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The Avataras of Godhead

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—by Nayana Abhiram das Brahmacari

The Vedic literatures such as Bhagavad-gita, Srimad-Bhagavatam, Brahma-samhita, Padma Purana, etc. all confirm Lord Sri Krsna as the original manifestation of Godhead. This is proclaimed in the opening verse of Srimad-Bhagavatam as follows: “Oh my Lord Sri Krsna, Son of Vasudeva, the all-pervading Personality of Godhead, I meditate upon Thee because Thou art the Absolute Truth, the Primeval Cause of all causes, and the Creator, Maintainer and Destroyer of these manifested universes. It is Thou only who imparted first the Vedic knowledge unto the heart of the original living being, Brahmaji.”

Lord Brahma declares: “I worship Govinda, the Primeval Lord, the First Progenitor who is tending the cows, yielding all desire, who is surrounded by millions of purpose-trees and who is always served with great reverence and affection by hundreds of Laksmis or gopis.”

According to Vaisnava teachings, there are five fundamental manifestations of God. They are the Lord, His expansion, His internal energy, His perfect devotee and His Avatara. An Avatara, by definition, is one who descends from the Spiritual Sky in order to perform a specific function which cannot be accomplished by any ordinary living being. Whenever Lord Krsna advents Himself on the earth, it is to succor the devotees and annihilate the demons. For example, at the dawn of creation, when the demons threw the Earth planet into the muddiest regions of the nether world, Krsna advented Himself as Varaha, the Boar Incarnation, defeated the demon Hiranyaksa with one slap of His hoof and scooped the earth from the mud with His tusks.

There are innumerable Avataras of Krsna. In the Caitanya-caritamrta they are classified as follows:

1. Three Purusa Avataras: Karanodakasayi Visnu, Garbhodakasayi Visnu and Ksirodakasayi Visnu. The first Purusa incarnation, Karanodakasayi Visnu or Maha-Visnu, is the expanded four-armed Form of Krsna. “Visnu” means He is all-pervading, omnipresent and omniscient, and “Purusa” means that He is the Supreme Enjoyer. The Maha-Visnu is the Lord of all material creation, the Creator of countless millions of individual souls (jivas) and the source of thousands of Avataras. Maha-Visnu reposes in the vast expanse of water known as the spiritual Causal Ocean, in which He remains in a state of divine sleep called Yoga-nidra. Maha-Visnu is so boundless that in one exhalation the pores of His skin secrete bubbles containing seeds of myriad universes. With each inhalation the universes are consumed within His Body and with each exhalation they are sent forth again.

Maha-Visnu enters into each universe as His plenary portion Garbhodakasayi Visnu. Upon entering each universe and finding it empty, Garbhodakasayi Visnu perspires and fills half of it with an ocean of sweat. The Lord then rests on Ananta, an expansion in the form of Infinite Couch bearing seven serpent heads. From the navel pit of the Garbhodakasayi Visnu springs the stem of a lotus, upon which is born four-headed Brahma, the father of all living entities, including the various demigods. Within the lotus stem are located the 14 divisions of planetary systems, with the earth planets in the middle.

Ksirodakasayi Visnu is the next further expansion of Garbhodakasayi Visnu who enters into every atom and every individual soul in each universe. In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krsna states that He is present in everyone’s heart and from Him come memory and forgetfulness. This presence of Krsna is in the Form of the Ksirodakasayi Visnu, who is called the Paramatma or Supersoul. In the Upanisads it is described that He is the size of the thumb and is seated in the human heart. The idea of the Lord’s accompanying every living entity as Supersoul is His Causeless Mercy. Everyone in the material world is understood to be here due to forgetting his superior loving relationship with the Supreme Lord. Because every living entity has a minute amount of free will, Krsna allows them to come into this material world of ignorance, for an attempt to enjoy in rebellion against the Supreme Lord. But it is His great kindness that He accompanies His parts and parcels wherever they go. The Katha Upanisad gives the example that two birds are dwelling within the tree of the body. One bird (the individual living entity) is engaged in tasting the different fruits of the tree of the body—sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet. The other bird (the Supersoul, Visnu) is witnessing, aloof, and simply waiting for the time when the other bird will turn to Him as friend. Krsna consciousness means to turn to the Supersoul or God within the heart and receive dictation from Him. This dictation from within, along with the dictation of the spiritual master from without, forms the parallel tracks for sure success in going back to the Kingdom of God. According to the authorized Yoga system as taught in Bhagavad-gita and Patanjali Yoga-sutras, the goal of Yoga practice is to see this Form of Visnu in the heart. He is described in Srimad-Bhagavatam as very beautiful, of transcendental bluish hue, four-armed, bearing conch, wheel, lotus flower and club. The yogi is advised to meditate not on some abstract target or void but—when his vision is purified—he should fix on the smiling face of Visnu. Visnu the all-powerful Lord is seen in the heart of the perfect yogi. It is described that His glance of compassion for his yogi-devotee ends all agony at being in the material world; His smile dries up the ocean of tears which is present in material life; and Lord Visnu is all-attractive just for the good of the sages, so that to see His eyebrows vanquishes the god of sex.

