Was Jesus just one of many Avatars or was he the only
incarnation of God?
The definition of an Avatar is an incarnation of God, or
a god, into a fleshly form, usually human. In Hinduism it normally refers to
an incarnation of Vishnu. However, it has also come to include the
reincarnation of any enlightened soul who has achieved final and absolute
oneness with the Oversoul. Though delivered from all negative karma and
released from the cycle of rebirths, the Avatar instead chooses to return to
earth again for the duration of a human life. His purpose is to counteract
evil and bring about change for good. We will inspect what the Bahá'í
faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Jainism and others have to say
about this subject.
Bahá'í—This faith does not accept the idea of
Avatars, but they do believe in "Manifestations of God." This
concept differs from the Hindu belief in Avatars in one main respect. Bahá'ís
believe that these advanced and exalted individuals are infallible and
"protected from sin." They are "theophanies: mirrors who
reflect God's glory and reveal his attributes"… they are the
"means of approach to God," being his "messengers":
"bringers of divine revelation." However, they "are not
incarnations of God; they do not embody the divine essence."1
There is no definitive list of recognized
"Manifestations of God" available. However, Bahá'í
authoritative texts do appear to verify fourteen: Adam, Noah, Salih, Hud,
the Sabaean Manifestation (whose name is lost), Abraham, Moses, Krishna,
Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Mohammed, the Bab and Bahá'u'lláh. The Bab,
whose name means "the gate," was, in essence, the 'initiator'
of the Bahá'í religion, for he announced that he was the forerunner of
the 'Promised One' (the Messiah). After he was killed, one of the Bab's
followers, Mírzá Husayn-'Alí, claimed to be this Messiah (or Mahdi) who
was to come. He assumed the name Bahá'u'lláh, meaning "the glory
Buddhism—Buddha originally denied being a god.
However, some of his followers eventually deified him. Though he preached a
non-theistic worlview (it has been described as 'atheistic monism')
different branches of Buddhism include in their belief system worshipful
devotion to numerous Buddhas (enlightened ones who have attained Nirvana)
and bodhisattvas (saints or semi-divine beings who have renounced Nirvana
and Buddhahood in order to help others achieve salvation). Both of these are
considered worthy of worship and are somewhat similar to the Hindu concept
Hinduism—There are four main sects within Hinduism.
Surprisingly, each sect has a different opinion concerning this important
(1) Vaishnavism (devotees of Vishnu) insists
that only Vishnu can incarnate.
(2) Saivism (worshippers of Shiva) asserts
that God does not incarnate on earth.
(3) Saktism (followers of the goddess Sakti,
or a wide variety of goddesses) maintains that Sakti, the Divine Mother,
can manifest as an Avatar.
(4) Smartism teaches that all gods can have
Hinduism has conflicting references in its sacred
writings concerning the number of Avatars who have descended into this
world. The Mahabharata gives three lists of Vishnu's Avatars: First
there are four mentioned, then six, and finally, a list of ten. The Garuda
Purana lists nineteen Avatars of Vishnu, while the Bhagavata Purana
lists twenty-two in one place and twenty-three in another. Since the time of
the Bhagavata Purana the number of Avatars has been uniformly
recognized as ten. They are: (1) The fish Matsya; (2) The tortoise Kurma;
(3) The boar Varaha; (4) The man-lion Narasinha; (5) The dwarf Vamana; (6)
Parasurama, also called Rama with the ax; (7) Ramachandra, called Rama; (8)
Krishna; (9) Buddha, and; (10) Kalki (also called Kalkin) the last Avatar,
who allegedly is still to come.
The stories associated with these various incarnations of
deity stretch the imagination. For instance, the related stories of the
first and second Avatars (the fish Matsya, and the tortoise Kurma) go like
this. A demon stole the Vedas from Brahma. Consequently a deluge was sent on
the earth by the gods in order to drown the demon and recover the holy writ.
