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8. The Avataras of Godhead
After explaining that eternal religious principles are handed down via guru-parampara, Lord Krishna then told Arjuna that from time to time, the system of disciplic succession breaks down. This is called dharmasya glanih, the disruption of dharma. When dharma is disrupted, humanity's very purpose is disrupted. The Vedic scriptures state, "Both animals and men share the activities of eating, sleeping, mating and defending. But the special capacity of the humans is that they are able to engage in spiritual life (dharma). Without spiritual life, humans are no better than animals." (Hitopadesa) In order to save humanity from the animalism of irreligion, Lord Krishna says tadatmanam srjamy aham: "At that time I descend Myself." (B.g. 4.7)
When Sri Krishna descends from the world of spirit into the world of matter, His appearance here is called avatara. The Sanskrit word avatara is often rendered into English as "incarnation." It is wrong, however, to think that Krishna incarnates in a body made of physical elements. The seventh and eighth chapters of Bhagavad-gita distinguish at length between the material nature (apara-prakrti), visible as the temporary substances of earth, water, fire, air and ethereal space, and God's own spiritual nature (para-prakrti), which is invisible (avyakta), eternal (sanatana) and infallible (aksara). When the Lord descends, by His mercy the invisible becomes visible. As Krishna states in B.g. 4.6, "I descend by My own nature, incarnating in My form of spiritual energy" (prakrtim svam adhisthaya sambhavamy atma-mayaya). In 4.9 He declares, janma karma ca me divyam, "My appearance and activities are divine." Only fools think Krishna takes birth as does an ordinary human being (B.g. 9.11).
God has many incarnations. But of all of them, that form described in Bhagavad-gita 11.50 as the most beautiful (saumya-vapu) is God's own original form (svakam rupam). This is the eternal form of Krishna, the all-charming lotus-eyed youth whose body is the shape of spiritual ecstasy. The Srimad Bhagavata Purana confirms that Krishna is the original form of Vishnu: ete camsa-kalah pumsah krishnas tu bhagavan svayam indrari-vyakulam lokam mrdayanti yuge yuge, which means, "All of the incarnations of Vishnu listed in the scriptures are expansions of the Lord. Lord Sri Krishna is the original Personality of Godhead. All avataras appear in the world whenever there is a disturbance created by the atheists. The Lord incarnates to protect the theists." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.3.28)
The Srimad-Bhagavatam provides us with the authorized list of scheduled incarnations of Godhead, of whom the dasavatara (ten avataras) are particularly celebrated. The ten are Matsya (the Lord's form of a gigantic golden fish), Kurma (the turtle), Varaha (the boar), Sri Nrsingha (half-man, half-lion), Parasurama (the hermit who wields an ax), Vamana (a small brahmana boy), Sri Rama (the Lord of Ayodhya), Baladeva (Lord Krishna's brother), Buddha (the sage who cheated the atheists), and Kalki (who will depopulate the world of all degraded, sinful men).
There are two broad categories of avataras. Some, like Sri Krishna, Sri Rama and Sri Nrsingha, are Vishnu-tattva, direct forms of God Himself, the source of all power. Others are individual souls (jiva-tattva) who are empowered by the Lord in one or more of seven ways: with knowledge, devotion, creative ability, personal service to God, rulership over the material world, power to support planets, or power to destroy rogues and miscreants. This second category of avatara is called shaktyavesa. Included herein are Buddha, Christ and Muhammed.
The Mayavadis think that "form" necessarily means "limitation." God is omnipresent, unlimited and therefore formless, they argue. When he reveals His avatara form within this world, that form, being limited in presence to a particular place and time, cannot be the real God. It is only an indication of God. But in fact it is not God's form that is limited. It is only the Mayavadis' conception of form that is limited, because that conception is grossly physical. God's form is of the nature of supreme consciousness. Being spiritual, it is called suksma, "most subtle." There is no contradiction between the omnipresence of something subtle and its 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, its having form does not affect its ability to pervade a huge building. Similarly, God's 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 Mayavadis to compare His form to gross hunks of matter.
Because they believe God's form is grossly physical, Mayavadis often argue that any and all embodied creatures may be termed avataras. 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 charismatics, some are politicians, and some are sexual athletes. But none of them are authorized by the Vedic scriptures. They represent only the mistaken Mayavadi 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 is, the final truth, according to mayavada philosophy, is that the paths of all gods lead to the same goal. This idea is as unenlightened as it is impractical.
When ordinary people proclaim themselves to be God, and that whatever they are doing is Vedic dharma, that is dharmasya glanih, a disturbance to eternal religious principles. Therefore Krishna came again, 500 years ago, as the Golden Avatara, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. He established the yuga-dharma, the correct form of sanatana-dharma for our time. Sri Chaitanya's appearance was predicted in Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.5.32: "In this Age of Kali, people who are endowed with sufficient intelligence will worship the Lord, who is accompanied by His associates, by congregational chanting of the holy names of God."