The Avatar phenomenon should be read in the context of earlier Vedic texts such as the Upanishads and the Puranas instead of the literal interpretation.
Avatar stories in their current form have all been re-written many times in different languages by different people of different mentalities over a period of many millennia. The style of the writers obviously differ. So, while metaphors have been used to describe the older avatars like Varaha, Narasimha, Matsya, etc., Ram and Krushna avatar have been described as human beings. The word Avatar or Avatra means to descend. It is about the divine power which involves the inner Surya chakra and how it manifests. In yogic terms, it is about the energy that flows from the Sahasrara chakra down to the rest of the body. It describes a movement that involved a massive upheaval and in which powers of the positive aspect of creation fought powers of the negative. I have used the words positive and negative because the words good and evil are too subjective.
In recent years especially, a lot of confusion has set in and we find groups of people worshipping Ravana, and Mahishasura claiming that they are their descendants. According to them, these were just political wars between two factions in which their ancestors had lost. They feel that they were bullied in some way by the Brahmins. People seem to forget that being good to a minority or being brilliant, successful, powerful and popular are not enough. A person has to also be ethically and morally very strong. In fact, both the Ramayan and Mahabharat are about a small group of people standing up to a larger, more powerful group because it was the morally correct thing to do. One can also read all these stories as metaphors.
Our Maya philosophy is like the rain, to use a simple analogy. Just as even good quality furniture will eventually rot when left out in the rain; people within Maya gradually start to deteriorate. People like Ravan, Bali etc. were immensely powerful with tremendous spiritual powers, but at some point their ego brought about their downfall. They made mistakes which led to their death. Even other tapasvis and yogis have experienced this. For example, the story goes that once Kumaril Bhatt had said very confidently that ‘if he is a strong believer in the Vedas he shall not fall (fail)’. But he fell hard and seriously injured himself. It is said that he fell because his faith was not perfect since he had used the word ‘if’, which implies the presence of doubt. This is because after reaching a high stage in yoga, the fall is also more dramatic and harmful. Ravan was a great tapasvi who had reached the Siva stage in his penance. But, he had failed several times and once Siva had even trapped his hand under Kailas and injured him badly. This may be read as his failure which was due to his ego which made it impossible for him to progress. He fell from grace and got more involved in Maya which led to his downfall. Sanata Kumars had cursed Jaya and Vijaya who guard the doors to Siva. This is a similar failure and frustration although real ‘cursing’ may not have happened. Hiranyakasyap and Hiranyakasipu are supposed to be versions of Jaya and Vijaya.
Another way of looking at it would be that Ravan the tapasvi was defeated by his inner divine after he himself did intense tapasya. This has been explained in the Sadhna system, in the Gitaji, Upanishads etc. Sri Krushna says that if a bhakta/tapasvi surrenders to him by giving up all Maya attractions, they can connect with the divine or Krushna which is the rasa or essence behind everything. The Rudra aspect will metaphorically destroy the ego or Daxa of the yogi/tapasvi/sadhaka and make him a Brahmagyani. The word ‘mardan’ does not always mean killing but also washing or cleansing. This is why one needs to re-interpret tales of Asuras too.
‘Asusu ramate iti asura’. One who revels in the senses or world of Maya is an asura. This includes all aspects of Maya since ‘apara’ knowledge involves not only physical knowledge but everything that the mind can perceive. So when tapasvi reaches the parabrahman that higher ‘para’ knowledge destroys ignorance or lower level of knowledge and tapasvi becomes more learned. Mahish is another name for Mahesh. This tells us that the Asura was stuck at the stage of being a high-level tapasvi of Siva(Mahesh). He then made an intense effort and then his ‘mardan’ or inner cleansing was done by his inner divine, described as devi powers or Mahishasurmardini.
