God and Incarnations




Hinduism accepts that God is with form and also formless. The various Darsanas deal with this question in details. The ultimate Reality or God though is without forms and attributes, however, it assume various forms of the deities. Therefore, Hindu tradition accepts many forms of gods and goddesses as manifestations of the Absolute.


Swami Vivekananda says, ‘These gods are not merely symbols! They are the forms that the Bhaktas have seen.’






Siva (‘The auspicious one’) is the last deity of the Hindu Trinity. He is responsible for the dissolution of the universe. He is the embodiment of Tamas, the tendency towards dispersion and annihilation. All that is born must die. All that is produced, must disintegrate and be destroyed. This is an inviolable law. The principle that brings about this disintegration, power behind this destruction, is Siva.


The divine human representation of Siva is based on a grand conception. Siva is depicted with a Trisula. Siva killed the Tripurasura, the demon of ego with His Trisula. The three prongs of the Trisula represent Vairagya (non-attachement), Jnana (Knowledge) and Samadhi (absorption).


His third eye is the eye of Knowledge. With His three eyes He sees the past, present and future. Siva as the Lord of the universe rides on the bull of Dharma having the four feet of truth, purity, kindness and charity. Siva’s symbol of destruction is the battle-axe. The moon represent Time which stands for Pralaya (dissolution).


Dhuni, or the fire of Shiva implies the fire of Vairagya, burning all attachment and desires. The devotees of Shiva besmear the ashes of the Dhuni on their body as does the Lord Himself. The ashes imply what is left over after the diverse names and forms disappear and the real unity underlying all the difference is attained.


Shiva is a Maha-yogi. He is the all-destroyer, for He dissolves all diversities in the absolute unity.


In South India there are five separate Siva temples representing the five elements (Pancha-bhutas). They are in Kanchi (earth), Tiruvanaikavu (water), Kalahasti (air), Tiruvannamalai (fire) and Chidambaram (ether).


Pancakshari Mantra - Om Namas Sivaya, the five-syllabled mantra of Siva was originally discovered by the sage Vamadeva. Sadasiva is the deity of this mantra. This mantra can be repeated for the sake of Moksha through self-purification. However it can also be repeated to get one’s desires fulfilled, such as long life, freedom from diseases and the troubles created by evil forces.


Another famous mantra of Lord Shiva is the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra ("Great Death-conquering Mantra") also called the Tryambakam Mantra -


oṁ tryambakaṁ yajāmahe sugandhiṁ puṣṭi-vardhanam ǀ
urvārukam-iva bandhanānmṛtyormukṣīya māmṛtāt ǁ





The form of Vishnu is Yogic and the symbolism is based on the Vedantic fundamentals. There is grandeur in the poetic conception of Ananta or the Sesha-sayana form of Vishnu lying on serpent. Many temples are dedicated to Him in this form, like the Srirangam and Trivandrum temples. He sleeps on the milky sea representing the sweet, undisturbed, nectar like calmness of the effulgent Turiya state. He sleeps on Sesha, the huge serpent with upraised hood, symbolizing the intelligent human consciousness. The serpent in Yogic tradition stands for the Coiled Power, Kundalini. The basis of the all-pervading Vishnu must be infinite but the three coils of Sesha show the finite too.


The word Vishnu means ‘one who pervades’. He pervades the whole universe. That is why the Hindus say, ‘God is everywhere’. Vishnu is also called as Narayana (‘one who has made the hearts of human beings His abode’). Some of the popular mantras of Vishnu are:


Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya
Om Namo Narayanaya


Prayer to Lord Vishnu:


Shantakaram Bhujagashayanam, Padmanabham Suresham
Vishwadharan Gagansadrasham, Meghavarnam Shubhangam
Lakshmikantam Kamalanyanam, Yogibhirdhyangamyam
Vande Vishnu Bhavabhayaharam, Sarvalokaikanatham


I bow to Lord Vishnu the one Lord of the Universe,
Who is ever peaceful, who reclines on the great serpent bed,
from whose navel springs the lotus of the creative power,
who is the supreme being, who supports the entire universe,
who is all-pervading as the sky, who is dark like the clouds and
has a beautiful form; the Lord of Lakshmi, the lotus-eyed one,
whom the yogis are able to perceive through meditation,
He, who is destroyer of the fear of samsara (the cycle of life and death). 






