“Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O descendant of Bharata, and a predominant rise of irreligion—at that time I descend Myself.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.7)
यदा यदा हि धर्मस्य
ग्लानिर् भवति भारत
तदात्मानं सृजाम्य् अहम्
yadā yadā hi dharmasya
glānir bhavati bhārata
tadātmānaṁ sṛjāmy aham
“I am new to bhakti-yoga, so forgive me if my inquiries seem silly or indicate a lack of education. I am particularly intrigued by this concept of an avatara. It is comforting to know that the Almighty, the one who will support me in times of difficulty, who is there for everyone that is suffering, appears in a manifest way from time to time.
“I am aware of the circumstances. There is the verse from the Bhagavad-gita describing that whenever and wherever there is a decline in religion, with a commensurate rise in adharma, where the saintly people are being harassed, Krishna appears as Himself.
“I am a little confused as to the actual makeup of these occurrences. Basically, what is behind the visual? Is it a transformation? That would make sense to me, since people can change their shapes depending on diet, exercise, health and the like. I know that there are siddhis of yoga that allow a person to transform in an instant. The Rakshasas in Lanka had this ability. Shri Hanuman, the dedicated servant of God, can also do this.
“Is it the same with Bhagavan Himself? Does He transform? Are the avataras just representative of different exercises in yoga?”
A reference used by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada helps in understanding this concept; the sun and the way it appears at different times of the day.
1. The sun at morning time
Your friend from out of town is visiting. Not sure exactly where to take them for entertainment, as you are not much of a sightseer yourself, you decide to visit a beach area that is on the end of the island on which you live. The distance is far enough to make an outing out of the experience.
Your friend intentionally wants to leave early in the morning, prior to the sunrise. They want to see the morning sun as it creeps up over the water in the horizon. To them, this is one of the most beautiful images from nature.
2. The sun at noon
The summer is finally here. You made it through the bitter cold of winter. You survived the constant sneezing and itchy eyes of spring. You are ready to spend some time outside and enjoy the fresh air.
One of the preferred ways to pass the time is playing sports. You are particularly into tennis and you have family members living under the same roof who share the interest. On a particular weekend day you are ready to go out, but there is this warning from the parents:
“Don’t go out now. The sun is shining too bright. Right around this time, it will be the hottest during the day. Not only will you tire more quickly, but you risk health emergencies such as heatstroke. Wait until the evening, when the sun is on the way down.”
3. The evening sun
Similar to the sunrise at the beach, this is also a beautiful picture. The difference here is that the temperature is on the decline. It is the end of the day, and so following behind the sun is darkness. This is a welcome occurrence during the high temperatures of the summer months, where it is almost unbearable to remain outside.
While there appears to be different versions of the sun in these three instances, the sun is actually the same every time. It has neither transformed, nor appeared, nor disappeared. The only difference is the angle of vision; i.e. my viewpoint.
The same applies to the avataras of the Supreme Lord. They are eternally existing. The use of the Sanskrit word avatara is intentional. This references someone who descends. They travel from the spiritual world to the material world; from high to low, though for them such a distinction has no meaning.
Similar to the positioning of the sun, Shri Krishna can be realized in three features: Brahman, Paramatma, and Bhagavan. These are not three separate entities. They are not distinct objects, either. They are simply levels of realization.
With Brahman, I notice the spiritual equality that pervades the entire space. Whether large or small, living entities are of the same quality on the inside. Paramatma is the localized aspect of the individual God residing within everyone. Bhagavan is the full-featured manifestation; He is God the person.
Any of the three realizations sufficiently qualifies as spiritual and has the corresponding reward of liberation. The Bhagavan realization is considered superior because there is the opportunity for direct service; it accounts for activity after liberation. As time continues and the soul with it in existence, there has to be some outlet for service. Connection with Bhagavan is the best way, and the different avataras give an idea of what that service might look like.
Idea of what service might be,
After liberation the cycle to free.
Avatara with this purpose one,
And so much else also done.
Brahman and Paramatma the same,
Just different angle of vision frame.
Like with timed phases of sun,
But actual difference none.
Categories: the three