FOUR LECTURES DELIVERED AT THE TWENTY-FOURTH ANNIVERSARY MEETING OF THE THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETY AT ADYAR, MADRAS, DECEMBER, 1899
Theosophical Publishing Society 3 Langham Place, London, W. 1900
* * * * *
WHAT IS AN AVATARA? 7
THE SOURCE OF AND NEED FOR AVATARAS 31
SOME SPECIAL AVATARAS 65
SHRI KRISHNA 95
* * * * *
BROTHERS:—Every time that we come here together to study the fundamental truths of all religions, I cannot but feel how vast is the subject, how small the expounder, how mighty the horizon that opens before our thoughts, how narrow the words which strive to sketch it for your eyes. Year after year we meet, time after time we strive to fathom some of those great mysteries of life, of the Self, which form the only subject really worthy of the profoundest thought of man. All else is passing; all else is transient; all else is but the toy of a moment. Fame and power, wealth and science—all that is in this world below is as nothing beside the grandeur of the Eternal Self in the universe and in man, one in all His manifold manifestations, marvellous and beautiful in every form that He puts forth. And this year, of all the manifestations of the Supreme, we are going to dare to study the holiest of the holiest, those manifestations of God in the world in which He shows Himself as divine, coming to help the world that He has made, shining forth in His essential nature, the form but a thin film which scarce veils the Divinity from our eyes. How then shall we venture to approach it, how shall we dare to study it, save with deepest reverence, with profoundest humility; for if there needs for the study of His works patience, reverence and humbleness of heart, what when we study Him whose works but partially reveal Him, when we try to understand what is meant by an Avatara, what is the meaning, what the purpose of such a revelation?
Our President has truly said that in all the faiths of the world there is belief in such manifestations, and that ancient maxim as to truth—that which is as the hall mark on the silver showing that the metal is pure—that ancient maxim is here valid, that whatever has been believed everywhere, whatever has been believed at every time, and by every one, that is true, that is reality. Religions quarrel over many details; men dispute over many propositions; but where human heart and human voice speak a single word, there you have the mark of truth, there you have the sign of spiritual reality. But in dealing with the subject one difficulty faces us, faces you as hearers, faces myself as speaker. In every religion in modern times truth is shorn of her full proportions; the intellect alone cannot grasp the many aspects of the one truth. So we have school after school, philosophy after philosophy, each one showing an aspect of truth, and ignoring, or even denying, the other aspects which are equally true. Nor is this all; as the age in which we are passes on from century to century, from millennium to millennium, knowledge becomes dimmer, spiritual insight becomes rarer, those who repeat far out-number those who know; and those who speak with clear vision of the spiritual verity are lost amidst the crowds, who only hold traditions whose origin they fail to understand. The priest and the prophet, to use two well-known words, have ever in later times come into conflict one with the other. The priest carries on the traditions of antiquity; too often he has lost the knowledge that made them real. The prophet—coming forth from time to time with the divine word hot as fire on his lips—speaks out the ancient truth and illuminates tradition. But they who cling to the words of tradition are apt to be blinded by the light of the fire and to call out "heretic" against the one who speaks the truth that they have lost. Therefore, in religion after religion, when some great teacher has arisen, there have been opposition, clamour, rejection, because the truth he spoke was too mighty to be narrowed within the limits of half-blinded men. And in such a subject as we are to study to-day, certain grooves have been made, certain ruts as it were, in which the human mind is running, and I know that in laying before you the occult truth, I must needs, at some points, come into clash with details of a tradition that is rather repeated by memory than either understood or the truths beneath it grasped. Pardon me then, my brothers, if in a speech on this great topic I should sometimes come athwart some of the dividing lines of different schools of Hindu thought; I may not, I dare not, narrow the truth I have learnt, to suit the limitations that have grown up by the ignorance of ages, nor make that which is the spiritual verity conform to the empty traditions that are left in the faiths of the world. By the duty laid upon me by the Master that I serve, by the truth that He has bidden me speak in the ears of men of all the faiths that are in this modern world; by these I must tell you what is true, no matter whether or not you agree with it for the moment; for the truth that is spoken wins submission afterwards, if not at the moment; and any one who speaks of the Rishis of antiquity must speak the truths that they taught in their days, and not repeat the mere commonplaces of commentators of modern times and the petty orthodoxies that ring us in on every side and divide man from man.
