All About Avatars

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Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

Srimate SrivanSatakopa Sri Vedanta Desika Yatindra Mahadesikaya nama:

What is the most important difference between the Lord and ourselves? This may appear to be a rather naïve and simplistic question and a rhetorical one at that, not really in need of an answer. The differences between Emperuman and ourselves are so vast, so many and so unbridgeable, that it seems futile to embark upon such an enquiry. However, at least for academic interest, it is worthwhile looking into how He differs from us. While the aspects of divergence are indeed many, one in particular is extremely significant and interesting, not to say rewarding too. We are told that one, who understands this particular distinction between the Jeevatma and the Paramatma, is freed of his mortal coils, never to be enshackled again.

To understand this specific aspect of difference between the Lord and ourselves, we must first study an aspect of identity between the two. Both, viz., the Supreme Lord and we insignificant mortals, are born time and again in this mundane world. As far as we are concerned, we are caught up in the bottomless cesspool of Samsara, sucking us down each time we try to get out of it. Despite our occasional and feeble efforts to rid ourselves of our mortal shackles during each birth, we fall again and again helplessly into the SamsAra sAgaram. The moment one birth is over, the soul has to hop into another waiting body, leaving its former lifeless shareeram behind. There appears to be no way out of this maze, which keeps us meandering for innumerable lifetimes. “Piravi Perum Kadal” is how Valluvar describes this interminable cycle of births and deaths, attesting to its depth, breadth, vastness and impossibility of surmounting. “Punarapi jananam, punarapi maraNam”, laments another worthy, referring to the monotonous regularity with which birth and death occur. The worthlessness of such an existence is brought out by Azhwars in all its despicability—

“pirandum setthum nindru idarum ip pEdamai”

“avattamE piravi tandAi”

“mAri mAri pala pirappum pirandu” etc.

If this is our plight, it appears that the Lord is not much better off. We hear from several impeccable sources that He too is born in this world, not once or twice, but innumerable times. We can’t believe our ears—the Lord, and being born here, just like ourselves, sporting a mortal form like us! And being born to human mothers, after a ten-month imprisonment in their wombs! And dying too occasionally, just like we mortals do! He displays extremely human emotions during His sojourn on earth, as we too do.

We thus see that just like us, Emperuman too is born in this world. There are a number of scriptural texts, which attest to the Lord taking birth amidst us, despite His exalted stature. Here is one from the Purusha Suktam, acclaimed to be the essence of all Shruti—“ajAyamAnO bahudhA vijAyatE”. This vAkya tells us that the Lord, though birthless, is born many a time. Sri Nammazhwar, in his faithful transcription of Vedas, renders the same thus—“Pirappil pal piravi PerumAn”. And Emperuman Himself tells Arjuna in the Gita that He is indeed born many a time, despite being birthless, immutable and the Lord of all—

“ajOpi san avyayAtmA, bhootAnAm IsvarOpi san
Prakritim svAm adhishtAya sambhavAmi Atma mAyayA”

Sri Nammazhwar is moved beyond measure by the Lord taking birth as a mere fish, boar, lion and turtle, despite being the exalted Lord of the Celestials — “ennindra yOniyumAi pirandAi imayOr talaivA! – எந்நின்ற யோனியுமாய்ப்பிறந்தாய் இமையோர் தலைவா”

Lest we be misled, by this apparent identity between the Lord and ourselves, into believing that He is no better than us, let us consider in what respects His births differ from ours.

1.Cause—We are born because our unending baggage of Karma pushes us again and again into mortal coils, to experience the fruits, good and bad, of our deeds. We have absolutely no choice in the matter, nor can we refrain from being born or to take a sabbatical in between two births. The inexorable rotation of the Karma Chakram ensures that we are endlessly imprisoned in our mundane shackles.

The Lord, on the other hand, is born out of His own sweet will. There is absolutely no compulsion for Him to take birth, nor is He subject to any external influence in this regard. When He is born in this world, it is because He wants to, not because He has to. “IcchA griheeta abhimatOru dEham” says Sri Koorattazhwan, attesting to the absolutely voluntary nature of the Lord’s avatArAs.

2.Purpose—We undergo the phenomena of endless births, so that we can work off some of the accumulated baggage of Karma. However, in doing so, we tend to increase our burden through uninformed action. There is thus no noble purpose to our lives.

