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Incarnation of Lord Shiva or the avatars of Lord Shiva are many in number. The doctrine of avatar or incarnation can be summarized as the faith or belief that from time to time the Almighty purposely descends down or is born in a certain form to carry out a certain purpose, and then leaves the human form after the fulfilment of that purpose. Lord Shiva is a prominent Hindu deity, and one aspect of Trimurti. In Hinduism's Shaiva tradition, Shiva is seen as the Supreme God. In the Smarta tradition, he is considered to be one of the five primary forms of God. The believers in Hinduism who worship Shiva are called Shaivites or Shaivas. Shiva is mainly worshipped in its abstract form of Shiva Linga. In image, Lord Shiva is usually represented as immersed in high meditation or dancing the tandava upon the demon Maya. Like the several incarnations of Lord Vishnu, which appeared in the earth in order to suppress the evil and let truth to prevail every where, in the same way, the various incarnations of Lord Shiva appeared in the world for good.
Bhairava is one of the several incarnations of Lord Shiva and is often represented with a third eye, long teeth and hair of flames. This incarnation of Shiva is seen wearing a garland of skulls. Bhairava holds a snake or naga and trident or trishula in his left arm and holds a noose or pasha and a cup or kapala in his right arm. He is seen standing with his vehicle or vahana, a dog, behind him. The deity Bhairava has several other forms in which he is represented having five heads and ten arms. He has few similarities with the Buddhist Mahakala as some forms of him also carry a noose. Bhairava worked as a door guardian or a duarapala and he is also known as Kshetrapala while Mahakala worked as a faith guardian or dharmapala.
Allama Prabhu was among the Vira Shaiva, a less popular incarnation of Lord Shiva. Allama Prabhu was believed to be a Brahmin who acted very closely with the elder Basava either as a primary instigator, or subsequent assistant. However, he later became Basava's guru or spiritual adviser. Allama Prabhu was involved in the revolution at Kalyanapuri in which theBijala raja was slain and a new religion was established. A famous Telugu poem called the 'Prabhu Linga Lila' was written to bring to light the magnificence of Allama Prabhu as an incarnation of Lord Shiva. In this poem his chastity that resisted all the fascinations of the 'tamasa guna' or evil portion of Parvathi, which was incarnated as a woman or Maya to tempt Lord Shiva was described. The visit of Allama Prabhu in various places mainly to Sri Sailam in Telingana and performance of several wonders are narrated in the Basava Purana. However, there is no exact record of how Allama Prabhu died.
Khandoba is one of the incarnations of Lord Shiva and can be often seen with the elements such as a sword, drum, trident and bowl. The vehicle or the vahana of Khandoba is a horse and he may be seen associated with a dog. The sect of Khandoba is not considered to be very old. The first record of the Jejuri temple of Khandoba belongs to the late fourteenth century which is perhaps later than the beginning of the cult itself. The early look or appearance of Khandoba is linked with at least two mythological stories. According to one of the legends, the God made himself known to a number of cowherds who were resting in a field but went away again when one of his most pious worshippers approached. Thus, the devotee was disappointed very much and the elders of the village became suspicious about the significance of a Linga that was found on the spot where Khandoba appeared. A strange contest was held to end such doubt, which involved cutting lines in the earth. The pious devotees of Khandoba won and a shrine of Khandoba was constructed at the place where he appeared. This legend involves all the elements of a rustic myth meant to impress villagers and also bears historical stuff regarding clashes between prominent local families.
There is another legend and it links Khandoba more directly to Shiva and even brings reference of Lord Vishnu. This is somewhat similar to other narratives which describe the interference of Lord Shiva against the devastation done by the demons against the worlds of gods and men. In this second story connected to the appearance of Khandoba, the reincarnation of two demon kings were told, who were reborn after they were killed in a battle. The fight involved the participation of Lord Vishnu against the demons. Finally, Shiva had to take the form of Khandoba or Martand so as to lead the winning army. This encounter took place on Jayadri Mountain, which is now called Jejuri. Apart from these, there are various other incarnations of Lord Shiva including Shveta, Sutara, Madana, Suhotra, Kankana, Lokaksi, Jaigisavya, Dadivaha, Rishabha, Bhrgu, Ugra, Atri, Bali, Gautama, Vedashiras, Gokarna, Shikandaka, Jatamali, Attahasa, Daruka, Langali, Mahayama, Muni, Suli, Pindamunishvara, Sahishnu, Somashara and Nakulishvara.
The doctine of incarnation (Avatar) is one of the most widely known of Hindu beliefs. A common question many ask, after learning of the many incarnations of Vishnu in Vaishnava theology is whether Shiva also has incarnations (Avatars), and if not, why not? The answer to this question is quite complex and technical. Obviously as one might expect, the answer will also depend on the person answering - whether it is a "general" Hindu person who speaks from a Smarta perspective, or if it is a Shaivite Hindu who speaks from a Shaivite perspective. The perspectives presented below are from Shaivite schools of thought.
