Reference has been made to the ten principal "incarnations" of Vishnu; and, as their idea is repeated in the Epics and the Puranas, and occupies an important place in the scheme of ancient thought, it would be of interest to explain what they mean. As in their existing form they do not appear to have any relation to any great moral or spiritual values of life, it would also show what can be achieved by means of the application of the method of interpretation explained in the Mimansa. However, only a very brief explanation can be offered here; but it would be enough to show that they follow the same pattern of thought as the systems of philosophy and religion, and explain the evolution of the idea of God in all of them.
The idea of incarnation: In this connection it is necessary to understand the idea of an "incarnation" of Vishnu, as well as that of the deity. The Mimansa tells us that Vishnu refers to the intellect; and if we divide the word into parts, we shall find that he refers also to the mind and the objects of Nature. This means that he represents the idea of God such as we can obtain by reference to our intellect, mind, and the objects of Nature.
Now, Vedanta tells us that we can understand the idea of Brahma or God in three ways, by reference to the character of our own soul, by reference to Nature and its attributes, and by means of negative ideas, such as "not this, not that", the unknowable and the unmanifest.
It also tells us that the best way of understanding Him is by reference to Nature, for, as we have seen, we can transform Nature itself into God by means of the idea of Sacrifice, and understand Him in terms of Goodness, Intelligence and Joy, or Sat-chit-ananda. On the other hand, it is difficult to understand the true nature of the soul as soul, and the best way of grasping its idea too is to think of it in terms of the intellect. Similarly, "negatives" can convey but little that gives us a definite idea of God, and only implies that He transcends all that the mind of man can think of or imagine. The simplest way of thinking of God is, therefore, to conceive of Him as Supreme Intelligence, if we think of Him in terms of intellect or the soul, and as Goodness, intelligence and Joy or Sat-chit-ananda, if we think of Him in terms of the attributes of Prakrti or Nature. There is no contradiction between the two, for the intellect, as the Sankhya has told us, is part of Prakrti itself; but in either case we attempt to associate certain attributes with Him, for otherwise we cannot form any definite idea of the Deity. This may be said to be an intellectual conception of God, having a bearing on the idea of goodness or the essential character of the mind, and also associated with the attributes or objects of Nature: and this, as we have seen, is the idea of Vishnu. As an "incarnation" means an embodiment of an idea, the "incarnations" of Vishnu would refer to different ways in which the idea of God can be represented in terms of the attributes and objects of Nature.
The Sanskrt word for an "incarnation" is an avatara, which also means a savior, or one who comes down to save those who are likely to be lost in error or the darkness of ignorance; and this really means that, if we understand the idea of God, as exemplified by an "incarnation", we can be saved, from our own mental obscuration or evil in the world.
Thus we see that there are two principal ways of thinking of God, as one without any attributes, and one with attributes; and the one is called nir-guna and the other sa-guna conception of the Deity; and an "incarnation" gives us the latter conception of God.
The pattern: We have stated that the idea of the ten principal "incarnations" of Vishnu follows the same pattern and thought as the great systems of philosophy and religion. We have seen the bases of the six great systems of philosophy and noticed how the Mimansa, based on the character of ahankara or the I-as-an-actor, has no place in the construction of the three principal systems of religion, because the regard the soul as an actor, and, in the circumstances, there can be no place for ahankara also as such.
We have also seen how the range of thought of the system of Brahma extends from Sankhya to Nyaya and the Vaiseshika; of Mahadeva from Nyaya to Vaiseshika and Yoga and of Vishnu from the Vaiseshika to Yoga and Vedanta. W have noticed that each of these has its own idea of the existence of God, so that, as there are nine points of view, w should have nine "incarnations" of Vishnu to represent them But, as we have observed, Vedanta is based on the character of the soul, and it is not possible to understand its tm character as such, or without reference to the intellect; am so it is not possible to have an "incarnation" of God ii terms of His idea in pure Vedanta; and his highest "incarnation" or conception in terms of any attributes correspond to that of Yoga, where that system may, for practical purposes be identified with Vedanta, even as intellect is with the soul. This, as we have stated, is the idea of Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita, where Krshna is called Yogesvara or the God of Yoga This gives us eight "incarnations" of Vishnu, corresponding to the eight points of view of the different systems of philosophy, in so far as they are incorporated in the three great systems of religion; and this completes the whole ascending scale of thought from Sankhya to Yoga, or the Digambara school of Jainism to the qualified monistic school of Vishnu.
We have seen that, after attaining to perfection, a man must prepare for death; and that is the descending scale of thought, represented by the ninth "incarnation", Buddha. We have now completed the whole cycle of human thought, and understood all ways of looking at Nature and God; and so, after this, whichever way we turn, we find nothing but the presence of God everywhere in the world; and this is signified by the tenth "incarnation", Kalki.
This is the pattern of thought of the ten principal "incarnations" of Vishnu; but it is necessary to understand what exactly they signify, and how this can be proved to be true.
Ten and twenty one incarnations: We have referred to ten principal "incarnations" of Vishnu; but the Bhagavat Purana mentions as many as twenty-one.
