[Reprinted from THE THEOSOPHICAL MOVEMENT, July 1963.]
Who or what is an Avatara, a Divine Incarnation? This question comes to mind when we begin to think of Krishna or of the Buddha. Is there a meaning for us in the conception of an Avatara? Or is it just a Hindu concept of Ten Incarnations of Vishnu, nine already having passed and one more yet to come?
If we turn to The Theosophical Glossary, we are told there under "Incarnations": "The avatar doctrine constituted the grandest mystery of every old religious system." An under "Avatara" we read that it is "the descent of a god or some exalted Being, who has progressed beyond the necessity of Rebirths." Such a "descent" means that the "god" or the "exalted Being" takes birth "in the body of a simple mortal." Thus, Krishna is said to be an avatar of Vishnu. "The Dalai Lama," H.P.B. says, "is regarded as an avatar of Avalokiteswara, and the Teschu Lama as one of Tson-Kha-pa, or Amitabha."
The Glossary continues: "There are two kinds of avatars: those born from woman, and the parentless, the anupadaka."
What is the difference between an Avatara and one whose Ego has taken complete charge of the human entity, one who has become a perfect human being? We are given a good analogy by Robert Crosbie in The Friendly Philosopher (p. 152):
A Siddha-Purusha (perfect man) is like an archaeologist who removes the dust and lays open an old well which has been covered up by ages of disuse. The Avatara, on the other hand, is like an engineer who sinks a new well in a place where there was no water before. Great Men give salvation to those only who have the waters of piety hidden in themselves, but the Avatara saves him too whose heart is devoid of love and dry as a desert.
To which category, then, does Krishna belong? He calls himself Adhiyajna, the Great Sacrifice—"Adhiyajna is myself in this body," He says in Chapter Eight of the Gita. In this sense, Krishna is a distinct principle in Nature—the principle of Divine Compassion. We can understand more of the meaning of Compassion when we remember that Compassion is not an attribute but is "the Law of Laws—eternal Harmony, Alaya's SELF"—the Self of the World-Soul. What Atma is to us, that Divine Compassion, the Law of Laws, is to the Great Lodge of Masters.
Krishna thus viewed is not just one individual Master, is not any single Guru or Teacher, but is that principle which all emancipated ones try to attain and to embody within Themselves. Krishna is called Purna Avatara, not only because He incarnated in His full glory as related in the Mahabharata, but also because He is the principle which furnishes Divine Compassion to any vehicle or channel when it is needed. But this is a mystery too deep to go into, and deeper still to speak about. (THE THEOSOPHICAL MOVEMENT, August 1934)
Who, then, was and is He? What relationship exists between Him and our world of men?
When an emancipated Soul of former fields of evolution, out of compassion infinite, comes to do the work of the Planetary Being in this or in any other earth, He brings within Himself, and with Him, the seed, the bija, for all future Avataras, sometimes designated as Maha-Vishnu. (Ibid.)
Did Krishna, then, live and work also in the early periods of humanity? If so, who was He?
Krishna becomes the Adi-Purusha, the Primal Man, who strikes the key-note of Truth at the starting of all cycles, major and minor—Vivaswat at one cycle, Manu at another, Ikshwaku at a third, and so on, all receiving from the same Seed, from the one Source, the Light, the Wisdom and the Power of His Great Sacrifice....If it is true that we know something of the incarnation of Krishna 5,000 years ago, at the starting of the Kali-Yuga, we know nothing of His work in earlier periods and especially at the commencement of this humanity, when the Planetary Being, the Father of Wisdom, incarnated the Light of Krishna as the Adi-Purusha. And then it was that those great truths were impressed within men's Souls, those Truths which are called our inherent ideas, and which come to us as our instinctive intuitions. They were burnt into our very Souls in the innermost part of our natures, in Manas, the Thinker. Therefore Krishna says, "And among the organs and the senses, I am the Manas." (Ibid.)
It is when we understand that these inherent ideas are within our Souls that we realize something of the nature of the Great Renunciation of all Avataras, and this recognition will lead us to seek the Gurus whose very task it is to assist men to unfold those ideas to the full. We then see that the Masters, the Gurus, can only be found within, in our own hearts, in the very place where the Divine Hand of Krishna placed the seed of spirituality—Krishna, the Mysterious Lord, the Lord who is united with all of us through His Great Sacrifice.
Turning to another aspect of this concept, we have the Ten Avataras of Vishnu (the pervading power) mentioned by H.P.B. in Isis Unveiled (II, 274-75):
In this diagram of avatars we see traced the gradual evolution and transformation of all species out of the ante-Silurian mud of Darwin and the ilus of Sanchoniathon and Berosus. Beginning with the Azoic time, corresponding to the ilus in which Brahma implants the creative germ, we pass through the Paleozoic and Mesozoic times, covered by the first and second incarnations as the fish and tortoise; and the Cenozoic, which is embraced by the incarnations in the animal and semi-human forms of the boar and man-lion; and we come to the fifth and crowning geological period, designated as the "era of mind, or age of man," whose symbol in the Hindu mythology is the dwarf—the first attempt of nature at the creation of man.
H.P.B. also tells us that
from a fish the progress of this dual transformation [spiritual and physical evolution] carries on the physical form through the shape of a tortoise, a boar, and a man-lion; and then, appearing in the dwarf of humanity, it shows Parasu Rama physically, a perfect, spiritually, an undeveloped entity, until it carries mankind personified by one god-like man, to the apex of physical and spiritual perfection—a god on earth. (Ibid, p. 276)
A study of the Gita with these statements in mind would, perhaps, bring a deeper understanding of the closing verses in that "Song of the Lord":
As I recall to my memory the wonderful form of Hari, the Lord, my astonishment is great....and I rejoice again and again. Wherever Krishna, the supreme master of devotion, and wherever the son of Pritha, the mighty archer, may be, there with certainty are fortune, victory, wealth, and wise action.
Man's free will is is but a bird in a cage; he can stop at the lower perch, or he can mount to a higher. Then that which is and knows will enlarge his cage, give him a higher and a higher perch, and at last break off the top of his cage, and let him out to be one with the free will of the universe.