The Critical and Essential Mission of the Avatar

While the outer action of the Avatar is important, the true critical and essential mission of the Avatar is to bring into the human consciousness and help to anchor it there, a new inner development, a new consciousness, a new mode of understanding and acting. Sri Aurobindo has provided a comprehensive and inspiring summation of the Avatar and his work:

“The Avatar comes to reveal the divine nature in man above this lower nature and to show what are the divine works, free, unegoistic, disinterested, impersonal, universal, full of the divine light, the divine power and the divine love. He comes as the divine personality which shall fill the consciousness of the human being and replace the limited egoistic personality, so that it shall be liberated out of ego into infinity and universality, out of birth into immortality. He comes as the divine power and love which calls men to itself, so that they may take refuge in that and no longer in the insufficiency of their human wills and the strife of their human fear, wrath and passion, and liberated from all this unquiet and suffering may live in the calm and bliss of the Divine.”

Depending on the need of the time, the Avatar may come in different forms with a different emphasis for the specific power or principle to be placed in front as the focus. The Avatar is not limited by a specific teaching, religion or philosophy. “…for in all ways, varying with their nature, men are following the path set to them by the Divine which will in the end lead them to him and the aspect of him which suits their nature is that which they can best follow when he comes to lead them; in whatever way men accept, love and take joy in God, in that way God accepts, loves and takes joy in man.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 17, The Divine Birth and Divine Works, pp. 166-167

The Inner Struggle and the Outer Struggle

There are concurrently two levels of development taking place that interact and influence one another. The first is the individual growth and development, with an internal process of increasing understanding, widening of perspective and the struggle to master and gain control of the impulses that govern the unrefined vital nature, based on the impulsions of desire; and a second which represents the play of forces in the world which is made up of the combined actions and influences of all the individuals who interact and together create the complex web of actions and events that we call society and the collective evolution of mankind. The “outer world” influences the “inner world” and thus, any force that is active in the outer world has some amount of power to influence the actions, reactions, progress or retrogression of the individual, in principle. Similarly, as an individual progresses in the inner struggle with the forces of desire, the impulsions of division, hatred and anger, and other retrogressive movements that hold back or moderate the evolutionary development to a higher level of consciousness, that individual’s actions and responses become part of the totality of the outer world. The overall outward progress is thus something of a reflex action to the inner development of the individual and its outward expression.

Sri Aurobindo describes this interplay: “The Gita lays stress upon the struggle of which the world is the theatre, in its two aspects, the inner struggle and the outer battle. In the inner struggle the enemies are within, in the individual, and the slaying of desire, ignorance, egoism is the victory. But there is an outer struggle between the powers of the Dharma and the Adharma in the human collectivity.”

The Divine powers, represented in the ultimate sense by the action of the Avatar, work toward the upliftment of the individual and concurrently aids in the defeat of the external forces that represent darkness, aggressive and violent egoistic impulses, domination and the control of desire in all its forms. Sri Aurobindo reminds us that this struggle has been recognized all over the world, whether as a fight between the Devas and the Asuras and Rakshasas, as in the Indian tradition, or the Gods and the Titans from the ancient Greek, or the forces of Light versus the forces of Darkness in the Zoroastrian tradition, or God and the Devil in the Christian teachings.

“This outer struggle too the Avatar comes to aid, directly or indirectly, to destroy the reign of the Asuras, the evil-doers, and in them depress the power they represent and to restore the oppressed ideals of the Dharma. He comes to bring nearer the kingdom of heaven on earth in the collectivity as well as to build the kingdom of heaven within in the individual human soul.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 17, The Divine Birth and Divine Works, pp. 165-166

The Vedantic Meaning of Dharma, Sangha and Avatar

Sri Aurobindo reminds us that the Gita follows the basic framework of the Vedanta, and thus, all concepts, including those of dharma, sangha and avatar need to be seen in that light. The foundations of Vedanta are the two statements “One without a second” and “All this is the Brahman.” When these statements are applied to the mission of the Avatar to advance the development of the Dharma, we may see the wide reach of the Gita’s teaching. The Dharma widens to become the entire evolutionary development of consciousnessness and oneness of all beings; the sangha is seen as all of humanity, and the Avatar is no longer restricted to one specific manifestation, but the entire line of Avatar’s, regardless of specific religious tradition, that advance this movement.

Sri Aurobindo clarifies this further: “The Dharma is therefore the taking up of all human relations into a higher divine meaning; starting from the established ethical, social and religious rule which binds together the whole community in which the God-seeker lives, it lifts it up by informing it with the Brahmic consciousness; the law it gives is the law of oneness, of equality, of liberated, desireless, God-governed action, of God-knowledge and self-knowledge enlightening and drawing to itself all the nature and all the action, drawing it towards divine being and divine consciousness, and of God-love as the supreme power and crown of the knowledge and the action.

