Avatars -- Are They God in Human Form?

In India when you talk about Krishna or Rama it is understood, you are talking about Avatars, the divine in human form.

Hindu belief incorporates the concept of 'avatar'- the descent of divinity into a form. Sri Krishna declares in the Bhagawad Gita that whenever there is an upheaval of unrighteousness and rampant decay of dharma, God Himself incarnates for restoring order. This is because, as Sri Sathya Sai Baba says,'' it is the primal resolution or sankalpa of the Divine, to protect the spiritual structure of the universe, and when the need arises, the Supreme lays aside His formless essence to assume a name and form, suited to that time and occasion.'' Thus, the Avatar, is a core concept of Hinduism, and is most often associated with Vishnu, the Preserver and Sustainer Aspect of God, within the Hindu Trinity.

The term 'Avatar', however needs to be clarified as it has distinct interpretations according to our scriptures. In the Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna,''Many have been the births undergone by Me, as also by you. I remember them all, but you do not.'' This statement can be understood as meaning that Divinity in some form, from time to time mingles with humanity for various purposes (usually redemptive). However, this declaration has to be distinguished from the one in which Krishna says,''Yada yada hee dharmasya, glanir bhavati Bharata, Abhyuttaanam adharmasya Tadaatmaanam Srujaamyaham...'' (O Arjuna, whenever there is total decay of the moral dharmic structure in the world, then I Myself descend in a human form to restore moral order). In the previous statement Krishna clubs Himself with Arjuna indicating numerous general manifestations, whereas in the latter, Krishna underlines that the Supreme God Himself descends, in times of acute moral decline, to save humanity. Thus, the earlier statement appears to refer to 'ansha- avatars' or partial- incarnations, and the latter to poorna- avatars or full and perfect incarnations - Rama and Krishna.

The Puranas provide a detailed classification of avatars as partial (ansha) or poorna (complete). The distinguishing feature of the Poorna-Avatar is that it signifies a descent (avataran) of the Param-Purusha or Supreme Person into a human form, whereas the latter denotes the ascent of a human soul into the portals of the divine. Thus, holy personages of all religions, who have walked the earth, and shed their spiritual light on humanity, can be termed as ansha-avatars (partial). These high souls take birth on a regular basis, and work as Divine Messengers of God, healing and guiding, and showing the true path. They are divine manifestations but reveal only some of the divine majesties (bhaga) as required for the occasion.They provide succor and sustenance to seekers and promote a spiritual climate. They are souls of high evolution and sometimes even liberated souls (mukta- purushas) who retain their individuality to be able to continue to serve. They are in perfect communion with their God-Self. Krishna refers to them as His very soul, and encourages seekers to impart full reverence to them.

The Upanishads say that Brahmn (The Supreme Principle) has two aspects - Formful (Murta) and Formless (Amurta).The Puranas accept both these aspects, but concentrate more on the Formful - and call Him Bhagawan. For purpose of incarnation, the Formless assumes a Form, with which mankind can establish affinity. In Hindu belief, Rama and Krishna are Poorna-Avatars who took birth, not only for re-establishment of righteousness as is understood, but also to ease the relationship between man and God.The purpose of the Avatar is to come close to humans and behave in a way where kinship can be established. Thus, the Avatar, walks, talks, eats like a human, but simultaneously displays His Divine nature, through extraordinary and inexplicable acts.The mahimas (miraculous deeds) that He displays are for the purpose of blessing His devotees and building their faith, and His words, counsel, and conduct in His human capacity, are for emulation and inspiration.

How to recognize the Avatar? The Vishnu Purana describes the Incarnation as one having 'bhaga' or majesty.The bhaga or majesty is described as six-fold - omnipotence (aishwarya), virtue (dharma), glory (yash), beauty (sri), omniscience (jnana) and non-attachment (vairagya). However, inspite of the Avatar possessing all these excellences, it is very easy to get deluded by the yoga-maya (illusion) in which He comes wrapped in - thus in their time, both Rama and Krishna, though regarded as divine souls, were not necessarily recognized by the majority, as actual Avatars.

It is said that a Poorna-incarnation inaugurates a new age and marks a shift in human consciousness. Sri Sathya Sai Baba says,''The universe has to be frequently cleansed and re-made in order to be a worthy kshetra ( field of action).The Avatar comes not only to proclaim the eternal virtues but to shower love and benediction on all mankind. But each one gets the benefit according to the vessel he holds.''

The earthly sojourn of Avatars acquires tremendous importance for the evolution of the human soul. The divine sagas of avatars, becomes a timeless and universal source of inspiration for seekers for generations to come. God is deconstructed from an abstract, aloof, unreachable entity into a loving personal God, one can relate to in an intimate way.

According to Sri Sathya Sai Baba,''The Avatar, being manifest in human form, is a dual phenomenon of divinity and humanity. He comes to bring closer the kingdom of heaven to earth as well as to establish the kingdom of heaven within the individual human heart.The Avatar comes to reveal the divine nature in man, which is above his lower nature, and to show what are the divine works by which he can achieve unity with the divinity residing within him.''

Studying and delving into the lives of Avatars and divine incarnations becomes an abiding inspiration for humanity to develop the devotional sentiment and pursue the righteous path, for a better more fulfilling life, in both worldly and spiritual domains.