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Main references: Wikipedia's Avatars of Vishnu  
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Hinduism:   Vishnu   Trimurti    Harihara    Shiva    Brahma    Ten avatars (incarnations) of Vishnu  

...... Ten avatars (incarnations) of Vishnu ......

Avatar ("descent") or the incarnation of a deity Vishnu in human or animal form to counteract evil and to preserve & protect the world. The term usually refers to these 10 appearances of Vishnu: Matsya (fish), Kurma (tortoise), Varaha (boar), Narasimha (Man-Lion), Vamana (dwarf priest), Parasurama ( angry Rama with the axe), King Rama (the Divine warrior hero of the Ramayana epic), Krishna (the divine cowherd, Divine lover & statesman), Buddha the Divine sage or Balarama (elder brother of Krishna), and Kalkin (the mighty worrior saviour yet to come). The number of Vishnu's avatars is sometimes extended or their identities changed, according to local preferences.
In this scheme we see the idea of the evolution of the soul from the animal realms to perfect spiritual knowledge.

Ten avatars (incarnations) of Visnu Playing Cards
Vishnu with his 10 avatars (incarnations): Fish, Tortoise, Boar, Man-Lion, Dwarf, Rama with the Ax, King Rama, Krishna, Buddha, and Kalkin.
Image source: commons.wikimedia.org
Playing Cards from a Dashavatara (Ten Avatars) Ganjifa Set: Four Tigers - Number Four of the Narasimha Suit, Seven Tortoises - Number Seven of the Kurma Suit, Three Axes - Number Three of the Parashurama Suit, Minister on Horseback - Pradhan (Minister) of the Vamana Suit, Three Ewers - Number Three of the Vamana Suit.
Ten Quivers - Number Ten of the Lakshmana Suit: Playing Card from a Ramayana (Adventures of Rama) Ganjifa Set (?)
The Boar Incarnation Varaha - King of the Varaha Suit, Playing Card from a Dashavatara (Ten Avatars) Ganjifa Set
Five Lotuses - Number Five of the Buddha Suit, Playing Card from a Dashavatara (Ten Avatars) Ganjifa Set
Six Peacock Feather Crowns - Number Six of the Taj (Crown) Suit, Playing Card from a Mughal Ganjifa Set
Six White Horses with Honorific Parasols - Number Six of the Kalki Suit, Playing Card from a Dashavatara (Ten Avatars) Ganjifa Set

Image source: commons.wikimedia.org


Dasavatar of Visnu
Dasavatar: From left: Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Parashurama, Rama, Balarama, Buddha, Kalki.