Ganesha is the god of plenty and wisdom, of fortune, peace and spiritual success. He destroys all obstacles of man and opens the gate of realization. Calm and tranquil by nature, He represents the conquest of manifested animality which is transformed into spirituality.


Ganesha has an elephant head. There are numerous stories about this. Some symbolic explanation has been given as well. A common word for elephant in Sanskrit is ‘gaja’. Ga means the ‘gati’ or the final goal towards which the entire creation is moving. Ja stands for ‘janma’, birth or origin. Hence, ‘gaja’ signifies God from whom the worlds have come out and towards whom they are progressing to merge in Him at the end.


Gajavaktram surashreshtham karna chaamara bhoositam
Paashaankushadharam devam vandeham gananaayakam.


I bow before, that God, who is the leader of Shiva’s ghosts,
whose face resembles that of an elephant,
Who is supreme among the deities, who sports ears that look like fans
and who is armed with noose and goad.





Also known as Kumara, Skanda, Karttikeya, Sanmukha and Murugan.


He is a popular deity in South India, especially in Tamil Nadu. He has six principles shrines, all on hillocks – Tiruchendur, Palani, Swamimalai, Alagarkoil, Tirupparankunram, and Tiruttani.


Nakkirar explains the significance of the six faces of Sanmukha - ‘One removes the darkness and ignorance of the world and bathes it in light. The second face grants boons to the devotees. The third protects the yajna. The fourth discourses upon the Knowledge of the Self. The fifth destroys evil demons. The sixth glances lovingly at the dace of Valli, His bride from the hills.


Many heroic exploits are attributed to him including the leading of the armies of the gods and killing the formidable demon Tarakasura.

Shadaananam kumkuma raktavarnam
Mahaamatim divya mayoora vaahanam
Rudrasya soonum sura sainya naatham
Guham sadaa sharanamaham prapadye


I seek refuge for ever with the six-faced God of vermilion complexion,
the son of Rudra, leader of the army of gods,
who possessed of great intelligence, and mounted on a celestial peacock,
ever resides in the cave of human hearts.



Mother Kali



The Mother-worshippers generally represent Siva and Sakti together. Siva represents the transcendent aspect of the Absolute Spirit and Mother Kali the Supreme Power is the dynamic aspect. Kali’s dance on the breast of Siva indicates that the whole universe of ever-changing diversities is an appearance of the one changeless Supreme Spirit.


Normally Mother Kali is represented with four arms stretched out over all the four directions. She holds the bleeding head of a demon in the lower left hand, a sharp dazzling sword in the upper hand, a banner of universal fearlessness in the upper right hand and an offer of blissful boons in the lower right hand. Thus one hand destroys the lower forms of manifestation, the relatively unreal ones and the other preserves the world order. So She is both the just Ruler and the affectionate Mother. With the other two arms She brandishes the swords and offers boons and freedom from fear. There are terrible evil forces ready to cut asunder and there is Her grace too. Both are Her aspects. The former ones are necessary to lead the creatures to the latter so that ultimately they may be released from the transmigratory  existence.


The gifts of fearlessness, hope, strength, etc., are being promised by the Abhaya-mudra of Her right hand. This hand is pointed towards the face of Siva, who is of the nature of highest bliss.


The legs of Kali are in a dancing pose. And She is dancing on the calm Siva. Kali is the embodiment of Time standing and dancing the cosmic dance on the breast of the Timeless Eternity, Mahakala. Her nakedness shows that She in infinite, eternal and without any limitation.


Kali wears a garland of human skulls. Destruction does not mean annihilation. It means the lower planes of existence are replaced by the higher planes. The garland of the human souls and their contributions to the world system is on the breast of Time.


Kali also shows are protruding tongue which is better the teeth. This is due to Her wonder and admiration at Her own appearance and performance. The Divine Power is as if ashamed because of Her restlessness on creating the universe in spite of Her transcendent nature and hence Kali bites Her tongue, as is the common human practice. Her third eye is every waking, for it is the eye of Her perfect knowledge of identity with the Absolute.


Kali is the symbol of the Terrible who requires sacrifices. We must give our blood to satisfy Her. This is nothing but complete self-surrender at the feet of the Mother. She is the meeting ground of all the contradictory things, both good and bad.


