The term Avatāra (अवतार) in Sanskrit means 1) Descent, alighting; descending or going down into; 2) Form, manifestation; 3) Descent of a deity upon earth, incarnation in general.
The Vedas, the Puranas, the Epics and the Bhagavadgita acknowledge the incarnations of Vishnu as an essential and important function of creation to ensure the order and regularity of the worlds and keep the chaos and demonic forces under control.
An incarnation of God is also different in many respects from a manifestation (vibhuti) or an aspect (amsa) of God. Practically, everything is a manifestation of God. A manifestation may or may not be aware of its divine nature. Its purpose may be limited in scope and influence, and it may represent only some qualities or aspects of God such as his knowledge, intelligence, power, wealth, beauty, aura, grace, etc. Secondly, a manifestation of God may happen with or without a form, not necessarily upon earth, whereas an incarnation always happens upon earth and in corporeal form only.
Technically, all living beings are incarnations of God only, since the soul or the Self is an aspect of Brahman and identical to him in all aspects. However, there is a fundamental difference. The incarnations of God are full-fledged. He manifests all his power and knows inherently his divine purpose upon earth. In contrast, the living beings are subject to the impurities of egoism, delusion and attachments.
With the above introduction, let us now study a wonderful Sloka which depicts the qualities of Lord Rama, the seventh Avatar of Lord Vishnu.
Pl. Listen to a wonderful recitation of the Sloka by the young Carnatic Musician Sri. Ashwath Narayanan in Ragamalika as a Virutham (approx 9 mts).