We love the avatars of God, but, really, how much do we understand of why they happen?
An avatar is a particular coalescing of the all pervasive spirit/soul called Brahman (for the non-dualist), or Vishnu or Shiva or Shakti (Devi) (for the dualist as per whether they believe whether Vishnu or Shiva or Devi to be the supreme expression of a personal godhead)
An avatar is said to be called into Being by the heartfelt cries of agony of the sadhus, the pious among us. The sadhus plead for an incarnation or manifestation to take place because of the grave danger mankind has placed itself into.
And then the avatar happens: a set of parents are selected, the form of the avatar enters the womb of the mother, the birthing of the avatar happens. The rest is what we read about in the scriptures – about Rama, Krishna and other major avatars, as well as the minor avatars. (Please note: an avatar is the descent of spirit into matter, while an enlightened godman is the raising of a human into the realm of the spirit.)
For the avatar, this descent into matter cannot be a good thing. Pure spirit confines itself into flesh, becoming subject to its limitations and its inherent problems. Granted, the avatar comes with a particularly divine set of his tools of trade – omniscience, great doses of power and prowess and an understanding of things beyond the ken of man. But, he is ‘born’, and he ‘dies’ and is assailed by all those things we mere humans are assailed by, except he appears to handle them with aplomb and dignity, while we weep and wail our fate.
We who benefit from the avatar’s descent cannot imagine the pain of this descent, although some of more enlightened among us have tried to put them in words for our benefit.
These beautiful lines from Sri Aurobindo’s poem A God’s Labour gives a hint to the predicament of an avatar:
He who would bring the heavens here
Must descend himself into clay
And the burden of earthly nature bear
And tread the dolorous way.
We generally give praise for an avatar taking ‘birth’ among us and feel ever so grateful that we have breathed the same air as Him. But we give little, if any, thought to what the avatar would be going through – and we are not talking about any apparent distress caused by physical ailment.
Day in, day out the Avatar has to endure a body of flesh, fluid and frailties – eating, excreting, keeping it clean, stop it from dropping dead. He, the pure spirit, has to encompass that spirit in a limited form called as body and suffer the indignities of that same body.
There is another beautiful telling of a devotee of Krishna who wanted to kill Draupadi, Arjun and several others who were close to Krishna. After reading the Mahabharata, he sat sharpening a wicked looking knife and when asked why he was doing it so intently, he answered he wanted to seek out Arjuna, Draupadi and others and kill them.
He said he wanted to kill them because they had caused so much pain to his Lord: Arjuna for making a charioteer out of Krishna and forcing him into the battlefield in that lowly role and Draupadi for calling on Krishna and forcing him to provide great lengths of cloth to cover her when she was being stripped naked in the court.
He goes on to tell of the other ‘indignities’ other people had heaped on Krishna and how he would hunt them down and kill them.
At first reading this appears to be the ravings of sentimental fool, especially since he was from an era in which Krishna, Arjuna and others were long-gone. But the sentiments behind the raving is something to think about. Here was a man who felt deeply for the Avatar, who felt that we should have treated Him as something very precious, to be treasured and loved, and not taken advantage of, which is what he believed Arjuna and Draupadi had done. And he felt these sentiments as if Krishna, Arjuna and Draupadi existed for him at that time – not as if they were just tales in a book.
We take it for granted that the avatar is happy to be with us and we take for granted that He will ‘be there for us’. We hardly think of the great sacrifice undertaken in the ‘birthing’ of an avatar – the taking of a form on Mrityu Loka – the world of death; the limiting of the spirit into a vessel of matter and the bombardment of negativity that he has to suffer during his sojourn on Earth.
Yes, the avatar’s physical form is put together to take on this negativity. Ramakrishna Paramhansa is said to have taken on the negative forces (illness, mental and physical) of those who came to him, so much so that he was a physical wreck by the time he passed away. Shirdi Sai Baba was took on boils, burns, wounds and sickness from those he chose to save, as did Satya Sai Baba.
Again these lines from A God’s Labour (the full poem can be found here http://intyoga.online.fr/labour.htm):
Coercing my godhead I have come down
Here on the sordid earth,
Ignorant, labouring, human grown
Twixt the gates of death and birth.
I have been digging deep and long
Mid a horror of filth and mire
A bed for the golden river’s song,
A home for the deathless fire.