Vishnu assumed the form of a fish, prophesied of the coming flood to Manu
(the progenitor of the human race) and rescued him and his family by guiding
his ship to safety. During this watery destruction of the earth, the cream
of the milk-ocean (amrita) was lost. This was the 'elixir' that
enabled the gods to reclaim their youthfulness and escape death. Working
together, the gods and the demons succeeded in producing amrita by
churning the ocean of milk. They utilized a mountain as a churning stick and
Kurma (the tortoise Avatar) as a pivot on which the stick rested. Like these
two examples, most of the stories of Hindu Avatars contain no historical
proof of the Avatar's existence. The animal-like incarnations are
evidently mythological, which some Hindu teachers readily admit. Some
proponents of Hinduism feel Rama and Krishna may have had an actual earthly
existence. In later Hindu Scripture Buddha is included as an Avatar, and he
was most certainly a historical figure. However, in what could have been an
attempt to invalidate his teachings, sacred writings explain that when
Vishnu incarnated as Buddha he "deluded the assuras [demons] and
flouted the Vedas." (Garuda Purana 3.15.26) To "flout"
is to disregard, to defy, to disobey or to ignore. How curious it is that
God would visit the earth only to disregard and disobey his own declaration
of truth! Would it not seem much more logical that an incarnation of God
would uphold and defend the truth in the sight of men!
One of the most peculiar aspects of Hindu teaching on
this subject is one Avatar, Parasu-Rama (Rama with an axe) being in conflict
with the next Avatar, Rama-chandra, because he broke Shiva's bow.
Parasu-Rama was defeated in the clash and was therefore denied a place in
heaven. If both Avatars are expressions of the Godhead, why would they
strive against one another? God does not oppose himself. It seems
unthinkable as well that a manifestation of God would actually be excluded
from heaven. Christian apologist Ernest Valea challenges this myth, also
asking, "Why didn't the first Rama leave in time? Or why couldn't
he solve the problem for which the next Avatar came?"2
With regard to this doctrine, there are definitely
projections for the future. Rabi Maharaj, author of The Death of a Guru explains,
"Many orthodox Hindus believe that Kalki, the next Avatar after Christ,
is due to appear on earth in about 425,000 years."3
Kalki will put an end to corruption in this world. He will accomplish the
final destruction of the wicked and usher in the renewal of creation and the
resurgence of virtue in the next mahayuga. (See "Hinduism"
under Cycles, Ages and the Ultimate State of the Universe in Part 2.)
Considering many Hindus embrace this belief (that the next Avatar will not
arrive for many millennia) it is paradoxical that many Indian gurus and
swamis in this era have themselves claimed to be Avatars.
One explanation of this paradox is the Hindu belief that
there are both 'partial Avatars' and 'full Avatars.' Those labeled
'full Avatars' are the greatest spiritual teachers who have influenced
the human race in profound ways. 'Partial Avatars' do not have this kind
of impact. Of course, some of those who have claimed Avatarship might be
quite unwilling to accept only a 'partial' status. And some of those who
have appointed their leaders to such a position might readily reject such a
ISKCON—Lord Caitanya (1485–1533 A.D.) is
considered one of the greatest leaders and promoters of devotion to Krishna.
Adherents claim that he was a dual incarnation of both Krishna and his
lover, Radha. This movement insists that there are two broad, primary
categories of Avatars: (1) Direct forms of God (Vishnu-tattva).
Krishna and Rama would be included under this heading. (2) Individual
souls (jiva-tattva) who are empowered by God to manifest one or
more of the following: knowledge, devotion, creative ability, personal
service of God, authority over the material world, ability to support
planets, or power to destroy evildoers and troublemakers. Jesus and Mohammed
would be placed in this category.
Islam—To associate God with any human being or any
material thing is an extremely serious sin, according to the tenets of this
religion, and is called shirk. According to their traditional,
doctrinal foundation, this concept of Avatars is absolutely unacceptable.
