The term avatar (avatara) literally means “divine descent” and refers to the manifestation of a Hindu deity on earth. It is roughly similar to the Christian concept of incarnation, except an avatar does not become human but simply appears in human form (as well as numerous other forms) during a particular historical event. Avatars generally appear in order to give guidance to humanity or to accomplish great deeds. Vaishnavites, who consider the god Vishnu as the Supreme Being, utilize the doctrine of avatars in their theology more than any other branch of Hinduism. Hence, the sacred texts and myths that discuss avatars of Vishnu are central to their beliefs. Hindus believe that Vishnu has had ten avataras so far and will most likely incarnate again when humanity needs guidance. However, many other gods, such as Shiva and Ganesha, have also had avatars, and the belief in avatars spans across the Hindu tradition. The Bhagavad Gita, in which Krishna appears as avatar of Vishnu, first solidified the idea of avatars in Hinduism, with further elaboration coming in the scriptures known as Puranas.
Avatars are an important aspect of Hinduism in defining the exchange between the human and divine realms. Whereas Western religions, in various forms, believe God’s direct, explicit contact with humanity is solely contained in scripture, Hinduism holds that gods can manifest at any time to help and guide the world. This open-ended view of human-divine exchange has allowed Hinduism to take a very tolerant approach to other religions by applying the concept of avatars to non-Hindu theologies; many Hindus believe that the Buddha, Jesus, and the Prophet Muhammad were all avatars, usually of Vishnu. In Hinduism, many of the most celebrated stories in the scriptures revolve around avatars, and the images of gods often used in Hindu worship are often images of a god’s avatar.