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Vishnu has been known to intervene in human affairs by appearing on Earth in various incarnations known as avatars. Usually the avatars appear at times of crisis; this could be during a natural disaster or other event that results in the structure of society losing its natural balance. There are ten avatars of especial importance; these are known as Dashavatara.
Vishnu first came to Earth as Matsya, the fish, when a great flood covered the Earth. A demon named Hayagriva snatched the sacred texts out of Brahma's hands, and Matsya helped Manu, the first man, get them back.
Vishnu's second incarnation was a turtle named Kurma. He supported Mount Mandara, a spur of Mount Meru, on his back when the gods used it to churn the Ocean of Milk. It brought back the amrita, which Vishnu advised them to do, and other precious objects along with divine beings of benefit to humankind.
During this lifetime, his two gatekeepers, Jaya and Vijaya, were reincarnated into two asuras named Hiranyakashipu and Hiranyaksha. As the boar, Varaha, Vishnu rescued the Earth goddess Prithvi from the great flood and killed Hiranyaksha. It is believed that he also lifted the Earth above the waves with his tusks.
During Vishnu's fourth incarnation, Hiranyakashipu banned the worship of Vishnu, but his son disobeyed. Hiranyakashipu had a boon that he couldn't be killed in day or night, inside or outside, with weapons or bare hands, by man or beast, or on the earth or in the sky. This made him feel immortal, and he banned the worship of the gods. When the king mockingly asked his son Prahlada if Vishnu was in a pillar of their palace, Vishnu sprang out of the pillar as the man-lion, Narasimha, and fought Hiranyakashipu. He put Hiranyakashipu on his lap (not sky or earth), did this at twilight (not day or night), and on the doorstep (not inside or outside). Since Narasimha was a man-lion (not a man or beast) he used his claws (not weapons or bare hands) and killed him.
Vishnu's fifth incarnation was a brahmin dwarf named Vamana. He defeated the asura king Mahabali who wanted to rule all three worlds: heaven, earth and the underworld. Vamana approached Bali and requested as much land as he could cover with three paces. When Bali agreed to it, Vamana grew to an immense size. He took one pace covering the earth and underworld then another to cover the entirety of heaven. With no room for the third pace, Bali admitted defeat explaining that all living and non-living things are God's creation, and so it was God's right to have their return. With Bali's offering, Vamana used his third pace to step on the asura's head sending him to the underworld.
Parashurama was a sage who always carried an axe. After Mahabali stopped ruling, it was up to the Kshatriyas. They became needlessly and incredibly cruel, inflated by their new importance in society. Vishnu incarnated as Parashurama and killed Karthivirya Arjuna, who has 1000 arms. After this, his sons killed Parashurama's father. Inflamed with wrath, Parashurama killed 21 generation of Kshatriyas to avenge his father and to restore righteousness in the world.
Rama is the main protagonist of Valmiki's Ramayana was the seventh incarnation of Vishnu. He fought Ravana, the ten-headed rakshasa, to save his wife, Sita, who was said to be an incarnation of Lakshmi, Vishnu's wife.
Krishna was the eighth incarnation of Vishnu and an important character in Mahabharata. He was the son of Vasudeva and Devaki.
Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, is commonly included as an avatar of Vishnu in Hinduism.
Kalki is described as the final incarnation of Vishnu, who appears at the end of each Kali Yuga. He will be atop a white horse and his sword will be drawn, blazing like a comet. He appears when only chaos, evil and persecution prevails, dharma has vanished, and he ends the kali yuga to restart Satya Yuga and another cycle of existence. This incarnation hasn’t taken form yet.
Mohini is the only female avatar of Vishnu. She distracted asuras during the churning of the Ocean of Milk so the devas can drink the amrita. Mohini also defeated Brahmasura, who fell in love with her, by convincing him to dance the same dance she was doing. She put her hand on her head and Brahmasura turned to ash when he did the same.
Mohini is not considered a part of the Dashavatara.
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- Vishnu's name is derived from a Sanskrit word which means "all-pervader".
- Myths and Legends: An Illustrated Guide to Their Origins and Meanings by Philip Wilkinson
- Aru Shah and the End of Time, Ch. 12