Jainism—Though its founder, Mahavira, denied the
existence of any God or gods, he was eventually deified by his followers.
They profess that he descended from heaven, that he was supernaturally
placed in the womb of his mother, that he was sinless, that he possessed
unlimited knowledge and that he was the twenty-fourth Tirthankara (meaning
"Ford-maker—a great teacher who guides his followers across the river
of transmigration"). Mahavira is believed to be the final and greatest
of all savior beings to make an appearance during this age. This notion
seems to preclude the possibility of any other person occupying such an
Avatar-like role since the death of the founder of this religion in 527 B.C.
He and the other Tirthankaras are offered worship by Jainists.
Shinto—According to Shinto Scripture, all the
Mikado (emperors) are considered divine descendants, tracing their ancestry
back to the Sun-goddess, Ama-terasu. Therefore, all are considered to be
"God incarnate." (Nihon-gi, 2: 198, 210) This is not a
generally accepted doctrine now.
Sikhism—Guru Nanak preached passionately against
worshipping any human being as God. He implored, "Why worship any one
who is born and dieth? Remember the one God, who pervadeth sea and
land."4 Because of this, many Sikhs
reject the concept of Avatars. They feel God does not take birth. One writer
qualifies that interpretation explaining that some souls "do not need
to take birth anymore. They have been liberated in some prior lifetime. They
take birth only for our sake. When a person comes with the spiritual force
accumulated through restraint in many such lifetimes, we say it is God
manifest in a human body."5 However,
this is not the same as the Hindu idea of a god assuming human form.
There are several passages in the Sikh's holy book that
declare Guru Nanak and the other gurus that led Sikhism (ten total) were
manifestations of God. For instance, one verse explains, "To save the
world the Lord incarnated himself." (Adi Granth 1409:8) Verse 12
of the same passage asserts, "There is no difference between God and
Guru; Guru Arjun [the fifth guru] is the Personification of the Lord
Himself." However, the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, insisted that no
one should worship him as God, or for that matter, any of the nine gurus
before him. He even stated that those who called him God would have to
endure hellfire. (See Bachitra Natak 218–247.) Many interpret
statements such as this to be sufficient evidence that the Avatar concept
should be rejected.
There is some disagreement among Sikhs as to how all of
this information should be processed. Many would reduce the explanation to
mean that the Spirit of God was beautifully, gloriously and perfectly
expressed through Guru Nanak (and the other gurus) but not one of them was
literally God in a body. They were all manifestations of God, but not God
born in human form (though some might disagree). Sikhs believe and teach
that Guru Nanak and the other nine guru-leaders of their religion lived
sinless lives. So they were certainly not considered ordinary human beings,
but expressions of divine perfection. Sikhs definitely do not believe in the
doctrine of Avatars exactly as it is found in Hinduism.
Taoism—teaches the existence of Avatars, advanced
"beings who choose to mingle among humanity and take on the appearance
of mortals to inspire, instruct, and advise…Immortal Lu Tung-pin is such a
Theosophy—Helena Blavatsky taught that the present
world population is the third physical "rootrace" to inhabit this
planet. Within each "rootrace" are seven subraces. At the
beginning of each subrace, the incarnation of the Supreme World Teacher
takes place. Supposedly, at the onset of the fifth subrace, Jesus became the
human vessel for the Christ to manifest through. Prior to Jesus being used
in this way, there were four other incarnations of the Supreme World Teacher
(Buddha in India, Hermes in Egypt, Zoroaster in Persia, and Orpheus in
Greece). The world now awaits the sixth manifestation of the Christ as we
pass into the next subrace. Annie Besant, president of the Theosophical
Society from 1907 until 1933, promoted a Hindu named Jiddu Krishnamurti as
this new Messiah. He later refuted this claim and refused the title.