What is Incarnation (Avatar)?
The Sanskrit term avatara (derived from ava + tarati) literally means "descent" or "to cross/come down". The doctrine of Avatar can be loosely summarized as the belief that from time to time God specifically descends down or takes a birth in a certain form, usually human, to accomplish an intended purpose, and then quits that form after fulfilling that purpose. This doctrine is an essential part of Vaishnava belief, which elaborates various types and grades of Avatars. The most famous of the Vaishnava Avatars are obviously Rama and Krishna.
The doctrine of Avatar may be traced back to Tantric texts of Vaishnavism called the Pancharatra Agamas, which elaborate the five forms of God, including the Avatar form which is technically called the Vibhava Rupa (form of might or magnanimity). This early teaching of the followers of the Pancharatra system was summarized in the Narayaniya section of Shantiparva (book 12) of the Mahabharata epic. Following the Mahabharata, the Avatar doctrine received further structuring with the composition of the Puranas. This is the basis of the incarnation doctrine known in Hinduism today, which is Vaishnava in origin, but also accepted by Smartas with certain philosophical twists.
Agamic Shaivism does not recognize Avatars
From the standpoint of Shiva-Shasana (Agamic Shaivism), God has no Avatars (incarnations). What do we mean by Avatar (incarnation) here? As used here, Avatar or incarnation specifically means the idea that God takes a birth in a certain family, fulfills the intended purpose, and then gives up that form - this sort of teaching is absent in Shaivism and the Shaiva Agamas.
Now, what about all the instances in the secondary literature - Puranas and Itihasas - where Shiva appears in one form or another: are these legends completely rejected by Shaivites? No, these legends are not rejected by Shaivites, but put into perspective. These various appearances of Shiva in mystic visions, in various legends, stories, Itihasas, Puranas, etc. are referred to as forms or manifestations (not Avatars or incarnations), and technically termed Maheshvara Murtis (forms of the Great Lord). In fact, Agamic Shaivism recognizes 64 of these Maheshvara Murtis, and considers 25 of them as primary. These forms, however, are not to be termed Avatars.
"Avatar" in Agamic Shaivism
Within Shaivism, one finds that the term avatara (i.e. "descent") has a different connotation altogether. The descent in Shaivism is not of God's form, but of God's knowledge. Some of the earliest of Shaiva Agamas begin with chapters called Tantra-Avatara Patala (Chapter on the Descent of Tantras). The most famous one of these comes from the first Agama text of Shaivism, the Kamika-Agama Mahatantra, which explains that Shiva alone is the source of all knowledge - Vedic, Agamic, philosophical, secular and even heretical. Since all knowledge is considered descended from Shiva Himself, Shiva-Dakshinamurti is the primal Teacher, the Guru of all gurus.
There is nothing greater than the Guru, nothing greater than the Guru, nothing greater than the Guru, nothing greater than the Guru. Shiva is Guru. Shiva is Guru. Shiva is Guru. Shiva is Guru. (Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati V:63)
Any human Guru or Siddha who is fully realized and perfectly embodies the divine knowledge of Shiva is therefore identified with Shiva Himself. This is why we find the most famous Sages, Siddhas and Satgurus like Dattatreya, Durvasa, Agastya, Lakulisha and Gorakshanatha identified with Shiva. Similarly, the most famous of Shivacharyas of Kashmiri and Tamil Shaivism, Abhinavagupta and Manikkavacagar respectively, have also both been called Shiva in human form because they were perfectly absorbed in the knowledge of Shiva. It is entirely possible that Adi Shankaracharya came to be originally identified with Shiva by his followers (Smartas) for the very same reason.
Avatars in the Linga Purana and Pashupatism
The identification of the true guru (Satguru) with Shiva is a very old tradition dating back to the ancient Pashupata religion. Around the first century CE, the Pashupata religion was reformed by the great yogi-master, Lakulisha, and came to be called the Lakulisha-Pashupata system. One of the key beliefs of the Lakulisha-Pashupatas was that in every dvapara and kali yugas, a great guru of mankind arises who so fully embodies the divine knowledge of Shiva that he is to be considered a veritable incarnation of Shiva. According to this system, such a guru who appears in the dvapara yuga is called a Veda Vyasa, and one who appears in the kali yuga is called a Yogeshvara. This teaching of the Lakulisha-Pashupatas is found in the Linga Purana, which identifies Krsna-Dvaipayana and Lakulisha as the most recent Veda Vyasa and Yogeshvara respectively. In fact, the Linga Purana goes on to list 28 Veda Vyasas and 28 Yogeshvaras that have thus far been. This doctrine, although well-known, has not been inherited by Agamic Shaivism and is not generally accepted, except possibly through the interpretation that fully realized gurus may be equated with Shiva Himself, but not as special descents of the Lord.
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