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 of God.”
Buddhism—Buddha originally denied being a god. However, some of his followers eventually deified him. Though he preached a non-theistic worldview (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 enlightenment). Both are considered worthy of worship and are somewhat similar to the Hindu concept of Avatars.
Hinduism—There are four main sects within Hinduism. Surprisingly, each sect has a different opinion concerning this important issue:
(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(followersofthegoddessSakti,orawidevarietyofgoddesses) maintainsthatSakti, the Divine Mother, can manifest as an Avatar.
(4) Smartism teaches that all gods can have Avataric incarnations.
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
(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. 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 demeaning proposition.
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 anyone 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 powerfully 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 teacher.”6
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 preexistent, 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: followers of Meher Baba point out he taught both Minor and Major Incarnations of the Avatar. For instance, Jesus was a Major Incarnation; Shankara, a noted Hindu philosopher, was a Minor Incarnation. This would seem to justify 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 silence.)13
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 1970s) to be the Perfect Master, the Divine Incarnation for this age. He taught against seeking a relationship 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, was a popular guru with a large following in India. He claimed 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…
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 14:9)
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 only he has the right to fill. This does not mean that all those heralded as Avatars have been insincere or purposefully deceptive. Admittedly, some have been egoistic frauds with openly sensual, self-serving lifestyles, but others appear to be self-sacrificing persons who generally believed they achieved God-consciousness. However, to put it bluntly, they are victims of spiritual delusion who “grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived.” (2 Timothy 3:13) Also, some of those assigned to this role by their followers never professed it themselves and would be appalled that it happened.
Isaiah, the prophet, described the spiritual condition of all human beings (including those claiming 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, entered 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 (accessed 6/2000). 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 Hotel.
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 (accessed 5/2/2001).
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 visible?
Copyright © 2003 Mike Shreve