The Bengali poet Ramprasad wrote numerous mystical hymns and devotional songs on Kali which is even popular even today. In one of his hymns, he says:


You think you understand the Goddess?
Even philosophers cannot explain Her.
The scriptures say that She, Herself,
is the essence of us all. It is She, Herself,
who brings life through Her sweet will.

You think you understand Her?
I can only smile, you think that you can
truly know Her? I can only laugh!
But what our minds accept, our hearts do not.
Ants try to grasp the moon, we the Goddess.


Mother Durga



Durga has been described as the Divine Mother possessing the most beautiful figure, bedecked with jewels. She is the great Queen of the universe and the loving Mother. She is very tender, gentle and seet to those who approach her with childlike simplicity and surrender. She is terrible and indomitable to those who tyrannise over others.


Mother Durga has been worshipped by notable Devas and incarnations. The sage Narada advised Sri Rama to obtain the grace of Durga to kill Ravana and to rescue Sita. Lord Siva also worshiped Durga when confronted by the demon Tripura and Brahma worshipped Her when attacked by Madhu and Kaitabha.


The Mahanarayana Upanishad (2.2) prays to Her saying:


I take refuge in Her, the Goddess Durga, who is fiery on luster and radiant with ardency, who is the Power belonging to the Supreme who manifests Himself manifoldly, who is the Power residing in actions and their fruits, rendering them efficacious (or the Power that is supplicated to by the devotees for the fruition of their work). O Thou Goddess skilled in saving, Thou takest us across difficulties excellently well. Our salutations to Thee.


The Divine Mother by Pravrajika Gitaprana


The Many Faces of the Divine Mother by Swami Yogatmananda




The concept of ‘Avatara’ (Incarnation of the Divine) is one of the fundamental tenets of Hinduism. The theory of avatara was first introduced in the Bhagavadgita


"Whenever virtue subsides and wickedness prevails, I manifest Myself.
To establish virtue, to destroy evil, to save the good
I come from Yuga (age) to Yuga."


Such is Shri Krishna's declaration in the Bhagavadgita on Incarnation. God understands human failings and becomes man to do good to humanity.


Vedanta admits of God’s manifestation as the world, his omniscience as also omnipotence and grace. Hence there is nothing unreasonable in the doctrine that he can also assume a special and unique form as avatara, fully retaining consciousness of the divinity from his very birth.


Another speciality of this doctrine is that God incarnates himself in response to the needs of the times wherever and whenever necessary. Hence there are no restrictions regarding either the number of incarnations or the place. The sole consideration is the decline of dharma and the rise of adharma.


Among all the gods and goddesses, six have earned wide popularity - Siva, Vishnu, Ganapati, Muruga, Sakti and Surya.  Some of these forms of God had become the centre of several of philosophical systems also.


Avatara or Incarnation of God is not a product of history but creates it and shapes it. The primary purpose of an Avatara, as Sri Krishna has stated in the Gita (4.7.8) is to re-establish Dharma or righteousness on a firm foundation. This needs protecting and strengthening the hands of the good people who protect Dharma. And, if need be, subduing and eliminating the evil ones who are out to destroy it.


The Dasavataras

This is the ten avataras of Mahavishnu. However, there is no uniformity in the various lists given about the ten Avataras. Some authorities include Buddha as one of the Dasavataras while in others Balarama (the elder brother of Sri Krishna) is in the list. 


The Bhagavata gives three lists of 22 names, 23 names and 16 names and also declares that the avataras are innumerable.

In the Devi Mahatmya (also known as Chandi), the Divine Mother promises: ‘Whenever there is trouble of this kind caused by the demons, I shall incarnate Myself and destroys the enemies.’ The whole concept of Nava-Sakti or nine manifestations of the Goddess is based on this idea of incarnation. 


For more reading:

Incarnate Teachers and Incarnations


Sri Krishna



Of all the divine personalities, it can be said that Krishna is the one who has influenced the Indian thought, life and culture in a profound way. He has entered, not only into the religion and philosophy of the Hindus, but also into its mysticism, poetry, painting, sculpture, music, dance, and aspects of the Indian forklore. He has been ruling the hearts of millions of Hindus for over three millennia. If a person can make such a profound impact on the Hindu race affecting its psyche and ethos and all aspects of its life for centuries, he is no less than God.


