The scriptures speak of the 10 Avatars of Vishnu - different incarnations that take the form of divine intervention provided by Vishnu during the various stages of human evolution. The "dasavatara" (ten avatars) is meant to re-establish dharma or righteousness and destroy tyranny and injustice on earth.
The 10 Avatars of Vishnu:1. Matsya (the fish)
2. Koorma (the tortoise)
3. Varaha (the boar)
4. Narasimha (the human-lion)
5. Vamana (the dwarf)
6. Parasurama (the angry man, Rama with an axe)
7. Lord Rama (the perfect man, king of Ayodha)
8. Lord Krishna (the divine statesman)
9. Balarama (elder brother of Krishna)
10. Kalki (the mighty worrior)
The last Avatar is yet to appear, and in many versions of the mythology, the ninth incarnation is mentioned as Lord Buddha. But this is a much later addition done at a time when the concept of Dashavatara was already fully developed.
A Cosmological Necessity
The legend of the Avatar, like all myths, is prophetic, says Cosmologist and Astrologer Robert E Wilkinson. According to him: "It is not a mere allegory but an archetypal story describing the incarnations or emanations of living and conscious evolutionary forces. The appearance of the Avatars is also not a random event but a cosmological necessity. The periodic manifestation of the Avatars is determined by their inherent association with the 'Time-Spirit.' They take birth at particular points in the cosmic cycle which correspond to the earth's passage through the zodiacal ages as described in the Rig Veda."
Establishing Order on Earth
In his "Myth=Mithya: A Handbook of Hindu Mythology," Dr Devdutt Pattanaik, one of India's most popular mythologists, writes about the Avatars of Vishnu: "Every time dharma is threatened Vishnu mounts his eagle, the mighty Garuda, and comes to earth ready to do battle. The descents of Vishnu from Vaikuntha to earth are his avatars or incarnations. The form in each descent is different because the demands of the world each time are different. The different avatars thus reinforce the idea that rules and regulations that maintain order are not static by nature. They are forged when the demands of desire clash with the quest for order. As man's understanding of the world changes, desires change and so do concepts of order. Rules have to therefore constantly adapt themselves. Social stability must not be compromised, yet new ideas must be respected. Vishnu's descents are not just about reestablishing order. It is also about redefining them."
Role of the Goddess
Dr Pattnaik adds: "Each avatar of Vishnu involves a crisis involving the Goddess. Vishnu takes the form of a turtle to help the Devas churn Lakshmi out, the form of a boar to rescue the earth that have been dragged under the sea, the form of Rama when Sita is abducted and the form of Krishna to help Draupadi. Thus the Goddess is the embodiment of nature and culture. She is the kingdom and Vishnu is the king. She is Bhoodevi and he is Shripati. Both validate each other, she by giving him powers of kingship and he by defending her."