I propose in order to simplify this great subject to divide it under certain heads. I propose first to remind you of the two great divisions recognised by all who have thought on the subject; then to take up especially, for this morning, the question, "What is an Avatara?" To-morrow we shall put and strive to answer, partly at least, the question, "Who is the source of Avataras?" Then later we shall take up special Avataras both of the kosmos and of human races. Thus I hope to place before you a clear, definite succession of ideas on this great subject, not asking you to believe them because I speak them, not asking you to accept them because I utter them. Your reason is the bar to which every truth must come which is true for you; and you err deeply, almost fatally, if you let the voice of authority impose itself where you do not answer to the speaking. Every truth is only true to you as you see it, and as it illuminates the mind; and truth however true is not yet truth for you, unless your heart opens out to receive it, as the flower opens out its heart to receive the rays of the morning sun.
First, then, let us take a statement that men of every religion will accept. Divine manifestations of a special kind take place from time to time as the need arises for their appearance; and these special manifestations are marked out from the universal manifestation of God in His kosmos; for never forget that in the lowest creature that crawls the earth I'shvara is present as in the highest Deva. But there are certain special manifestations marked out from this general self-revelation in the kosmos, and it is these special manifestations which are called forth by special needs. Two words especially have been used in Hinduism, marking a certain distinction in the nature of the manifestation—one the word "Avatara," the other the word "A'vesha." Only for a moment need we stop on the meaning of the words, important to us because the literal meaning of the words points to the fundamental difference between the two. The word "Avatara," as you know, has as its root "tri," passing over, and with the prefix which is added, the "ava," you get the idea of descent, one who descends. That is the literal meaning of the word. The other word has as its root "vish," permeating, penetrating, pervading, and you have there the thought of something which is permeated or penetrated. So that while in the one case, Avatara, there is the thought of a descent from above, from I'shvara to man or animal; in the other, there is rather the idea of an entity already existing who is influenced, permeated, pervaded by the divine power, specially illuminated as it were. And thus we have a kind of intermediate step, if one may say so, between the divine manifestation in the Avatara and in the kosmos—the partial divine manifestation in one who is permeated by the influence of the Supreme, or of some other being who practically dominates the individual, the Ego who is thus permeated.
Now what are the occasions which lead to these great manifestations? None can speak with mightier authority on this point than He who came Himself as an Avatara just before the beginning of our own age, the Divine Lord Shri Krishna Himself. Turn to that marvellous poem, the Bhagavad-Gita, to the fourth Adhyaya, Shlokas 7 and 8; there He tells us what draws Him forth to birth into His world in the manifested form of the Supreme:
yadA yadAhidharmasya GlAnirBavati BArata
aByutthAnamadharmasya tadAtmAnaM sRujAmyaham
paritrANAya sAdhUnAm vinAsAyacaduShkRutAm
dharmasaMsdhApanArthAya saMBavAmi yuge yuge ]
"When Dharma,—righteousness, law—decays, when Adharma—unrighteousness, lawlessness—is exalted, then I Myself come forth: for the protection of the good, for the destruction of the evil, for the establishing firmly of Dharma, I am born from age to age." That is what He tells us of the coming forth of the Avatara. That is, the needs of His world call upon Him to manifest Himself in His divine power; and we know from other of His sayings that in addition to those which deal with the human needs, there are certain kosmic necessities which in the earlier ages of the world's story called forth special manifestations. When in the great wheel of evolution another turn round has to be given, when some new form, new type of life is coming forth, then also the Supreme reveals Himself, embodying the type which thus He initiates in His kosmos, and in this way turning that everlasting wheel which He comes forth as I'shvara to turn. Such then, speaking quite generally, the meaning of the word, and the object of the coming.
