The religio-mythological concept of dashavatar offers a systematic study of the evolutionary process from rudimentary to highly evolved life. The idea of evolution of mankind, which is inherent in the theory of avatars, was visualised by the sages in India, thousands of years before it was formally proposed, in the middle of the nineteenth century, by the British naturalist Charles Darwin. In Hindu theology an idea is generally presented, not as a dry piece of philosophy; but as a series of symbolic, mythological and moralistic stories. A thought becomes easy to understand and teaching becomes more palatable if the same is explained through simple stories and interesting anecdotes. Following that tradition, the theory of evolution was presented in the form of dashavatar - a set of tales which had religious, mythological, moralistic and spiritual flavour.
The Sanskrit term dashavatar means ten avatars, incarnations of Vishnu. It is believed that in any hour of crisis, God (as Vishnu of the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) descends on earth, in one form or the other, to restore cosmic equilibrium. Vishnu is known to have already taken nine avatars and his tenth incarnation is yet to come. The chronology of these incarnations clearly illustrates the evolutionary process of mankind.
Matasaya, the first avatar of Vishnu, appeared as a fish that saved the world from a devastating deluge. The evolutionary process, thus, started with fish, which represents aquatic life. Vishnu in his second avatar appeared as a turtle, Kurma, which lifted mount mandra on its back to enable the churning of ocean, with the purpose of producing amrit (the elixir of immortality). Kurma, represented aquatic-reptile life i. e. a being that could survive both on water and on land.
The next transition of life was from water to land. Vishnu in his third avatar appeared as Varaha, a mammal, the boar. Once when a huge demon took hold of the earth and dived with her to the bottom of the ocean; Varaha went after the demon, killed him and restored the earth to its original place. Thus, Vishnu once again saved life from extinction. Then came the turn of man-animal. In his fourth incarnation, Vishnu took the form of a lion-headed man called Narasimha, who killed the brutal demon-king named Hiranyakashipu. He thus eliminated terror from the earth.
Vishnu then descended on earth as a dwarf, Vamana (the fifth avatar). He took birth to cut to size the ego of Mahabali, the asura king. A short human being, he is the first representation of the homo sapiens. Vishnu appeared for the first time in a completely human form, in his sixth incarnation. He took birth as Parshuram, Rama with an axe. His declared aim was to eliminate the tyranny of the sinful and immoral kings, from the face of the earth.
Rama, the seventh incarnation is considered to be a perfect example of moral excellence. He is called maryaada purshottam which means the man who is supreme in honour and righteousness.
Buddha, the next incarnation of Vishnu was a wandering ascetic and a compassionate religious teacher who taught a middle path between sensual overindulgence and severe abstinence. Krishna, the ninth incarnation, embodies in himself a unique combination of qualities such as playfulness, love, compassion and statesmanship. He was the fountainhead of worldly knowledge and spiritual wisdom. He represents more complex and manipulative life.
Some scriptures and traditions treat Balaram (the elder brother of Sri Krishna), instead of Buddha, as the eighth avatar. Some texts treat Buddha/Balram as ninth and Krishna as eighth incarnation.
As against the previous nine avatars, Kalki, the tenth and the last one is yet to appear in the world. He is portrayed as a mighty warrior riding a white horse and wielding a fiery sword, blazing like a comet. He represents the self-destructive egoistic living of mankind.
The weapons used by different human forms of Vishnu suggest a progressive transformation of technology. Vamana carried an umbrella. Parshuram used an axe. Sri Ram was the master of bow and arrow. Balaram carried a plough. Sudershan Chakra of Sri Krishna was circular like a disc, which had spinning and flying capabilities. It was a highly powerful weapon, which could tear off the heads of enemies at the command of Krishna. The sword of Kalki is indicative of future weapons of mass destruction.
To summarise, the story of evolution began with aquatic life ; and passing through various phases, culminated in the full human form. Biological and intellectual evolution is still continuing and would continue till the end.
The idea of avatar is also in conformity with the concept of yugas (ages), the cyclical nature of existence. Each mahayuga, one full circle, consists of four yugas namely satya yuga, treta yuga, dwapar yuga and kali yuga. The first four avataras appeared in satya yuga. The next three took birth in treta. The eighth and ninth incarnations of Vishnu descended on earth in dwapar. And Kalki, the tenth avatar, will appear towards the conclusion of kali yuga. It is believed that kali yuga would end with the advent of Kalki. End of kali yuga would again usher in satya yuga. The cycle of existence (beginning, growth and destruction), hence, goes on and on.