The Avatar and the Bodhisattva

Whensoever there is the fading of the Dharma and the uprising of unrighteousness, then I loose myself forth into birth. For the deliverance of the good, for the destruction of the evil-doers, for the enthroning of the Right I am born from age to age. He who knoweth thus in its right principles my divine birth and my divine work, when he abandons his body, comes not to rebirth, he comes to Me, Arjuna. Delivered from liking and fear and wrath, full of me, taking refuge in me, many purified by austerity of knowledge have arrived at my nature of being. As men approach me, so I accept them to my love; men follow in every way my path …  ~ Bhagavad Gita

The Incarnations of Vishnu
Historically—according to Valentin Tomberg—the long expected Bodhisattva and Avatar will manifest as one Being. Analogously, that applies to the individual’s inner life. We previously discussed Tomberg’s idea of the Bodhisattva, starting from below; that is, from the full awareness of the human condition. The second part is the idea of the Avatar, that is, a revelation from above. So this week we focused on the Avatar, as described by Aurobindo Ghose. Matthew Smallwood led our discussion.

We started with Chapter XV: The Possibility and Purpose of Avatarhood, from Essays on the Gita. The supreme Divinity becomes manifest within us as Lord of our being and action. This is the “highest secret” so that the Yoga of the Gita is the “highest synthetic and integral Yoga directing Godward all the powers of our being. However, it is not a one way street. Aurobindo explains the two aspects:

For there are two aspects of the divine birth; one is a descent, the birth of God in humanity, the Godhead manifesting itself in the human form and nature, the eternal Avatar; the other is an ascent, the birth of man into the Godhead, man rising into the divine nature and consciousness; it is the being born anew in a second birth of the soul. It is that new birth which Avatarhood and the upholding of the Dharma are intended to serve.

Without this ascent, or second birth, Aurobindo says the true meaning of the Gita is lost:

Otherwise the Avatar idea would be only a dogma, a popular superstition, or an imaginative or mystic deification of historical or legendary supermen, not what the Gita makes all its teaching, a deep philosophical and religious truth and an essential part of or step to the supreme mystery of all, the highest secret.

Moreover, without this ascent, the world process would not be dependent on Transcendence, but would be a mere natural process:

If there were not this rising of man into the Godhead to be helped by the descent of God into humanity, Avatarhood for the sake of the Dharma would be an otiose phenomenon, since mere Right, mere justice or standards of virtue can always be upheld by the divine omnipotence through its ordinary means, by great men or great movements, by the life and work of sages and kings and religious teachers, without any actual incarnation.

While Aurobindo considers Krishna, Buddha, and Christ to be three avatars, Tomberg rejects that idea. Rather, of those three, only Krishna is to be understood as the Avatar par excellence, representing the descent of the Divine. Buddha, then, shows the path of ascent from the human condition until he reached the final stage of liberation, having nothing to do with the “revelation from above by prophets and Avatars”. Jesus Christ represents something higher, the transformation of the world and not just liberation from the world.


Aurobindo accepts a form of panpsychism, i.e., the position that consciousness exists throughout the manifested world:

nor is Matter anywhere really void of consciousness, for even in the atom, the cell there is, as is now made abundantly clear in spite of itself by modern Science, a power of will, an intelligence at work; but that power is the power of will and intelligence of the Self, Spirit or Godhead within it, it is not the separate, self-derived will or idea of the mechanical cell or atom.

Although the universal will and intelligence draws nearest to the Divine in man, he is only obscurely conscious of that Divinity. That is because:

there is that imperfection of the manifestation which prevents the lower forms from having the self-knowledge of their identity with the Divine. For in each limited being the limitation of the phenomenal action is accompanied by a limitation also of the phenomenal consciousness which defines the nature of the being and makes the inner difference between creature and creature.

The imperfect action of the creature is due to its subjection to the mechanism of Prakriti and its limitation by the self-representation of Maya. Maya is not exactly illusion, since it is “the divine consciousness in its power of various self-representation of its being.” Those unaware of the of the “Divine lodged in the human body” are so because they are subject to the mechanism of Prakriti (“nature”) that deludes the will with desire and bewilders the intellect with egoism.

Avatars and Evolution

Many commentators have pointed out that the ten Hindu Avatars can be read as a parable of the Evolution of the World Process. Rather, it illustrates the process of Involution, that is, the incarnations of the Divine into the world process that manifests as the phenomenal world (the “self-representation of the divine consciousness.” In Letters on Yoga Aurobindo describes this process;

Avatarhood would have little meaning if it were not connected with the evolution. The Hindu procession of the ten Avatars is itself, as it were, a parable of evolution. First the Fish Avatar, then the amphibious animal between land and water, then the land animal, then the Man-Lion Avatar, bridging man and animal, then man as dwarf, small and undeveloped and physical but containing in himself the godhead and taking possession of existence, then the rajasic, sattwic, nirguna Avatars, leading the human development from the vital rajasic to the sattwic mental man and again the overmental superman. Krishna, Buddha and Kalki depict the last three stages, the stages of the spiritual development–Krishna opens the possibility of overmind, Buddha tries to shoot beyond to the supreme liberation but that liberation is still negative, not returning upon earth to complete positively the evolution; Kalki is to correct this by bringing the Kingdom of the Divine upon earth, destroying the opposing Asura forces. The progression is striking and unmistakable.

As for the lives in between the Avatar lives, it must be remembered that Krishna speaks of many lives in the past, not only a few supreme ones, and secondly that while he speaks of himself as the Divine, in one passage he describes himself as a Vibhuti (a descendent of Vishnu). We may therefore fairly assume that in many lives he manifested as the Vibhuti veiling the fuller Divine Consciousness. If we admit that the object of Avatarhood is to lead the evolution, this is quite reasonable, the Divine appearing as Avatar in the great transitional stages and as Vibhutis to aid the lesser transitions.

Vibhuti and Greatness

Why should the Divine not care for the outer greatness? He cares for everything in the universe. All greatness is the Vibhuti of the Divine. ~ Bhagavad Gita

Besides the Avatars, the Divine may also be made manifest as Vibhutis which includes spiritual teachers, prophets, intellectuals, scientists, artists, poets, etc. They are not unlike the Representative Men of Ralph Waldo Emerson, or the Heroes of Thomas Carlyle. Moreover, Vibhutis may not necessarily be of strong moral character, yet are great nevertheless.

A fuller exposition of this idea will be forthcoming.

Spirituality and Intellectuality

The two Aurobindo books have intellectual depth and are worth close study. However, such book knowledge must go hand in hand with spiritual depth. Be sure to continue with daily prayer and meditation, develop consciousness without effort throughout the day, and engage in spiritual combat to guard and purify the intellect and will.

Most on the Hermetic path are following the path of knowledge. Beyond that, there is the possibility of greatness if you develop all your human possibilities.