This is also illustrated in stories of Nachiketa, Rudra-Shakti, Savitri-Satyavan and many others, but in a different way. The trick is to look at the dictionary meanings of the names which are actually descriptive nouns and so could apply to any sadhaka of that particular level. Na+chiket could mean one who is not spiritually(chiket) advanced. That is one who is still stuck in apara world. He finds out the flaws in the yagyas and so is instructed by his mentor (king/father) to work towards ‘para’ vidya in order to be able to help people. This and many other such tales have been incorrectly given a negative spiel. Nachiketa was not being punished by an angry parent, neither was Ram. Yama is not the god of death but the opposite of Maya. This was explained by Pandurang Shastri of Swadhyay Parivar. In ancient tales, king was also a metaphor for the ruling mindset of the people. So for example King Manu is probably short for Manvanatar. Thus those stories would refer to the ruling mindset of the people of that particular Manvantar. Some ancient books also tell the future and that should be factored in too.
In his previous birth Ravan was Hiranyakashyap. Prahlad prayed to Vishnu who took the Nrusimha form and killed the king. Here, if we look at the meaning of each word a parallel story emerges. The word Hiranya+Kashyap can be interpreted as Maya(Hiranyagarbha)+Kashyap. Female rushi would be called Kashyapa. This tells us that there were many female rushis too. There are various meanings of the word Kashyap. Such as deer, fish, tortoise. Here, one should not take these meanings literally but as metaphors. So, for example, tortoise is used to describe the breathing techniques and long life span of a yogi whose diaphragm takes the curved shape of a tortoise. Fish is symbolic of how a yogi’s consciousness should swim in bhavasagar. Also represents the third eye which Arjun used to be able to pierce with help from inner divine Krushna. Golden deer represents Maya and Apara knowledge and also perfect virtue and correct attitude as demonstrated even by Ahalya, Sita etc.
This king had become egotistical and thought he was more powerful than even Vishnu. Many people are like that today. Even though they may sincerely believe in some god and even do a lot of Japa, Sadhna etc., are they really genuinely bhaktas? NO. They may be hypocrites or stupid who may think that as long as they pray they can get away with all the immoral/unethical things they do. Many do not have the willpower to not accumulate wealth. Most will say that it would be foolish not to keep aside some money at least for retirement days. A true bhakta, like Sant Tukaram would say Vishnu will look after him and donate all his wealth to the poor who need it today, in the here and now, and not save it for some future which is not even certain. What if a person does not even live that long? What if there is an earthquake in which his carefully saved assets get ruined? What if his children are spendthrift?
The pillar from which Nrusimha emerged refers to the pillar of fire (refer to Siva Purana story). Nrushah means ‘overcoming men’. Simha could be a metaphor for ferocity but has been used as a symbol for Vedic knowledge. This would mean that Vedic knowledge overcomes and destroys ignorance of men. It is not about someone literally being half man and half lion. The story may not even have involved actual killing the way we understand it today. Once a person learns all the correct things there is no need to kill him since he is no longer harmful to self and others. Or, maybe karmically his body had reached its ‘expiry date’ and so it was necessary to remove him from the equation. It could also mean that the people, or (mankind), implying maybe the citizens, rose up in rebellion and that Prahlad was their leader. Please see the following sloka:
Narayanam Nirakaram Naraviram Narottamam
Nrusimham Naganathamcha Tam Vande Narakantakam
It says that Nath or master of Nagas was involved. Could this mean that perhaps the Naga people helped overcome Hiranyakashipu? Who knows! It’s important since the ancient Naga people were high-level munis with lots of yogic powers. It is written that the ancestors of the Kurus were Nagas, who were, therefore, more ancient and powerful. This is why when Arjuna wanted to marry Uloopi the Naga princess her family was unhappy since the Kurus were considered to be inferior in every way, especially spiritually. In those days spirituality mattered more than anything else and people were judged accordingly. Or, Naga could mean inner kundalini since snake image is often used. This would imply that the divine controls (controller=nath) excessive powers generated by kundalini.
