioned above, there seems to be a pretty wide gulf between Krishna as he is portrayed in the Bhagavad Gita, and as he appears in the rest of his mythology. In the latter, his blatant amorality (to put it mildly) seems to stand in the way of any equivalence between him and Jesus, and so we might be tempted to concentrate on the Gita alone, where he is the sublime Lord of the universe. As Parrinder observes, “Whatever were the origins of Krishna, . . . and whatever his later erotic adventures with the milkmaids, in the Gita he is the lofty deity teaching morality.”35 RhadakrishnaSo, maybe one could just confine one’s search for equivalence to the depictions of Krishna that would not be morally repugnant to a Christian.

However, even though this may be a possible thing to do on paper, and even though it may even have been attempted by some advocates, the reality is that it is completely artificial. To draw another parallel to Christian circumstances, such a move would be similar to attempting to study Christianity on the basis of the Gospel of John alone, to the exclusion of the synoptic gospels and the other New Testament writings. Whatever you are going to learn, it is not going to be representative of Christianity since Christianity’s scriptural foundation includes all four gospels and the rest of the New Testament. Similarly, in the real life world of Hinduism, devotion to Krishna always (and I’m using the term in its full universal sense) includes elements from the Gita, but also from the other sources.

As one example, consider the way in which Krishna is portrayed iconcographically. Two attributes stand out: he is always shown with a flute, an object not derived from the Gita, and he is usually in the company of Radha, his great love. Even though it is possible to retrofit all of these features as expressive of an abstract symbolism, their derivation still lies with the narratives of Krishna as cowherd consorting with the milkmaids, and it is not possible to ignore the scriptures known as the Puranas to understand how devotees of Krishna see their god.

In short, common ground between Jesus as avatar and the Hindu avatars is hard to come by if we try to stay true to the realities of both religions. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Only if we hold to the Hickian notion that all religions are obligated to be similar need we be bothered by these differences. After all, if we preserve the distinctiveness of the Christian doctrine from the Hindu belief, we have preserved the distinctiveness of the Hindu belief from the Christian doctrine as well.


1The word Ekankar as a reference to God was picked up by a man named Paul Twitchell, who had supposedly studied under a Sikh master (though I'm not entirely clear on what that title could refer to). He then reappropriated this term as "Eckankar" as the name of his cult, which, a least initially, emphasized travel to distant planets by means of astral bodies--notions that are as far from Sikhism as they are from Christianity. They have now been given a spiritual redefinition under their new leader Harold Klemp. I can understand someone who enjoys fantasies cobbling together a synthetic religion with little credibility in the real world. What oftentimes is beyond my understanding is that some other rational person should assimilate such ideas as truth and stake their eternal destiny on them. See Eckankar's official website.    Back to text.

2The website "Search Sikhism" is one of many places that promotes this idiosyncratic etymology. See also Sikh Religion (Detroit: Sikh Missionary Center, 1990). Some more direct quotations include: Guru Nanak is embodiment of the Light of God. . . . In the body of Guru (Nanak) God revealeth Himself. . . . O Nanak, Jot of Nanak and God are one.Citations are from the Adi Granth Basant Mohalla 5, p. 1192, Maru Mohalla 1, p. 1024, and Gaund Mohalla 5, p. 865 respectively.     Back to text.

3The immediate precursor of Baha’ullah in Iran, who revealed his divine appointment in Mecca in 1844. His followers, the Babis, were put down focrcibly by the Shah of Iran, but further strife ensued on the question of who would be the Bab's successor. Baha'ullah emerged victoriously from the conflict with his half-brother, Sub-i-Azal. However, both men found themselves exiled by the Turkish empire, Sub-i-Azal in Cyprus and Baha'ullah in Acre in northern Palestine.     Back to text.

4Prayers and Meditations, in Writings of Baha’ullah: A Compilation (New Delhi, India: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1986), pp. 712-13.     Back to text.

5 Book of Certitude (Kitab-i-Iqan) in Writings of Baha’ullah, p. 129.     Back to text.

6Ibid, p. 110.     Back to text.