2. Three Guna Avataras. Visnu, Brahma and Siva, incarnations of Garbhodakasayi Visnu, preside respectively over the modes of goodness, passion and ignorance. They are also in charge of the creation, maintenance and destruction of the material universe, by the Will of Krsna. Of the three Guna Avataras, only Lord Visnu is considered the Personality of Godhead, as He contains 96 percent of the attributes of Krsna in full. Lord Siva possesses 78 percent of the divine attributes in full, and Lord Brahma, who is the most powerful of the conditioned living entities, possesses 78 percent of the godly attributes, in partial form. Lord Brahma is called “the unborn” because he is born of the navel of Garbhodakasayi Visnu without the assistance of Visnu’s wife, the Goddess of Fortune, Laksmi. Brahma is the first living entity to enter the universe, and after a period of meditation, Lord Krsna instructs him through the heart how to create the various planetary systems and how to begin the business of populating the planets and working the cosmic order. Brahma is actually a post, like President, and can be filled by any qualified living entity. The pure devotees of Godhead do not, however, desire to become Brahma or to go to his planet, because despite his position of fabulous management and administrative responsibility, Brahma’s loving service to the Lord is tainted by the desire to be the number one administrator of universal affairs. The pure devotee doesn’t desire such opulence; he doesn’t even desire liberation. The devotee is actually willing to take the most lowly birth, even as an ant, so long as he is in association with the Lord or His pure devotees who are always chanting the Holy Name, Hare Krsna. As Guna Avatara of the Lord, Lord Brahma is in charge of creation and the modes of passion; people desirous of worldly advancement can pray to him for boons and material facilities, which are ultimately granted by Lord Visnu, through Brahma.

The maintenance of the universe is continued by Lord Visnu (Ksirodakasayi) who is in control of the mode of goodness by which the living entities journey back to Godhead. Despite His all-pervading presence amidst the material world, Visnu is completely transcendental to the laws of material nature, unlike Lord Brahma and Lord Siva who partially are under the influence of material conditioning. Even the impersonalist sage Sankara admits, in his commentary to the Bhagavad-gita, that Lord Narayana or Lord Visnu is completely transcendental to the material nature. This transcendental position is a qualification of the Personality of Godhead, and no one under the jurisdiction of the stringent laws of material nature can measure or estimate the potency of Lord Visnu. Those in knowledge of the transcendental science do not accept the cheap imitators who claim to be God or who offer to transform their disciples into God for a fee. These imitators are bound up under the modes of goodness, passion and ignorance, and are being kicked by the material nature’s strict laws in the form of birth, death, old age and disease—and yet they refuse to worship Visnu but try instead to usurp His position.

The unique position of Lord Siva is that he is almost the Personality of Godhead. He has the qualities of Godhead, but due to his contact with matter, as administrator of the modes of ignorance, he has become changed. The example given in the scriptures is that Lord Siva is compared to yogurt and the Personality of Godhead, Krsna, is compared to milk. When milk comes into contact with acid, it becomes yogurt. Its ingredients are still milk, but it can no longer be used as milk. Although yogurt comes from milk and is nothing but milk, it can never become milk again. Lord Siva is actually declared as the greatest Vaisnava (worshiper of Visnu) and he is therefore fully liberated, but it is just his compassion that he accepts contact with the material modes of ignorance in order to elevate the fallen souls who are suffering under the grip of ignorance. Siva’s associates are among the most fallen—ghosts, drunkards and drug takers—and he mercifully uplifts them gradually to the platform of Vaisnavas.

