The Sanskrit language is rich in words to communicate ideas about spiritual life, yoga and God realization. This dictionary, appearing by installments in BACK TO GODHEAD, will focus upon the most important of these words (and, occasionally, upon relevant Englisth terms) and explain what they mean.
Atma.The word atma means “self.” The atma is what we really are, as distinct from what we falsely think we are. Generally we think of ourselves in terms of the various labels we’ve pinned on ourselves or had pinned on us—American, English, Christian, Hindu, white, black, liberal, conservative, father, mother, Jones, Smith, or whatever. But these are only temporary tags. Time unpins them and replaces them with new ones. After all, the label, is different from the merchandise.
Therefore, although atma sometimes refers to one’s temporary body, mind, or intelligence, the atma is ultimately the eternal consciousness (the spirit, or soul) that is present within the body of every living being. This atma—higher than the senses, the mind, and even the intelligence—is most mysterious and subtle. The Bhagavad-gita describes it in this way: “For the atma there is neither birth nor death at any time. He does not come to be, has not come to be, and will not come to be. He is unborn, eternal, undying, and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain. . . .The atma can never be cut to pieces by any weapon, nor burned by fire, moistened by water, nor withered by the wind. This individual atma is unbreakable and insoluble, and can be neither burned nor dried. He is everlasting, all-pervading, unchangeable, immovable, and eternally the same.”
One who realizes this eternal atma within himself—that is, one who recognizes himself to be the eternal consciousness or soul within the body—becomes a perfectly self-realized person. There are innumerable atmas, all in essence the same yet each eternally distinct. And above all these atmas is the Paramatma, or supreme atma—God. God, too, is distinct from all other living beings, and this distinction is eternal. God, the supreme infinite, is the complete spiritual whole, and all other living beings are infinitesimal parts of God. A living being can never “become God” any more than a drop of water can become the entire ocean.
Avatara. An avatara is an incarnation of God who descends to the material world. As the president of a country may enter a prison to oversee its management or bestow clemency on prisoners, the Supreme Lord, from time to time, enters the material world to oversee the workings of the material creation and bestow His mercy on fortunate souls.
The purpose or mission of avataras is explained in a famous passage from Bhagavad-gita in which Lord Krsna says, “Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice and a predominant rise of irreligion—at that time I descend Myself. To deliver the pious and annihilate the miscreants, as well as to reestablish the principles of religion, I Myself appear, millennium after millennium.”
Although the Supreme Lord eternally resides in His own abode, beyond the material world. He has the power to appear within the material world. He can do this by His spiritual potency. The Lord is beyond the restrictions of time and space. An ordinary living being can work in only one place at any one time, but the Lord, by His unlimited spiritual capabilities, can appear in many places simultaneously, in an unlimited number of forms, and perform unlimited activities.
An avatara may resemble an ordinary human being, but He performs extraordinary acts. Lord Krsna, for example, lifted a mountain when a mere child, killed demons like Putana and Kamsa, and gave the world the immortal teachings of Bhagavad-gita. An ordinary person is born by the force of nature, according to the laws of karma, but God’s birth as an avatara takes place by His own choice, as a supernatural event, transcendental to nature’s laws. As stated in Bhagavad-gita, one who understands the transcendental birth and activities of the Lord’s avatara becomes free from birth and death and returns to the kingdom of God in the spiritual world.
The genuine avataras of the Lord are all described in revealed scriptures, which give details of the avatara’s physical appearance and His specific activities and purpose. An avatara never invents a new method of self-realization, but upholds the eternal methods set forth in authentic scriptures. One whose teachings contradict those of the scriptures cannot be a genuine avatara.
One should be wary of fraudulent incarnations—cheap self-proclaimed Gods who preach their own concocted philosophies, imitate the Supreme Lord, and swindle the naive. Recent years have seen such frauds in abundance, and people who lack scientific knowledge of God consciousness offer them honor. Scientific knowledge about God and His avataras is at hand in Bhagavad-gita, and one who understands the science of Bhagavad-gita will not be cheated. One should not be gullible. The president may enter a prison to favor the inmates, but it’s useless to seek favors from a prisoner who claims to be president.