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Transcript   Home Avataras  by Annie Besant Four Lectures Delivered at the Twenty-fourth Anniversary Meetingof the Theosophical Society at Adyar Madras, December 1899   Contents   1What is an Avatara2The Source of and Need for Avataras3Some Special Avataras4Shri KrishnaFIRST LECTURE What is an Avatara 1. Brothers: — Every time that we come here together to study the fundamental truths of all religions, I cannot butfeel how vast is the subject, how small the expounder, how mighty the horizon that opens before our thoughts, hownarrow the words which strive to sketch it for your eyes. Year after year we meet, time after time we strive to fathomsome of those great mysteries of life, of the Self, which form the only subject really worthy of the profoundest thoughtof man. All else is passing; all else is transient; all else is but the toy of a moment Fame and power, wealth andscience — all that is in this world below is as nothing beside the grandeur of the Eternal Self in the universe and inman, one in all His manifold manifestations, marvellous and beautiful in every form that He puts forth. And this year,of all the manifestations of the Supreme, we are going to dare to study the holiest of the holiest, those manifestationsof God in the world in which He shows Himself as divine, coming to help the world that He has made, shining forthin His essential nature, the form but a thin film which scarce veils the Divinity from our eyes. How then shall weventure to approach it, how shall we dare to study it, save with deepest reverence, with profoundest humility; for if there needs for the study of His works patience, reverence and humbleness of heart, what when we study Him whoseworks but partially reveal Him, when we try to understand what is meant by an Avatara, what is the meaning, what the purpose of such a revelation?2. Our President has truly said that in all the faiths of the world there is belief in such manifestations, and that ancientmaxim as to truth — that which is as the hall mark on the silver showing that the metal is pure — that ancient maxim is converted by  here valid, that whatever has been believed everywhere, whatever has been believed at every time, and by every one,that is true, that is reality. Religions quarrel over many details; men dispute over many propositions; but where humanheart and human voice speak a single word, there you have the mark of truth, there you have the sign of spiritualreality. But in dealing with the subject one difficulty faces us, faces you as hearers, faces myself as speaker. In everyreligion in modern times truth is shorn of her full proportions; the intellect alone cannot grasp the many aspects of theone truth. So we have school after school, philosophy after philosophy, each one showing an aspect of truth, andignoring, or even denying, the other aspects which are equally true. Nor is this all; as the age in which we are passeson from century to century, from millennium to millennium, knowledge becomes dimmer, spiritual insight becomesrarer, those who repeat far out-number those who know; and those who speak with clear vision of the spiritual verityare lost amidst the crowds, who only hold traditions whose srcin they fail to understand. The priest and the prophet,to use two well-known words, have ever in later times come into conflict one with the other. The priest carries on thetraditions of antiquity; too often he has lost the knowledge that made them real. The prophet — coming forth from timeto time with the divine word hot as fire on his lips — speaks out the ancient truth and illuminates tradition. But theywho cling to the words of tradition are apt to be blinded by the light of the fire and to call out heretic against the onewho speaks the truth that they have lost Therefore, in religion after religion, when some great teacher has arisen, therehave been opposition, clamour, rejection, because the truth he spoke was too mighty to be narrowed within the limitsof half-blinded men. And in such a subject as we are to study to-day, certain grooves have been made, certain ruts asit were, in which the human mind is running, and I know that in laying before you the occult truth, I must needs, atsome points, come into clash with details of a tradition that is rather repeated by memory than either understood or thetruths beneath it grasped. Pardon me then, my brothers, if in a speech on this great topic I should sometimes comeathwart some of the dividing lines of different schools of Hindu thought; I may not, I dare not, narrow the truth I havelearnt, to suit the limitations that have grown up by the ignorance of ages, nor make that which is the spiritual verityconform to the empty traditions that are left in the faiths of the world. By the duty laid upon me by the Master that Iserve, by the truth that He has bidden me speak in the ears of men of all the faiths that are in this modern world; bythese I must tell you what is true, no matter whether or not you agree with it for the moment; for the truth that is spokenwins submission afterwards, if not at the moment; and any one who speaks of the Rishis of antiquity must speak thetruths that they taught in their days, and not repeat the mere commonplaces