I have laboured and suffered in Matter’s night
To bring the fire to man;
But the hate of hell and human spite
Are my meed since the world began.
Given that we have the law of karma governing the universe, is there a need for God to incarnate on Earth? The above gives us a hint of why an incarnation takes place.
An avatar is a catalyst of change – each time one comes, the world changes significantly. We, who only read about their exploits, take in only a fraction of the full scope of their doings. We are privy only to their recorded exploits.
Rama took up a war of attrition that devastated a whole civilisation. And Ravan is now a household name equated with wickedness, pride and arrogance, and the futility of great learning without understanding and compassion.
Krishna brought about a fratricidal war that decimated entire clans, including his own. His exploits range from killing his own uncle to turning his cousins against each other that sees the end of the Dwapar Yuga, and the beginning of the least benevolent of all yugas for mankind (yet, a yuga which is said to be the best placed for as higher understanding of godhead).
Parashurama cut down the ranks of the kshatriyas 21 times to cool his vengeance. Sometimes he is seen as an example of the wrath of the Brahmin caste – of what they are capable of if they are not treated with respect and awe. It is a tale of the curbing of unbridled arrogance and malpractices associated with the ruling classes.
The other avatars undertook epic battles against opponents of great courage and strength, sometimes in battles that ranged over time and space, other times using wit to outwit (to stop Bali’s expansion plans into other realms), others battled for the human soul because of their compassion for humans.
Every one of the exploits of our avatars are told from the point of view of a human being – from the point of view of people who reacted with the avatars. There is no standalone narration by the avatars themselves, including the Gita, which is retelling by a third party of a direct conversation between Krishna and Arjuna.
Simply put, our scriptures, especially the bhagavads, the Puranas, are largely someone’s take on a series of incidents that they saw, heard about or were directly involved in with regards to a particular avatar. It is as Sri Aurobindo says of our understanding: “A fragment of Truth is his widest scope”.
And I pose the question once again: Do we really know why God incarnates among us?
If what Rama, Krishna and Parashurama did was the mission of those avatars – then huge chunks of mankind died as a result. And to what end, just to save (or avenge) a few human beings beloved of the avatar?
Let’s look at the last stanza from set of lines from Sri Aurobindo’s poem listed above:
I have laboured and suffered in Matter’s night
To bring the fire to man;
But the hate of hell and human spite
Are my meed since the world began.
Let’s replace ‘hell’ with Patala – the underworld of our mythology. While we think of patala as the infernal regions, Narada is said to have said that it rivalled and beat Indralok in beauty, and it abound with every kind of luxury and sensual gratification.
So, Patala, far from being a place of darkness and drear, was a place of light and beauty, a place of sense gratification, love for luxury, hedonism, self-indulgence, intemperance, and decadence.
Since the world began, God has been incarnating because he hates hell – all the things associated with the above-listed negative elements that make our character. And human spite – when we hurt others for the sake of seeing them squirm or suffer – is not something God likes.
So, instead of saying: “Whenever evil rears its head, and wickedness prevails, God incarnates to punish evil doers,” would it be more appropriate to say “Whenever hedonism increases, and decadence prevails, God incarnates to pull the rug from under our feet?”
God incarnating is a saving mission, but executed in a painful way. Its purpose is to
take us back to godhead, to divinity - kicking and scratching, if need be.
For man’s mind is the dupe of his animal self;
Hoping its lusts to win,
He harbours within him a grisly Elf
Enamoured of sorrow and sin.
The grey Elf shudders from heaven’s flame
And from all things glad and pure;
Only by pleasure and passion and pain
His drama can endure.
God incarnates to remind us of our origins, our divinity – ‘To bring the fire to man’. We, in our human folly, believe he incarnates to give us happiness and wealth as we pursue our pleasurable lives on Earth. And we worship avatars to that end – begging and pleading for a long life to enjoy our fruits, families and fumblings. So far from the truth.
The Truth of truths men fear and deny,
The Light of lights they refuse;
To ignorant gods they lift their cry
Or a demon altar choose.
Maybe it is time to put aside our kindergarten approach to our avatars. Let’s not raise a ‘demon altar’ and hope a few minutes of obeisance is enough to sway God into our way of thinking; let’s not ‘lift our cries to ignorant gods” and then complain you
have not been heard; let’s not refuse, and fear and deny, what our scriptures have proclaimed for eons – God is Truth, and in Truth lies the real victory.
