The nature of divinity incarnate must surely remain one of humankind's greatest questions and mysteries. You may question that statement but the key to understanding it lies in the simple realization that our "answer" reveals our own nature as well.
I often state in my classes and talks that the answer to "Who is Jesus Christ?" shows us "Who am I?" Is the avatar a divine creation, a puppet? God descended into human form? Is the avatar human like us, and if so, to what degree, to what extent? How did such a one come into being an avatar? By divine fiat or by self-effort? Is such a state unique or do all of us have the potential to achieve it?
We are, to ourselves, also a mysterious concatenation of moods, ideas, actions and feelings. Our sublime states all too frequently descend to the mundane, or lower. We want our deity (our image of perfection) to be clear, clean, and essentially one-dimensional. Look what inevitably happens after the avatar leaves this earth. Even Yogananda who died only in 1952 has been cast by some of his disciples in the one dimensional terms of a strict disciplinarian, or as the founder, merely, of a monastery. In Swami Kriyananda's latest book, "Restoring the Legacy of Paramhansa Yogananda," he describes how in a few decades Yogananda's own disciples have been steadily re-making his image in their own image.
Jesus Christ was crucified once but his image, teachings, and persona have been crucified daily for centuries such that for many Christians and non-Christians he’s been reduced to a wooden crucifix or a spiritual victrola in a sad monotone of “Thou shalt!” Gone is the joyful camaraderie he had with his disciples, the adventure of living and learning from him, the joy and inspiration they felt in his presence. Who would be attracted to a sad and somber saint?
It is taught in India and is taught by Paramhansa Yogananda (author of the popular and renowned spiritual classic, "Autobiography of a Yogi") that an avatar is free from karma and acts in freedom (without personal desire). Is this always and under all circumstances? Is personal desire different than the influences of or appropriate responses to circumstances?
To what degree does such a one feel human joys and sorrows? A further question is this: to what degree does an avatar have access to omniscience? Let's explore this multi-faceted diamond of consciousness where infinity is crystallized into human form. Swami Kriyananda once used the example of an inverted triangle wherein the tip (pointing downward) touches earth in human form and the base (above) stretches to infinity.
Here are some examples (mostly from "Autobiography of a Yogi") for us to consider:
- Jesus was crucified and cried out in his agony, "Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani" (Loosely translated: "Lord, why have you abandoned me?").
- Paramhansa Yogananda grieved inconsolably (by his own account) at the loss of his mother when he was still a boy.
- Babaji told Lahiri Mahasaya that the reason he (Babaji) materialized a golden palace for Lahiri at the time of their meeting and Lahiri's initiation was that Lahiri had had a past life desire for a golden palace.
- According to the story of Lahiri's life, one gets the impression that until age 33, when he met Babaji and Babaji reawakened Lahiri's memory of his past life, he was somehow unaware of his own mission and consciousness as an avatar.
- Paramhansa Yogananda recounts in his famous story ("Autobiography of a Yogi") that the day after his own guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar had manifested pyschic and telephathic powers in the charming story of the "Cauliflower Robbery," Sri Yukteswar was unable to state the location of a misplaced lantern, disclaiming his own power to do so.
- When Sri Yukteswar and Lahiri Mahasaya were each informed of their impending death, they were temporarily taken aback and had to recollect themselves.
- In the garden of Gethesmane, Jesus prayed that "this cup be taken from me."
- Paramhansa Yogananda claimed that he was, in past lives, William the Conqueror, a famous Spanish king and general, and Arjuna, the Pandava warrior whose archery skills in warfare (and discipleship to Krishna) were legendary.
- Swami Sri Yukteswar tells the story how, as a boy, he wanted to have an ugly dog and his mother was powerless to entice him by more attractive canine substitutes.
What do the rishis and scriptures tell us about the avatar? An avatar is considered to be an incarnation of divinity. In the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda this definition is clarified to state that such an soul is like you and I, but has achieved Oneness with God and cosmic consciousness. This achievement occurs over many lifetimes and its victory is the combination of self-effort and divine grace. An avatar is freed from all past karma and has the power to help an unlimited number of souls and to dispense any and all levels of God-realization according to the will of "the Father who" sends him.