In contrast, the Lord has a three-fold and exalted purpose to all His noble births, as He Himself narrates in the Gita—

“ParitrANAya sAdhUnAm, vinAsAya cha dushkritAm
Dharma samstApanArtthAya sambhavAmi yugE yugE”

The first and foremost mission of Emperuman is the protection of the saintly, who know of no other refuge than the Lord. If it becomes necessary in this process, the Lord also destroys the evil-minded, which, however, affords Him little pleasure. A third purpose to the Lord’s births is the reestablishment of Righteousness on a firm footing. We are told that there was a fourth aim too, in the NrisimhAvatAra—that of proving the words of His ardent devotee to be true (“Satyam vidhAtum nija bhritya bhAshitam”). Sri PrahlAda had declared to his sceptical father that Sri Hari did indeed inhabit all beings and objects, including a pillar or an insignificant blade of grass. And when the asurA smote the palace pillar to test the truth of his credulous son’s words, Sri Nrisimha emerged therefrom the very same second, just to prove His devotee’s words true.

3. Periodicity—“ShatAyur vai Purusha:” says the Shruti, pegging the human lifespan at a hundred years. There are instances of people living beyond a hundred, but they are rare. As such, even if one is able to live for a full hundred years, one has to be necessarily reborn at least once a century.

With the Lord, however, it is different—He is born only once in a Yugam (“sambhavami yugE yugE”)—roughly every 900000 years, on an average, allowing for the differing durations of various yugAs. Sri Ramanuja adds, however, that there is no fixed periodicity to the Lord’s avatArAs—He is born as and when necessary, sometimes twice or more in the same Yugam and sometimes not at all during a particular Yugam.

4. Effect—Each new birth only adds to our woes and to our already unbearable baggage of dastardly deeds, with the result that the Soul is progressively clouded by successive layers of KArmic dirt, becoming totally unrecognisable, vis-à-vis its original luminous, wise and blissful self.

The Lord, however, adds more and more glory to Himself, with every avatAra. From each such sojourn on earth, His splendour increases manifold and He emerges with immeasurably greater grandeur every time He takes an avatAra—“navO navO bhavati jAyamAna:” says the Shruti.

5. Form—The form we take in each birth is dictated by our Karma. Though we are human beings in this birth, we may very well be trees or frogs in our next, depending on the composition of our deeds and misdeeds.

Emperuman takes the form He wishes to, whether it be a fish, boar, or Magnificent Monarch. We only have to look again at Sri Koorattazhwan’s tribute mentioned above, to confirm that all the Lord’s forms are of His own choice.

6. Timing—For us, there is no particular time for birth. As soon as one life ends, we are automatically pushed into another body and birth. The Lord tells us that He is born as and whenever Dharma is debilitated and adharma rears its ugly head menacingly-

“YadA yadA hi dharmasya glAni: bhavati BhArata!
abhyuttAnam adharmasya, tadA AtmAnam srijAmyaham”

7. Company—When we come to think of it, the Soul has to plough a lonely furrow, having none to accompany it on its births. Though each birth brings us new relationships in the form of mother, father, wife, sons and so on, essentially all these arise from physical relationships, which do not exist in the soul.

The Lord, however, is accompanied on all earthly sojourns by His beloved Consort, who never forsakes His side. Whatever role He adopts, Sri Mahalakshmi dons a supplementary and complementary role, eminently in accordance with Her Husband’s. We have this on good authority, that of Swami Desikan—“yat dharmai: iha dharmiNI viharatE nAnAkriti: nAyikA”.

8. Mutual Utility—We scarcely achieve anything during our births. Even if we do, we are of hardly any utility to Emperuman. The Lord, on the other hand, is born every time specifically in an attempt to ensure that we are not reborn—“uyiraLippAn ennindra yOniyumAi pirandAi imayOr talaivA!” exclaims Sri Nammazhwar, marvelling at the Lord’s penchant for undertaking an avatAra, solely for the purpose of emancipating as many He can.

9. The Exception—“Whoever is born must die: and as surely as that, whoever dies must be reborn” says the Gita (“JAtasya hi dhruvO mrityu:, dhruvam janma mritasya cha”). Till the very last of our Karma is worked off or is pardoned by the Lord, we have to keep on being born and dying. The Lord, however, is an exception to the general rule of the dead being reborn and the living destined to die. Birth or death is absolutely of His choice—He comes into the mundane world or returns to His permanent abode at Sri Vaikuntam, as He pleases.

Having considered some of the differences between our births and His, it would be interesting for us to look at some of the aspects of the Lord’s avatArAs.

