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

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