Though God is in essence unborn, immutable by nature and Lord of all beings, still, when times warrant it. He through His own Divine power takes birth as man. He incarnates throughout the ages whenever righteousness declines, in order to restore virtue and to protect the good. The man who knows this secret and acts accordingly obtains supreme wisdom. Bhagavad Gita. Ch. IV. v 6-9.
According to the Advaita philosophy, Brahman, the absolute, is without attributes and cannot be known by the human mind, since It is the power by which the mind knows. The mind in this case is similar to the hand, which although it is superior to the pen, can know by touch and controls the pen, yet it in its turn is controlled by a superior force which it cannot comprehend at all. The Katha Upanishad says of Brahman:
“It is beyond the reach of the eye, the speech and the mind. We cannot have It as an object of knowledge. There is no means to instruct another about It. It is different from the known and the unknown”.
All that can be postulated of this Brahman is that It is conscious awareness, perfect bliss, existent truth. Yet when these terms are applied to Brahman, it is not so much to describe It as being what is usually understood by these qualities—for any description to some extent limits what it describes—but rather to denote what It is not. That is, It is not unconscious or inert, there is no suffering or misery in It, and It is not non-existent or in any sense unreal.
This is Para-Brahman, the absolute; but the same Brahman is also the creator and sustainer of the universe. If one thinks of the infinite blue sky representing Brahman absolute, and a rainbow arching over it as the created world, that part of the sky covered by the rainbow can be said to be Ishvara. Ishvara is not different from Brahman, nor is He an aspect of Brahman. He is Brahman seen through the medium of His own nature or effulgence called prakriti, which is the raw material of the world. Ishvara is called Bhagavat or Bhagavan, which means the Supreme Lord, and as such He is aware of the birth, maintenance and withdrawal of every being.
The word Bhagavan denotes the highest nature of God which can be comprehended by man. He who is called Bhagavan is possessed of the qualities of universal sovereignty, endurance, fame, knowledge, prosperity and detachment. These six qualities are possessed to a greater or lesser degree by all creatures, but in Bhagavan they abide in their fullness. They can be said to express the higher or spiritual nature of Ishvara; whereas prakriti, which includes all physical and psychological manifestations, represents His lower nature. When God decides to incarnate, His higher nature descends into His lower nature, and these qualities are manifested in a human being, this descent being called an Avatara.
To fully understand what is meant by Bhagavan it is necessary to describe what these qualities really are. Universal sovereignty, for instance, does not mean to rule the world by force as Napoleon and Hitler attempted to do. It means the power to charm all beings. Anything which is attractive owes its charm to the presence of the Supreme Lord within it. Everything has attraction for some other person or thing, because He is present in the hearts of all; but in that which has the most universal appeal, there He is most fully manifest. In this sense the sun is the universal sovereign of the physical world, all plants grow towards it and the birds herald its rising with their song.
When Bhagavan Himself assumes human form, this universal charm is felt by those who meet Him and by many who only hear and read about Him. As a magnet attracts pieces of iron towards itself, so the Lord of all attracts the hearts of all creatures towards Himself. Sometimes the human heart is heavy with attachment to material things and with a sense of its importance, then it is slow to move towards Him; but when it is lightened of these encumbrances by detachment, then His attraction is irresistible.
Empires, such as those of Rome and the Moguls, rise and fall; but the thoughts of the prophets and sages survive in the writings of the Upanishads and the Bible. This quality of endurance is called vira; it means a power which does not weaken with time—from the same root comes the English word virtue—and through possession of this quality the great works of art are able to survive their own period to give pleasure and inspiration to people living many centuries later. Mantrams are embodiments of vira. Originally ‘seen’ by a seer some 2000 or so years B.C., if imparted today to an accepted pupil, at a ceremony, by a qualified teacher, they contain the same potency as at the time that they were originally ‘seen’.
Truth by its nature declares itself without the need for advertisement. In fact too much propaganda often causes one to question the truth of a statement. A person who protests his innocence or honesty may raise doubts in the mind of his hearer by reason of his protestations. Where honesty exists it is rendered patent by demeanour and action. Where Bhagavan is manifest in the world there is truth, and it proclaims itself through the manifestation of these six qualities in the deeds, words and thoughts of the incarnations of God and their followers. This is what is meant by the word fame as it is used here, it gives to all the opportunity to imitate and learn from the life of the Avatara. The quality of knowledge means Selfknowledge or knowledge of one’s real nature, of one’s essential Self, not knowledge of what is external to the inner ‘I’ .
