When someone says the word “avatar,” what images come to your mind? You may think of a picture that represents you in social media and other online spaces. Perhaps James Cameron’s 2009 film comes to mind. It’s easy to forget the word’s original religious origins, but it communicates a vital concept developed in Hinduism over thousands of years. To understand the journey of this simple word, we need to look at its roots and how it entered the English language.
Avatar: A Linguistic Trip Through History
Look up “avatar” in any dictionary and you’ll see words like “incarnation” and “manifestation.” While they convey some idea of its meaning, we need to look to its deeper roots. The Online Etymology Dictionary states that it comes from two Sanskrit roots: “ava,” which translates as “off” or “down,” and “tarati,” a verb that means “to cross over.”
The word “avatar” or the original Sanskrit “avatara” aren’t used as nouns in classic Vedic texts or the Upanishads. That doesn’t happen until about the 3rd century CE when the first Puranic stories were recorded in written form. In that literature, “avatar” denotes the physical appearance of a deity.
Vishnu and His Many Forms
Just as Christianity contains many denominations, Hinduism is full of philosophical diversity. Vaishnavism is one of its four major traditions, and its devotees believe that Vishnu is the supreme deity of the universe. He’s called the Preserver because he protects and maintains cosmic order. In classical Hindu art, he’s usually depicted with blue skin and four arms. Wearing a garland around his neck, he holds a conch, a lotus flower, a mace, and the Sudarshana Chakra–a spinning disk-like weapon.
Georgetown University’s Berkley Center explains that avatars are a huge part of Vaishnavism. While Vishnu may have assumed an infinite number of avatars, most believers focus on 10 primary incarnations. The first three were animals: Matsya the fish, Kurma the tortoise, and Varaha the boar. The fourth, Narasimha, was half-human and half-lion. The remaining six appear as humans: Vamana, Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, Buddha, and Kalki.
Vishnu assumes an avatar when the cosmic order is threatened and humans need his help. Krishna is the most famous, with heroic exploits that include slaying demons and protecting a village from a massive flood. Kalki, the final avatar, has not yet appeared. Various texts predict that he will arrive on a white horse with a fiery sword to end the Kali Yuga, the darkest age in history.
From Religion to the Virtual World
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary dates the first known English use of “avatar” to 1784. Sir William Jones, an 18th-century philologist, used it when discussing Vishnu’s 10 manifestations in the Asiatick Researches journal. English writers such as Lord Byron began to use this new loan word, and that’s when it took on new meaning. Like Vishnu appearing in the physical world, “avatar” also signified a concrete form of an abstract idea.
From there, it wasn’t much of a leap to the computing world. Inspired by its religious significance, game developer Richard Garriott named his 1985 release “Ultima 4: Quest of the Avatar.” Through a series of quests, players would become Avatars embodying one of eight virtues. Online networks borrowed the term, representing physical users in virtual spaces.
Borrowed Words, Transformed Meanings
Language is alive. It lived on the tongues of our ancestors in southern Africa around 200,000 years ago, and since then, it’s grown and branched into thousands of distinct versions. Human linguistic diversity would not be possible without the ability of language to change. Loan words are just one way that language evolves, but they are a testament to the powers of human connection and cultural sharing.