's avataaras and phases of human life

Paolo Magnone paolo.magnone at UNICATT.IT
Tue Jun 1 18:21:45 UTC 2004

Dear list members,

The dazAvatAra scheme certainly originated much earlier than kSemendra's date, although of course epico-puranic occurrences may not be *datable* in strict terms. Apart from literary texts, however, a Pallava inscription dated in the late VII cent. contains a list identical to the canonic one except for replacing kRSNa with [bala]rAma. A lists of ten occurring in the vulgate text of Mbh XII, 339, 103-4 (rejected from the CE) enumerates haMsa, kUrma, matsya, varAha, narasiMha, vAmana, rAma [bhArgava], rAma dAzarathi, sAtvata and kalki (i.e., leaving out the buddha as 9th and anteponing haMsa). Harivamza I, 31 (CE) enumerates (though not in compact form) ten prAdurbhAvas, somewhat different from the later canonic list: puSkara, varAha, narasiMha, vAmana, dattAtreya, rAma jAmadagnya, rAma dAzarathi, kRSNa, vyAsa and kalki. Another list of ten occurring in the vAyu, brahmANDa and matsya (and ascribed by Kirfel to the "core purANa") diverges even more: vainya [= pRthu], narasiMha, vAmana, dattAtreya, mAndhAtR, the two rAmas, vedavyAsa, kRSNa and kalki. The classical dazavatAra list first occurs in purANas usually regarded as later, such as the padma (uttarakhaNDa), agni, varAha and narasiMha. One may conclude from the above that although the general conception of ten "outstanding" descents (out of myriads: prAdurbhAvasahasrAni samAtItAni anekazaH / bhUyaz caiva bhaviSyanti yeSAM saMkhyA na vidyate) appears to be quite ancient, no common agreement concerning its composition was reached until at least the VII/VIII cent. AD.

I am indeed thankful to John Huntington for his offer to put on display some iconographical evidence.

With best wishes,

Paolo Magnone
Sanskrit Language and Literature
Catholic University of Milan
paolo.magnone at

Jambudvipa - Indology and Sanskrit Studies:

=============== ORIGINAL MESSAGE ===============

On 01/06/2004 at 10.19 Matthew Kapstein wrote:

>> This of course raises the larger question of when exactly the
>> das'aavataara scheme takes on its canonical form. The late
>> A.L. Basham once remarked to me that he did not know of
>> its datable occurrence in the literature prior to the
>> das'aavataaracarita of K.semendra, which would imply
>> that the Kaalacakra is in fact the earliest roughly
>> datable source. But on the surface it seems that this
>> can't be correct. I join with Prof. Newman in seeking
>> enlightenment from those who are expert in the early
>> Vai.s.nava corpus. Of course, art historical evidence
>> might also help to date the basic ten avataara scheme.
>> Matthew Kapstein
>> > The 11th cent. Buddhist Kaalacakra tantra (2nd pa.tala, vv. 6-8)
>> > employs the names of the ten avataaras of to designate ten
>> > phases of human life, from conception to death. I would be grateful
>> > for any references to comparable usage in other Indic sources, or for
>> > expert judgement that this usage is unique to the Kaalacakra.
>> >
>> > John Newman
>> > Humanities
>> > New College of Florida
>> > Sarasota, FL 34243 USA
>> >
>Matthew Kapstein
>Numata Professor of Buddhist Studies
>The Divinity School of the University of Chicago
>Directeur d'études
>Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris


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