3. Four Yuga Avataras. These are incarnations of the millenia. According to Vedic calculations, there are four ages which rotate like calendar months: Satya, Treta, Dvapara and Kali. The present Iron Age of quarrel and chaos, Kali-yuga, is only 5,000 years old and is scheduled to last another 427,000 years. Conditions in the Satya-yuga, the first age in the cycle, are such that people live a long duration of time and 100% of the population is in the mode of goodness, so that God consciousness is very prominent. This happy conditior gradually declines throughout the yugas until the end of the Kali-yuga when the population is almost entirely atheistic, demoniac and intent on wiping out the devotees of Godhead. The Avatara of the Satya-yuga is called Hayagriva, the horse incarnation. Lord Krsna Himself appears at the end of Dvapara-yuga and is described as having the hue of a fresh rain cloud and more beautiful than thousands of cupids. Strictly speaking, Krsna is not an Avatara, since He is the Original Supreme Personality of Godhead. The Srimad-Bhagavatam confirms this as follows: “All the above mentioned incarnations are either a plenary portion or a portion of the plenary portion of the Lord, but Lord Sri Krsna is the Original Personality of Godhead; and all of them advent themselves in all the planets whenever there is disturbance by the atheists; and the Lord incarnates to protect the theists.”

(Srimad-Bhagavatam, 1.3.28)

The incarnations of each yuga are of different colors, as follows: Satya-yuga, white; Treta-yuga, red; Dvapara-yuga, black; and Kali-yuga, yellow. Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu is considered the most magnanimous because he freely bestows love of Godhead. It is said that when Krsna last appeared in His Original Form on this planet, the separation of His beloved Radharani was felt so intensely that He wanted to come back as His own devotee so He could feel the ecstasy of separation. Therefore Lord Caitanya is considered as an Incarnation of Radha and Krsna.

There is a prescribed form of worship for each yuga. In the Satya-yuga the recommended process was meditation. Having peaceful atmosphere of godly civilization and hundreds of thousands of years of life duration, people could practice the meditation system with success. In this way, unbroken meditation for 10,000 years was not uncommon. In the Treta-yuga the recommended process of God realization was to offer costly sacrifices; in the Dvapara-yuga it was temple worship; and in the Kali-yuga the process recommended by the scriptures is the chanting of the Holy Names. Lord Caitanya successfully pushed this easiest, most sublime method, as is being carried on by the Hare Krsna movement of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, a spiritual master in direct disciplic succession from Lord Caitanya. Lord Krsna Himself recommends the chanting in the Bhagavad-gita: “They [the great souls] are always engaged in chanting My glories. Endeavoring with great determination, offering homage unto Me, they worship Me with devotion.” (9/14) “… Of sacrifices I am the chanting of the Holy Names.” (10.25) And in the Brhad-Naradiya Purana it is stated that no other means of God realization will be effective in the Age of Kali, except the chanting of the Holy Name.

4. Twenty-five Lila-Avataras. These are incarnations in which Krsna displays specific Pastimes. In His 14th incarnation, the Lord appeared in the half-lion, half-human Form, as Nrsimhadeva, in order to save the boy Prahlad Maharaj from his demoniac father, Hiranyakasipu. There is a prayer by Jayadeva Gosvami to Nrsimhadeva: “Oh my Lord, Your hands are very beautiful like the lotus flower, but with Your long nails You have ripped apart the wasp Hiranyakasipu. Unto You, Lord of the Universe, do I offer my humble obeisances.” Sometimes nondevotees ask why the Lord appears in such a fierce aspect as Nrsimhadeva. For answer, the Vedanta-sutra states that the Absolute Truth is that from which everything is emanating. Therefore everything we see here in this material world has its natural original source in the Spiritual Sky, in the Supreme Person, but exists here only in the form of a perverted reflection. In the loving affairs of Radha and Krsna we see one aspect of the Absolute Truth and in Nrsimha’s ferocious anger we see another aspect. The devotee Prahlad, in offering prayers to the Lord as half-lion and half-man, prayed, “I am not afraid of You, my Lord, but I am afraid of karma, I am afraid of the birth and death cycle.” It is understood from the Vedic literatures that even the victim of Nrsimha’s attack, the demon Hiranyakasipu, received the utmost benefit and attained eternal liberation upon his destruction in the lap of the impartial Supreme Lord. The demon Hiranyakasipu wanted to exchange with the Lord as enemy, therefore the Lord was there in His most formidable aspect to exchange and personally kill him. Those who are in favorable relationship with the Supreme find His reciprocation of boundless love and happiness. Those who want to hear nothing of God as the Controller find themselves moved further and further away from Him; and in regard to their rescue from the material nature, the Lord is silent in their case. Therefore He is impartial and yet He can favor the devotee by giving him the inner intelligence and facility to advance to the position of an associate of Krsna in the Kingdom of God.

