Historical Avatarhood and Spiritual Avatarhood

We tend to get caught up in the question of the historical existence and actions of spiritual leaders and personalities of the past. There remains a debate, for instance, about the historicity of Jesus, and similarly one about the historicity of Krishna, the Avatar/Teacher of the Bhagavad Gita.

Sri Aurobindo points out that this debate, while interesting from an historical perspective in each case, actually has very little relevance to our need to find spiritual guidance, whether from a Christian perspective or from the Hindu tradition.

“…for what does it matter in the end whether a Jesus son of the carpenter Joseph was actually born in Nazareth or Bethlehem, lived and taught and was done to death on a real or trumped-up charge of sedition, so long as we can know by spiritual experience the inner Christ, live uplifted in the light of his teaching and escape from the yoke of the natural Law by that atonement of man with God of which his crucifixion is the Symbol?”

“So too the Krishna who matters to us is the eternal incarnation of the Divine and not the historical teacher and leader of men.” There is considerable body of evidence to support the historical existence of Krishna, and his active role in the war chronicled in the Mahabharata. Nevertheless, while the Gita accepts the historicity of Krishna, it does not focus its attention on this aspect, but rather, on the spiritual significance of Avatarhood. “It is then the eternal Avatar, this God in man, the divine Consciousness always present in the human being who manifested in a visible form speaks to the human soul in the Gita, illumines the meaning of life and the secret of divine action and gives it the light of the divine knowledge and guidance and the assuring and fortifying word of the Master of existence in the hour when it comes face to face with the painful mystery of the world.”

The goal is to find a way to open and respond to the spiritual influence and energy of that Divine consciousness which is active in the world and pushing us toward higher and greater forms of realisation. The Avatar, the Guru, the Teaching take on their significance to the extent they aid us in that endeavor. “Through these it strives to awaken to that inner voice, unveil that form of the Formless and stand face to face with that manifest divine Power, Love and Knowledge.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 2, The Divine Teacher, pp. 12-14,

The Meaning of the Avatar

The concept of the Avatar, the Divine Being manifesting in the world to guide, teach, correct or save, is one which has long been supported in the Indian tradition. The idea, however, is not limited to India. The Christian teaching of the divinity of Jesus, and the unity between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and Jesus’ role to guide the faithful and teach a new and higher way of living, clearly fits the classical understanding we find in India.

Sri Aurobindo describes the underpinning of the concept in India: “All existence is a manifestation of God because He is the only existence and nothing can be except as either a real figuring or else a figment of that one reality. Therefore every conscious being is in part or in some way a descent of the Infinite into the apparent finiteness of name and form.” While for most forms this is essentially a veiled power and consciousness, it is of course possible for a being to consciously manifest a higher consciousness. “But when the divine Consciousness and Power, taking upon itself the human form and the human mode of action, possesses it not only by powers and magnitudes, by degrees and outward faces of itself but out of its eternal self-knowledge, when the Unborn knows itself and acts in the frame of the mental being and the appearance of birth, that is the height of the conditioned manifestation; it is the full and conscious descent of the Godhead, it is the Avatar.”

“When this eternal divine Consciousness always present in every human being, this God in man, takes possession partly or wholly of the human consciousness and becomes in visible human shape the guide, teacher, leader of the world, not as those who living in their humanity yet feel something of the power or light or love of the divine Gnosis informing and conducting them, but out of that divine Gnosis itself, direct from its central force and plenitude, then we have the manifest Avatar. The inner Divinity is the eternal Avatar in man; the human manifestation is its sign and development in the external world.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 2, The Divine Teacher, pp. 10-12,