From that we may fitly turn to the more special question, "What is an Avatara?" And it is here that I must ask your close attention, nay, your patient consideration, where points that to some extent may be unfamiliar are laid before you; for as I said, it is the occult view of the truth which I am going to partially unveil, and those who have not thus studied truth need to think carefully ere they reject, need to consider long ere they refuse. We shall see as we try to answer the question how far the great authorities help us to understand, and how far the lack of knowledge in reading those authorities has led to misconception. You may remember that the late learned T. Subba Rao in the lectures that he gave on the Bhagavad-Gita put to you a certain view of the Avatara, that it was a descent of I'shvara—or, as he said, using the theosophical term, the Logos, which is only the Greek name for I'shvara—a descent of I'shvara, uniting Himself with a human soul. With all respect for the profound learning of the lamented pandit, I cannot but think that that is only a partial definition. Probably he did not at that time desire, had not very possibly the time, to deal with case after case, having so wide a field to cover in the small number of lectures that he gave, and he therefore chose out one form, as we may say, of self-revelation, leaving untouched the others, which now in dealing with the subject by itself we have full time to study. Let me then begin as it were at the beginning, and then give you certain authorities which may make the view easier to accept; let me state without any kind of attempt to veil or evade, what is really an Avatara. Fundamentally He is the result of evolution. In far past Kalpas, in worlds other than this, nay, in universes earlier than our own, those who were to be Avataras climbed slowly, step by step, the vast ladder of evolution, climbing from mineral to plant, from plant to animal, from animal to man, from man to Jivanmukta, from Jivanmukta higher and higher yet, up the mighty hierarchy that stretches beyond Those who have liberated Themselves from the bonds of humanity; until at last, thus climbing, They cast off not only all the limits of the separated Ego, not only burst asunder the limitations of the separated Self, but entered I'shvara Himself and expanded into the all-consciousness of the Lord, becoming one in knowledge as they had ever been one in essence with that eternal Life from which originally they came forth, living in that life, centres without circumferences, living centres, one with the Supreme. There stretches behind such a One the endless chain of birth after birth, of manifestation after manifestation. During the stage in which He was human, during the long climbing up of the ladder of humanity, there were two special characteristics that marked out the future Avatara from the ranks of men. One his absolute bhakti, his devotion to the Supreme; for only those who are bhaktas and who to their bhakti have wed gnyana, or knowledge, can reach this goal; for by devotion, says Shri Krishna, can a man "enter into My being." And the need of the devotion for the future Avatara is this: he must keep the centre that he has built even in the life of I'shvara, so that he may be able to draw the circumference once again round that centre, in order that he may come forth as a manifestation of I'shvara, one with Him in knowledge, one with Him in power, the very Supreme Himself in earthly life; he must hence have the power of limiting himself to form, for no form can exist in the universe save as there is a centre within it round which that form is drawn. He must be so devoted as to be willing to remain for the service of the universe while I'shvara Himself abides in it, to share the continual sacrifice made by Him, the sacrifice whereby the universe lives. But not devotion alone marks this great One who is climbing his divine path. He must also be, as I'shvara is, a lover of humanity. Unless within him there burns the flame of love for men—nay, men, do I say? it is too narrow—unless within him burns the flame of love for everything that exists, moving and unmoving, in this universe of God, he will not be able to come forth as the Supreme whose life and love are in everything that He has brought forth out of His eternal and inexhaustible life. "There is nothing," says the Beloved, "moving or unmoving, that may exist bereft of me;" and unless the man can work that into his nature, unless he can love everything that is, not only the beautiful but the ugly, not only the good but the evil, not only the attractive but the repellent, unless in every form he sees the Self, he cannot climb the steep path the Avatara must tread.
[Footnote 1: Bhagavad-Gita, x. 39.]
These, then, are the two great characteristics of the man who is to become the special manifestation of God—bhakti, love to the One in whom he is to merge, and love to those whose very life is the life of God. Only as these come forth in the man is he on the path that leads him to be—in future universes, in far, far future kalpas—an Avatara coming as God to man.