7 Frederick Mathewson Denny, An Introduction to Islam (2nd ed.; New York: Macmillan, 1994), p. 182-83.     Back to text.

8 Ibid., p. 144.     Back to text.

9 University of Cumbria, Encyclopedia of Islam Article: "Nusayriyyah."    Back to text. Islam and Muslims: Alawis    Back to text.

11 "Turkish Alevis" Semih Blog    Back to text.

12 "The Druze Faith. Muslim    Back to text.

13For a thorough discussion of the Nation of Islam see Stephen Tsoukalas, The Nation of Islam: Understanding ‘Black Muslims’ (Philadelphia: P & R, 2001).     Back to text.

14 Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy (New York: Harper & Row, 1944), p. 49.     Back to text.

15 Geoffrey Parrinder, Avatar and Incarnation (New York: Barnes and Nobel, 1970), p. 278.     Back to text.

16Excerpted from “Srimad Bhagavatam Tenth Canto Part One” by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, courtesy of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust International,    Back to text.

17 Swami Venkatesananda, tr., The Concise Ramayana of Valmiki (New York: SUNY, 1988), p. 356.     Back to text

18These summaries are condensed from the discussions of the avatars in Alain Daniélou, The Myths and Gods of India (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1991, orig. 1964), pp. 164-187; P. Thomas, Epics, Myths and Legends of India (Bombay: Taraporevala, 1961), pp. 18-19, 24-37, 89-91; Edward Moor, The Hindu Pantheon (Los Angeles: Philosophical Research Society, 1976, orig. 1810), 180-258.    Back to text.

19For reasons that will become clear later in this paper, I'm intentionally including a picture of a shrine to Varaha in a contemporary Hindu temple.     Back to text.

20The sources differ as to how many steps Vamana took. Two popular versions seem to be: with one step he crossed the physical realm, and with the second he claimed the entire spiritual realm. Thus there was nothing left for him to step over, and the demon could not keep his promise, for which he was then punished. In another version, Vamana got his three steps in: the physical and spiritual worlds followed by the netherworld.     Back to text.

21Specifically, Rama did not kill Parashurama, but defeated him in a challenge, which, nonetheless had serious consequences because it cost Parasurma of moving on to higher worlds. Bala 76-77. Concise Ramayana, pp. 45-46.     Back to text.

22 Thomas, Myths and Legends, p. 6.     Back to text.

23 Daniélou, Myths and Gods, p. 164.     Back to text.

24 N. J. Hein, “Avatar, Avatara” The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions, Keith Krim, ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), p. 82.     Back to text.

25Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion (Boston: Shambhala, 1994), p. 25.     Back to text.

26 Frederic Spiegelberg, Living Religions of the World (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1956), p. 105.    Back to text.

27 Parrinder, Avatar and Incarnation, pp. 120-126.     Back to text.

28 By this, Parrinder means that the very coming of an avatar into the world demonstrates that the world cannot be merely an illusion. There must be some reality to him.    Back to text.

29 Geoffrey Parrinder, “Is the Bhagavad-Gita the Word of God?” in John Hick, ed., Truth and Dialogue in World Religions: Conflicting Truth-Claims (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974), 114.     Back to text.

30 Parrinder, Avatar and Incarnation, p. 239.     Back to text.

31Timothy C. Tennent, Christianity at the Religious Roundtable (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2002), pp.59-60. I am not sure that his second point can be substantiated on the basis of the mythological stories. I believe this would be a philosophical interpretation already.     Back to text.

32John Hick, “Jesus and the World Religions” in John Hick, ed., The Myth of God Incarnate (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977), p. 176.     Back to text.

33Hein, “Avatar,” p. 82.     Back to text.

34The exact statement is, of course: “It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.” Rudolf Bultmann, Kerygma and Myth (New York: Harper & Row, 1961; orig. 1953), p. 5.     Back to text.

35Parrinder, “Bhagavad Gita,” p. 113.     Back to text.