Image source: commons.wikimedia.org

#1a: Vishnu as Matsya returning the Vedas to Brahma #1b: Matsya Avatar #1c: Avatara-Matsya #1d: vishnu matsya
#1a: Vishnu as Matsya returning the Vedas to Brahma #1b: Matsya Avatar #1c: Avatara-Matsya #1d: vishnu matsya: Vishnu in the Form of a Fish
#2a: The Churning of the Milk Ocean #2b: Kurma #2c: Kurma #2d: Kurma
#2a: The Churning of the Milk Ocean at Bangkok Airport #2b: Kurma #2c: Kurma #2d: Kurma
#3a: Varaha avatar of Vishnu, killing a demon #3b: Varaha #3c: Varaha, the boar. #3d: Vishnu in the form of a boar
#3a: Varaha avatar of Vishnu, killing a demon to protect the Earth, and the earth goddess, Bhu or Bhu devi, which he lifts on his tusks above the black ocean. c1740. #3b: Varaha #3c: Varaha, the boar. #3d: Vishnu in the form of a boar. Bhudevi (Goddess Earth) is seen on his shoulder.
#4a: Sri Narasimha Dev #4b: Narasimha #4c: Narasimha Disemboweling Hiranyakashipu #4d: Narasimha killing Hiranyakashipu
#4a: Sri Narasimha Dev #4b: Narasimha #4c: Narasimha Disemboweling Hiranyakashipu #4d: Narasimha killing Hiranyakashipu on his lap, as Prahlada watches at the left.
#5a: 'Vamana Avatar' and King 'Bali' #5b: Vamana as Trivikrama #5c: Dwarf avatar, Vamana #5d: The Karate Kid
#5a: 'Vamana Avatar' and King 'Bali' #5b: Vamana as Trivikrama - depicted having three legs, one on the earth, raised leg in the heavens and third on Bali's head. #5c: In his dwarf avatar, Vamana, Vishnu prepares to take his famous first step #5d: The Karate Kid
#6a: Lord Parashurama #6b: Parashurama kills his mother #6c: Lord Parashurama commanding Lord Varuna to make the seas recede #6d: Parashurama and Arjuna
#6a: Lord Parashurama #6b: Parashurama kills his mother on orders of father Jamadagni #6c: Lord Parashurama with Saraswat brahmin settlers commanding Lord Varuna to make the seas recede to make the Konkan and Kerala. #6d: Painting showing Parasurama killing Arjuna Kartavirya. The wild 'avatara' with his eponymous axe, blood-tinged, is depicted slaying the multi-armed leader of the 'kshatriyas'. His obsessive search for vengeance is emphasised by his unbound hair and fixed, steely expression.
#7a: Ramayana #7b: Rama and Hanuman fighting Ravana #7c: Hanuman praying to Rama #7d: Gods Brahma, Agni and Shiva attest to Sita's purity
#7a: Ramayana #7b: Rama and Hanuman fighting Ravana #7c: Hanuman praying to Rama. Seated: Rama and Sita, who are fanned by Lakshmana, Bhatara and Shatrugna. #7d: Gods Brahma, Agni and Shiva attest to Sita's purity while Rama looks on in shock. Still from Sita Sings the Blues by Nina Paley.
#8a: Baby Krishna #8b: God Krishna with holy cow #8c: Krishna lifting Govardhana mountain to protect people and animals from torrential rain #8d: Arjuna and His Charioteer Krishna Confront Karna
#8a: Baby Krishna #8b: God Krishna with holy cow #8c: Krishna lifting Govardhana mountain to protect people and animals from torrential rain #8d: Arjuna and His Charioteer Krishna Confront Karna
#9a: Buddha Painting #9b: Buddha with Angulimala #9c: Statue of Brahma in the background of reclining Buddha statue. #9d: Attaining Enlightenment
#9a: Buddha Painting, Shwesandaw Paya, Twante, Myammar #9b: Buddha with Angulimala #9c: Statue of Brahma, the Hindu Creator God, in the background of reclining Buddha statue. #9d: Attaining Enlightenment
#10a: Kalki #10b: Copper engraving of Kalki #10c: Kalki as Vajimukha, horse-faced #10d: Kalki Avatar
#10a: Kalki #10b: Copper engraving of Kalki from the late 18th century. #10c: Kalki as Vajimukha, horse-faced #10d: Kalki Avatar

Source: commons.wikimedia.org  #1a: Vishnu as Matsya returning the Vedas to Brahma#1b: Matsya Avatar→ media.photobucket.com #1c: Avatara-Matsya→ www.flickr.com #1d: Vishnu matsya
Source: commons.wikimedia.org  #2a: The Churning of the Milk Ocean→ goddarshan.wordpress.com #2b: Kurma→ en.wikipedia.org #2c: Kurma→ media.photobucket.com #2d: Kurma
Source: en.wikipedia.org  #3a: Varaha avatar→ media.photobucket.com #3b: Varaha→ www.flickr.com #3c: Varaha, the boar.#3d: Vishnu in the form of a boar
Source: www.flickr.com  #4a: Sri Narasimha Dev#4b: Narasimha→ en.wikipedia.org #4c: Narasimha Disemboweling Hiranyakashipu#4d: Narasimha killing Hiranyakashipu
Source: commons.wikimedia.org  #5a: 'Vamana Avatar' and King 'Bali'#5b: Vamana as Trivikrama→ www.columbia.edu #5c: dwarf avatar, Vamana→ www.sonypictures.com #5d: The Karate Kid
Source: vamsikarra.wordpress.com  #6a: Lord Parashurama→ media.photobucket.com #6b: Parashurama kills his mother→ en.wikipedia.org #6c: Lord Parashurama→ commons.wikimedia.org #6d: Parashurama and Arjuna
Source: media.photobucket.com  #7a: Ramayana→ commons.wikimedia.org#7b: Rama and Hanuman fighting Ravana#7c: Hanuman praying to Rama#7d: Gods Brahma, Agni and Shiva attest to Sita's purity.
Source: www.flickr.com  #8a: Baby Krishna→ commons.wikimedia.org #8b: God Krishna with holy cow#8c: Krishna lifting Govardhana mountain to protect people and animals from torrential rain#8d: Arjuna and His Charioteer Krishna Confront Karna
Source: commons.wikimedia.org  #9a: Buddha Painting#9b: Buddha with Angulimala#9c: Statue of Brahma in the background of reclining Buddha statue.#9d: Attaining Enlightenment
Source: 13depository.blogspot.com  #10a: Kalki→ commons.wikimedia.org #10b: Kalki#10c: Kalki as Vajimukha, horse-faced→ www.flickr.com #10d: Kalki Avatar

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Dasavatar of Visnu
Hindu gods (Vishnu avatars): From left: Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, Balarama.

