The Esoteric Meaning of the Ten Avataras


Sri Swami Chidananda

The prayer “Asato Maa Sat-Gamaya, Tamaso Maa Jyotir-Gamaya, Mrityor Maa Amritam-Gamaya” epitomises the purpose of the Lord’s Creation, the grand culmination of going back into that Transcendence out of which these countless names and forms have been evolved as a blissful act of play by the One without a second. The plan of the Divine Will is that out of the One infinite, names and forms may flow out and for a time there may be a blissful play of this divine multiplicity and then once again, when the Divine Wills, there may be a going back into the pristine glorious source.

Multiplicity is the antithesis of eternal Truth which is ever One. It is unreal. It is in the nature of darkness. This cycle of becoming and perishing, birth and death, is the characteristic of this world-play. Thus, a going back into the original grandeur of Brahman means an ascent from this unreality into that Supreme Reality, from this darkness of ignorance to the Light of Knowledge, from this cycle of birth and death into that state where there is Immortality. This process is being worked out by all evolved beings.

From time to time great ones have come, who have systematised this Cosmic plan and formulated a method so that individuals in whom this purpose has been awakened may make use of this method and reach the goal quickly, that they may consciously achieve this process in themselves. These methods have come to the various religions of humanity. Gradually, these religions have had a greater and ever-widening group of followers. These great groups exist all over the world as the great section of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and so on.

But the one inescapable fundamental fact about these religious remains that all these various religions are but methods which seek to work out in some way or other the ascent of man from birth and death to Immortality.

The ten Avataras of the Lord, which are described in the scriptures, are an order calculated to teach us a sublime spiritual lesson.

As you know the first of the ten Avataras is Matsya (Fish) Avatara. The fish lives in water, shut out from the two elements that we consider as most important for the preservation of life–pure air and sunlight. And yet if you liberate the fish from its aquatic prison and place it in life-giving sunshine surrounded by fresh air, it is greatly distressed and would die in a few minutes. Similarly, the man who is sunk in worldliness, who is worse than a beast, cannot bear the sunlight of godliness and fresh, pure air of divine life. He revels in his own dark region deprived of all spiritual light.

The next Avatara is the Kurma (Tortoise) Avatara. The tortoise lives in water; but is able, to an extent, to live on the shore, too. This corresponds to the first-stages of man’s career from bestiality to humanity and from humanity to divinity. He likes to live sunk in ignorance, but does not seriously mind the light of truth.

Then comes the Varaha (Boar) Avatara. Here the evolution has taken the Jiva completely away from this worse-than-beast stage, away from the aquatic prison, and the boar, though considered as the lowest among the animals, is yet an animal and lives on mother earth, basking in sunshine and breathing fresh air.

The Nrisimha (the Man-lion) Avatara represents the crown of animal-creation; the lion is the king among animals. And, the composite personality of Nrisimha (the man-lion) is suggestive of the beast in man. What is the great characteristic of this Avatara? It was taken with the only purpose of killing; it was a great violent Avatara. Here we have the man who is trying to transcend the bestiality; but who is yet so gross in his nature that violence and the spirit of destruction characterise him.

Then comes the Vamana (the Dwarf) Avatara. The animal nature is completely gone now. The person is completely human. But he is greatly limited. He is a dwarf. His capacities are greatly limited. He got himself lodged in such narrow limits that he goes to a king and begs of him three foot-measures of land. Vamana’s assumption of the universal form suggests to us that the same man is capable Of transcending all limitations and realising his unity with Brahman.

Next we have the Parasurama Avatara where we have the Man. Now bestiality is completely shed; and humanity has supervened. We get three object-lessons from Parasurama’s life.

