The concept of avatar or the incarnations of God is a distinct feature of Hinduism. Avatar means descent, manifestation or appearance. Especially, it refers to descent from the highest, immortal heaven into the mortal world or the earth. Hindus believe that Isvara (God) in his aspect as Lord Vishnu, incarnates upon earth from time to time, fully or partially, as a part of his duty to protect dharma, destroy evil and restore the balance between the competing forces of creation.
You may wonder why of all the gods, only Vishnu incarnates. It is because Vishnu is the preserver. Taking care of the cosmic order is his essential duty. As a part of his duty, Vishnu performs many duties to ensure the order and regularity of the worlds, of which incarnating upon earth in times of crises is an important one. The concept of incarnation is recognized in Vaishnavism but not in the other sects of Hinduism.
According to them God does not have to especially incarnate upon earth to restore dharma because nothing happens without his knowledge and will. Being omniscient with the knowledge of the past, present and future, there Is nothing that he cannot foresee to act in time. However, he may manifest at times to deal with specific problems which are already ordained by him in the destiny of the world. On such occasions, he does not incarnate in person, but manifests only certain aspects of him.
Vaishnava tradition recognizes ten chief incarnations of Lord Vishnu, known as Dasavatara or Dasavataram. There is no unanimity among scholars about them. Since incarnations can be full or partial and since Vishnu may also manifest in numerous other forms, it is difficult to determine which ones qualify as his full incarnation. Further, only a few incarnations are quoted in the Vedas, and most of them were ascribed to Brahma rather than Vishnu. It appears that the concept of incarnations evolved overtime and the true incarnations were identified long after they happened. We present here ten important incarnations, and suggest a few others which are believed to be incarnations according to the tradition or popular opinion.