The Deeper Sense of the Concept of Dharma

The term “Dharma” is so complex, and has so many aspects embedded in it, that there is no one word in English that can capture its complete sense and meaning. Even when the word is utilized however, most focus on one or two aspects and do not take the others into serious account. This has led to traditional translations such as “ethics” , “justice”, “right conduct”, “morality”, “appropriate mode of life” or “religious principles” that each do not do properly define the term.

Sri Aurobindo, in order to aid us in understanding the deeper sense of the Avatar’s mission, has taken pains to describe the concept of Dharma at some length: “in its fullest, deepest and largest conception, as the inner and the outer law by which the divine Will and Wisdom work out the spiritual evolution of mankind and its circumstances and results in the life of the race.” And further, “In its primary sense it means a fundamental law of our nature which secretly conditions all our activities, and in this sense each being, type, species, individual, group has its own Dharma. Secondly, there is the divine nature which has to develop and manifest in us, and in this sense Dharma is the law of the inner workings by which that rows in our being. Thirdly, there is the law by which we govern our outgoing thought and action and our relations with each other so as to help best both our own growth and that of the human race towards the divine ideal.”

“…it is the whole government of all the relations of man with other beings, with Nature, with God, considered from the point of view of a divine principle working itself out in forms and laws of action, forms of the inner and the outer life, orderings of relations of every kind in the world. Dharma is both that which we hold to and that which holds together our inner and outer activities.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 17, The Divine Birth and Divine Works, pp. 162-163


The Lasting Impact of the Avatar’s Manifestation

One would expect that an Avatar coming to open a new evolutionary opportunity for consciousness in the world, would impact not only his own time and localized situation on the outer plane, but also be seen as establishing a new principle or capacity that tends to generalize itself across humanity thereafter. This impact may be seen in terms of an ethical, moral or socio-political effect on humanity as well as on the spiritual possibilities and powers of consciousness on the inner plane.

There is a phenomenon known as the “hundredth monkey” phenomenon that when a new skill is learned by a monkey, and then gets generalized to a larger group (the “hundredth” monkey), it becomes universally available to all monkeys even if they are not in the small group that actually initially gained the skill. It seems that the capacity generalizes itself at the level of consciousness once it has achieved a “critical mass”. Something similar can be seen when an Avatar brings forth a new level of consciousness and new principle of action. He acts directly on a relatively small group of people in his immediate surroundings, but once sufficient people begin to see and act from that level, we also can recognize a generalizing effect in the world at large.

Sri Aurobindo discusses the issues relating to the long-term impact of the Avatar: “The Avatar may descend as a great spiritual teacher and saviour, the Christ, the Buddha, but always his work leads, after he has finished his earthly manifestation, to a profound and powerful change not only in the ethical, but in the social and outward life and ideals of the race.”

“It is indeed curious to note that the permanent, vital, universal effect of Buddhism and Christianity has been the force of their ethical, social and practical ideals and their influence even on the men and the ages which have rejected their religious and spiritual beliefs, forms and disciplines…”

“Avatarhood is a fact of divine life and consciousness which may realise itself in an outward action, but must persist, when that action is over and has done its work, in a spiritual influence; or may realise itself in a spiritual influence and teaching, but must then have its permanent effect, even when the new religion or discipline is exhausted, in the thought, temperament and outward life of mankind.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 17, The Divine Birth and Divine Works, pp. 161-162

The Avatar Goes Beyond the Ethical Dharma

The popular stories about the Avatars of Vishnu, including the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and various Puranas focus heavily on the outward action and role of the Avatar. They emphasize the oppression laid upon the society, the people and the earth by retrogressive forces who want to dominate and control and who create untold suffering as a result of their demonic impulses and acts. The stories in fact tend to over-emphasize the evil acts and intentions of these rakshasic and asuric forces and make them seem larger than life and ready to do any unethical or even bloodthirsty act if they believe it will aid in their domination or protect them from any challenges. In all of this focus, the larger spiritual intention of the Avatar is very frequently greatly overlooked or minimized in its apparent importance. The action of the Avatar in this outer field of activity, whether primarily social, political or even military comes under the basic rubric of the “ethical Dharma” to protect “right action” and hinder, obstruct or destroy “wrong action”.