Now on this view of the nature of an Avatara difficulties, I know, arise; but they are difficulties that arise from a partial view, and then from that view having been merely accepted, as a rule, on the authority of some great name, instead of on the thinking out and thorough understanding of it by the man who repeats the shibboleth of his own sect or school. The view once taken, every text in Shruti or Smriti that goes against that view is twisted out of its natural meaning, in order to be made to agree with the idea which already dominates the mind. That is the difficulty with every religion; a man acquires his view by tradition, by habit, by birth, by public opinion, by the surroundings of his own time and of his own day. He finds in the scriptures—which belong to no time, to no day, to no one age, and to no one people, but are expressions of the eternal Veda—he finds in them many texts that do not fit into the narrow framework that he has made; and because he too often cares for the framework more than for the truth, he manipulates the text until he can make it fit in, in some dislocated fashion; and the ingenuity of the commentator too often appears in the skill with which he can make words appear to mean what they do not mean in their grammatical and obvious sense. Thus, men of every school, under the mighty names of men who knew the truth—but who could only give such portion of truth as they deemed man at the time was able to receive—use their names to buttress up mistaken interpretations, and thus walls are continually built up to block the advancing life of man.
Now let me take one example from one of the greatest names, one who knew the truth he spoke, but also, like every teacher, had to remember that while he was man, those to whom he spoke were children that could not grasp truth with virile understanding. That great teacher, founder of one of the three schools of the Vedanta, Shri Ramanujacharya, in his commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita—a priceless work which men of every school might read and profit by—dealing with the phrase in which Shri Krishna declares that He has had [Sanskrit: bahUnijanmAni] "many births," points out how vast the variety of those births had been. Then, confining himself to His manifestations as I'shvara—that is after He had attained to the Supreme—he says quite truly that He was born by His own will; not by karma that compelled Him, not by any force outside Him that coerced Him, but by His own will He came forth as I'shvara and incarnated in one form or another. But there is nothing said there of the innumerable steps traversed by the mighty One ere yet He merged Himself in the Supreme. Those are left on one side, unmentioned, unnoticed, because what the writer had in his view was to present to the hearts of men a great Object for adoration, who might gradually lift them upwards and upwards until the Self should blossom in them in turn. No word is said of the previous kalpas, of the universes stretching backward into the illimitable past. He speaks of His birth as Deva, as Naga, as Gandharva, as those many shapes that He has taken by His own will. As you know, or as you may learn if you turn to Shrimad-Bhagavata, there is a much longer list of manifestations than the ten usually called Avataras. There are given one after another the forms which seem strange to the superficial reader when connected in modern thought with the Supreme. But we find light thrown on the question by some other words of the great Lord; and we also find in one famous book, full of occult hints—though not with much explanation of the hints given—the Yoga Vasishtha, a clear definite statement that the deities, as Mahadeva, Vishnu and Brahma, have all climbed upward to the mighty posts They hold. And that may well be so, if you think of it; there is nothing derogatory to Them in the thought; for there is but one Existence, the eternal fount of all that comes forth as separated, whether separated in the universe as I'shvara, or separated in the copy of the universe in man; there is but One without a second; there is no life but His, no independence but His, no self-existence but His, and from Him Gods and men and all take their root and exist for ever in and by His one eternal life. Different stages of manifestation, but the One Self in all the different stages, the One living in all; and if it be true, as true it is, that the Self in man is
[Sanskrit: prajo nityaH SasvatoayaMpurANo]
"unborn, constant, eternal, ancient," it is because the Self in man is one with the One Self-existent, and I'shvara Himself is only the mightiest manifestation of that One who knows no second near Himself. Says an English poet:
Closer is He than breathing, nearer than hands and feet.
[Footnote 2: Part II., Chapter ii., Shlokas 14, 15, 16.]
The Self is in you and in me, as much as the Self is in I'shvara, that One, eternal, unchanging, undecaying, whereof every manifested existence is but one ray of glory. Thus it is true, that which is taught in the Yoga Vasishtha; true it is that even the greatest, before whom we bow in worship, has climbed in ages past all human reckoning to be one with the Supreme, and, ever there, to manifest Himself as God to the world.
