Indian mythology is complex. The Sanskrit scholar Max Müller (1823-1900) coined the word henotheism that signals that if a god is a funnel into the One, each may call himself the greatest. However, "Many later authors prefer the term monolatry – which is the worship of one god, whether or not the existence of other deities is posited." [EB, "monotheism"].
That takes us to the avatar lore.
Avatars or avataras are descents or emanations into some animal or human form (Dimmit and van Buitenen 1978, 61). Vishnu's avatars are "descents", often called "incarnations". There are ten Vishnu avatars in the work Garuda Purana, twenty-two in the Bhagavata Purana, and many others. In Northern India, Vishnu is said to descend into bodies of both men and animals. One of his incarnations was the fish Matsya. Another was a giant tortoise. A third was a boar who carried the Earth out of the ocean between his tusks and restored it to its place in the universe. The fourth was half man, half lion. He had the body of a man and head and claws of a lion. The fifth was a dwarf. The sixt a warror with an axe. The seventh in this list of ten Vishnu-avatars was a heroic man who fought a terrible with war with bears and monkeys on his side. The elder brother of Krishna, is also included as an avatar, and so may the legendary, heroic, loving and playful Krishna be too. However, in some lists Krishna is removed and becomes the source of all. (WP, "Dashavatara")
There are several variants of the list of Vishnu avatars. "Men make lists, many lists."
Vishnus (Vishnu-avatars) are also interpreted symbolically. There is internal evidence in many Hindu scriptures that such practice has been wide-spread. For example, the Yoga Vasistha presents the Indian epic Ramayana as the outer coat of an inner quest. Like Krishna, Rama is thought of as a whole, complete incarnation of Vishnu.
Yoga Vasistha is presented as a discourse of the sage Vasistha to Rama at a young age. It is the longest Sanskrit text after Mahabharata and Ramayana. From the work:
Sarasvati: "O dear lady, you have worshipped me for a long time with intense devoltion; therefore, I grant you the boon sought by you."
Not all avatars are of Vishnu. In the Mahabharata, these characters are considered avatars among others: Krishna, Arjuna, Draupadi (woman), Drona, and Vyasa.
Further, some avatars are said to be full avataric manifestations, others partial manifestations.
Other avatars than those of god Vishnu are mentioned in such as the Siva Purana. (Shastri 1969, index).
Finally, in skilled meditation there are hardly any outward references on the way "up".
Dimmit, Cornelia, and J. A. B. van Buitenen, trs. Classical Hindu Mythology. Philadelphia: Temple University, 1978.
Shastri, J. ed. Siva Purana, Vols 1-4. Delhi: Banarsidass, 1969.
Venkatesananda, swami, tr. The Concise Yoga Vasistha. Albany: State University of New York, 1984.
Valmiki. 2013. Yoga Vasistha by Valmiki. Tr. Vihari Lala Mitra. Ed. Thomas T. Palotas. Tucson, AZ: Handloom Publishing.
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