The literal meaning of the word ‘avatara’ is descent. It is no physical climb down however, but rather akin to the teacher, who, when instructing small children, has to come down to the "level" of the child, hold his hand and teach him how to write the alphabet. This is the teacher’s avatara in front of the child. A good guru too is one who first gets down to the level of his disciple’s ability of understanding and grants him knowledge accordingly.
The scriptures explicitly delineate as to when, why and how god takes avatara. In this regard, it is the Bhagavad Gita which gives the clearest picture:
When Does God Take Avatara?
Yada yada hi dharmasya glanir bhavati bharata
Abhyutthanam adharmasya tada atmanam srjamy aham. (Bhagavad Gita 4.7)
When when (yada yada), O Arjuna (bharata), there is (bhavati) a decline (glani) of dharma and the rise (abhyutthanam) of adharma, then (tada) I (aham) manifest (srjam) myself (atmanam).
This verse makes it very clear that there is not just any one exclusive incarnation of god at one instant of time. Actually, whenever adharma rises and dharma is subdued, god takes avatara to restore the balance. In fact, he may even take multiple incarnations to fulfill a single task. This is illustrated in the following story:
Once the devatas (demigods), in order to win over the demons threatening the world, set out to churn the ocean and extract from it the nectar of immortality. For this purpose, they carried on their backs a huge mountain, intending to use it as a churning rod. However, unable to support its weight they dropped it on the way. It was then that the Supreme Person, manifesting as Lord Vishnu, came to their rescue and carried across the mountain to the seashore.
The Legend of Samudra-Manthana
Not only that, when the mountain started sinking into the sea because of the lack of a firm support, the same lord took on the form of the Kurma Avatara (Tortoise Incarnation), entered the waters and lifted the mountain firmly on its back.
Lord Vishnu as Mohini
When even after much effort, the churners were not successful, the lord took upon himself the job of churning. In the end, when there arose a dispute regarding the distribution of the nectar between the gods and demons, Lord Vishnu took on the form of the seductress Mohini and bewitched the villains by her charms making sure that it was only the gods who received the nectar of immortality. Thus we see that during this difficult task of churning the ocean, the great lord’s was a constant presence, materializing itself whenever the need arose.
To get to the root of the concept of avatara, we also have to understand the meaning of dharma. The Mahabharata says:
"Dharma is called ‘dharma’ because it upholds (dharan) the world. Therefore, whatever possesses this characteristic of support and sustenance is dharma." (Shanti Parva 109.11).
The thrust of avatara is always on upholding dharma, because it is dharma that upholds the world.
Objection: You seem to suggest that god takes a physical body, but god is formless, so how can he take a form?
Resolution: All religions agree that god is all-knowing and all-capable. If the formless god does not know how to take form then how can he said to know everything? If he cannot take any form at will, how can he be all-powerful or capable?
Objection: Agreed. But why will god take avatara?
Resolution: The deity who does not come to help us when we are in trouble or lift us up when we fall is perhaps heartless, which we all know god certainly is not.
The Indian tradition visualizes god and man as eternal companions (sakha), and this term of endearment is often used by Krishna and Arjuna towards each other. If only man be born, but not god, then it would be not be conducive to this eternal friendship.
Indeed, what kind of a friend is he who does not come to save us when we are in distress? What use is a master who does not look after the welfare of his servant? What kind of a husband is he who does not protect his wife? If god be the father (or mother) of all of us, what kind of a parent would he be if he does not heed to his child’s call of distress? Therefore, god takes avatara because he is full of compassion.
Why Does God Take Avatara?
Paritranaya sadhunam vinashaya cha dushkritam
Dharma samsthapana arthaya sambhavami yuge yuge (Bhagavad Gita 4.8)
"For the protection (paritranaya) of the good (sadhunam), the destruction (vinashaya) of the evil-doers (dushkritam) and (cha) for the (arthaya) establishment (samsthapana) of dharma, I come into being (sambhavami), from age to age (yuge yuge)."
Thus Krishna clearly states why he takes avatara:
1). Protection of the virtuous.
2). Destruction of the wicked, and
3). Establishment of dharma.
The third is but the consequence of the first two. Actually, the protection of the virtuous is but the protection of dharma itself and vice versa. The Mahabharata says:
Dharmo rakshati rakshitah: Dharma protects those who protect it. (Vana Parva 313.128)
Therefore, avatara is but the very embodiment of dharma. It is for this reason that god is called shashvat dharma gopta (protector of the eternal religion) in the Bhagavad Gita (11.18). With the lord constantly watching over dharma, one thing is sure that it will never be destroyed. It may decline; but whenever adharma overrides it, there will be an avatara at the opportune moment to reestablish it.
Avatara – Killing a Mosquito with a Missile?