But now we come to a distinction that we find made, and it is a real one. We read of a Purnavatara, a full, complete, Avatara. What is the meaning of that word "full" as applied to the Avatara? The name is given, as we know, to Shri Krishna. He is marked out specially by that name. Truly the word "purna" cannot apply to the Illimitable, the Infinite; He may not be shown forth in any form; the eye may never behold Him; only the spirit that is Himself can know the One. What is meant by it is that, so far as is possible within the limits of form, the manifestation of the formless appears, so far as is possible it came forth in that great One who came for the helping of the world. This may assist you to grasp the distinction. Where the manifestation is that of a Purnavatara, then at any moment of time, at His own will, by Yoga or otherwise, He can transcend every limit of the form in which He binds Himself by His own will, and shine forth as the Lord of the Universe, within whom all the Universe is contained. Think for a moment once more of Shri Krishna, who teaches us so much on this. Turn to that great storehouse of spiritual wisdom, the Mahabharata, to the Ashvamedha Parva which contains the Anugita, and you will find that Arjuna after the great battle, forgetting the teaching that was given him on Kurukshetra, asked his Teacher to repeat that teaching once again. And Shri Krishna, rebuking him for the fickleness of his mind and stating that He was much displeased that such knowledge should by fickleness have been forgotten, uttered these remarkable words: "It is not possible for me to state it in full in that way. I discoursed to thee on the Supreme Brahman, having concentrated myself in Yoga." And then He goes on to give out the essence of that teaching, but not in the same sublime form as we have it in the Bhagavad-Gita. That is one thing that shows you what is meant by a Purnavatara; in a condition of Yoga, into which He throws Himself at will, He knows Himself as Lord of everything, as the Supreme on whom the Universe is built. Nay more; thrice at least—I am not sure if there may have been more cases, but if so I cannot at the moment remember them—thrice at least during His life as Shri Krishna He shows himself forth as I'shvara, the Supreme. Once in the court of Dhritarashtra, when the madly foolish Duryodhana talked about imprisoning within cell-walls the universal Lord whom the universe cannot confine; and to show the wild folly of the arrogant prince, out in the court before every eye He shone forth as Lord of all, filling earth and sky with His glory, and all forms human and divine, superhuman and subhuman, were seen gathered round Him in the life from which they spring. Then on Kurukshetra to Arjuna, His beloved disciple, to whom He gave the divine vision that he might see Him in His Vaishnava form, the form of Vishnu, the Supreme Upholder of the Universe. And later, on his way back to Dvaraka, meeting with Utanka, He and the sage came to a misunderstanding, and the sage was preparing to curse the Lord; to save him from the folly of uttering a curse against the Supreme, as a child might throw a tiny pebble against a rock of immemorial age, He shone out before the eyes of him who was really His bhakta, and showed him the great Vaishnava form, that of the Supreme. What do those manifestations show? that at will He can show himself forth as Lord of all, casting aside the limits of human form in which men live; casting aside the appearance so familiar to those around Him, He could reveal himself as the mighty One, I'shvara who is the life of all. There is the mark of a Purnavatara; always within His grasp, at will, is the power to show Himself forth as I'shvara.
But why—the thought may arise in your minds—are not all Avataras of this kind, since all are verily of the Supreme Lord? The answer is that by His own will, by his own Maya, He veils Himself within the limits which serve the creatures whom He has come to help. Ah, how different He is, this Mighty One, from you and me! When we are talking to some one who knows a little less than ourselves, we talk out all we know to show our knowledge, expanding ourselves as much as we can so as to astonish and make marvel the one to whom we speak; that is because we are so small that we fear our greatness will not be recognised unless we make ourselves as large as we can to astonish, if possible to terrify; but when He comes who is really great, who is mightier than anything which He produces, He makes Himself small in order to help those whom He loves. And do you know, my brothers, that only in proportion as His spirit enters into us, can we in our little measure be helpers in the universe of which He is the one life; until we, in all our doings and speakings, place ourselves within the one we want to help and not outside him, feeling as he feels, thinking as he thinks, knowing for the time as he knows, with all his limitations, although there may be further knowledge beyond, we cannot truly help; that is the condition of all true help given by man to man, as it is the only condition of the help which is given to man by God Himself.