In this connection it would be enough to observe that some of these additional "incarnations" are meant to elucidate the idea of the ten principal ones, while others would refer to certain intermediate ideas of the different systems of religion. For instance, the first of the ten principal "incarnations" is said to be Matsya or the Fish; while we are told that the first of the twenty-one is Purusha, which, as we notice in all systems of philosophy, refers to the individual soul; and we find that the idea of the two is identical. We shall accordingly limit our explanation to the ten principal "incarnations" of Vishnu.
The fish and the Sankhya: We have to begin at the bottom of the scale, that is, with the Sankhya in the system of Brahma; and the first "incarnation" is Matsya or the Fish. Let us see what the connection between the two is.
We have noticed that the Sankhya has no place for God as a creator in its scheme; but it is prepared to concede that, if we conceive of Him as a liberated soul, altogether different from the world and having nothing in common with it, it would be possible to prove His existence. The crucial thing, therefore, is to understand the character of the soul, as it is conceived in this system; for it is this that is represented by Matsya or the Fish as the first "incarnation" of Vishnu.
The story of this "incarnation" is given in a separate Purana, called by its name; and if we interpret the text in accordance with the method explained in the Mimansa, we shall find that the Fish refers to the soul, characterised by self-knowledge, and so may be regarded as the most perfect embodiment of the idea of God as conceived by the Sankhya.
As the "fish" refers to the soul, and water, even as the Mimansa tells us, refers to Nature, the relation between fish and water should, a far as possible, correspond to that between soul and Nature, as conceived by the Sankhya; and that would illustrate the idea of an "incarnation" more clearly still.
The Sankhya tells us that the soul is altogether different from all that is in the world, although it dwells in its midst; and corresponding to this we may conceive of the fish as altogether different from water, although it lives in it.
The Sankhya cannot explain the origin of the soul, and so it may b regarded as self-created. The fish belongs to the class of aquatic animals some of which are characterized by parthenogenesis, that is, that they can reproduce their species without any fertilization. The fish may, therefore be said to represent this character of the soul.
The fish may be said to move in water like the soul in the body. It is also believed to be characterized by memory, which is said to be a special attribute of the soul; and so it may be said to possess self-knowledge, th special characteristic of a liberated soul, according to the Sankhya.
As a total renunciation of action is a characteristic of the liberated soul according to the Sankhya, the fish may be said to satisfy this condition too, more than any other creature in the world; for like other animals, it needs no clothes to wear; but, unlike many, needs no shelter too; and sc far as food is concerned, it cats indeed, but becomes the food of others in ia turn: and food, shelter and clothes are the essential causes of action, and the fish needs them the least.
Thus, if we wish to describe the soul in terms of a living creature, we cannot do better than describe as a fish in water. It may be of interest to point out that there is a reference to Virata and the Kingdom of the fish in the story of the Mahabharata; and there too the idea is exactly the same.
The tortoise and Nyaya: After the Sankhya we pass on to Nyaya; and we have observed that it is based on the character of the senses; and, so far as the idea of God is concerned, it has two points of view, that He is but a spectator of the work of Prakrti, or that He has but a small share in the work of creation. The first of these belongs to the system of Brahma; and, as its main conclusion is that the soul should engage in the least little action it can, and remain as a spectator of things for the most part, this, it believes, can best be secured by means of a complete control of the organs of the senses. And it is this idea of control that is represented by the Tortoise, as the next "incarnation" of Vishnu.
The boar and the Vaiseshika: After Nyaya comes the Vaiseshika, based on the character of the mind, and constituting the topmost point of the system of Brahma. We have observed that the attribute of the mind is desire, which contains an essential element of goodness, so far as the possessor of it is concerned. The "incarnation" of God in this system would accordingly be one who, while doing good to himself, does good to others too; and it is this that is personified by the third "incarnation", the Boar.
Incarnations and the system of Brahma: These are the three "incarnations" of Vishnu in the system of Brahma, which, as we have seen, is based on the character of Prakrti or Nature as the supreme, chief, or major creator of the universe. They are all animals, for Prakrti, as the Mimansa tells us, is represented largely by the animal world. They are also associated with water in more or less degree, the fish entirely so, the tortoise is amphibious, while the boar, though living on land, loves to wallow in the mire; and that is so because water is specially symbolic of the idea of Nature or Prakrti, as land would be of God; and so the degree of association with water represents the measure of belief in the creative power of Nature or Prakrti.
Incarnations and the system of Mahadeva: We have dealt with the idea of the "incarnations" of God or the highest conception of the soul in the system of Brahma, and now pass on to the system of Mahadeva, the range of whose thought extends from Nyaya to Vaiseshika and Yoga; and so it too has its three "incarnations" corresponding to the idea of God and the soul in these systems. This system is based essentially on the idea of God and Nature as joint creators of the universe, and it is a matter for consideration whether the share of Nature is more than that of God, or the two are equal, or the share of God is more than that of Nature. Again, as the idea of God is represented by animals in the system of Brahma, the "incarnations" in the system of Mahadeva refer to human beings, for the idea of God and Nature, Purusha and Prakrti, or man and woman, as joint creators of life is best represented by the life of man.