The avatar system is more like a natural process. Just the way antibodies are produced to deal with harmful bacteria, so is the avatar movement, which usually involves many people because it has to be a team effort. Humans are entwined in Maya to work out their karmas and eventually attain moksha or get a final exit from Maya. So there is no reason to believe that an avatar is just one human who does all the hard work while the others just look on. Just like the way it makes no sense if the teacher does all the work for the students, who then remain ignorant. It is clearly mentioned that Krushna is jagadguru, not avatar. So it is likely that the word was coined later since his contemporaries don’t call him that.
Some ideas on how different Avatars could be explained are as follows:
According to Tantra, Ida and Pingala are two veins in a human being’s body, which are also known as Ganga and Jamuna. Through these, a person inhales and exhales. Inhalation and Exhalation are considered two Matsya. A tantric has to control this process of inhalation and exhalation through Pranayam. As this Asana will help one to float on water easily with Plavini Pranayama, it is called fish pose or Matsyasana.
The Matsya Mudra is the mudra of the fish, which symbolizes swimming across the ocean of worldliness without fear. Yogi tells us to be like the fish at the bottom of the pond. He is always in the mud, but never dirty. The Panchamakaras have deep Esoteric meanings in the Dakshinachara or Right-handed path of Tantra. According to them, Matsya (twin fish) is the activation of Ida and Pingala Nadis in the backbone. They are like 8-shaped structure intertwining like two fish. [This could be the Fish that Mahabharat is referring to, who’s eye Arjuna pieces.]
The word Matsya can be etymologically explained as Maya+Atsyati (devourer). So, it means the state of mind which helps to devour or finish Maya. Therefore, the Matsya Avatar could be that upheaval in society in which the majority of the people specialized in above-mentioned activities, and then they got rid of evil. It also helps us to understand the meaning of the word Matsya Kanya. It probably means someone who specialized in above yoga, not a fisherwoman. Therefore it becomes obvious that Satyavati, the wife of Shantanu was a very highly evolved person. Please see below information I found which explains her character:
‘A lot of different conditions come into play for the formation of Matsya yoga. This yoga is formed only if all the conditions are fulfilled. It is necessary that auspicious planets are placed in the ascendant and ninth house of your kundalini. The Lord of the ninth house should also be an auspicious planet. The fifth house should comprise of auspicious as well as inauspicious planets. Moreover, inauspicious planets should be present in the fourth and eighth house. All these conditions need to be fulfilled for the formation of Matsya yoga. With the presence of Matsya yoga, a person becomes a skilled astrologer. You may be intelligent and beautiful if you are born in Matsya yoga. You may even comprise of many other positive qualities if this yoga is present in your kundalini. Due to the effects of Matsya yoga, you become strong, religious and famous. You also have immense knowledge about various subjects.’
There was also an ancient kingdom called Matsya, so maybe Satyavati was called Matsya Kanya because she was of that kingdom. These stories do tend to be metaphorical so either the people of the kingdom specialized in Matsya Yoga or, it could refer to the inner kingdom of a yogi.
In the book ‘Light on the Yogasutras of Patanjali’ by B.K.S. Iyengar, on page 54, there is a good explanation of the Kurma Avatar. He writes that “Atman acts as a tortoise to lift and keep the diaphragm floating upwards, allowing the breath to come in contact with the inner elements of the body.” This happens during pranayama. He also compares the body to the bow in yoga.
So this avatar too refers to a spiritual awakening among the masses.
