(Last Updated on : 19/06/2010)
The term avatara literally means 'coming down' (avatarana). With reference to God, it signifies the descent of the Supreme Being from His exalted divine abode to a lower level. In a technical sense, it means the manifestation of a deity in different forms. There are a number of queries that may arise herein. These are the questions which have been raised by Ramanuja, while commenting on the query of Arjuna
posed to Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita
on the theory of incarnations. It is by referring to these various questions and attempting to answer them that the actual philosophy behind the incarnations of Lord Vishnu can be understood.
One of the main questions that is raised is that how can the Supreme Being who is free from all imperfections, who is the Lord of the universe, who is omniscient, who has no unfulfilled desires descend upon the earth as human beings or other living creatures? Birth in the ordinary sense implies being subject to karma but God who is a perfect Being is untouched by karma. A deity may descend upon earth out of ignorance but God is omniscient. If God were ruled by someone higher than Him, He could have been commanded to descend but He is the Supreme Lord (sarvesvara). If God had some selfish desire to be fulfilled He could have come down but He is avapta-samasta-kama, that is, all His desires are already fulfilled. It may be argued that the descent is for the purpose of protection of humanity but God as satya-sankalpa (one whose will is paramount) can achieve this purpose by His mere will. Taking all these into consideration, the first issue that arises is whether such a manifestation of God in human form is a real possibility or is it a mere illusory appearance (mithya) like a magical show. If it be real, as Vaishnavism claims, does God take the birth by abandoning His true divine form or by retaining it in full.
Another important query is the issue regarding what exactly constitutes the body of God when he descends to the earth, i.e., whether there are physical elements present or if it is made up completely of the spiritual stuff. An important issue that presents itself here is the cause behind such a birth. Whether the mere will (sankalpa) of Isvara causes such a birth or whether such a birth takes place as a result of the karma in the form of good and bad deeds, assumed by God voluntarily by His own will is a question that needs to be answered. Also the time and purpose behind these descents needs to be made clear.
Regarding the first question, it is pointed out that the avataras of God are not illusory manifestations but real. In other words, it is a fact that God manifests Himself in various forms. That it is real is established on the basis of the reality of the birth of an individual and the several previous births the same individual would have gone through. The birth of an individual is not the beginning and end of it but on the contrary, it is one among a continuous series of births and deaths. This is the basic postulate of Hinduism
. If the present birth is not an illusion, the previous ones too would not be unreal.
But there is a fundamental difference between the birth of an individual and that of Isvara. In the former case, it is subject to karma, the good and bad deeds of the past, whereas in the latter case, it takes place out of His free will without the influence of karma. God is eternal and unborn (aja) and as such He is not subject to the normal birth or death due to karma. He does not also undergo any modification (avyaya). Thus the fact of Isvara being born again and again is understood in the sense of manifestation, where He is born out of his own free will. The body He assumes either as a human being or as any other living being, is made out of the spiritual substance (suddhasattva). When God incarnates Himself as a human being, He does so by retaining His spiritual character along with all His divine qualities. This is possible for God because of His supreme power (sarva sakti) and sankalpa.
When God descends to assume a human body he is not affected by the defects common to the physical bodies. This is because his body is not made up of the same physical elements as that of human beings. His body in the avatara stage is constituted of suddha sattva, the pure spiritual substance, though outwardly it has the appearance of physical body. The spiritual aspect is hidden from the sight of common man. For the Yogis and the ardent upasakas, however, His spiritual form becomes manifest. So, whenever God descends upon earth, He retains His spiritual form along with all the divine qualities. Even in the physical state as an avatara, God possesses all His glorious attributes, as in the state of His pararupa.
Another important point to be noted in this connection is that all the various manifestations of God in different forms emanate from a part of the spiritual body of Para Vasudeva, which is the Supreme transcendental form (para) of God. The implication of it is that the different manifestations are not of the very svarupa of God because the svarupa which is infinite in character (anahta) cannot have any descent as such and become conditioned by a limited bodily form. On the contrary, it is the transcendental body possessed by God that assumes different manifestations. Here again it is not the entire spiritual body that transforms itself into the body of a particular avatara, in which case it would amount to the physical absence of Para Vasudeva who exists eternally in His divine realm. The spiritual power (shakti) which is limitless, is inherent in God and only a small particle of it emanates as the spiritual body of an avatara. Even this body in avatara stage is capable of assuming an all-pervasive character, though for all practical purposes it appears to be finite like a human body. This accounts for the revelation of the universal nature (Vishvarupa
) of God to Arjuna by Lord Krishna
as narrated in the Bhagavad-gita.
Regarding the period of avatara, the answer is that there is no specific time for such an avatara. It takes place as and when a need arises. The need for avatara is linked with the necessity of establishing dharma which taken in the broad sense means the cosmic religious order. Whenever dharma declines God on His own comes down to earth taking a human form, as in the case of Lord Rama
and Lord Krishna
, in order to restore the religious order.
The purpose behind the different avataras is provided by the Bhagavad Gita. From the standpoint of God, a two-fold is purpose is mentioned. One is the protection of the ardent devotees of God (sadhu-paritrana) and the other is the destruction of the evil forces. Here the term sadhu does not refer merely to the ordinary devotees or pious persons. On the other hand, it means those persons who are living a strict religious life as enjoined by the scripture, who are dedicated to the exclusive worship of Lord Vishnu and who have been craving to have a vision of God. God is ready to show His divine form to such ardent devotees. The protection (paritrana) of such persons implies the removal of all kinds of obstacles in the way of the realisation of God and thereby assists them to fulfil their cherished goal. The evil forces also act as an equally strong obstruction for this realisation. The destruction of the evil forces or the enemies in the form of demons is also another purpose of the avatara. Of these two functions- protection and destruction- the former, according to Ramanuja is of greater importance than the latter. This is due to the fact that destruction of the evil forces can even be carried out by God through His sankalpa or will without an incarnation, whereas the former needs His physical appearance before the devotees. Sadhuparitrana is thus the main purpose of avatara, whereas dushta vinasha is incidental. The revelation of God's form to the upasakas or those engaged in upasana for moksha helps to promote the devotion to God (bhakti
) by the direct perception of the object of meditation (aradhyasvarupapradarsana). This is what is implied by the expression dharma samsthapana used in the Gita verse. Though the propagation of dharma can also be done through the sages, the establishment of dharma in the form of manifesting His own divine form needs the avatara now and then in the different epochs.