The word avatar is certainly, and especially since the advent of 3D cinema, one of the most commonly known Sanskrit words among people who otherwise have no dealings with the classical language of India. It is true, the word has by itself an ominous aura of importance, which seems to justify its use to designate an incarnated god treading the earth among mortals and thus prevents further curiosity concerning its exact meaning. But in Sanskrit most words can be traced back to combinations of roots, suffixes and prefixes, and much can be learned about the intentions of those who first created the words by following back the reasoning locked in their inner architecture. What, then, are the building blocks of the word अवतार (avtāra)? It consists of the root तृ (tṛ), meaning to cross, and the prefix अव- (ava), which means down. This makes an अवतार (avtāra) one who has descended (from heaven to earth), hence a god incarnated as man on earth. The combination of the same prefix and root is also used in much more prosaic contexts, e.g. for the action of alighting from a chariot. One example of such a literal usage of the meaning produced by root and prefix is found, in the perfect form अवततार (avatatāra), in verse fifteen of the fortieth chapter of the second book of the Ramāyāṇa.

एवमार्तप्रलापांस्तान्वृद्धान्प्रलपतो द्विजान् ।
अवेक्ष्य सहसा रामो रथादवततार ह ।।

Thus, having seen the aged, pitifully wailing twice-borns lamenting (i.e. brahmans), Rama immediately alighted from the chariot.

Another word can be made from the same combination of prefix and root by addition the suffix -अन (-ana). This results in the noun अवतरण (avatarṇa), meaning descent.  It is found as the second element in the compound गङ्गावतरण (gangāvataraṇa), the descent of the Ganges; a mythical tale, of which the picture above is an illustration. In it the ascetic Bhagīratha brings the river Ganges down to earth by the mere force of his ascesis. On the way down the river-goddess is sifted through the जटामण्डल (jaṭāmṇḍala), the matted locks, of Shiva.


Silvio Zinsstag,

teacher for ancient languages