1. How many avatArAs have been there so far? From childhood, we have been hearing of the DasAvatArAs and would be inclined to think that the Lord has come down to the earth ten times in all, as is evident from the following sloka—

“Matsya: KoormO VarAhascha NArasimha: atha VAmana:
RAmO RAmacha RAmascha Krishna: Kalki: iti tE dasa”

(Incidentally, this sloka also proves wrong, those who contend that Buddha was one of the Lord’s own avatArAs).

This, however, is not correct, for Emperuman Himself tells us that His avatArAs are not merely ten, but “many”. The fact that the usually precise Lord doesn’t care to mention a number, is indicative of the fact that the avatArAs are indeed countless. This is borne out by the Gita vAkyA, “bahooni mE vyateetAni janmAni tava cha Arjuna!”. The independent Shruti also attests to this fact, by employing almost identical words—“ajAyamAnO bahudhA vijAyatE”. We thus have to conclude that while the DasAvatArAs are the principal ones that the Lord took, there are also significant others like HayagrIva, Hamsa, Hari and innumerable others, assumed by Emperuman for similar purposes. The popularity of the DasAvatArAs is attested by the fact that Swami Desikan considered these ten avatArAs to be significant enough to compose a separate stOtra on the same. However, his equal reverence to other avatArAs is brought out by his Hayagreeva Stotram. The PAncharAtra records several of the Lord’s less-known avatArAs like RAhujit, Purukutsa, Rishabha, JanArdana, et al.

The same Swami Desikan indicates the Vibhava avatArAs as “thity-odd” (“Muppatthu chilvAnam”) in Srimad RahasyatrayasAram. This is based on the varying number quoted in the PAncharAtra texts. While the VishvaksEna SamhitA puts the number at thirty (“Shat trimsat bhEda bhinnAstu PadmanAbhadhikA: smritA:”), the Ahirbudhnya SamhitA says that avatArAs are 39 (“VibhavA: PadmanAbhAdyA: trimsascha nava chaiva hi”). He also says that while these are principal, there are innumerable auxiliary avatArAs of the Lord.

2. Sometimes, Emperuman doesn’t undertake a full-scale avatArA, but enters already existing JeevAtmAs and achieves His purpose through them. Examples are Sri ParasurAma and Sri Krishna DvaipAyana (VyAsa). These avatArAs were undertaken by injecting His power into existing JeevAs, for achieving specific purposes. While in the ParasurAma avatAra it was the annihilation of the corrupt and cruel ruling class, thereby affording relief to the populace, in the case of Sri Vyasa, it was for the purpose of dividing the endless Vedas into four suitable parts for convenient study and for the authorship of Sri MahAbhArata and the BrahmaSUtrAs.

3. We often confront a question from the cynical—If Rama and Krishna were indeed the Lord Himself, why should they be subject to pain, sorrow and distress on several occasions? Isn’t Emperuman, by His very nature, beyond all things bad and sorrowful? And if He does indeed suffer like ordinary mortals, how are we to attach credence to His supremacy?

Swami Desikan explains that the Lord, as required by the occasion and as warranted by circumstances, conceals or exhibits certain of His traits. It is for the actor to display appropriate emotions and actions as warranted by the scene and the script. Similarly, Emperuman too hides His supremacy and affects to be an ordinary mortal, during the Rama and Krishna avatArAs. The Prince of Ayodhya, who considered Himself to be a mere mortal (“AtmAnam mAnusham manyE, RAmam DasarathAtmajam”) and displayed extreme distress on Sri Mythily’s abduction, is not averse to showing us facets of His overwhelming supremacy and overlordship, on the occasions of JatAyu MOksham and Sethu Bandhanam (building a bridge across the unfathomable and vast waters of the ocean). Similarly, Sri Krishna, who ran away from battle with JarAsandha, hiding His traits of invincibility and boundless bravery, chooses to display His supremacy in all its indescribable splendour, during the Visvaroopa Darsanam accorded to Arjuna. Thus, merely because the Lord affects certain demeanours during His avatArAs, in response to the need of the occasion and hour, it doesn’t follow that any of His innumerable auspicious attributes are missing during His descents into the human world.

4. Another basic question is about the need for avatArAs. If the Lord is as omnipotent as He is touted to be, can He not destroy the wicked, protect the saintly and shore up Dharma, sitting at Sri Vaikunttam? Is His will not powerful enough to accomplish all these with a mere thought, without necessitating His personal attendance at the scene of action, in the form of an avatArA? For instance, let us consider the instance of embattled Gajendra and His plaintive appeal to the Lord for protection.