Instead, seek the ‘Truth of truths’, the Light of lights. Dive deep into your beliefs, and sometime, challenge them, so as to be privy to the truth they hide among their superfluity. The teachings of our ancients may appear superfluous at first attempt but that is only because they have been dumbed down by those who would use them to their own ends.
Do not let tradition, or traditionalists, hold you from finding the Truth. Do not let culture bind you to the mire. Expand your mind and see the beauty of the philosophy that has endured millennia, that has endured every kind of influx and still remains true to this day.
Avatars of Shiva
One lists has the following as the 11 avatars of Shiva
Others put 28 avatars for Shiva
Although Puranic scriptures contain occasional references to avatars of Shiva, the idea is not universally accepted in Saivism. As an avatar requires residence in a womb, Shiva as ayonija (not of a womb) cannot manifest himself as an avatar.
The Linga Purana speaks of twenty-eight forms of Shiva which are sometimes seen as avatars. In the Shiva Purana there is a distinctly Saivite version of a traditional avatar myth: Shiva brings forth Virabhadra, one of his terrifying forms, in order to calm Narasimha, an avatar of Vishnu. When that fails, Shiva manifests as the human-lion-bird Sharabha. The story concludes with Narasimha becoming a devotee of Shiva after being bound by Sharabha. However, Vaishnava followers including Dvaita scholars, such as Vijayindra Tirtha (1539–95) refute this Shaivite view of Narasimha based on their reading of Sattvika Puranas and Sruti texts. The monkey-god Hanuman who helped Rama – the Vishnu avatar is considered by some to be the eleventh avatar of Rudra (Shiva). Some regional deities like Khandoba are also believed by some to be avatars of Shiva. Other stated avatars of Shiva, according to some sources, are 8th century non-dualist Vedanta philosopher (Advaita Vedanta) Adi Shankara. He was named "Shankara" after Lord Shiva and is considered by some to have
been an incarnation of the god and Virabhadra who was born when Shiva grabbed a lock of his matted hair and dashed it to the ground. Virabhadra then destroyed Daksha's yajna (fire sacrifice) and severed his head as per Shiva's instructions.
In Dasam Granth, Guru Gobind Singh have mentioned two avtars of Rudra: Dattatreya Avtar and Parasnath Avtar.
Avatars of Devi
Avatars are also observed in Shaktism, the sect dedicated to the worship of the Goddess (Devi), but they do not have universal acceptance in the sect. The Devi Bhagavata Purana describes the descent of Devi avatars to punish the wicked and defend the righteous—much as the Bhagavata Purana does with the avatars of Vishnu. Like Vishnu, his consort Lakshmi incarnates as Sita and Radha – the consorts of Rama and Krishna avatars. Nilakantha, an 18th century commentator on the Devi Bhagavata Purana – which includes the Devi Gita – says that various avatars of the Goddess includes Shakambhari and even the masculine Krishna and Rama – generally thought to be Vishnu's avatars. Lakshmi and Saraswati are also goddesses worshipped as Devi avatars.
PATALA. [Source: Dowson's Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology] The infernal regions, inhabited by Nagas (serpents), Daityas, Danavas, Yakshas, and others. They are seven in number, and their names, according to the Vishna Purana, are Atala, Vitala, Nitala, Gabhastimat, Mahatala, Sutala, and Patala, but these name vary in different authorities. The Padma Purana gives the names of the seven regions and their respective rulers as follow: -- (1.) Atala, subject to Mahamaya; (2.) Vitala, ruled by a form of Siva called Hatakeswara; (3.) Sutala, ruled by Bali ; (4.) Talatala, ruled by Maya; (5.) Mahatala, where reside the great serpents; (6.) Rasatala, where the Daityas and Danavas dwell; (7.) Patala, the lowermost, in which Vasuki reigns over the chief Nagas or snake-gods. In the Siva Purana there are eight: Patala, Tala, Atala, Vitala, Tala, Vidhipatala, Sarkarabhumi, and Vijaya. The sage Narada paid a visit to these regions, and on his return to the skies gave a glowing account of them, declaring them to be far more delightful than Indra's heaven, and abounding with every kind of luxury and sensual gratification.