of commentators of modern times and the petty orthodoxies that ring us in on every side and divide man from man.3. I propose in order to simplify this great subject to divide it under certain heads. I propose first to remind you of the two great divisions recognised by all who have thought on the subject; then to take up especially, for this morning,the question What is an Avatara? To-morrow we shall put and strive to answer, partly at least, the question, Who isthe source of Avataras? Then later we shall take up special Avataras both of the kosmos and of human races. Thus Ihope to place before you a clear, definite succession of ideas on this great subject, not asking you to believe them because I speak them, not asking you to accept them because I utter them. Your reason is the bar to which every truthmust come which is true for you; and you err deeply, almost fatally, if you let the voice of authority impose itself where you do not answer to the speaking. Every truth is only true to you as you see it. and as it illuminates the mind;and truth however true is not yet truth for you, unless your heart opens out to receive it, as the flower opens out itsheart to receive the rays of the morning sun.4. First, then, let us take a statement that men of every religion will accept Divine manifestations of a special kindtake place from time to time as the need arises for their appearance; and these special manifestations are marked outfrom the universal manifestation of God in His kosmos; for never forget that in the lowest creature that crawls theearth Ishvara is present as in the highest Deva. But there are certain special manifestations marked out from thisgeneral self-revelation in the kosmos, and it is these special manifestations which are called forth by special needs.Two words especially have been used in Hinduism, marking a certain distinction in the nature of the manifestation — one the word Avatara , the other the word A'vesha. Only for a moment need we stop on the meaning of the words,important to us because the literal meaning of the words points to the fundamental difference between the two. Theword Avatara , as you know, has as its root tri , passing over, and with the prefix which is added, the ava , you getthe idea of descent, one who descends. That is the literal meaning of the word. The other word has as its root vish , permeating, penetrating, pervading, and you have there the thought of something which is permeated or penetrated. Sothat while in the one case, Avatara, there is the thought of a descent from above, from Ishvara to man or animal; in theother, there is rather the idea of an entity already existing who is influenced, permeated, pervaded by the divine power, specially illuminated as it were. And thus we have a kind of intermediate step, if one may say so, between thedivine manifestation in the Avatara and in the kosmos — the partial divine manifestation in one who is permeated bythe influence of the Supreme, or of some other being who practically dominates the individual, the Ego who is thus permeated.5. Now what are the occasions which lead to these great manifestations? None can speak with mightier authority on converted by  this point than He who came Himself as an Avatara just before the beginning of our own age, the Divine Lord ShriKrishna Himself. Turn to that marvellous poem, the Bhagavad-Gita, to the fourth Adhyaya, Shlokas 7 and 8; there Hetells us what draws Him forth to birth into His world in the manifested form of the Supreme :6. When Dharma, — righteousness, law — decays, when Adharma — unrighteousness, lawlessness — is exalted,then I Myself come forth: for the protection of the good, for the destruction of the evil, for the establishing firmly of Dharma, I am born from age to age . That is what He tells us of the coming forth of the Avatara. That is, the needs of His world call upon Him to manifest Himself in His divine power; and we know from other of His sayings that inaddition to those which deal with the human needs, there are certain kosmic necessities which in the earlier ages of the world's story called forth special manifestations. When in the great wheel of evolution another turn round has to be given, when some new form, new type of life is coming forth, then also the Supreme reveals Himself, embodyingthe type which thus He initiates in His kosmos, and in this way turning that everlasting wheel which He comes forth asIshvara to turn. Such then, speaking quite generally, the meaning of the word, and the object of the coming.7. From that we may fitly turn to the more special question, What is an Avatara? And it is here that I must ask your close attention, nay, your patient consideration, where points that to some extent may be unfamiliar are laid beforeyou; for as I said, it is the occult view of the truth which I am going to partially unveil, and those who have not thusstudied truth need to think carefully ere they reject, need to consider long ere they refuse. We shall see as we try toanswer the question bow far the great authorities help us to understand, and how far the lack of knowledge in readingthose authorities has led to misconception. You may remember that the late learned T. Subba Row in the lectures thathe gave on the