The Varaha Avatar is described as a boar because when preparing a yagya vedi, mud churned up by boars is used, probably due to some specific composition of the soil. Also, the bristles on its back are a simile for the three holy grass Munja, Durva, and Kusha which are necessary for yagyas. The word Varha can be etymologically broken up into Va+Hra. This probably means Va for Vayu and Hra meaning Bija mantra for Surya and so, Agni tattva too is predominantly involved. This can also be explained about Ram Avatar, because ‘Hram, Hreem, Hroom’, is the bija mantra for Surya. Please see below:
“Having a colour, similar to that of a dark blue rain cloud, with a sound similar to the thunder of a rain cloud, with a body similar to that of a huge mountain, with his fang shining like the white island”. [Harivamsa Parva 3.34.31]
“The mighty boar, whose eyes were like the lotus, and whose body, vast as the Níla mountain, was of the dark colour of the lotus leaves, uplifted upon his ample tusks the earth from the lowest regions”. [Vishnu Purana 1.04.26]
Then the Lord, playing like an elephant, suspended the earth on the edge of His curved white tusks. He assumed a bluish complexion like that of a tamala tree, and thus the sages, headed by Brahma, could understand Him to be the Supreme Personality of Godhead and offered respectful obeisances unto the Lord. [Srimad Bhagavatam 3.13.33]
Varaha which killed Hiranyakshya was also of dark blue colour as stated here:
“The slayer of asuras sparkled with the conch and chakra (wheel) like a dark blue rain-bearing cloud sparkles between the sun and the moon”. [Harivamsa Parva 3.39.14]
Description of Varaha tallies with that of Hari so it’s just a different way of saying the same thing, so it’s not literally a boar but a figure of speech.
VAMAN OR VAAMDEV AVATAR
Vāma is one of the five faces of Shiva, and Vamdeva is associated with the northern direction. This face of Shiva is associated with the shakti of strength and beauty as well as the goddess Maya. Vāmadeva is associated with the Vijῆānamaya Kosha. This face is the Citta rūpa, the form of the universal consciousness limited to the individual mind. Several traditions believe that mantra to Vāmadeva has considerable healing benefit. This is the preserving energy of Shiva and is connected with the air element as well as the Ānahata Chakra. Please see information from taken from http://www.slideshare.net/debkumar_lahiri/goddess-durgaa-and-udgaanafrom-consciouness-to-physicalityas-in-the-vedas-draft-version.
‘In the Upanishads the Purusha has been described as Angushtha Maatra Purusha; meaning the Purusha whose measure is just the thumb. The hymn from Upanishad: Angushtha(thumb) maatrah(only) purusho Madhya(inside) atmani(the being) tishthai(is existing)……..’
This is maybe why Shivlingas look like thumbs, not phalluses. And one can safely assume that the people of those times must have activated spiritual energy as a group and got rid of impurities such as those being spread by king Bali who was the grandson of Prahlad, of the Danavas.
While an individual may have played an important role, it could be that many were involved. For example, Parashuram may or may not have been just one person. Maybe all the rushis got together and using the axe of discrimination (Parashu), plus the shakti of Surya (Hram mantra), were able to get rid of all the evil people of those days. Etymologically the word could be broken into Para+shuram. So the rushis used para vidya and bravery to defeat ignorant people. Rushis were highly learned and would not do genocide by actually killing kshatriyas or anyone else.
It would be theoretically incorrect to add Buddha to list of Avatars since he was a teacher and a guru. There were many others like him including Mahavira and other Tirthankaras. Ram overcame Ravana who had ten heads although not literally. They represent ten mahavidyas of which he was master, a Shakta. Krushna too was divine and was experienced by the characters portrayed in the popular tales as a brother, lover, friend, son etc. This too is explained in the Gitaji. So while Pandavas were very close to him, the Kauravas kept their inner divine at bay by their egocentric ways. Please refer to my essay ‘Myth Busters- Was Vanavas a punishment and was Sita deserted by Ram’ for details.
The main point is that the explanation of the Avatar phenomenon should be read in the context of earlier Vedic texts such as the Upanishads and the Puranas. Our ancients were experts in Sadhana and Vedic knowledge at a time when there wasn’t any outside interference. Most make the mistake of taking the translations too literally. It would also be unwise to explain it in terms of evolution the way Darwinians do. Some people seem to like emulating the West to such an extent that they have taken to talking rubbish like that which is sad and detrimental to Sanatana Dharma.