Others speak of an avatar as a direct manifestation of God or some aspect or diety (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva), but Yogananda did not use the term in that way. This is more or less how Christian theology defines the nature of Jesus Christ. But Yogananda pointed out that Jesus and his direct disciples made it clear numerous times that what Jesus attained all souls have the potential to become ("sons of God"). The avatars, Yogananda taught, do not come to show off, but to show to us our own highest potential.
Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita describes how he (and others) have come repeatedly down through history and may play a visible role on the stage of human history or be behind the scenes (like Babaji). Therefore it is clear that an avatar comes and takes on many different roles and personalities. Discerning the chain of incarnation is beyond the scope of any except the most spiritually advanced and probably is only truly made known by the avatar himself.
Swami Kriyananda, contemplating the paradox of Yogananda having once been William the Conqueror, once asked Paramhansa Yogananda what it means to be an avatar under such circumstances. Yogananda's terse reply was that "one never loses his sense of inner freedom." The clear iimplication is that, as William, he did not necessarily access (openly at least) his omniscience and prescience. So far as we know, he made no disclosure of knowledge of his longer-term purpose or his spiritual stature. Perhaps such knowledge was simply unnecessary to the fulfillment and conduct of his role as William.
[As an historical aside, historians show that William set into motion a chain of events whose significance grew over time. The government that he established and that was brought to greater completion by his youngest son Henry I created a new political form that, in time, produced the Magna Carta and subjected even kings to the rule of law and due process, and, established the concept of inalienable human rights and liberties. The political stability and power of Britain was to eventually give birth to the founding of America, to the beginnings of globalization and exchange of knowledge between east and west (through its empire), and to the spread of the English language as the linga franca of the world.]
In the book, "Conversations with Yogananda," Swami Kriyananda reports that Yogananda also clarified that an avatar does not necessarily act or have at his disposal in every moment cosmic and omniscient knowledge. Functioning as he must in a physical body, he, like ourselves, must deal with the material realities and human egos which surround him. In fact, while enjoying, let's say, a meal, he may be calmly present and enjoying that experience, chatting away merrily, without regard for or need to elevate himself to a transcendent level. If you ask him "What year did Columbus sail the ocean blue?", he may pause, try to remember, and even get the date wrong! For in that setting, there's no compelling spiritual need to prove anything or help anyone, so his ordinary human memory suffices for the task at hand.
But that's a far cry from what many people do: avidly wolfing down a sandwich, completely forgetful of the Self! For when the need arises, the avatar has a "divine security clearance" and higher access to cosmic knowledge! They demonstrate this time and again, certainly at least to those "with eyes to see."
But when and how does he access that higher knowledge? Can he just "dial up" God the Father and ask him about so-and-so? What is difficult for us to understand is the "I-ness" of an avatar. Yogananda said that even an avatar has to have an ego to deal responsibly with his body and in this world. Thus our inquiry today is the attempt to discern that spectrum of motivation and awareness possessed by one who is free in God.
We see in the life of Jesus, of Yogananda, and many others that they prayed frequently to God (as Father, Mother or in other forms dear to them) for guidance. They attribute their miraculous powers to God, not to themselves. So whether in reality or for our benefit, there seems to be a veil in place between omniscience and their level of consciousness in human form. But many avatars have raised the dead, healed the sick, spoke prophetically, or disclosed the thoughts or past lives of others. Sometimes these incidents were spontaneous; other times, the avatar prayed beforehand or otherwise showed himself going within for divine sanction or power.
Yogananda said of himself (and Jesus and Krishna similarly), "I killed Yogananda long ago. No one dwells in this form but He." There seems therefore to be a flow of energy between the avatar in his human form and the avatar in his cosmic consciousness. There seems to be an I-Thou interchange which, while different in degree, is not different in kind from our own efforts to attune ourselves to God's presence in our lives.