Everyone possesses some knowledge of this ‘I’, as is shown by the expression, ‘I am’; but, as a rule, it is with that which one is not, such as the body, the mind and the senses, that this ‘I’ is identified. In this way, true knowledge, the knowledge of ‘I’, becomes confused with false knowledge, the knowledge of the ‘not-I’, and Self-knowledge is clouded and distorted; whereas Bhagavan knows Himself, as Himself, by Himself, in His fullness.
Prosperity, as used here, refers to wealth acquired by right and good means, and used for the benefit of all. The Emperor Janaka who ruled his kingdom not to please himself, but for the benefit of those who lived in it and to the glory of God, was manifesting prosperity. In fact as Lord of the universe, the whole wealth of the world belongs to Bhagavan. Even the richest man possesses only a minute portion of it, and that truly only belongs to him in trust from God, so that when such wealth is attained by false means or used for selfish purposes, such as self-display, it does not represent prosperity but theft.
Dispassion or detachment, vairagya, is a quality which the student of Yoga constantly strives to attain. It means absence of desire for any object of the world. For one to whom the pleasure-giving power of the objects is real, there is attachment to them, even though it is realised that in every present pleasure lie the seeds of future suffering; but to one who knows the true reality, the nature of Bhagavan, these objects have no more meaning than a doll has to the mother of a newly born baby. Bhagavan Himself, being fully satisfied in His own nature, has no desire for anything else.
When the Lord incarnates and assumes the form of an Avatara only a portion of His glory is manifest in each case. God is indivisible and without parts, therefore He cannot be said to incarnate a part of Himself in the sense that a branch, which has been cut off from the trunk, can be said to be part of a tree. He resembles rather a professional cricketer, who when playing cricket with his son uses only a part of his skill, allowing the boy to bowl him out and to make runs, otherwise the child would be completely overwhelmed by him.
Man too would be completely overwhelmed by more than a little of the glory of the Lord. In chapter XI of the Bhagavad Gita, when Shri Krishna reveals Himself to Prince Arjuna in His cosmic form, Arjuna, shaking with fear, begs Him to resume His former familiar shape. The naked eye cannot look directly on the brilliance of the sun. To see the sun one must view it through the veiling medium of dark glasses or a cloud; similarly man can only contemplate the Supreme Lord when He has veiled Himself by the power of His maya.
The Lord comes into His creation when righteousness declines and evil flourishes. He actively combats evil, even, if necessary, by force of arms, as Rama destroyed the powerful asura Ravana in battle, and as Krishna destroyed the wicked king Kansa. He protects those who worship Him as Bhagavan, and gives a body of practical teaching, which, if followed, leads the individual to realisation of the truth as his own nature. By His presence He delights and uplifts His devotees, as He did the Gopis in Brindavan, the monkeys on Mount Chitrakuta and His disciples in Galilee. Every episode in the life of an Avatara has deep spiritual and symbolical meaning, which can be extracted by meditating upon His words and deeds.
Ramachandra exemplified the perfect ruler, the upholder of righteousness and justice. Shri Krishna embodied harmony, irresistible charm and beauty, and gave to his pupil Arjuna, for the good of all, the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita. Shakya- muni Buddha gave essentially practical teachings at a time when the Brahmins, who were the spiritual rulers of the time, were completely preoccupied with rituals and learning the Vedas by rote. Similarly Jesus Christ came at a time when the Philistines were obsessed by rules and rituals, and when the world was burdened by the materialistic civilisation of the Roman Empire.
God does care about His universe. He is not content to leave man in ignorance and suffering, getting himself into greater and greater difficulties, but actively intervenes to help him. In His love for His creation, God takes on human form and enters the game of life as a participator. By word and example He shows how it should be played, and gives to His disciples the key to Self-knowledge or the Kingdom of Heaven. Some teachings may be specific to one Avatara, but all have taught unity, that there is one God and one truth, that the things which are seen are temporal, but that which is unseen is eternal, and that there is a higher eternal principle. Jesus taught of the Father in Heaven; Buddha taught of dharma, the eternal law; and Krishna taught in the Bhagavad Gita in the first person: “I am the Self seated in the hearts of all beings”.
Man cannot easily worship an abstract principle, or meditate on the attributeless Brahman; but a superior man can lead others, he can be loved and his conduct imitated. It is for this reason that the absolute descends as Bhagavan into prakriti, and by His power of maya assumes human form, living among men as one of them. He displays a portion of His glory to the delight of His devotees and as an example and inspiration to all. He has come again and again, as Rama, as Krishna, as Buddha, as Jesus; not that men should become attached to just one incarnation, but that they might realise His nature in all incarnations, for it is the same Bhagavan in all.