54. The Purpose of Avatar, the Incarnation of God
Notes: I have translated the Bhagavadgita twice. The first one was a loose translation. The second one was a word to word translation with a detailed commentary. The commentary is however different from what you will find here. In this section I will share with you my thoughts about the knowledge, philosophy and wisdom of the Bhagavadgita as I understand it from my perspective. Jayaram V
Synopsis: This essay explains the hidden purpose, significance and symbolism of Avatar, the incarnation of God, in Hinduism according to the Bhagavadgita.
The incarnation of God or Avatar is an important concept of Hinduism. It signifies that although God is detached, uninvolved and free from desires and duality, he still keeps an eye upon his creation and ensures its order and regularity with timely intervention whenever the necessity arises. Thus, the act of incarnation is a part of his duties (Dharma) and serves an important purpose in the preservation and continuation of the worlds and beings.
The idea of incarnation is peculiar to Hinduism, not found in other faiths. It gives people the hope that although outwardly it seems that the world is self-regulated and they are at the mercy of chance or random events, it is still in control of God, and devotees can look to him for help and guidance in grave situations.
Avatar literally means the descent of God into the mortal world and a physical body. As an incarnation, he lives upon earth as a living being, subject to some limitations, which Nature imposes upon the rest. As the Bhagavadgita states, although he is unborn and indestructible, presiding over his own Nature (Prakriti) he manifests by his own power of Maya.
Because of his ordinary, outward appearance people may not recognize him as an incarnation although he may live amidst them. Only a few people, who are endowed with pure intelligence, know him to be God in human form. In the Bhagavadgita Lord Krishna states, “Foolish people who lack intelligence disrespect me when I am in a physical body, not knowing my supreme state as the supreme lord of all.”
The conditions that warrant incarnation
The incarnations of Vishnu suggest that God may incarnate when the world is going through an extraordinary situation. For example, in the past he incarnated when the world was in grave danger due to a calamity such as a deluge, when the sacred knowledge was either lost or on the verge of becoming lost, when demons took control of the worlds and tormented people and gods, when devotees of God were subject to intense suffering by wicked people, when an evil power gained sovereignty and needed to be suppressed or destroyed, when there was an intense social or political disorder, or when one epoch was concluding and another was about to begin. The Bhagavadgita lists two conditions in which an incarnation may manifest upon earth.
- When there is a decline of Dharma, as people neglect their obligatory duties and the importance of virtue.
- When there is the ascendance of Adharma or vice and evil as people fall into evil ways and demonic influence over the world increases significantly.
The world is a mixture of good and evil due to the influence of the modes of Nature (Gunas). They have to be in balanced for order and peace to prevail. When the equilibrium is disturbed, the world falls into chaos and confusion. In such times, people lose their intelligence, become deluded about right and wrong, and use perverted logic or brute force to justify their evil actions. By their actions they also open the world to demonic influence and interference. When the situation reaches a critical point, divine intervention becomes a grave necessity.
The purpose of incarnation
The main purpose of an incarnation is to protect the world and ensure its orderly progression. Although the mortal world is one of the fourteen in the cosmic hierarchy and somewhere in the middle, it has a great significance from the perspective of sacrifices and liberation. The mortal beings have an unique opportunity to escape from Nature and its Maya through spiritual effort. Others, even gods, cannot do so.
Further, the gods depend upon humans for their nourishment through sacrifices. They become weak and ineffective if humans fail to perform sacrifices and nourish them with sacrificial food. It means that if the world falls into disorder, it can potentially destabilize the whole creation and weaken the position of gods. Therefore, protecting the world becomes obligatory to God. The scripture lists three main purposes for which an incarnation of God may manifest.
- Protection of the good and the pious (sadhus). They do not protect themselves, since they practice nonviolence and renunciation and depend upon God for protection.
- Destruction of the wicked ones who indulge in evil, selfish and cruel actions (dushkrutas) against others and endanger the stability and continuation of the world.
- Establishing Dharma by reviving moral laws and scriptural and spiritual knowledge, and reminding people of their obligatory duties and the need to pursue liberation.
According to the Puranas the duty to incarnate remains with Vishnu, who is the preserver. His incarnations are either complete or partial according to the need and circumstances. In partial incarnations, only some aspects, powers and attributes of God manifest and the rest remain suppressed. For example, many seers, sages, gods and demigods are considered partial incarnations of Vishnu. His full incarnations are said to be ten, regarding which there is no unanimity. His last incarnation in this Time Cycle, as Kalki, is yet to happen.
The incarnations within oneself
Although the incarnations of God are meant to facilitate the orderly progression of the world or the macrocosm, a similar process may also happen in the microcosm of the beings. According to Hinduism all life is sacred. God exists in both the macrocosm and the microcosm as the Cosmic Self (Purusha) and Individual Self (Purusha) respectively. Therefore, what happens in the world outside may also happen in the microcosm of each being. In exceptional cases, he may directly descend into his devotees and illuminate their minds to help them in their liberation or overcome some difficulty.