And so in other Avataras, He limits Himself for men's sake. Take the great king, Shri Rama. What did he come to show? The ideal Kshattriya, in every relation of the Kshattriya life; as son—perfect as son alike to loving father and to jealous and for the time unkind step-mother. For you may remember that when the father's wife who was not His own mother bade him go forth to the forest on the very eve of His coronation as heir, His gentle answer was: "Mother, I go." Perfect as son. Perfect as husband; if He had not limited Himself by His own will to show out what husband should be to wife, how could He in the forest, when Sita had been reft away by Ravana, have shown the grief, have uttered the piteous lamentations, which have drawn tears from thousands of eyes, as He calls on plants and on trees, on animals and birds, on Gods and men, to tell Him where His wife, His other self, the life of His life, had gone? How could he have taught men what wife should be to husband's heart unless He had limited Himself? The consciously Omnipresent Deity could not seek and search for His beloved who had disappeared. And then as king; as perfect king as He was perfect son and husband. When the welfare of His subjects was concerned, when the safety of the realm was to be thought of, when He remembered that He as king stood for God and must be perfect in the eyes of His subjects, so that they might give the obedience and the loyalty, which men can only give to one whom they know as greater than themselves, then even His wife was put aside; then the test of the fire for Sita, the unsullied and the suffering; then She must pass through it to show that no sin or pollution had come upon Her by the foul touch of Ravana, the Rakshasa; then the demand that ere husband's heart that had been riven might again clasp the wife, She must come forth pure as woman; and all this, because He was king as well as husband, and on the throne the people honoured as divine there must only be purity, spotless as driven snow. Those limitations were needed in order that a perfect example might be given to man, and man might learn to climb by reproducing virtues, made small in order that his small grasp might hold them.
We come to the second great class of manifestations, that to which I alluded in the beginning as covered by the wide term A'vesha. In that case it is not that a man in past universes has climbed upward and has become one with I'shvara; but it is that a man has climbed so far as to become so great, so perfect in his manhood, and so full of love and devotion to God and man, that God is able to permeate him with a portion of His own influence, His own power, His own knowledge, and send him forth into the world as a superhuman manifestation of Himself. The individual Ego remains; that is the great distinction. The man is there, though the power that is acting is the manifested God. Therefore the manifestation will be coloured by the special characteristics of the one over whom this overshadowing is made; and you will be able to trace in the thoughts of this inspired teacher, the characteristics of the race, of the individual, of the form of knowledge which belongs to that man in the incarnation in which the great overshadowing takes place. That is the fundamental difference.
But here we find that we come at once to endless grades, endless varieties, and down the ladder of lesser and lesser evolution we may tread, step by step, until we come to the lower grades that we call inspiration. In a case of A'vesha it generally continues through a great portion of the life, the latter portion, as a rule, and it is comparatively seldom withdrawn. Inspiration, as generally understood, is a more partial thing, more temporary. Divine power comes down, illuminates and irradiates the man for the moment, and he speaks for the time with authority, with knowledge, which in his normal state he will be unable probably to compass. Such are the prophets who have illuminated the world age after age; such were in ancient days the Brahmanas who were the mouth of God. Then truly the distinction was not that I spoke of between priest and prophet; both were joined in the one illumination, and the teaching of the priest and the preaching of the prophet ran on the same lines and gave forth the same great truths. But in later times the distinction arose by the failure of the priesthood, when the priest turned aside for money, for fame, for power, for all the things with which only younger souls ought to concern themselves—human toys with which human babies play, and do wisely in so playing, for they grow by them. Then the priests became formal, the prophets became more and more rare, until the great fact of inspiration was thrown back wholly into the past, as though God or man had altered, man no longer divine in his nature, God no longer willing to speak words in the ears of men. But inspiration is a fact in all its stages; and it goes far farther than some of you may think. The inspiration of the prophets, spiritually mighty and convincing, is needed, and they come to the world to give a new impulse to spiritual truth. But