Bhagavad-Gita put to you a certain view of the Avatara, that it was a descent of Ishvara — or, as hesaid, using the theosophical term, the Logos, which is only the Greek name for Ishvara — a descent of Ishvara, unitingHimself with a human soul. With all respect for the profound learning of the lamented pandit, I cannot but think thatthat is only a partial definition. Probably he did not at that time desire, had not very possibly the time, to deal withcase after case, having so wide a field to cover in the small number of lectures that he gave, and he therefore choseout one form, as we may say, of self-revelation, leaving untouched the others, which now in dealing with the subject by itself we have full time to study. Let me then begin as it were at the beginning, and then give you certain authoritieswhich may make the view easier to accept; let me state without any kind of attempt to veil or evade, what is really anAvatara. Fundamentally He is the result of evolution. In far past Kalpas, in worlds other than this, nay, in universesearlier than our own, those who were to be Avataras climbed slowly, step by step, the vast ladder of evolution,climbing from mineral to plant, from plant to animal, from animal to man, from man to Jivanmukta, from Jivanmuktahigher and higher yet, up the mighty hierarchy that stretches beyond Those who have liberated Themselves from the bonds of humanity; until at last, thus climbing, They cast off not only all the limits of the separated Ego, not only burstasunder the limitations of the separated Self, but entered Ishvara Himself and expanded into the all-consciousness of the Lord, becoming one in knowledge as they had ever been one in essence with that eternal Life from whichsrcinally they came forth, living in that life, centres without circumferences, living centres, one with the Supreme.There stretches behind such a One the endless chain of birth after birth, of manifestation after manifestation. Duringthe stage in which He was human, during the long climbing up of the ladder of humanity, there were two specialcharacteristics that marked out the future Avatara from the ranks of men. One his absolute bhakti, his devotion to theSupreme; for only those who are bhaktas and who to their bhakti have wed gnyana, or knowledge, can reach this goal;for by devotion, says Shri Krishna, can a man enter into My being. And the need of the devotion for the futureAvatara is this: he must keep the centre that he has built even in the life of Ishvara, so that he may be able to draw thecircumference once again round that centre, in order that he may come forth as a manifestation of Ishvara, one withHim in knowledge, one with Him in power, the very Supreme Himself in earthly life; he must hence have the power of limiting himself to form, for no form can exist in the universe save as there is a centre within it round which that formis drawn. He must be so devoted as to be willing to remain for the service of the universe while Ishvara Himself abides in it, to share the continual sacrifice made by Him, the sacrifice whereby the universe lives. But not devotionalone marks this great One who is climbing his divine path. He must also be, as Ishvara is, a lover of humanity.Unless within him there burns the flame of love for men — nay, men, do I say? it is too narrow — unless within him burns the flame of love for everything that exists, moving and unmoving, in this universe of God, he will not be able tocome forth as the Supreme whose life and love are in everything that He has brought forth out of His eternal andinexhaustible life. There is nothing , says the Beloved, moving or unmoving, that may exist bereft of me; [Bhagavad-Gita, x. 39 ] and unless the man can work that into his nature, unless he can love everything that is, notonly the beautiful but the ugly, not only the good but the evil, not only the attractive but the repellent, unless in everyform he sees the Self, he cannot climb the steep path the Avatara must tread.8. These, then, are the two great characteristics of the man who is to become the special manifestation of God —  bhakti, love to the One in whom he is to merge, and love to those whose very life is the life of God. Only as thesecome forth in the man is he on the path that leads him to be — in future universes, in far, far future kalpas — an converted by  Avatara coming as God to man.9. Now on this view of the nature of an Avatara difficulties, I know, arise; but they are difficulties that arise from a partial view, and then from that view having been merely accepted, as a rule, on the authority of some great name,instead of on the thinking out and thorough understanding of it by the man who repeats the shibboleth of his own sector school. The view once taken, every text in Shruti or Smriti that goes against that view is twisted out of its naturalmeaning, in order to be made to agree with the idea which already dominates the mind. That is the difficulty withevery religion; a man acquires his view by tradition, by habit, by birth, by public opinion, by the surroundings of hisown time and of his own day. He finds in the scriptures — which belong to no time, to no day, to no one age, and to noone people, but are expressions of the eternal Veda — he finds in them