Sri Aurobindo describes the limitation of this view of the Avatar: “It does not cover its spiritual sense, and if this outward utility were all, we should have to exclude Buddha and Christ whose mission was not at all to destroy evil-doers and deliver the good, but to bring to all men a new spiritual message and a new law of divine growth and spiritual realisation.”

He cautions that we should not, on the other hand, try to interpret the Avatar’s mission solely from a religious perspective either, because we then lose the sense of the outer work to be done concurrently. The Avatar’s role is more comprehensive than either one-sided view recognizes: “Always we see in the history of the divine incarnations the double work, and inevitably, because the Avatar takes up the workings of God in human life, the way of the divine Will and Wisdom in the world, and that always fulfils itself externally as well as internally, by inner progress in the soul and by an outer change in the life.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 17, The Divine Birth and Divine Works, pp. 160-161

Understanding the Outer Action of the Avatar

There is an outer and an inner significance to the descent of the Avatar. The outer action is frequently described as upholding the Dharma, destroying the forces of opposition and hostility and uplifting and encouraging those who seek to live according to Dharma. Sri Aurobindo reminds us that this is only one aspect of the work of the Avatar; and further, that the concept of Dharma, often boiled down to its ethical connotation, is in reality a much more complex concept that embodies ethics, morality, duty, and spiritual action aligned with the deeper purpose of one’s existence.

“The outward action of the Avatar is described in the Gita as the restoration of the Dharma; when from age to age the Dharma fades, languishes, loses force and its opposite arises, strong and oppressive, then the Avatar comes and raises it again to power; and as then things in idea are always represented by things in action and by human beings who obey their impulsion, his mission is, in its most human and outward terms, to relieve the seekers of the Dharma who are oppressed by the reign of the reactionary darkness and to destroy the wrong-doers who seek to maintain the denial of the Dharma.”

The many stories told about the Avatars of Vishnu illustrate this concept, as “…the Avatar descends to deliver the good and destroy the wicked, to break down injustice and oppression and restore the ethical balance of mankind.”

This of course is only one aspect of the role of the Avatar and is actually neither the most significant nor is it universally the case that the Avatar must do outward battle in a worldly sense with forces arrayed against him. The tales, however popular, only touch on a portion of the Truth, not the entire meaning of the Avatar’s birth.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 17, The Divine Birth and Divine Works, pg. 160

A Spiritual Crisis of Humanity Calls Forth the Avatar

The evolutionary development of humanity does not occur in a straight line. Generally a power of capacity is introduced, it then needs time to get integrated into the human framework and then get disseminated widely to become a general capacity of mankind. During the integration and dissemination phase, there are periods of resistance to the new line of action, and even outright strong opposition based on an attempt to preserve the status quo unchanged. The capacity for reflective thought, for instance, is seen as a threat to the segment of humanity that acts primarily on vital impulse of desire.

As long as there is an established capacity at work, it acts within a framework that circumscribes and limits its action. This limitation is not generally seen or recognized as long as we remain immersed in the characteristic action of that power or capacity. It is only when we begin to reach the outside limits of a particular capacity that we begin to recognize both its inherent limitations and the need to achieve a new standpoint outside the framework, in order to bring to bear upon the problems created by the limitations we now can see, a new power, a new insight, a new capacity.

The Avatar does not take birth to simply work through the issues of integration and dissemination; rather, the Avatar takes birth at just those moments when a new capability, a new order of conscious force, a new spiritual impetus, is absolutely essential to break through the limitations, overcome the obstacles and resolve the inherent conflicts of the prior stage.

Humanity has had major lines of development occur within an existing framework that do not qualify as actions calling forth an Avatar. Sri Aurobindo provides the examples of the Reformation or the French Revolution where such actions, even exceptional new insights, could occur without the Avatar. “…they were not great spiritual events, but intellectual and practical changes, one in religious, the other in social and political ideas, forms and motives, and the modification of the general consciousness brought about was a mental and dynamic, but not a spiritual modification.”