The Death of Ravana
The suppression of the evildoers of the world means the annihilation of villains like Ravana and Kansa.
Objection: Isn’t it strange that the great god, who by his mere resolve can create and destroy the world, has to come himself to kill a demon? This seems like using a missile to kill a mosquito?
Resolution: The Shrimad Bhagavata Purana says:
‘The incarnation of god in a mortal body is not merely for annihilating the demon race, but for teaching the ideal way of life to human beings. Otherwise, how could the self-contended Supreme Soul, when incarnated as Rama, be so distressed at separation from his wife Sita?’ (5.19.5)
Thus we see that the lord’s incarnation has a higher purpose than the mere killing of evildoers. The missile is fired, but is directed at a befittingly exalted target. We can see specifically this aspect of divinity in the Rama Avatara. In the Vedas it is said:
‘Anuvrata pitu putro ma bhraata bhraatram dvishat’
‘A son should follow his father and there should not be any animosity between brothers.’
The mere statement of this dictum would not have been as effective, as its establishment by setting an example. God says in the Gita:
"I have no duty, nothing to gain from this world, even then, I continue to do action because men and women in every way follow my example." (3.22-23)
Objection: The exemplary devotion of Rama to his father and brothers is well known. However, what kind of example can a god lamenting for his wife set for the world?
Rama and Sita - The Cosmic Parents
Resolution: Rama’s conduct gives a lesson for both worldly people and also those who have renounced the world. By his extreme distress he points out to the householders that a husband and wife should love each other in the same measure and with the same intensity as he does his wife.
For those who have given up the world, Rama’s intention is to dispel any notion they may harbor regarding the pleasures of household life. Actually, when celibate saints observed the lord tying himself in matrimony, they too were tempted to follow his example. Only when Rama performed his lila did the sages realize the sorrowful repercussions of excessive attachment between man and woman.
A Divine Musical Concert at Vrindavan
Objection: That’s wonderful. We will follow the conduct of Lord Krishna. He married sixteen thousand women and also sported with many more gopis in Vrindavana.
Resolution: Be careful. In all matters the scriptures are the authority. They are unanimous in declaring that each and every avatara of god has a different way of bringing home its lesson. Thus while we are to consider Lord Rama’s conduct as an ideal benchmark, Krishna’s lila is not to be emulated but meditated upon. According to that delightful biography of Krishna, the Shrimad Bhagavata Purana:
"Gods are often seen transcending dharma and indulging in overbold tasks. However, those deeds do not leave a blemish on their glory. Fire consumes everything, even impure substances such as filth and corpses, but remains ever auspicious and pure. Those of us who lack these qualities should not even think of doing these actions, let alone perform them. It is Lord Shiva who drank the poison threatening the world, anybody else would have been reduced to ashes if he tried the same." (10.33.30-31)
"He who reverentially listens and narrates Lord Krishna’s love games with the gopis speedily overcomes the malady of lust." (10.30.40)
The whole purpose of Lord Krishna’s lila is to eventually sow the seed of disenchantment with material pleasures. The Bhagavata Purana says:
"Krishna enjoyed all the pleasures of life, but remained unattached to them. He delighted everybody by his endearing smile and nectar-like words. At night he reveled with women, giving them the pleasure of his company, showing them momentary affection. After thus enjoying life for many years, he felt aversion (viraga) towards the life of a householder and the pleasures therein. Indeed, when Lord Krishna himself became disenchanted with material pleasures, how can we, who are devoted to him, trust them?" (3.3.19-23)
Varaha Avatara (The Ten Incarnations of Lord Vishnu)
Objection: What sort of message does god when taking the form of a pig (Varaha), or a fish want to deliver?
Matsya, the Fish Incarnation of Vishnu
Resolution: The message is obvious. The divine presence is present equally in the lowliest of creatures, each of which has an equally significant role in the rhythm of life. The fish too is considered an inauspicious race because as a general rule it feeds on its own species.
How Does God take Avatara?
"Though I am unborn and imperishable, and am the lord of all beings, yet, ruling over my own nature (prakriti), I take birth by my own maya." (Bhagavad Gita 4.6)
This verse speaks of the immanent-transcendent nature of the Supreme Lord, as the ruler of the world, and as an incarnation in the world. He is the infinite divine, but using his power of maya, becomes a finite individual. This is the nature of avatara.
The Indian tradition says that each of us mortals is born due to karmic residues (samskaras) piled up over numerous births. The karma we have performed over our many lifetimes is what makes up our natures (svabhava). Our birth is thus subservient to the samskaras thus accumulated. Not so for god.
The embodiments of mortals are not voluntary. The lord however assumes embodiment through his own free will. The difference between god and all of us is that we are subject to maya, but maya is subject to god. This is akin to the example of a jail. A jailor or senior officer can go in and out at their own will and convenience, but not so the prisoners, who are bound by the rules of the prison.