Regarding the sangha: “…but the real sangha of this teaching is all humanity. The whole world is moving towards this Dharma, each man according to his capacity,–‘it is My path that men follow in every way,’–and the God-seeker, making himself one with all, making their joy and sorrow and all their life his own, the liberated made already one self with all beings, lives in the life of humanity, lives for the one Self in humanity, for God in all beings,….for the maintaining of all in their dharma and the Dharma, for the maintenance of their growth in all its stages and in all its paths towards the Divine.”

And the Avatar: “For the Avatar here, though he is manifest in the name and form of Krishna, lays no exclusive stress on this one form of his human birth, but on that which it represents, the Divine, the Purushottama, of whom all Avatars are the human births, of whom all forms and names of the Godhead worshipped by men are the figures….For the Divine takes up into his universality all Avatars and all teachings and all dharmas.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 17, The Divine Birth and Divine Works, pp. 164-165

The Way, the Fellowship and the Role of the Avatar

The major religious and spiritual traditions tend to form around a somewhat common pattern as the elements required to achieve the result are similar regardless of the specific tradition involved. There is first of all a Dharma, a rule of life, a teaching, a form of guidance for living that is brought forth as a model for people to use to realize and embody the inspiration that has to manifest at the point in time that brings it forth. There is the group of people called to take up the teaching and make it real in their lives, whether this is called a fellowship, a congregation or a sangha. And there is a teacher or guide, someone who embodies the teaching, who shows the way, who guides and inspires, a Buddha or a Christ or a Krishna.

These are the general conditions for the manifestation of a new power of consciousness and way of life. The Avatar’s role is, as Sri Aurobindo explains: “The Avatar represents the third element, the divine personality, nature and being, who is the soul of Dharma and the sangha, informs them with himself, keeps them living and draws men towards the felicity and the liberation.”

The special role of the Avatar is to ensure that people are inspired by the force of the new teaching and the power of consciousness represented by it, that they see that it is possible to live and act under the impulsion of this force, and that it can and must remain a living force not constrained by custom or form, but able to respond to circumstances, adapt itself to life and provide a meaningful guidance and direction for life from a new standpoint with a real power of effectuation. Thus the Avatar is something of a catalyst for the descent and integration of a new power of consciousness in life.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 17, The Divine Birth and Divine Works, pg. 164

The Struggle Between Dharma and Adharma

The concept of Dharma is often considered to be one that is universal, eternal and unchanging. This idea incorporates the sense that we can identify an idealized form of dharma that can be used, at all times, as a “pole star” to guide our actions. Sri Aurobindo reminds us that in the ideal sense, this is true; but in the world of manifestation, the concept of Dharma necessarily must evolve and grow as our capabilities to understand and embody Dharma grow. The process of the growth of Dharma in the manifested world over time involves concurrently the recognition that there are powers and movements within the world that resist, oppose and try to prevent or at least slow down the development of dharma.

Various religions have recognized this process of progressive and retrogressive movements. The Vedic seers spoke of the powers of darkness covering up and opposing the light. Buddha had to face down the temptations of Mara in order to achieve his enlightenment. The Zoroastrian religion posited two opposing principles, that of Light and that of Darkness that ever strived to overcome one another. Christianity sets up a similar opposition of God and Satan. Clearly the understanding of the dynamic between powers that are attempting to bring greater illumination to our lives and those that oppose the changes that come about when new powers of knowledge or action arise, is one that has been recognized throughout the world over a great span of time.

The development of Dharma is a progressive process, as Sri Aurobindo explains “…because man does not already possess the ideal or live in it, but aspires more or less perfectly towards it, is growing towards its knowledge and practice. And in this growth Dharma is all that helps us to grow into the divine purity, largeness, light, freedom, power, strength, joy, love, good, unity, beauty, and against it stands its shadow and denial, all that resists its growth and has not undergone its law, all that has not yielded up and does not will to yield up its secret of divine values, but presents a front of perversion and contradiction, of impurity, narrowness, bondage, darkness, weakness, vileness, discord and suffering and division, and the hideous and the crude, all that man has to leave behind in his progress. This is the adharma, not-Dharma, which strives with and seeks to overcome the Dharma, to draw backward and downward, the reactionary force which makes for evil, ignorance and darkness.”

The role of the Avatar involves aiding the development of Dharma and overcoming the power of the reactionary forces of resistance.

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

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