Zoroastrianism—In certain sacred texts, Zoroaster,
the founder of this religion, is described as a pre-existent, heavenly being
who incarnated a unique way. The celestial material that would become his
body descended with the rain and was absorbed by his virgin mother as she
drank the milk of cows.
Modern Gurus and Teachers
In the past century, a number of gurus, swamis and
religious leaders have claimed 'Avatarship' (or they have been exalted
to that position by their followers). Consider the following few examples:
Meher Baba (1894-1969) voiced the unequivocal
declaration, "I am God personified."7
He claimed to be the Avatar of this age, the incarnation of God revealed at
the close of this cycle. He insisted that he was the Highest of the High,
far above all the sadhus, mahatmas, saints and yogis that can be found in
this world. He also explained that he had incarnated as an Avatar
"innumerable times...in the last cycle, 5,329 times" (evidently, a
reference to the extremely lengthy Cycle-of-cycles) and that he would come
back "once more after 450 years."8
In another reference, his final declaration, he promised to return in 700
years.9 (Note: Baba taught both Minor and
Major Incarnations of the Avatar. For instances, Jesus would be considered a
Major Incarnation; Shankara, a noted Hindu philosopher, would be considered
a Minor Incarnation. This justifies what seems to be a contradiction. The
incarnation after 450 years could be a minor one, while the incarnation
after 700 years could be major.)
He maintained silence for nearly forty-four years,
communicating only with an alphabet board and hand gestures. He foretold
that he would finally break silence and when he did, the entire world would
feel the impact of his love, effecting "a worldwide transformation of
consciousness."10 He also asserted,
" The whole world will know and recognize me as Jesus returned once I
speak."11 "The breaking of my
Silence will reveal to man the universal Oneness of God, which will bring
about the universal brotherhood of man."12
Though conflicting opinions exist, some of his followers claim he did speak
just prior to his death. However, they explain that the resulting 'world
impact' has been, and will yet be a gradual process. (In one book, "Meher
Baba, The Awakener," it states that he did not break his
Meher Baba also taught that in each cycle of time (which
ranges from 700 to 1400 years) there are eleven ages of 65 to 125 years
each. From the beginning to the end of each cycle, there are altogether 55
Perfect Masters. That means each age has only five Perfect Masters. In the
last, the eleventh age of each cycle, the Avatar (Saheb-e-Zaman) is
also present. Evidently, this means that every 700 to 1,400 years a new
Avatar, or bodily manifestation of God, should make an appearance in this
world. Of course, if Meher Baba was the rightful, sole 'heir' of this
honorific title, all other claims to Avatarship during his lifespan were
perpetrated (according to Meher Baba's own words) by imposters,
hypocrites, or persons suffering from spiritual delusion.
Paul Twitchell (1922–1971) who founded ECKANKAR,
claimed to be 971st ECK master, a "Mahanta,"
a living incarnation of God. He taught that "Mahantas" are above
the laws of man. They are omnipotent and omniscient. He relegated Jesus to a
much lower position, identifying him as "a son of Kal." The name
Kal is an ECK word for the devil, King of the lower worlds. Kal is also
explained to be the originator of the Christian faith. The
present "Mahanta" and leader of ECKANKAR is Harold Klemp.
Guru Maharaj Ji (born in 1957) of Divine Light
Mission was esteemed by his followers (quite numerous in the 1970's) to be
the Perfect Master, the Divine incarnation for this age. He
taught against seeking a relation-ship with God, because doing so suggests
that deity is separate from humanity, a departure from the monistic view of
oneness that is foundational in Hinduism.
