When there was trouble in the world, Vishnu would allow a portion of himself to be incarnated as a mortal: a fish, a boar, a dwarf, a semi-human semi-man, heroes like Rama, wise men like Krishna and Buddha. These were his avatars. A Hindu site explains this in detail, as does the Encyclopedia Britannica, though the latter may be subscription only.

Kalki, the avatar that is yet to come (though some believe he is here already), will be a machine-man, says this completely unauthorised site, but the Encyclopedia Britannica unfortunately refuses to confirm this – if true it would be a nice tidbit for a talk on avatars and machines.

11 thoughts on “avatars of vishnu

  1. Francois Lachance

    The Hindu tradition as far as my reading goes doesn’t encompass gender-bending incarnations.

    The Hindu tradition as far as my reading goes doesn’t encompass multiple incarnations in the same time period bearing the same name and shared features.

    The Hindu version of avatar creation appears to be a gender-boundry preserving, anthropomorphic form of parthenogenesis.

    To consider the clone and the avatar is to consider a different form of socio-sexual reproduction and to consider a different relation between the human and the other living worlds.

    A model closer to online games and roleplaying may lie the ethnological concept of transcultration. Consider, for example, the syncretic traditions created by New Worlders crossing Yoruba Orisha with Catholic Saints (Saint Barbara mapping onto Shango; Ifa mapping onto St. Francis of Assisi). Transculturation also can help model situations where the genesis is complex such as the case of collaborative creation of a puppet-identity (one can think of several wizards on a MUD having powers to manipulate [rename, command to emote or say] a chatter bot).

    Avatar of … Avatar from … Nuance.

  2. Jesper Juul

    Someone mentioned to me that Jesus (in the Christian tradition) technically is an avatar since he is in fact God incarnated as mortal human. Makes sense.

    To God, this world is then an MMORPG, Jesus is God’s avatar, and Jesus has one respawn left (at which point the game will end, Armageddon and all).

  3. Rayne

    Not directly related to Hindu deities and their avatars, but related to the issue of non-textual representation — may I suggest Leonard Schlain’s The Alphabet versus the Goddess? Schlain’s contention is that text is anti-female, that the emergence of writing contributed to the fall of the feminine.

    I don’t agree entirely with Schlain; there are points that I think are discrepant, but he may be onto something in regards to the emergence and the fundamental differences in graphic/object-oriented entities versus those represented in text.

    Right-brain/left-brain processing of image versus text may also be a key issue in the user-avatar relation, particularly since there is a gender-bias towards some forms of processing. Believe Schlain discusses this as well, although he may not be the best resource on this issue.

    More food for thought. You’re right, this is fun!

  4. Jill

    Matriarchies are visual, patriarchies are linear and written? I don’t know, I think it’d take a lot to convince me. Those brainsex neurology books tend to fail to convince me, really… I notice Halley wrote about this book a while back. Isn’t it fun when the google search leads you to someone you know?

    Jesper, I love the respawn imagery – though presumably God could just create a new avatar? And what about the Holy Ghost?

  5. RS

    Your post sent me on a search trip on the internet. Some of the interesting links that I found on the net are:

    here are some more references on Vishnu’s avatars -> http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/southasia/Religions/Avatars/Vishnu.html

    -> http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe07/sbe07100.htm

    and there is one site on translation of sacred texts (nearly all)-> http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/

    Another source which says that the last avatar of vishnu (kalki) is in the form of machine-man -> http://ksuweb.kennesaw.edu/~shagin/WLavatarsVishnu.html

    Best of luck for your phd defence 😉 … it looks very scary

    caveat emptor: I am not good at study of religious/sacred texts.

  6. Jill

    Thanks 🙂 Identical text about the machine man exists in several differently laid out websites and none state the text’s origin, so without further sources I don’t think I can use the machine-man thing, nicely as it would fit in.

  7. Francois Lachance


    Closing reading of Jesper suggest that “end of world” is not “end of game” hence the apocryphal possibilities of a Xtian eschatology that speculates on the creation of another world beyond respawning… kinda of interesting to consider that the creation of a given avatar spells the destruction of a world and that the destruction of a world permits the negation of a negation and the emergence of a new world. Avatars as new world triggers?

    And what is the name of the Searle article you are rereading? What journal did appear in? Or is that not sharable until after the new world comes into being after the defense? 🙂

  8. Rayne

    I can understand your concerns about Schlain; I have my own in that I think he missed 1) that women in Asian cultures using pictographic writings were suppressed as much as and in similar time as women in alphabetic cultures and 2) that he may have analyzed and written from a male consciousness (achievement-based, see Jenny Wade-SUNY), not a feminine one (affiliative, see Wade also).

    There may be some merit to brain function differences biased by gender, in part because of biochemistry. I haven’t look yet, but I suspect “throughput” between brainhalves is also an issue, particularly in those individuals who exhibit strongers skills in holistic/systemic thought.

    The respawn concept jogs my memory — something archetypal about it, probably in Joseph Campbell’s work on mythology, about death and rebirth of gods.

    Best ~

  9. Jill

    Today I’m going to read

    Searle, John R. “The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse”. New Literary History 6:2 (1975): 319-332.

    It’s hardly secret: my opponents recommended it to me in their report on my thesis, they think I should take it into consideration and no doubt will ask me about it at the defence, don’t you think?

    So of course I haven’t actually read it yet, though I have succeeded in getting it from the library, which wasn’t that simple since someone else had borrowed almost every copy of the journal for the entire decade, and the librarians had to make threatening phone calls to get it back. Well probably they just made nice phone calls.

    Anyway I have it now. I’ll read it today. Right now in fact. No more of this procrastination.

    Respawn. It is an odd concept.

  10. Francois Lachance


    I dug up some notes on Searle… on the very article you are reading

    Note #10

    Why doesn’t Searle in his progress through genres and language games go from the theatre to the first person narrative to third person realist narrative? Then we could stress the similarity: world construction and then move to the nonfictional as world construction too.

    From baking cake to building societies, networks, and environments. [One reading of Searle seems can lead to stranding play writing in the sphere of the domestic (however gendered) as instruction writing for baking a cake.]

  11. Francois Lachance

    The fourth note on Searle seems to be inspired by the cover of New Literary History 6:2. The cover depicts a fragment of an aboriginal cave drawing, Arnhem Land, Australia “Pursuit of the evil spirit Adungun by an aborigine.”

    The fourth note plays with the hunter hunted theme:

    Note that Searle’s initial examples involve women as authors. His last two involve men. (Cf. Adrienne Rich (1975) “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying”) Though he claims that the examples were chosen at random, gender politics are certainly at work in the efficacy of the example text in producing events in the world. The male authored texts produce either discourse _about_ fiction (i.e. more discourse) or a performance (i.e. they are instructions for mounting a play). The female-authored texts selected for discussion do not display such productivity. Granted Searle could have chosen all male or all female authors, could have presented two males first and two females second. I am here stressing the sexed terms, male & female, and not the gendered terms, masculine and feminine, because I believe that there is a reproductive politics (conscious or not) at work in Searle’s article. I think one could read Searle’s characterization of fictional works as a variation on the theory of woman as womb-receptacle — look at how towards the end of the article the when Searle looks at the author as creator, check the impact of the masculine pronouns to convey the universalist position. Could it be that the “cake baking” figure towards the end is a signal of a feminization of fiction regardless of sex of author? And that such a feminization slights designs on world building?

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