“But when the crisis has a spiritual seed or intention, then a complete or a partial manifestation of the God-consciousness in a human mind and soul comes as its originator or leader. That is the Avatar.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 17, The Divine Birth and Divine Works, pp. 159-160

The Dual Purpose and Form of the Descent of the Avatar

Sri Aurobindo quickly outlines the Avatar’s role: “The work for which the Avatar descends has like his birth a double sense and a double form. It has an outward side of the divine force acting upon the external world in order to maintain there and to reshape the divine law by which the Godward effort of humanity is kept from decisive retrogression and instead decisively carried forward in spite of the rule of action and reaction, the rhythm of advance and relapse by which Nature proceeds. It has an inward side of the divine force of the Godward consciousness acting upon the soul of the individual and the soul of the race, so that it may receive new forms of revelation of the Divine in man and may be sustained, renewed and enriched in its power of upward self-unfolding.”

While the appearance of an Avatar corresponds with outer events that need to be addressed and shaped, opposition that needs to be weakened or removed, and opportunities that present themselves for critical directions to be taken by humanity at a specific juncture in time, Sri Aurobindo reminds us that the outer action is not the central purpose; rather, it is the inner impact on consciousness, the potential developmental direction for inward growth, that represents the primary focus, goal and action of the Avatar.

“Action and event have no value in themselves, but only take their value from the force which they represent and the idea which they symbolise and which the force is there to serve.”

As humanity systematically expands its powers of understanding, thought, emotion, action and pushes up against the limitations of the environment and the societal needs, there comes a time when all the old ways of thinking and doing things no longer can solve the issues. A new framework or a new insight is needed to provide the solution and nothing else will do. We see such things even today where we face an expanding population while at the same time an ever-increasing demand for resources, stresses caused by increased pollution, and disharmony between differing viewpoints of how to appropriately and adequately deal with the complexity of all these issues interacting upon one another. Such periods have occurred in the past and triggered the advent of the Avatar to provide a new understanding and a new impetus for change and growth.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 17, The Divine Birth and Divine Works, pg. 159

The Significance of Avatarhood

As he concludes this chapter, Sri Aurobindo points out that while Avatarhood is not the major focus of the Gita, it nevertheless plays an essential role in the teaching being presented and in the sequence of development that is proposed. He summarizes it this: “…the very framework being the Avatar leading the vibhuti, the man who has risen to the greatest heights of mere manhood, to the divine birth and divine works.”

Of course, the true significance of the Avatar is to open a door for the next stage of evolutionary development and show the possibility, method and steps to achieve that. “No doubt, too, the inner descent of the Godhead to raise the human soul into himself is the main thing,–it is the inner Christ, Krishna or Buddha that matters.”

The manifestation of an Avatar is an opportunity for humanity to exceed its current limits and make the evolutionary leap that is required in the time and age of the Avatar’s birth. “The consummation in the mental and physical symbol assists the growth of the inner reality; afterwards the inner reality expresses itself with greater power in a more perfect symbolisation of itself through the outer life. Between these two, spiritual reality and mental and physical expression, acting and returning upon each other constantly the manifestation of the Divine in humanity has elected to move always in the cycles of its concealment and its revelation.”

As the Gita points out, whenever the upward progress of spiritual development requires a serious support and impetus, and when the forces of opposition are standing firmly in the way of that development, the Avatar manifests to help break through the obstacles, provide guidance and direction and set the stage for a new upward movement through manifestation of a concrete spiritual force in the human world. These manifestations take place when normal human action is either ineffective or insufficient to carry out the needed evolutionary development.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 16, The Process of Avatarhood, pp. 157-158

The Process of the Avatar Taking Human Birth

Once we admit the incarnation of an Avatar, we come to the practical questions of how the physical framework, the body, life and mind of the Avatar are prepared to receive the higher force and intensity that the Avatar brings, and how the descent of the Avatar actually links up with and embodies itself into an appropriate human life.

One potential process is simply that the Avatar takes birth in a body prepared through the normal developmental process of Prakriti. As human development occurs, successively higher intensities can be sustained, leading to the ability of the Avatar to work in a body that is suited to the time within which he is undertaking his action.

Another potential would be for the Avatar to actively bring together the elements and shape the body for his future incarnation.

Sri Aurobindo weighs in on these issues while analyzing the Gita’s statements in this regard: “If we suppose that the body is always created by the hereditary evolution, by inconscient Nature and its immanent Life-spirit without the intervention of the individual soul, the matter becomes simple. A physical and mental body is prepared fit for the divine incarnation by a pure or great heredity and the descending Godhead takes possession of it.”