Sai Baba (born in 1926), whose name means divine
mother/father, is a popular guru with a large following in India. He
claims to be an Avatar for this age. He has been quoted making declarations
such as the following: "I am the Self (Atma) seated in the
hearts of all creatures. I am the beginning, the middle and the end of all
beings"…"I am everything, everywhere, omniscient, omnipotent and
omnipresent. My power is immeasurable. Tune into it." One of his
disciples explains, "The only difference between Sai Baba and ourselves
is that he knows his Divine Reality while we have forgotten the fact."14
And the list goes on and on and on…
Conclusions and Final Observations
While one branch of Hinduism denies the concept of
Avatars, classical Hinduism teaches that there can only be one in the world
at any given time. Yet Guru Dev, Paul Twitchell, Meher Baba, Guru Maharaj Ji,
Sai Baba and others have had overlapping life spans. Some have even claimed
exclusive rights to this divine status in their particular era. Who is
right? Then again, the question must be asked—How can there presently be
any aspirants or contenders for this position since Hindu theology predicts
the next Avatar will not arrive for about 425,000 years?
Some of those claiming to be the Avatar for this age, as
Meher Baba, have also claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Paul
Twitchell, on the other extreme, relegated Jesus to the position of being a
son of the devil while identifying himself as God in the flesh.
An evident 'crack in the dike' that quickly erodes
the believability of this doctrine is the disagreement among 'Avatars'
concerning basic, important issues (like those covered in this book: the
nature of God, the nature of man, the nature of salvation, etc.). If
those persons acknowledged as being Avatars were truly 'inspired,' they
should all be in perfect agreement concerning their 'revelations.' But
such is certainly not the case.
True biblical teaching confers divinity on only one
individual, the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no historical proof that the
Avatars of Hinduism, except for Buddha, ever had an actual existence. On the
contrary, there is an abundance of historical proof concerning Jesus: what
he taught and what he did. Not only did his followers describe him as
"God…manifest in the flesh" and the "image of the invisible
God." (1 Timothy 3:16, Colossians 1:15) Jesus revealed
concerning himself, "He who has seen me has seen the Father." (John
One of Jesus' strongest warnings is found in John 10:8–9:
"All who came before me are thieves and robbers…I am the door. If
anyone enters by me, he will be saved." In other words, Jesus was
explaining that all who have ever claimed to be manifestations of God in
this world have 'stolen' from him a position that only he has the right
to fill. This does not mean that all those claiming Avatarship have been
insincere or purposefully deceptive. Admittedly, some have been egoistic
frauds with openly sensual, self-serving lifestyles, but others appear to be
righteous, humble, compassionate individuals. However, righteousness,
humility and compassion are not necessarily signs of correctness. Even good,
loving people can be self-deceived and make erroneous assumptions.
Isaiah, the prophet, described the spiritual condition of
all human beings (including those who have claimed to be Avatars) with the
statement: "ALL we like sheep have gone astray." The end of this
verse foretells of the Messiah that "the Lord has laid on Him the
iniquity of us ALL." (Isaiah 53:6) Jesus is the good Shepherd,
the only One who completely and sacrificially laid his life down for the
sheep. Only Jesus, the Son of God, made his entry into this world by a
supernatural conception and virgin birth. Only Jesus lived a sinless life.
Only Jesus could claim being the 'Word made flesh': the sum total of all
the words that God has ever spoken or will ever speak. (John1:1-3, 14)
Only Jesus died for the sins of humanity. Only Jesus rose from the dead.
Recently, Pope John Paul II released the unequivocal statement (and I agree
wholeheartedly), "Christ is absolutely original and absolutely unique.
If he were only a wise man like Socrates, if he were a prophet like
Mohammed, if he were enlightened like the Buddha, without doubt he would not
be what he is."15
Finally, if Jesus Christ was an Avatar (within the
framework of the generally accepted interpretation of this concept) he would
have rejoiced to awaken a similar divine potential in his chief followers.
He would have 'passed the torch,' encouraging them to receive worshipful
recognition from their own disciples, just as he had received from them. Of
course, this was not the case at all.