Indeed, man is born, but god takes avatara.
Objection: The scriptures say that god is present in all creatures equally, like salt dissolved in water. How then do you say that he takes a specific form or incarnation? Does it mean that only the avatara is divine but not the rest of the world?
Resolution: When electricity runs through wires, we cannot see it. However, when the same current lights up a bulb it becomes especially manifest, even while it continues to flow as usual. Similar is the case with avatara.
Avatara – Manifestation of the Unmanifest
The word that Krishna uses to signify his birth or manifestation is sambhavami (Bhagavad Gita 4.8). It thus suggests that the asambhav (impossible) becomes sambhav (possible).
For the evildoers in this world whatever they can perceive with their own senses is the only reality. They refuse to believe that there is a higher power beyond the perceivable world.
The lord of this manifested world is Brahma, by securing whose pleasure many a villain thought himself invincible. This is what happened when a demon pleased Lord Brahma by extreme austerities. This is the boon he asked for:
"Let not my death occur at the hands of any being created by you – either man or animal. My end should not take place inside nor outside, nor in the day or in the night. I should not be slain in the air or on the earth, nor by any weapon."
The demon took into account all he could see in this world, this was as far as his vision went. Thus empowered, he set out to conquer the four directions and under the impression of his invincibility, ruled ruthlessly over all. When however, the pot of his sins brimmed over, god had to take avatara, and annihilate him even while respecting the boons granted by Lord Brahma. This he did as follows:
a). Since he, the Supreme Person, is beyond Brahma, and not a creature created by him, he could kill the villain.
b). He took on a form, which had the face of a lion but the body of a human (neither man nor animal). This incarnation is known as Narasimha.
c). The lord killed the demon at the threshold of the house (neither inside nor outside).
d). He was killed just when the day was setting and the night rising (neither day nor night).
Narasimha Avatara (The Ten Incarnations of Lord Vishnu)
e). Lord Narasimha placed the villain on his knees (neither earth nor air).
f). The lord tore open the demon’s chest by using his nails (no weapon was used).
The theory of avatara is an eloquent expression of this law of the spiritual world: God being the savior of man will manifest himself whenever the forces of evil threaten to destroy eternal values sustaining creation. This is the promise of redemption made by avatara, that there exists, beyond the confines of the manifested world, a higher, infinitely potent and mysterious ineffable power, ever ready to spring to our defense.
References and Further Reading:
- Atmananda, Swami. Gita Tattva Chintan (2 Volumes): Calcutta, 2000.
- Avatar Katha Ank: Special Issue of the Spiritual Journal 'Kalyan': Gorakhpur, 2007.
- Badrinath, Chaturvedi. The Mahabharata An Inquiry in the Human Condition. New Delhi, 2006.
- Chaturvedi, Giridhar Sharma. Gita Vykhyan Mala (Discourses on the Bhagavad Gita): Varanasi, 2006.
- Chinmayananda, Swami. The Holy Geeta: Mumbai, 2002.
- Devi, Shrimati Dayakanti. Shrimad Bhagavata Mahapurana (With Word to Word Meaning in 8 Volumes): Allahbad, 1993.
- Goswami, C.L. and Shastri, M.A. Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana (English Translation in Two Volumes) Gorakhpur, 2005.
- Goyandka, Jayadayal. Shrimadbhagavadgita with word-to-word translation: Gorakhpur, 2004.
- Radhakrishnan, S. The Bhagavadgita: New Delhi, 2004.
- Ram, Pandit Ramnarayan Dutt Shastri (tr.) The Mahabharata (Hindi Translation in Six Volumes): Gorakhpur, 2004.
- Ramsukhdas, Swami. Gita Darpan (Essays on the Gita): Gorakhpur, 2003.
- Ramsukhdas, Swami. Gita Gyan Praveshika: Gorakhpur, 2004.
- Ramsukhdas, Swami. Sadhaka Sanjivani Commentary on the Bhagavad Gita (2 vols.) Gorakhpur, 200.
- Ranganathananda, Swami. Universal message of the Bhagavad Gita (3 vols.) Kolkata, 2003.
- Saraswati, Swami Akhandanand. Avatar Rahasya: Vrindavana, 1994.
- Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda. Bhagavata Vimarsha (Collection of Discourses in Two Volumes): Mumbai, 2003.
Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda (tr). Shrimad Bhagavata Purana (2 Volumes): Gorakhpur, 2004.
- Tagare, G.V. (tr). The Bhagavata Purana (5 Volumes (Annotated)) Delhi, 2002.
- Vanamali. Nitya Yoga Essays on the Sreemad Bhagavad Gita New Delhi, 2004.
- Yogananda, Sri Sri Paramahansa. God Talks with Arjuna (2 vols.): Kolkata, 2002.