You know how, in obedience to his father’s command, he cut off his mother’s head. His brothers had refused to do this. But, Parasurama had perfect faith in his father. This faith gave birth to implicit obedience and perfect subservience to the higher will. In the spiritual path, the Guru is our father. We should learn to subserve our will to his will. We should have implicit obedience as our great motto. This can come only out of perfect faith, faith in the divinity of our Guru. Parasurama had it. And, therefore, pleased with his obedience, when his father asks him to choose a boon, Parasurama without hesitation says: “Let my mother live.” She gets back her life.

Then Parasurama killed many great kings, who were proud, haughty and were inimical to Brahmins. In this description we have the perfect picture of a mixture of Rajas and Tamas. This is the very antithesis of Sattva, represented by the Brahmins. In our Yoga Sadhana we should never forget that a certain amount of destruction is absolutely necessary. Unless we destroy the weeds, the beautiful crops will not grow. Unless we annihilate our bestial nature and sublimate the human nature, we cannot rise into our divine nature. Are kings bad then? Is Rajas bad then? No. Just as righteous kings are as essential to the world as pious Brahmins, Rajas properly directed and canalised is as important to Sadhana as Sattva. Unrighteous kings can cause havoc. Rajas mixed with Tamas not only veils the Atman but makes man stray into the lethal chamber of lust, anger and greed. This must be completely rooted out, if we are to progress towards establishment in Sattva.

The third great lesson we learn from Parasurama’s life is this: The Kamadhenu (the milch cow) which was in the possession of his father Jamadagni Rishi is stolen by a king. In order to avenge this, Parasurama kills the kings. He thinks his father would be pleased with his conduct, but he finds a different attitude in his father. He severely reprimands him: “You have forgotten your own Dharma. You are a Brahmin, and the foremost duties of a Brahmin are forbearance and forgiveness. We should never retaliate. Bear patiently with everything. Since you have swerved from your duty, as an expiation, you should undertake a countrywide pilgrimage.” Parasurama has to go round Bharatavarsha on such a pilgrimage. From this we learn that we should first completely annihilate our bestial nature and then, when we have become human beings truly, we should learn to subserve ourselves to our Guru, and then we should destroy all the evil propensities in us that stand in the way, as would be seen from the Rama Avatara.

In the Rama Avatara, Sri Rama killed many Asuras under the instructions of his Guru Vismamitra, and by his Grace Sri Rama followed Sattvic virtues like truthfulness, love, compassion and purity. Similarly, we should serve our Guru with love, sincerity and obedience for attaining liberation or God-realisation.

Then comes the Krishna Avatara, which is also called the Purna Avatara. Sri Krishna served humanity in all respects, without distinction of caste, creed or sect. For instance, He served as an ambassador, and went on a peace mission to avert the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. He washed the feet of guests who attended the Rajasuya sacrifice performed by Yudhishthira and also cleaned the plates of the guests after their meals. He also served as a charioteer to Arjuna during the Mahabharata war. Sri Krishna practised and preached the gospel of selfless service, in the Bhagavad Gita. Thus the Krishna Avatara provides the spiritual aspirant with all necessary teachings to attain one-ness with God.

The next is the Buddha Avatara. Bhagavan Buddha taught non-injury (Ahimsa) in thought, word and deed. Lord Buddha showed to humanity that by the practice of even a single divine virtue, viz., Ahimsa, one can attain God-realisation.

The scriptures say that the last Avatara, out of the ten important ones, is the Kalki Avatara, which is meant for removing the ignorance in humanity. So long as one is in sleep, one is not aware of the waking consciousness. As one has to awaken into the waking consciousness so as to be freed from the sleep, even so humanity has to be awakened from its slumber of ignorance to the waking consciousness of Divinity, which is the purpose of the Kalki Avatara.

As said by the Lord in the Bhagavad Gita, “Sambhavami Yuge Yuge”, at every juncture He incarnates Himself to teach mankind the correct path to evolve into Divinity. The ten Avataras teach to negate the animal in man and to transcend the human into the divine by leading the Divine Life of selfless service, universal love, purity, truthfulness, sincerity and adaptability. May His blessings be upon you all and may we all realise the goal of life in this very birth.

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