Absence of personal motive would be another approach to trying to discern the consciousness of the avatar. Thus we see illustrated in the life of William the Conqueror a steady flow of actions based on moral, ethical, political, and religious rules, precepts, and standards of behavior. Although some of his actions, looked at through the lens of 21st century mores may seem ruthless, living as he did in the Dark Ages ruthlessness (as we would define it) was not only accepted in his time but expected, for few royal subjects would respond to anything less. Reluctance to take on battle would only have been interpreted as weakness; likewise, as would anything less than the commitment to win and to be victorious or the willingness to punish enemies in accordance with standards of the time. (In fact, however, both William and his youngest son, Henry I, showed remarkable forebearance and magnanimity over their self-styled enemies.)
An analysis of history shows us that William was no mere interloper taking advantage of political instability to expand his dominion but the rightful heir and protector of the British crown. He was supported by all the princes of Europe and by the papacy in his claim. Similarly Henry I (who may very well have been Swami Kriyananda in that past life) conducted his royal affairs in a manner that showed that he was fulfilling "the will of his father" in establishing the British kingdom and Normandy on principled grounds. [See the fascinating account of their lives in Catherine Kairavi's newly published account, "Two Souls, Four Lives."]
An avatar willing accepts the limitations inherent in human form when he incarnates. This includes going through the human stages of infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. The avatar experiences the joys and sorrows of human existence. But the avatar's incarnation is not propelled by karmic complusions or ego-oriented desires, and, instead, is inspired by a desire to help others and fulfill the divine law.
If you willingly went to jail, though innocent of any crime, in an effort to spare another person who might have been wrongly accused or who would suffer unnecessarily from the experience of incarceration, you would still be innocent of the crime. But there you would be in jail and you'd have to accept the limitations, rules, and daily humiliations of prison life. Were you to protest your innocence, you would be ignored by fellow inmates and jailers alike, for we all know that in prison, "everyone's innocent!"
A grandparent might thoroughly enjoy playing catch with his grandson or a father wrestling with his son without ever losing the sense of his role. Even in the spirit of rivalry or competition, the grandparent or parent probably experiences the "game" with a greater sense of detachment than the child who perhaps plays in earnest or with abandon.
An actor, practiced and well honed in his skills, might with confidence play his role upon the stage with immersion into the role while acting. While doing so it is unncessary for him to remind himself that he's not, say, Hamlet, for on an existential level there is no confusion. Moreover, arriving home after work, he greets his wife and children as himself, and no taint of his stage persona or role lurks or stains his own consciousness.
Yogananda taught that Jesus did not suffer on the cross for himself but felt grief for the ignorance and the consequent (if future) suffering of his tormentors. Jesus' greatest victory was not even his resurrection but the forgiveness he expressed even while hanging on the cross. Yogananda went further to state that Jesus could have, at any time, transcended the physical pain of his agony. As Christians teach that "Jesus died for our sins," so Yogananda taught that a true guru (an avatar) can take on karma of his disciples. He himself endured physical illness and explained that it was for the purpose of taking on karma of his disciples. Such is the great gift of love and divine friendship the guru offers.
If your friend loses a loved one to illness or a sudden, fatal accident, will you tell her that "The soul is eternal and does not suffer? Or, that death has no true reality and therefore she shouldn't grieve?" Well, I hope not! Yogananda as a boy felt the grief natural to a child when he lost his mother. Later Divine Mother appeared to him to reveal that it was She, herself, who was his mother in that life. This consolation would have dissipated any vestige of sadness that may have been retained. But his grief need not have been merely the grief of human delusion but the grief appropriate to his condition and his circumstances. I believe that such a one, like the actor, can genuinely experience grief while remaining untouched within. This is demonstrated by the lack of residual or recollected pain in the future. The ordinary human being takes many years to recover from grief and very often re-experiences again and again, perhaps, over time, less often, or less intensely but all too often for the remainder of his or her lifetime! The avatar, by contrast, like writing on water, undergoes the human experience and then moves on, untouched.
Remaining in his human "self" and eschewing the power to withdraw to his omniscient Self, I believe that Yogananda experienced and expressed his loss as a child, even as the quiet, inner, watchful Self remained intact and withdrawn from the drama.