Having decided to help Gajendra, why did the Lord personally rush to the scene to do it? Could He not have done it sitting at Srivaikuntam itself and by merely willing the crocodile dead, thereby liberating the elephant?
Equally, He could have sent His Chakra to attend to the chore. What was the need for Him to indulge in overkill, as it were, by coming down all the way from His abode to destroy a mere crocodile?

A rich man kept asking the aforesaid question and was unsatisfied with all reasonable answers. To teach him a lesson, his friend came running to him one day and announced that the man’s son had fallen into a well. Dismayed at the news and in a panic, the rich man dropped whatever he was doing and rushed out to the well, only to find the news to be false. When he remonstrated with the friend for having misled him, the friend retorted, “ Even though you have a lot of servants, did you think of sending any of them for rescuing the boy? If this is the depth of your attachment for your boy, just consider the urgency the Lord, who is the Universal Father, might have felt for freeing Gajendra!”

Stories apart, the fact of the matter is that while the crocodile could have very well been destroyed by proxy, Gajendra’s happiness at the Lord’s appearance on the scene and his joy in feasting his eyes on the divine form, could not have been achieved without Emperuman’s personal presence. One of the important purposes of the Lord’s avataras is “ParithrANAya sAdhUnAm”. While mere “thrANam” or protection can be afforded even without the Lord being present, “ParithrANam” or comprehensive protection includes affording the devotee the immeasurable bliss of seeing the Lord, and could not be carried out without Emperuman materializing in person.

The Bhagavat Gita tells us that one who understands fully the purpose, nature and true glory of the Lord’s avatArAs, is liberated from his mortal coils, never again to be born in this mundane world.

We are again assailed by a doubt—if indeed liberation can be attained merely by knowing the avatAra Rahasyam, wouldn’t all the strategies therefor, prescribed by Shastras (like Bhakti, Prapatti, etc) become needless and futile? Who in his right mind would chose a difficult, strenuous and long-drawn upAya like Bhakti YOga, when the same goal can be achieved through a mere knowledge of avatAra Rahasyam?

Sri Ramanuja clarifies in his beautiful commentary, that wisdom as to the Lord’s avatArAs doesn’t lead directly to MOksham—it destroys the accumulated sins which stand in the way of adoption of an appropriate strategy for liberation. Once this is done, the individual concerned is enabled to follow the path to MOksham, as prescribed in the Shastras, like Bhakti or Prapatti.

The term “avatAra” literally means “to come down” or to descend. This is what the Lord does—He descends from His exalted abode of Paramapadam, to be born in this world of sin, sadness and sorrow. The Supreme Lord mingles as one with us sinning and decadent mortals, sharing our happiness and sorrow. Though, in the literal sense, this may be a descent for Him, it actually enhances His splendour and glory manifold, thus representing an ascent for Him in real terms. Also, He descends to earth, so that we may ascend to paradise and liberation.

Let us conclude with an estimate of how effective the Lord’s avatArAs have been in achieving their objective of emancipation for all. Tiruvarangattu Amudanar tells us that we mortals have become such hard nuts to crack, with hearts made of stone and steel, that we would fail to be moved even if the Supreme Lord were to come in person and stand before us, appealing to us to return to the path of virtue. Swami Desikan too remarks that Emperuman, having failed to achieve fully the objective of His avatArAs, took another set of ten avatArAs in the form of Azhwars (excluding Sri Madhurakavi and Sri Andal), to cure the inhabitants of this world of their insatiable appetite for sensual pleasures and material possessions. And having found quite a few escaping the net even then, the Lord takes birth as Acharyas like Sri Ramanuja, his predecessors and his descendants, who, till date, have toiled hard to rescue us from the mundane morass and to lift us on to the terra firma of righteousness, leading us ultimately to Paradise, through the unfailing strategy of Prapatti. Hence, our merciful Acharya is the Lord incarnate, though he might appear to be one among us, made of flesh and blood. Just as we look beyond the stone and mortar of which divine forms at various temples are made, so too we should discard our view of the Acharya as a human being and accord to him the high pedestal we would to Emperuman. Thus our Preceptors are not merely messengers of God, but the Lord Himself in human form and are entitled to as much veneration, adoration and obedience, as we accord the other avatArAs of Emperuman.

Srimate Sri LakshmiNrisimha divya paduka sevaka SrivanSatakopa Sri Narayana Yatindra Mahadesikaya nama:
dasan, sadagopan

Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

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