THE ONE WHO DESCENDS
By the time you get this article, Hollywood’s new offering “Avatar” will be showing on screens near you. It’s a movie created at the cost of more than $200 million. Sanskrit pundits might celebrate that the mega-buck spending moguls of Hollywood are appreciating a Sanskrit word avatara, but this movie has nothing to do with the avatara of the Vedic scriptures. The man behind this movie, James Cameron explains his understanding of the word: “Avatar is a word from the Hindu religion which means the fleshly incarnation of a divine being, like Shiva or whatever. And so in this film it’s a fleshly incarnation of a human, a living human who can put their consciousness into that body.”
We at BTG would like to congratulate him for his attempt to understand this seemingly difficult concept, but would also like to take this opportunity to put the record straight.
It is mainly Krishna (Vishnu) who descends from the world of spirit into the world of matter. And His appearance here is called avatara. The Sanskrit term avatara (“one who descends”) is often rendered into English as “incarnation” (carnis means flesh, incarnation means “one who accepts a fleshly existence”). It would be a gross error to think that Krishna incarnates in a body made of physical elements. In the Bhagavad-gita material elements and God’s own spiritual nature are distinguished clearly. The material elements namely, earth, water, fire, air, and ethereal space are temporary in nature and thus destructible. Krishna’s own nature called para-prakriti, is invisible, eternal, and infallible.
Only when the Lord descends, by His mercy, the invisible becomes visible.
Cameron further states that, “And to me that was an important distinction, because it’s not like a virtual avatar the way we have on SECOND LIFE (a website offering virtual existence in cyberspace) or in role playing games and that sort of thing. It’s a living, breathing biological body. So you go to sleep in your human body and wake up in the ‘avatar’ body. When it goes to sleep at the end of the day, you reawaken in your human body. Then you have to go to sleep because you have to rest.”
Well, so much for the understanding of spiritual concepts presented by the entertainment industry, let us check out the truth from the Vedic texts.
How Many Avataras?
God has many avataras. God as the personality remains one, but His avataras are innumerable. In India, avataras are popularly listed as ten in number called Dasavataras and are particularly celebrated. They are:
1. Matsya – the Lord’s form as a gigantic fish
2. Kurma – the turtle
3. Varaha – the boar
4. Sri Narsimha – the half-man-half-lion form
5. Parashurama – the hermit who wields an axe
6. Vamana – the small brahmana boy
7. Sri Ramachandra – the Lord of Ayodhya
8. Sri Balarama – Lord Krishna’s brother
9. Buddha – the sage who cheated the atheists
10. Kalki – who will depopulate the world of all degraded, sinful men at the end of the present age of Kali
Why Does God Take Avatara?
Srila Prabhupada writes in his purport to Bhagavad-gita (4.7), “The purpose of the Vedas is to establish religious principles under the order of the Supreme Lord, and the Lord directly orders, at the end of the Gita, that the highest principle of religion is to surrender unto Him only, and nothing more. The Vedic principles push one towards complete surrender unto Him, and whenever such principles are disturbed by the demoniac, the Lord appears. From the Bhagavatam we understand that Lord Buddha is the incarnation of Krishna who appeared when materialism was rampant and materialists were using the pretext of the authority of the Vedas. Although there are certain regulations regarding animal sacrifice in the Vedas, people of demonic tendency still took to animal sacrifice without reference to the Vedic principles. Lord Buddha appeared to stop this nonsense and to establish the Vedic principles of nonviolence. Therefore, each and every avatara, or incarnation of the Lord, has a particular mission, and they are all described in the revealed scriptures. No one should be accepted as an avatara unless he is referred to by scriptures. It is not a fact that the Lord appears only on Indian soil. He can manifest Himself anywhere and everywhere, and whenever He desires to appear. In each incarnation, He speaks as much about religion as can be understood by the particular people under their particular circumstances. But the mission is the same: to lead people to God consciousness and obedience to the principles of religion.
“Sometimes He descends personally, and sometimes He sends His bona fide representative in the form of His son, or servant, or Himself in some disguised form.”