Image source: media.photobucket.com

...... Ten avatars (incarnations) of Visnu ......

1) Matsya or the Fish incarnation : Some Hindus believe that this is the similar to the biblical representation of Noah.
Matsya (Fish in Sanskrit) was the first Avatar of Vishnu in Hindu mythology.
According to the Matsya Purana, the king of pre-ancient Dravida and a devotee of Vishnu, Satyavrata who later was known as Manu was washing his hands in a river when a little fish swam into his hands and pleaded with him to save its life. He put it in a jar, which it soon outgrew. He then moved it to a tank, a river and then finally the ocean but to no avail. The fish then revealed himself to be Vishnu and told him that a deluge would occur within seven days that would destroy all life. Therefore, Satyavrata was instructed to take "all medicinal herbs, all the varieties of seeds, and accompanied by the seven saints” along with the serpent Vasuki and other animals.
Matsya is generally represented as a four-armed figure with the upper torso of a man and the lower of a fish.

Reference: en.wikipedia.org Matsya  


2) Kurma or the Tortoise incarnation in Samudra manthan (The Churning of the ocean)
The Devas lost their strength and powers due to a curse by the sage Durvasa because Indra, the king of the Devas, had insulted the sage’s gift (a garland) by giving it to his elephant (Airavata) which trampled upon it. Thus, after losing their immortality and kingdom, they approached Lord Vishnu for help.
Vishnu suggested that they needed to drink the nectar of immortality to regain their lost glory. However, they needed to strive hard to acquire the nectar since it was hidden in the ocean of milk. After declaring a truce with their foes (Asuras), Indra and his Devas together with the Asuras, use the serpent Vasuki as a churning rope and the mount Mandara as the churning staff.
When they began churning, the mount began sinking into the ocean. Taking the form of a turtle (Kurma), Vishnu bears the entire weight of the mountain and the churning continues and various objects are thrown out including the deadly poison Halahala, whose fumes threaten to destroy the Devas and the Asuras. Lord Shiva then comes to their rescue and gathers the entire poison in his palm and drinks it. His consort, Parvathi, clasps his throat and the poison remains there. Hence he became known as “Neelakanta” (literally: “the blue-throated one).
“Fourteen precious things” come out of the ocean, culminating with Dhanvantari, the physician of the gods, appearing with the nectar of immortality. The Asuras immediately rush and grab the nectar while quarreling among themselves.
Vishnu again comes to the rescue in the form of a beautiful damsel, Mohini and tricks the Asuras and retrieves the potion which is distributed to the Devas. Though the Asuras realize Vishnu’s tricks, it is too late, as the Devas regain their renowned prowess and defeat them.

References: en.wikipedia.org Kurma   Samudra manthan   Internal link Samudra manthan  


3) Varaha or the Boar incarnation
Varaha is the third Avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, in the form of a Boar. He appeared in order to defeat Hiranyaksha, a demon who had taken the Earth (Prithvi) and carried it to the bottom of what is described as the cosmic ocean in the story. The battle between Varaha and Hiranyaksha is believed to have lasted for a thousand years, which the former finally won. Varaha carried the Earth out of the ocean between his tusks and restored it to its place in the universe. Vishnu married Prithvi (Bhudevi) in this avatar.
Varaha is depicted in art as either purely animal or as being anthropomorphic, having a boar's head on a man's body. In the latter form he has four arms, two of which hold the wheel and conch-shell while the other two hold a mace, sword or lotus or make a gesture (or "mudra") of blessing. The Earth is held between the boar's tusks.

