Question: "What is an avatar in Hinduism? Was Jesus an avatar?"
Answer: In Hinduism, an avatar is the bodily incarnation of a deity on earth. The god can become incarnate in one place at a time as a full avatar or in many places simultaneously through partial avatars called amshas, such that the main form of the god can still communicate with the partial materializations. One could view avatars as embodying the concepts of pantheism (god is all) and polytheism (many gods).
The belief in Hindu avatars is similar to the Christian heresy of Docetism, which is the belief that Jesus Christ only appeared to be human. Docetism teaches that Jesus’ body was spiritual, rather than physical; thus, He was unable to suffer physical pain. In Hinduism, the avatar appears to the devotee in whatever form the worshiper envisions, which, according to Hindu belief could be Mohammed, Krishna, Jesus, Buddha, or any other personal god. An “unqualified” person would take the avatar to be an ordinary human.
The purpose of the avatar’s manifestation is to restore dharma, or righteousness, to the cosmic and social order. Dharma encompasses behaviors such as duty, ritual, law, morality, ethics, good deeds, etc.—anything considered critical to maintaining natural order. That which is unnatural or immoral is called adharma.
Avatars are most often associated with the god Vishnu, one of the members of the Hindu “Great Trinity” or Trimurti (although any Hindu god may manifest as an avatar). Vishnu is considered the maintainer or preserver, as opposed to the other members, Brahma the creator and Shiva the destroyer. According to the Bhagavata Purana, a book of Vedic Sanskrit traditions, Vishnu has incarnated as innumerable avatars in unlimited universes, though there are ten major incarnations, known collectively as Dashavatara.
Some Hindus consider Jesus as an avatar and, more specifically, as the reincarnation of Krishna. However, Jesus was not reincarnated; He was resurrected. Jesus was not an avatar; He is fully human and fully God. Please read our article on the Trinity to better understand the relationship between the members of the Christian Godhead. After His crucifixion, Jesus was resurrected bodily.
In some ways Jesus may seem to fit into Hindu avatar theism; for example, by bringing the restoration of righteousness, Jesus is, in fact, the only path to eternal salvation. In John 14:6, Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This coming to the Father is accomplished via belief (John 3:18) and repentance (Luke 13:3). The consequences of unbelief are harsh and eternal (Revelation 21:8). First Thessalonians 1:9-10 tells us to turn “from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.”
To find out how you can escape God’s wrath and live eternally, please read our article "How can I be saved?" For an interesting discussion regarding the specific differences between Christianity and Hinduism, please click here.