Swami Kriyananda has also commented on what might be somewhat particular to Yogananda's "lila" (the way he behaved and related to the world around him). Kriyananda explains that Yogananda willingly experienced various human emotions and circumstances even when he could have just as easily chosen to transcend them. Being free, he was unafraid or had no need to protect himself from the power of maya. He wore his wisdom like a comfortable old coat and had no need to affirm his transcendence. This was demonstrated at times when he was mistreated, misunderstood, humiliated, incurred or accepted physical pain, human grief, or enjoyed the simple pleasures of good food, in his infectious humor, beautiful scenery, sports, and the pleasure of the company of friends.
Sri Yukteswar tells the story of his childhood attachment to an ugly dog and how he could not be dissuaded from wanting that dog by more attractive substitutes! Lahiri may have had a past life desire for a golden palace but perhaps that desire was gone and perhaps Babaji simply resurrected that past desire to honor Lahiri's re-awakening and initiation in the form of that golden, bejeweled palace on Drongiri Mountain?
Still, let's assume that each them actually had, as avatars, these desires. Is that possible? Imagine that you are an avatar and that you are free from the delusion and shackles of desire. But then you willingly incarnate to help others. In so doing, you must cloak your cosmic spirit in maya. Your cosmic consciousness must be "squeezed" into a human body, so to speak. You descend into the womb of maya for the sake of struggling souls. This means you will be surrounded by and even temporarily exposed to and tempted by maya's power. Remember, for example, the temptation of Jesus (Yogananda said Jesus had long ago been liberated). An avatar, being free and retaining that freedom, can "play" in the storm of delusion with a kind of absolute impunity while even yet allowing the law of duality to influence or circumscribe his inner freedom during the "lila" of the experience.
Thus, should the circumstances surrounding the avatar (as a child, a warrior, a husband, etc.) call for grief, desire, warfare, he can enter the fray and may be, for a time, wholly or seemingly immersed in it. But when he "comes out of it" he can instantly detach the vrittis, the energies, from his consciousness, just as a professional football player can pound the heck out of the other team, leave the field satisfied and not be the least bit personally angry with his opponents. In the great epic of India, the Mahabharata, it is said that the good guys and bad guys met in Swarga (heaven) afterwards for a party! An avatar is perhaps like you and I working in the garden. We necessarily get dirty, but we can come inside the house, take a shower and the dirt is gone. It has no ultimate power to affect us.
Have you ever been in an embarrassing situation while yet laughing at yourself or mentally saying to yourself ("This will make a good story!")? Have you ever had a great idea and you knew instantly it was just perfect? Then, as you go about sharing, energizing and manifesting that idea you find that there is little or no sense of ego or pride in the idea: just the joy and satisfaction of its manifestation? In the midst of the flow of inspiration, talent, and skill we can feel "the force" without necessarily involving the ego beyond the necessity to stay present and focused on the task at hand. Isn't it so?
Some people (maybe in their business life, artistic talents, or inventiveness) just seem "to know." There's no great angst involved. There's no agony of reasoned analysis, or impassioned affirmation. "He who knows, knows." It doesn't require hindsight (conscious analysis of how you know) or foresight (conscious awareness of what it all means or what will result). It simply IS. We all have probably had this experience sometime, somewhere! Imagine the level of calm, inner confidence an avatar must possess! What freedom!
With these examples and illustration, perhaps we can intuitively sense even a fragment of the consciousness of an avatar who lives and acts in this world of duality. At the same time, we must be careful not to imagine we can define or in any way limit that consciousness, for it expresses Infinity itself! Their lives offer to us a window onto the uniqueness which is our true Self, and the permission and duty to play our roles with passion, creativity, joy and yet, like a great actor, without ever being touched by its drama.
Yet for us to "see" who is an avatar, to detect divinity in another person, and to finally uncover divinity in ourselves we mustn't be fooled by outer appearances. (Like the picture-perfect sadhu in India who approached Swami Kriyananda to say, "Want a picture? 40 rupees!") It takes sincere and sustained "sadhana" (meditation, introspection, right attitude and right action) to develop the intuition that we may have "eyes to see, and ears to hear."
Imagine it! Act it! Be-come free!