Krsna appeared as Lord Ramacandra in the 18th lila incarnation. The mission of Lord Rama in coming to the earth was the slaying of the demon Ravana for the relief of the faithful demigods. Rama displayed Pastimes as all ideal King, and therefore, although He was the Supreme Personality of Godhead, He subordinated Himself to the moral codes and ethics of perfect human law. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami advises that we must worship the Supreme Lord in the attitude He has taken. In order to fulfill his vow of truth and honor to his father, Lord Rama allowed Himself to be banished to the forest for fourteen years. Ramacandra’s superhuman feats as warrior and His saintly life of moderation are related in the scripture Ramayana, coinpiled by Valmiki.

5. Fourteen Manvantara Avataras. From Lord Brahma, the demigods like Manu became incarnated for generating the living entities within the universe. The Manus are rulers and their loving service to the Lord is to carry out the necessary business of populating the universe.

6. Saktavesa Avataras. There are innumerable indirect empowered incarnations springing from Garbhodaka-sayi Visnu, such as the Kumaras and Narada. Narada Muni is all intimate servitor of Lord Narayana and is an incarnation of devotion; he travels, without the aid of spaceship, throughout the material universes distributing the nectarean message of Love of God, especially through the chanting of the maha-mantra. Narada is the spiritual master of Vyasadeva who compiled all the Vedic scriptures. In his previous life, Narada took birth as the son of a maidservant. His mother was at one time waiting on some traveling devotees of the Lord, and just by taking the remnants of foodstuff from the devotees’ plates, the boy Narada gained self realization. He attained to His eternal spiritual body within that very lifetime and began his preaching throughout the limitless creation of his worshipable Lord. The scriptures contain numerous instances of persons, even of the lowest sinful character, who gained enlightenment just by seeing the sage Narada in his travels. Other examples of Saktavesa Avataras often include travelling mendicant spiritual masters like the six Gosvamins of Vrndavana and, in the modern age, Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur and Paramhamsa Srila Bhakti Siddhanta Sarasvati Gosvami Maharaj, of whom His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami is the leading disciple.

Prahlad Maharaj offers a prayer to the Lord: “Oh my Lord, You manifest as many incarnations as there are species of life—namely, the aquatic, the vegetable, the reptile, the birds, beasts, men, demigods, etc.—just for the maintenance of the faithful and the annihilation of the unfaithful. You advent Yourself as such in accordance with the necessity of the different yugas. In the Kali-yuga You have incarnated Yourself garbed as a devotee [Lord Caitanya].” Information concerning the Avataras described here can be found in authoritative scriptures, and is reconfirmed by the guru of disciplic succession and the sadhu or saintly person who follows the prescriptions of this faultless literature. The devotee conversant with the transcendental science never accepts a cheap imposter as God.

The impersonalist speculator makes much repartee about how he is God or one with God. He may even admit to the various Avataras of Krsna but then say that he too is the Personality of Godhead or that we are one with Him. The learned acarya A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami does not make such mistakes in transcendental reasoning. He recently spoke clear conclusive words on this subject: “You may say we are all one. That is all right. Are you not one with President Nixon? He is American; he is a human being. In so many qualities you are one. But you cannot claim that you are President Nixon. Every living entity is Brahman, but Krsna is the Chief Brahman. Just as you are all Americans but your President is the chief American. Similarly, Krsna is the Chief Brahman. You are all Brahman, but He is the Chief Brahman. In so many respects and qualities you are one with God, but that does not mean you are God. God is one. Just as in spite of your becoming an American or a human being you do not identify yourself with President Nixon because you have full knowledge of President Nixon and yourself. And as soon as you say, “I am God,” that means you have no full knowledge of God. That very assertion immediately shows that you know nothing about God. God is so great, but you are claiming that greatness. That means you do not know how great He is. A tiny factor claims that he is God without having that greatness. That means insanity, the same as if you claim that you are President Nixon. But how great God is! How much greater than President Nixon! Do you deny to become one with President Nixon and yet accept yourself to be one with God? How insane you are! One is claiming that ‘I am God’ and his follower accepts that he is God. This is insanity.”

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