Objections to God Assuming a Form
Some people think that form necessarily means “limitation.” God is omnipresent, unlimited and therefore formless, they argue. When He reveals His avatara form within this material world, that form, being limited to a particular place and time, cannot be the real God; it is only an indication of God. But the fact is that it is not God’s form that is limited. It is only our conception of the form that is limited, because that conception is grossly physical. Being spiritual, God’s form is the most subtle. There is no contradiction between the omnipresence of something subtle and it having form. The most subtle material phenomena we can perceive is sound. Sound may be formless (as noise) or it may have form (as music). Because sound is subtle, it having form does not affect its ability to pervade a huge building. Similarly, God having form does not affect His ability to pervade the entire universe. Since God’s form is finer than the finest material subtlety, it is completely inappropriate for us to compare His form to gross chunks of matter.
Can All Of Us Be Or Have Avataras?
Some argue that any and all embodied creatures can be termed ‘avataras’ (as the movie also suggests). Any number of “living gods” are being proclaimed within India and other parts of the world today. Some of these gods are mystics, some are charismatic, and some are politicians. But none of them are authorized by the Vedic scriptures. They represent only the mistaken idea that the one formless unlimited truth appears in endless gross, physical human incarnations, and that you and me and I and he are therefore all together God. And since each god has a different idea of what dharma (real religion) is, the final truth is that the paths of all gods lead to the same goal.
This idea is as unenlightened as it is impractical. One may claim to be an avatara, but then he or she has to prove it by performing superhuman feats, as God would actually do. This is easier said than done. When ordinary people proclaim themselves as god and their actions as Vedic dharma, that is termed as a disturbance to eternal religious principles. Lord Krishna therefore proclaims: “To deliver the pious and to annihilate the miscreants, as well as to reestablish the principles of religion, I Myself appear, millennium after millennium.” (Bhagavad-gita 4.8)
Cameron’s 3D science fiction epic “Avatar” and its spectacular world may have been a little too real for some fans who say they have experienced depression after seeing the film because they long to enjoy the beauty of the alien world shown in the movie.
On the fan forum site “Avatar Forums,” a topic thread entitled “Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible” has received more than 1,000 posts from people experiencing depression and fans trying to help them cope, reports the CNN website.
The topic became so popular that the forum administrator had to create a second thread so people could continue to post their confused feelings about the movie.
One user wrote on the fan website “Naviblue” meaning he contemplated suicide after seeing the movie.
“Ever since I saw Avatar, I feel depressed. Watching the wonderful world of Pandora and all the Na’vi made me want to be one of them. I can’t stop thinking about all the things that happened in the film and all of the tears and shivers I got from it. I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora and then everything is the same as in Avatar,” he added.
Other fans have expressed feelings of disgust with the human race and disengagement with reality.
The world of Pandora, which is reminiscent of a prehistoric fantasyland, filled with dinosaur-like creatures mixed with the kinds of fauna found in the deep reaches of the ocean. Compared with life on earth, Pandora is a beautiful, glowing utopia.
Another user wrote “When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday, the world seemed . . . gray. It was like my whole life; everything I’ve done and worked for, lost its meaning. It just seems so meaningless. I still don’t really see any reason to keep doing things at all. I live in a dying world.”
Stephan Quentzel, psychiatrist and Medical Director for the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York said: “Virtual life is not real life and it never will be, but this is the pinnacle of what we can build in a virtual presentation so far. It has taken the best of our technology to create this virtual world and real life will never be as utopian as it seems onscreen. It makes real life seem more imperfect.”
The Spiritual World
The virtual world of the movie is unreal, but there is a real world, which is far better than the utopia and we can all really go there. That is the spiritual world, the kingdom of God, our original home, which the Vedic scriptures describe in glowing terms.
The inhabitants of the spiritual world planets are described as having a glowing sky-bluish complexion. Their eyes resemble lotus flowers, their dress is of yellowish color, and their bodily features are very attractive. They are just the age of growing youths, they all have four hands, they are all nicely decorated with pearl necklaces with ornamental medallions, and they all appear to be effulgent. Some of them are effulgent like coral and diamonds in complexion and have garlands on their heads, blooming like lotus flowers, and some wear earrings.
And this is merely a fraction of all varieties of descriptions found in the Vedas. It is significant that none of our transcendentalists experienced depression or suicidal tendencies upon meditating on such descriptions. In fact reading and meditating upon bona fide descriptions of the spiritual world provides us an impetus to discover the realm of the real avatara and not the one which releases a Pandora of ills.
Syamananda Dasa is the editor of BTG.