Throughout his life, Krishna’s sole concern was Dharma – to uphold it, to protect it and to reassert its supremacy and to unravel its mystery whenever it became inscrutable.


Krishna, though possessing a heart ‘softer than a flower,’ could exercise an adamantine will and terrific valour when necessary, in defence of dharma and the dharmic people. In fact, he was the strongest man and the greatest warrior of his times. He knew no fear, nor tasted defeat at any time in his life. The demons he killed, the tyrants he subdued were legion. He was an expert in the martial arts. His scholarship in the Vedic lore and the secular sciences and arts, was renowned. His three Gitas, the Bhagavadgita, the Anugita and the Uddhavagita are standing monuments to his learning and wisdom.


The philosophy of life that Krishna has taught us can best be learnt from his own life. The basic note of the music of his life was dharma. And, to him, anything that brought about the good of the individual and the society, the two being in consonance with each other, was dharma. Whenever there was a conflict between these two, it was the social good that he preferred. All his action was unselfish to the core.


The message of Krishna:

Be ever active for the sake of Dharma, for the good of others; but never be selfish. Do your work as best as you can. Follow Dharma and have firm faith that it will protect you. Do not run away from the problems of life; but face them boldly. Pray to God and He will give you the strength needed to face them or transcend them. Never forget that the final goal of life is liberation. Strive your best to attain it through Jnana, and Bhakti, and be free!


The primary sources of the Krishna story are four : the Mahabharata, Harivamsa, the Vishnu Purana and Bhagavata.


For more reading:


Krishna by Swami Vivekananda


Sri Rama



The sage Valmiki described Rama, the hero of Ramayana as ‘Ramo vigrahavan Dharmah’ – Rama is Dharma personified. To speak the truth and to keep up the promise given, under all circumstances – this is the keynote of dharma in the Ramayana. No hardship is too great, no sacrifice too great, when compared to the fulfillment of this dharma. Rama had the full power and strength to vanquish Dasaratha or anybody else and anoint himself as the king. Yet he did not do it since he was afraid of adharma. He is also called Maryada Purusottama – the best of men who has expanded the human possibilities to infinite limits.


The Motherhood of God

The worship of the ultimate Reality as Mother is very ancient. The Rgvedic Devisukta refers to Her as the Empress of the universe. All the different sects of Hinduism have been importance to the worship of the female aspect of their supreme Deity.


Sri Sankara introduced the worship of Srividya, Ramanuja of Sridevi, Madhva of Mahalakshmi, Nimbarka of Rukmini, Ramananda of Sita and Chaitanya of Radhika. As stated by Sri Ramakrishna, the most suitable worship of this Kali Yuga (Yuga Dharma) is the worship of God as Mother.


In his Saundarya Lahari, Acharya Sri Sankara sang:

śivaḥ śaktyā yukto yadi bhavati śaktaḥ prabhavituṃ
na cedevaṃ devo na khalu kuśalaḥ spanditumapi|
atastvām ārādhyāṃ hari-hara-virincādibhi rapi
praṇantuṃ stotuṃ vā katha-makrta puṇyaḥ prabhavati|| 1 ||

‘If Siva is joined to Sakti, He is able to create.
If not so, God is not even capable of movement.’



God as Mother by Swami Atmasthananda



Istha Devata

Though God is one, His aspects for contemplation can be many. The path of Bhakti gives the freedom to the spiritual aspirants to choose any of these aspects for the purpose of meditation. Any one of these aspects which the aspirant chooses becomes his ‘Ishtha Devata’ (chosen deity dear to oneself).


The general rule is that the aspirant has to stick to one Ishtha Devata. He should receive and repeat one mantra pertaining to it till he gets realization. For this he should have only one guru.


This Eka-Nishtha or devotion to one ideal is absolutely necessary for the beginner in the practice of religious devotion. He must say with Hanuman in the Râmâyana, "Though I know that the Lord of Shri and the Lord of Jânaki are both manifestations of the same Supreme Being, yet my all in all is the lotus-eyed Râma."



Though God is omnipresent, He is found more easily in certain places called ‘Divyadesas’ or divine places. Meditation has to be practised on the Istha Devata in these places. They are sixteen divyadesas such as:

  • Vahni (fire)
  • Ambu (water)
  • Sivalinga
  • Mandala (specified geometrical diagrams)
  • Vigraha (image)
  • Hrdaya (the region of the heart)