When Paul, the apostle, prayed for a crippled man in
Lystra and he was healed, the people impetuously proclaimed, "The gods
are come down to us in the likeness of men." The local populace
attempted to worship these followers of Christ, calling Paul, Mercury, and
Barnabas, Jupiter. The apostles, if they had been trained in the Far Eastern
worldview, would have gladly and serenely allowed this to proceed. They may
have denied being incarnations of Roman gods, but they would unashamedly
accepted the adoration of the people, affirming their own divinity. Instead,
Paul cried aloud, "Why are you doing these things? We also are men with
the same nature as you, and preach to you that you should turn from these
useless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea,
and all things…" (Acts 14:11, 15)
Having viewed this evidence, we should all come to a firm
conclusion. The existence of multiple Avatars is a belief that should be
discarded. There has only been one incarnation of God into this world. As
many wise observers have concluded—"Religion is man's effort to
reach God, but Jesus is God's effort to reach man." Only Jesus can
rightfully occupy the role of being God incarnate in this world. In
humility, we must submit to heaven's method of reaching earth if we are to
experience earth's only means of reaching heaven.16
1 Peter Smith, "Manifestations of
God," A Concise Encyclopedia of the Bahá'í Faith (Oxford,
England: Oneworld Publications, 2000) p. 231.
2 Ernest Valea, "The Divine
Incarnation in Hinduism and Christianity," Many Paths to One Goal?
www.comparativereligion.com. (June, 2000) Those examining this
concept of Avatars should definitely read this informative article on this
excellent website. Ernest Valea explores this subject much more extensively.
3 Rabi R. Maharaj, The Death of a Guru
(Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 1977) pp. 199-200.
4 Macauliffe, M. A., "Life of Guru
Nanak," The Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Sacred Writings, and Authors (Oxford,
1909) p. 280; quoted in Robert E Hume, The World's Living Religions
(New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, rev. ed., 1936) p. 95.
5 An explanation offered by Yuktanand
Singh, a contributing writer on www.sikhnet.com and other websites.
6 Eva Wong, The Shambhala Guide to
Taoism (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc. 1997) p. 162.
7 Meher Baba, The Everything and the
Nothing, ed. Francis Brabazon (Myrtle Beach, South
Carolina : Sheriar Press, Inc., 1995) p. 4.
8 Ivy Duce, How a Master Works, Kahmir,
April 20, 1933 (Walnut Creek, California: Sufism Reoriented) p. 451-454.
9 Avatar Meher Baba's Final Declaration,
Clarification, etc. (booklet) p. 3-6, September 30, 1954, Meherabad;
Kitty Davy, Love Alone Prevails (Myrtle Beach, South Carolina:
Sheriar Press, Inc., 1981) p. 700-701; Bal Natu, Glimpses of the God-Man
Meher Baba, vol. 6 (Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: Sheriar Press, Inc.,
1994) p. 166-169.
10 Adi K. Irani, ed., Messages of Meher
Baba, East and West (India: Meher Baba Trust) p. 95, May 31, 1932,
Hollywood, part of a message read out at a reception at the Knickerbocker
11 Bhau Kalchuri, Lord Meher, vol.
5 (Asheville, North Carolina: Manifestation, Inc.) p. 1670, A message to his
followers in 1932.
12 Meher Baba, The Everything and the
Nothing, ed. Francis Brabazon, p. 75.
13 Charles Haynes, Meher Baba, The
Awakener (N. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: The Avatar Foundation, Inc.,
1993) p. 67.
14 Mohan Prasad, "Bhagavan Shri
Sathya Sai Baba," www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/5464 (May 2,
15 Kenneth L. Woodard, "The Other
Jesus," Newsweek Magazine (March 27, 2000) p. 51.
16 It should be mentioned that in philosophical Hinduism,
it is contradictory to the nature of truth to seek a relationship with God,
or to worship God, because WE ARE GOD! If enlightened wisdom would lead us
not to worship a Divine 'Life Force' that is invisible, why should
devotees offer worship to supposed Avatars (or incarnations of God) who are