It is however not so simple. “But the Gita in this very passage applies the doctrine of reincarnation, boldly enough, to the Avatar himself, and in the usual theory of reincarnation the reincarnating soul by its past spiritual and psychological evolution itself determines and in a way prepares its own mental and physical body.”

This would imply an evolving series of Avatar births, with the Avatar preparing the body needed for the birth in the particular age and circumstances in which he is to be born at a particular time.

This is one of the most difficult concepts for the modern mind to grasp and accept, because it involves concepts (or realities) that the modern mind is not comfortable with holding. The materialistic bent of the age finds it difficult to accept that a spiritual principle is the core impetus of existence in the material world, and that consciousness creates the material world, rather than the other way round.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 16, The Process of Avatarhood, pp. 156-157

Appreciating the Human Side of the Avatar’s Incarnation

One aspect that is possibly the most difficult for us to accept in the Avatar is the “human” side of the incarnation. We somehow expect that a divine incarnation must be a “miracle worker” or somehow function outside the framework of the normal human life and the limitations of the human existence, thereby exempting the Avatar from suffering, disease, old age and death (the 4 noble truths identified by the Buddha). When the incarnation goes through any of these conditions, it shakes our faith in the Avatar or the possibility of such a divine birth.

Sri Aurobindo makes the case that an incarnation that did not go through the issues of the human being and be subjected to those conditions would not in fact be able to fulfill the mission of the Avatar to provide a path and a real opportunity for others to follow and adopt the new powers of consciousness for which the Avatar has made his appearance. “A merely supernormal or miraculous Avatar would be a meaningless absurdity; not that there need be an entire absence of the use of supernormal powers such as Christ’s so-called miracles of healing, for the use of supernormal powers is quite a possibility of human nature; but there need not be that at all, nor in any case is it the root of the matter, nor would it at all do if the life were nothing else but a display of supernormal fireworks. The Avatar does not come as a thaumaturgic magician, but as the divine leader of humanity and the exemplar of a divine humanity.”

In fact, it is the application of new powers of consciousness and action, to address the limitations and issues of human beings, to propel the progress of humanity that is the essence of the Avatar’s mission. “The Avatar is always a dual phenomenon of divinity and humanity; the Divine takes upon himself the human nature with all its outward limitations and makes them the circumstances, means, instruments of the divine consciousness and the divine power, a vessel of the divine birth and the divine works. But so surely it must be, since otherwise the object of the Avatar’s descent is not fulfilled; for that object is precisely to show that the human birth with all its limitations can be made such a means and instrument of the divine birth and divine works, precisely to show that the human type of consciousness can be compatible with the divine essence of consciousness made manifest, can be converted into its vessel, drawn into nearer conformity with it by a change of its mould and a heightening of its powers of light and love and strength and purity; and to show also how it can be done.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 16, The Process of Avatarhood, pp. 155-156

The Avatar As the Divine Birth Into Human Form

The Gita itself presents a doctrine of Avatarhood which goes beyond the idea that a human being can through receptivity and development, open to the divine force and embody it, or that it can even take over and supersede the human individuality. The Gita directly states that the supreme Lord of Creation can and does on occasion, take direct birth through the process of Nature into the human form and acts from that platform from the knowledge, consciousness and power of the Supreme.

Sri Aurobindo explains the Gita’s statement in this regard: “The Divine descends by his own Prakriti into birth in its human form and type and brings into it the divine Consciousness and the divine Power, though consenting, though willing to act in the form, type, mould of humanity, and he governs its actions in the body as the indwelling and over-dwelling Soul…. From above he governs always, indeed, for so he governs all nature, the human included; from within also he governs all nature, always, but hidden; the difference here is that he is manifest, that the nature is conscious of the divine Presence as the Lord, the Inhabitant, and it is not by his secret will from above, ‘the will of the Father which is in heaven,’ but by his quite direct and apparent will that he moves the nature. And here there seems to be no room for the human intermediary; for it is by resort to his own nature…, and not the special nature of the Jiva that the Lord of all existence thus takes upon himself the human birth.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 16, The Process of Avatarhood, pp. 154-155