(‘that which is worshipped’)

The Vaiṣṇavite scriptures which preach the cult of Viṣṇu-Nārāyaṇa-Kṛṣṇa put forth the theory that the Supreme Lord Viṣṇu has four kinds of manifestations:

  1. the ‘para’ or the Supreme;
  2. the ‘vyūha’ or the emanation;
  3. the ‘vibhava’ or the incarnation and
  4. the ‘arcā’ or the icon.

Out of these, the arcā represents the images or icons installed and worshipped ceremonially in temples and shrines. Such icons are classified into four groups: svayaṁvyakta or self-manifested, daiva or established by gods, ārṣa or consecrated by the ṛṣis (sages) and mānuṣa or prepared by human beings.

Even the man-made images, though prepared out of inanimate substances, can become ‘alive’ if they are duly consecrated through the prescribed rites. God who is omnipotent ‘descends’ into such images with a subtle body. This is the ‘arcāvatāra’ or incarnation for purposes of ordinary worship.