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

Another and Intermediate Form of Avatarhood Is Possible

There is yet another scenario that some believe represents Avatarhood based on the two primary defining characteristics. This consists of an individual who transcends the purely human state of consciousness, through intense aspiration or devotion, and who then becomes the recipient of a corresponding response from the divine Consciousness that not only intensifies the individual experience, knowledge, power, and love, but in fact, totally takes over the human instrument such that there is no residual sense of individuality during the divine transfiguration. There are accepted spiritual states that correspond to this action, and a classic example has been cited of Chaitanya. Sri Aurobindo describes this state: “This is said by his contemporaries to have happened in the occasional transfigurations of Chaitanya when he who in his normal consciousness was only the lover and devotee of the Lord and rejected all deification, became in these abnormal moments the Lord himself and so spoke and acted, with all the outflooding light and love and power of the divine Presence.”

Sri Aurobindo explains the mechanism that justifies the idea that this is an intermediate form of Avatarhood: “…for if the human being can elevate his nature so as to feel a unity with the being of the Divine and himself a mere channel of its consciousness, light, power, love, his own will and personality lost in that will and that being,–and this is a recognised spiritual status,–then there is no inherent impossibility of the reflex action of that Will, Being, Power, Love, Light, Consciousness occupying the whole personality of the human Jiva. And this would not be merely an ascent of our humanity into the divine birth and the divine nature, but a descent of the divine Purusha into humanity, an Avatar.”

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

Avatarhood and the Inner Mystic Doctrine of Christianity

If we look at the doctrines of mystic Christianity, we find that it actually corresponds well to the understanding of the ascent of human consciousness, the response and descent of the divine consciousness and its manifestation in life. This “inner” doctrine translates the outer symbology of Christianity into the psychological experience of the mystic or yogi, similar to the way the Rig Veda has been shown to have both an exoteric (external symbol) and esoteric (inner sense of the symbolic language for spiritual experience and realisation) meaning.

Sri Aurobindo relates the symbols to the inner realm of experience: “But above, on a plane within us but now superconscient to us, called heaven by the ancient mystics, the Lord and the Jiva stand together revealed as of one essence of being, the Father and the Son of certain symbolisms, the Divine Being and the divine Man who comes forth from Him born of the higher divine Nature, the virgin Mother, para prakrti, para maya, into the lower or human nature. This seems to be the inner doctrine of the Christian incarnation; in its Trinity the Father is above in this inner Heaven; the Son or supreme Prakriti becomes Jiva of the Gita, descends as the divine Man upon earth, in the mortal body; the Holy Spirit, pure Self, Brahmic consciousness is that which makes them one and that also in which they communicate; for we hear of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus and it is the same descent which brings down the powers of the higher consciousness into the simple humanity of the Apostles.”

The ancient Vedic Rishis employed similar symbols to cloak their inner experience in everyday terms. The dawn was a symbol of the coming illumination. The cow was a symbol of rays of Light illuminating the consciousness. The Christian doctrine fits this mystic approach, and is even practiced today by those branches of Christianity that work to understand and uncover a hidden inner significance to the symbols.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 16, The Process of Avatarhood, pp. 153-154

Avatarhood and Buddhahood

There are some who propose yet another method of development of an Avatar, which is based on the subjective experience of the growth of consciousness beyond the normal mental limits to identification with the Divine Consciousness. The ascent of human consciousness, leading to a divine consciousness, in this proposal, represents Avatarhood. Sri Aurobindo points out that in the Gita’s discussion, while the underlying action may occur, it does not actually lead to the manifestation of an Avatar necessarily. The criteria of the divine consciousness is only one part of the equation. The other part, the descent and active standpoint of the Lord of Creation is still missing.

“The Gita itself speaks of the soul becoming the Brahman…and of its thereby dwelling in the Lord, in Krishna, but it does not, it must be marked, speak of it as becoming the Lord or the Purushottama, though it does declare that the Jiva himself is always Ishwara, the partial being of the Lord…. For this greatest union, this highest becoming is still part of the ascent; while it is the divine birth to which every Jiva arrives, it is not the descent of the Godhead, not Avatarhood, but at most Buddhahood according to the doctrine of the Buddhists, it is the soul awakened from its present mundane individuality into an infinite super-consciousness. That need not carry with it either the inner consciousness or the characteristic action of the Avatar.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 16, The Process of Avatarhood, pp. 152-153

The Difference Between the Avatar and the Vibhuti

The devotional tendency of human beings is to want to worship the Deity they see as the object of their devotion, as well as individuals they perceive to be Saints, Sages, Seers or Enlightened Beings. Seeing the superior force of consciousness manifesting through these individuals, they naturally begin to consider them to be Avatars or partial Avatars. The dividing line between human and divine action becomes somewhat blurred when we once acknowledge consciousness as One and admit that the Divine Consciousness is implicit in all existence. At this point we come to the distinction that the Gita makes between the Vibhuti and the Avatar. In both cases as Sri Aurobindo phrases it, …”it is the sense of the divine in humanity.”

“But still the Vibhuti is not the Avatar…” “The divine quality is not enough; there must be the inner consciousness of the Lord and Self governing the human nature by his divine presence. The heightening of the power of the qualities is part of the becoming,…an ascent in the ordinary manifestation; in the Avatar there is the special manifestation, the divine birth from above, the eternal and universal Godhead descended into a form of individual humanity….and conscious not only behind the veil but in the outward nature.”

Thus the essential difference between the two, while there may be some noticeable difference of the power or intensity of the outer working, is really the difference of inner identification and standpoint, and the aspect of it being a descent from above. The Avatar is conscious of his divine status and lives and works from the standpoint of the Divine; while the Vibhuti may act with an intensity and power of manifestation, but he is essentially rooted in and acting from the human consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 16, The Process of Avatarhood, pg. 152