many texts that do not fit into the narrowframework that he has made; and because he too often cares for the framework more than for the truth, he manipulatesthe text until he can make it fit in, in some dislocated fashion; and the ingenuity of the commentator too often appearsin the skill with which he can make words appear to mean what they do not mean in their grammatical and obvioussense. Thus, men of every school, under the mighty names of men who knew the truth — but who could only give such portion of truth as they deemed man at the time was able to receive — use their names to buttress up mistakeninterpretations, and thus walls are continually built up to block the advancing life of man.10. Now let me take one example from one of the greatest names, one who knew the truth he spoke, but also, like everyteacher, had to remember that while he was man, those to whom he spoke were children that could not grasp truth withvirile understanding. That great teacher, founder of one of the three schools of the Vedanta, Shri Ramanujacharya, inhis commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita — a priceless work which men of every school might read and profit by — dealing with the phrase in which Shri Krishna declares that He has had bahuni janmani many births , points outhow vast the variety of those births had been. Then, confining himself to His manifestations as Ishvara — that is after He had attained to the Supreme — he says quite truly that He was born by His own will; not by karma that compelledHim, not by any force outside Him that coerced Him, but by His own will He came forth as Ishvara and incarnated inone form or another. But there is nothing said there of the innumerable steps traversed by the mighty One ere yet Hemerged Himself in the Supreme. Those are left on one side, unmentioned, unnoticed, because what the writer had inhis view was to present to the hearts of men a great Object for adoration, who might gradually lift them upwards andupwards until the Self should blossom in them in turn. No word is said of the previous kalpas, of the universesstretching backward into the illimitable past He speaks of His birth as Deva, as Naga, as Gandharva, as those manyshapes that He has taken by His own will. As you know, or as you may learn if you turn to Shrimad-Bhagavata, thereis a much longer list of manifestations than the ten usually called Avataras. There are given one after another the formswhich seem strange to the superficial reader when connected in modern thought with the Supreme. But we find lightthrown on the question by some other words of the great Lord; and we also find in one famous book, full of occulthints — though not with much explanation of the hints given — the Yoga Vasishtha, a clear definite statement that thedeities, as Mahadeva, Vishnu and Brahma, have all climbed upward to the mighty posts They hold. [Part II., Chapter ii., Shlokas 14, 15, 16 ] And that may well be so, if you think of it; there is nothing derogatory to Them in the thought;for there is but one Existence, the eternal fount of all that comes forth as separated, whether separated in the universeas Ishvara, or separated in the copy of the universe in man; there is but One without a second; there is no life but His,no independence but His, no self-existence but His, and from Him Gods and men and all take their root and exist for ever in and by His one eternal life. Different stages of manifestation, but the One Self in all the different stages, theOne living in all; and if it be true, as true it is, that the Self in man is unborn, constant, eternal, ancient , it is becausethe Self in man is one with the One Self-existent, and Ishvara Himself is only the mightiest manifestation of that Onewho knows no second near Himself. Says an English poet:11. Closer is He than breathing, nearer than hands and feet.12. The Self is in you and in me, as much as the Self is in Ishvara, that One, eternal, unchanging, un-decaying, whereof every manifested existence is but one ray of glory. Thus it is true, that which is taught in the Yoga Vasishtha; true it isthat even the greatest, before whom we bow in worship, has climbed in ages past all human reckoning to be one withthe Supreme, and, ever there, to manifest Himself as God to the world.13. But now we come to a distinction that we find made, and it is a real one. We read of a Purnavatara, a full,complete, Avatara. What is the meaning of that word full as applied to the Avatara? The name is given, as we know,to Shri Krishna. He is marked out specially by that name. Truly the word purna cannot apply to the Illimitable, theInfinite; He may not be shown forth in any form; the eye may never behold Him; only the spirit that is Himself canknow the One. What is meant by it is that, so far as is possible within the limits of form, the manifestation of theformless appears, so far as is possible it came forth in that great One who came for the helping of the world. This mayassist you to grasp the distinction. Where the manifestation is that of a Purnavatara, then at any moment of time, at Hisown will, b Yoa or otherwise, He can transcend ever limit of the form in which He binds Himself b His own converted by
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