Reference: en.wikipedia.org Varaha  


4) Narasimha or the Man-Lion incarnation
He is often visualized as half-man/half-lion, having a human-like torso and lower body, with a lion-like face and claws

In his previous avatara of Varaha, Vishnu killed a rakshasa known as Hiranyaksha. Hiranyaksha's brother Hiranyakashipu, greatly angered by this, started to abhor Vishnu and his followers. To which end he decides to attempt to kill Vishnu by gaining mystical powers, which he believes Brahma, the chief among the devas will award him if he undergoes many years of great austerity and penance. This initially seems to work as planned with Brahma becoming pleased by Hiranyakashipu's austerities. Brahma thus appears before Hiranyakashipu and offers him a boon that he will personally make true anything he wishes for. In reply to which Hiranyakashipu requests the following:

O my lord, O best of the givers of benediction, if you will kindly grant me the benediction I desire, please let me not meet death from any of the living entities created by you. Grant me that I not die within any residence or outside any residence, during the daytime or at night, nor on the ground or in the sky. Grant me that my death not be brought about by any weapon, nor by any human being or animal. Grant me that I not meet death from any entity, living or nonliving. Grant me, further, that I not be killed by any demigod or demon or by any great snake from the lower planets. Since no one can kill you in the battlefield, you have no competitor. Therefore, grant me the benediction that I too may have no rival. Give me sole lordship over all the living entities and presiding deities, and give me all the glories obtained by that position. Furthermore, give me all the mystic powers attained by long austerities and the practice of yoga, for these cannot be lost at any time.

One day while Hiranyakashipu was performing austerities at Mandaracala Mountain, his home was attacked by Indra and the other devas. At this point the divine sage, Narada intervened to protect Kayadu, whom he describes as 'sinless'. Following this event Narada takes Kayadu into his care and while under the guidance of Narada, her unborn child (Hiranyakashipu's son) Prahlada, became affected by the transcendental instructions of the sage even at such a young stage of development. Thus, Prahlada when later growing as a child began to show symptoms of this earlier training by Narada, gradually becoming recognised as a devoted follower of Vishnu, much to his father's disappointment.
Hiranyakashipu eventually becomes so angry and upset at his son's devotion to Vishnu (whom he sees as his mortal enemy) that he decides he must kill him, but each time he attempts to kill the boy, Prahlada is protected by Vishnu's mystical power. When asked, Prahlada refuses to acknowledge his father as the supreme lord of the universe and claims that Vishnu is all-pervading and omnipresent. To which Hiranyakashipu points to a nearby pillar and asks if 'his Vishnu' is in it:

"O most unfortunate Prahlada, you have always described a supreme being other than me, a supreme being who is above everything, who is the controller of everyone, and who is all-pervading. But where is He? If He is everywhere, then why is He not present before me in this pillar?"

Prahlada then answers, He was, He is and He will be. In an alternate version of the story, Prahlada answers He is in pillars, and he is in the smallest twig. Hiranyakashipu, unable to control his anger, smashes the pillar with his mace, and then following a tumultuous sound, Vishnu in the form of Narasimha appears from it and in defence of Prahlada moves to attack his father. In order to kill Hiranyakashipu and not upset the boon given by Brahma, the form of Narasimha was chosen. Hiranyakashipu could not be killed by human, deva or animal, Narasimha is neither one of these, as he is a form of Vishnu incarnate as a part-human, part-animal. He comes upon Hiranyakashipu at twilight (when it is neither day nor night) on the threshold of a courtyard (neither indoors nor out), and puts the demon on his thighs (neither earth nor space). Using his sharp fingernails (neither animate nor inanimate) as weapons, he disembowels and kills the demon.

Reference: en.wikipedia.org Narasimha  


5) Vamana or a dwarf brahmin incarnation
Vamana was born to Aditi and Kashyapa. He is the twelfth of the Adityas. Vamana is known to be the younger brother of Indra.
The legend of Bhagavata has it that the Vamana avatar was taken by Vishnu to restore Indra's authority over the heavens, which was taken away by force by the demon king Bali in Dravida. Vamana is a disguise of a short Brahman, carrying a wooden umbrella requested three steps of land for him to live in. Given a promise of three steps of land by King Mahabali against the warning given by his Guru Sukracharya, Vamana, the Supreme God grows so huge that he could cover from heaven to earth, earth to lower worlds in two simple steps. King Mahabali unable to fulfil the promise of three paces of land to the Supreme God, offers his head for the third step. Thus Vamana places his place on King Mahabali's head and gives him immortality for his benevolence.

Reference: en.wikipedia.org Vamana  


6) Parashurama or angry Rama with the axe incarnation
Parashurama a Brahmin, the sixth avatar of Vishnu, belongs to the Treta yuga, and is the son of Jamadagni and Renuka. He received an axe after undertaking a terrible penance to please Shiva, from whom he learned the methods of warfare and other skills. He fought the advancing ocean back thus saving the lands of Konkan and Malabar. The coastal area of Kerala state along with the Konkan region, i.e., coastal Maharashtra and Karnataka, is also sometimes called Parashurama Kshetra (Parashurama's country). Parashurama is said to be a "warrior Brahman", the first warrior saint.