One of the purposes of the incarnations, which we have not mentioned before, is to serve as a role model (adarsh) upon earth for others to follow. The incarnations exemplify either a way of life or certain ideals or attributes from which people can derive inspiration to improve themselves, avoiding the snares and hazards of the worldly life. The incarnations also give hope and courage to people who have fallen into evil ways to redeem themselves just as God redeems the fallen world by destroying the evil and restoring order.
When Krishna said, "Whenever there is a decline of dharma and ascendance of evil, I incarnate," we have to take those words literally. An incarnation does not have to happen in the external world only. It can happen within oneself also. A noble idea, a divine thought or a miraculous manifestation can happen anywhere and anytime, within or without, whenever suitable conditions manifest. Situations that are similar to incarnations may manifest in your microcosm in the following manner.
1. When you pay special attention to a crisis
A trouble situation calls attention to itself. When adharma is on ascendance, it catches the attention of God. He incarnates upon earth to pay direct attention to the problem and personally resolves it. As the controller of your inner world, you do it sometimes. When you face a crisis or serious problem, you pay close attention to it and try to resolve it on a priority basis, focusing your energies upon it. Occasionally, when you are troubled, you may go deep within yourself to locate the problem or the cause and improve yourself. It is essentially what an incarnation does in the larger world.
2. When you restore inner balance, or overcome evil tendencies
There will be times in your life when you feel dejected and lose all hope as circumstances or external forces threaten to destroy your wellbeing or your very existence and your life falls into chaos. There may also be times when you become distracted, lose control of your emotions, make terrible mistakes or fall into evil habits. On such occasions, if you save yourself from a certain disaster by taking control of your life and acting responsibly with firm resolve, it is similar to being reborn, and nothing short of a miraculous and significant happening as an incarnation.
3. When you experience divine intervention
People who are pious and extremely devoted God often experience an epiphany when they pray to him and seek his help. By a mysterious intervention or fortuitous circumstance, somehow, they awaken their minds to a new reality, awareness, idea, experience or a new way of thinking and feeling that seem to uplift them and give them hope and courage. It is but an incarnation of God in the microcosm of his dear devotee, comparable to a spiritual rebirth. Just as an incarnation saves the world from chaos, it saves the being from inner chaos.
4. When you help in the order and regularity of the world
You have obligatory duties not only towards yourself, but also towards others, society and the world. As a representative of God, you have to perform actions for the sake of God to ensure the order and regularity of the world. When you help others, impart to them divine knowledge, inspire them to engage in righteous actions, set a personal example by personifying divine qualities, exemplify virtuous conduct, help good people just as Krishna did, resist evil, or serve as a role model, you are but emulating the duties and functions of an incarnation only. You are letting God act through you.
The underlying message of the incarnation is this. When you are morally lost, confused, or on the cusp of losing yourself or your mental stability, you have an alternative to awaken a new resolve in you and lay the foundation for a new beginning. With faith and effort, and through spiritual transformation, you can be born again as a new person and reform yourself.
When you are suffering or having problems, you can always pray to God and request him to incarnate in you and help you resolve those problems. Our lives are meant for sacrifice. As the Bhagavadgita states, “yajna arthat karma, anyatra lokoyam karma bandhana.” It means, for the sake of sacrifice only actions, otherwise, the world is bound by them.
Hence, people are expected to do their part in this world as an offering to God with righteous intent and selfless attitude to create and preserve life upon earth and work for their liberation. If they fall into evil ways due to ignorance and delusion, they can redeem themselves by correcting their ways and giving birth to a new vision and aspiration within themselves and manifest the best and the purest qualities in them.. A person who has achieved oneness with God is but an incarnation only, God in human form.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- The Wisdom of the Bhagavadgita, Main Page
- The Wisdom of the Upanishads, Main Page
- The Bhagavad-Gita Essays and Translations
- An Introduction To The Bhagavad-Gita And Its Three Secrets
- Why to Study the Bhagavadgita Parts 1 to 4
- The Abbreviated Bhagavadgita
- The Problem of Maya Or Illusion and How To Deal With It
- The Problem of Maya Or Illusion and How To Deal With It
- The Bhagavadgita, Philosophy and Concepts
- The Many Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism
- Divine Qualities Of A True Worshipper Of God
- The Bhagavadgita on Karma, the Law of Actions
- Maya, The Grand Illusion Or The Delusion Of The Mind
- Aspects, Emanations, Incarnations and Forms of God Vishnu
- Dvaita or Advaita What is the Truth?
- Symbolism in the Bhagavadgita
- The Truth About Karma
- Meaning and Definition of Bhagavan
- Brahman the Supreme Universal Lord of All
- What is Bhakti or Devotion?
- Bhakti Marg, the Path of Devotion
- History and information about Mathura and Vrindavan Temples
- True Devotion and Qualities of a True Devotee
- Essays On Sorrow And Its Spiritual Significance
- The Yoga of Knowledge or the Samkhya Yoga, Verses and Commentary by Jayaram V
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