Reference: en.wikipedia.org Parashurama  


7) King Rama incarnation
Rama is one of the many popular figures and deities in Hinduism, specifically Vaishnavism and Vaishnava religious scriptures in South and Southeast Asia. Most of the details of Rama's life come from the Ramayana, one of the two great epics of India. Born as the eldest son of Kausalya and Dasharatha, king of Ayodhya, Rama is referred to within Hinduism as Maryada Purushottama, literally the Perfect Man or Lord of Self-Control or Lord of Virtue. Rama is the husband of Sita, whom Hindus consider to be an avatar of Lakshmi and the embodiment of perfect womanhood.
Rama's life and journey is one of perfect adherence to dharma despite harsh tests of life and time. He is pictured as the ideal man and the perfect human. For the sake of his father's honour, Rama abandons his claim to Kosala's throne to serve an exile of fourteen years in the forest.[8] His wife Sita and brother Lakshmana, being unable to live without Rama, decide to join him, and all three spend the fourteen years in exile together. This leads to the kidnapping of Sita by Ravana, the Rakshasa (Asura) monarch of Lanka. After a long and arduous search that tests his personal strength and virtue, Rama fights a colossal war against Ravana's armies. In a war of powerful and magical beings, greatly destructive weaponry and battles, Rama slays Ravana in battle and liberates his wife. Having completed his exile, Rama returns to be crowned king in Ayodhya (the capital of his kingdom) and eventually becomes emperor, after which he reigns for eleven thousand years – an era of perfect happiness, peace, prosperity and justice known as Rama Rajya.

Reference: en.wikipedia.org Rama  


8) Krishna or divine cowherd incarnation
Krishna is often depicted as an infant or young boy playing a flute as in the Bhagavata Purana, or as a youthful prince giving direction and guidance as in the Bhagavad Gita. The stories of Krishna appear across a broad spectrum of Hindu philosophical and theological traditions. They portray him in various perspectives: a god-child, a prankster, a model lover, a divine hero and the Supreme Being. The principal scriptures discussing Krishna's story are the Mahabharata, the Harivamsa, the Bhagavata Purana and the Vishnu Purana.

Reference: en.wikipedia.org Krishna  


9) Balarama or the elder brother of the divine Krishna incarnation
Balarama also known as Baladeva, Balabhadra and Halayudha, is the elder brother of the divine being, Krishna in Hinduism. Within Vaishnavism and a number of South Indian, Hindu traditions Balarama is worshipped as an avatar of Vishnu, and he is also listed as such in the Bhagavata Purana. Within both the Vaishnava traditions and Hinduism generally he is acknowledged as being a manifestation of Shesha, the serpent on whom Vishnu rests.
The Bhagavata Purana describes Krishna as the original Supreme Personality of Godhead from whom everything else emanates. As part of this divine 'emanation', Krishna's very first expansion is Balarama, and from Balarama all other incarnations of God then appear. Of the three transcendental elements described in Sanskrit as sat, cit and ananda (eternity, knowledge and bliss), Balarama is in charge of eternity and knowledge. Hence he is worshipped as the supreme teacher or Adiguru.

Reference: en.wikipedia.org Balarama  


10) Kalkin or the worrior saviour incarnation
In Hinduism, Kalki (also rendered by some as Kalkin and Kalaki) is the tenth and final Maha Avatar (great incarnation) of Vishnu who will come to end the present age of darkness and destruction known as Kali Yuga. The name Kalki is often a metaphor for eternity or time.
The Bhagavata Purana states, "At the end of Kali Yuga, when there exist no topics on the subject of God, even at the residences of so-called saints and respectable gentlemen , and when the power of government is transferred to the hands of ministers elected from the evil men, and when nothing is known of the techniques of sacrifice, even by word, at that time the Lord will appear as the supreme chastiser. It further describes Lord Kalki's activities as follows: "Lord Kalki, the Lord of the universe, will mount His swift white horse Devadatta and, sword in hand, travel over the earth exhibiting His eight mystic opulences and eight special qualities of Godhead. Displaying His unequaled effulgence and riding with great speed, He will kill by the millions those thieves who have dared dress as kings."

Reference: en.wikipedia.org Kalkin