there is a general inspiration that any one may share who strives to show out the divine life from which no son of man is excluded, for every son of man is son of God. Have you ever been drawn away for a moment into higher, more peaceful realms, when you have come across something of beauty, of art, of the wonders of science, of the grandeur of philosophy? Have you for a time lost sight of the pettinesses of earth, of trivial troubles, of small worries and annoyances, and felt yourself lifted into a calmer region, into a light that is not the light of common earth? Have you ever stood before some wondrous picture wherein the palette of the painter has been taxed to light the canvas with all the hues of beauteous colour that art can give to human sight? Or have you seen in some wondrous sculpture, the gracious living curves that the chisel has freed from the roughness of the marble? Or have you listened while the diviner spell of music has lifted you, step by step, till you seem to hear the Gandharvas singing and almost the divine flute is being played and echoing in the lower world? Or have you stood on the mountain peak with the snows around you, and felt the grandeur of the unmoving nature that shows out God as well as the human spirit? Ah, if you have known any of these peaceful spots in life's desert, then you know how all-pervading is inspiration; how wondrous the beauty and the power of God shown forth in man and in the world; then you know, if you never knew it before, the truth of that great proclamation of Shri Krishna the Beloved: "Whatever is royal, good, beautiful, and mighty, understand thou that to go forth from My Splendour"; all is the reflection of that tejas which is His and His alone. For as there is nought in the universe without His love and life, so there is no beauty that is not His beauty, that is not a ray of the illimitable splendour, one little beam from the unfailing source of life.
[Footnote 3: Bhagavad-Gita, x. 41.]
[Footnote 4: Splendour, radiance.]
BROTHERS:—You will remember that yesterday, in dividing the subject under different heads, I put down certain questions which we would take in order. We dealt yesterday with the question: "What is an Avatara?" The second question that we are to try to answer, "What is the source of Avataras?" is a question that leads us deep into the mysteries of the kosmos, and needs at least an outline of kosmic growth and evolution in order to give an intelligible answer. I hope to-day to be able also to deal with the succeeding question, "How does the need for Avataras arise?" This will leave us for to-morrow the subject of the special Avataras, and I shall endeavour, if possible, during to-morrow's discourse, to touch on nine of the Avataras out of the ten recognised as standing out from all other manifestations of the Supreme. Then, if I am able to accomplish that task, we shall still have one morning left, and that I propose to give entirely to the study of the greatest of the Avataras, the Lord Shri Krishna Himself, endeavouring, if possible, to mark out the great characteristics of His life and His work, and, it may be, to meet and answer some of the objections of the ignorant which, especially in these later days, have been levelled against Him by those who understand nothing of His nature, nothing of the mighty work He came to accomplish in the world.
Now we are to begin to-day by seeking an answer to the question, "What is the source of Avataras?" and it is likely that I am going to take a line of thought somewhat unfamiliar, carrying us, as it does, outside the ordinary lines of our study which deals more with the evolution of man, of the spiritual nature within him. It carries us to those far off times, almost incomprehensible to us, when our universe was coming into manifestation, when its very foundations, as it were, were being laid. In answering the question, however, the mere answer is simple. It is recognised in all religions admitting divine incarnations—and they include the great religions the world—it is admitted that the source of Avataras, the source of the Divine incarnations, is the second or middle manifestation of the sacred Triad. It matters not whether with Hindus we speak of the Trimurti, or whether with Christians we speak of the Trinity, the fundamental idea is one and the same. Taking first for a moment the Christian symbology, you will find that every Christian tells you that the one divine incarnation acknowledged in Christianity—for in Christianity they believe in one special incarnation only—you will find in the Christian nomenclature the divine incarnation or Avatara is that of the second person of the Trinity. No Christian will tell you that there has ever been an incarnation of God the Father, the primeval Source of life. They will never tell you that there has been an incarnation of the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Wisdom, of creative Intelligence, who built up the world-materials. But they will always say that it was the second Person, the Son, who took human form, who appeared under the likeness of humanity, who was manifested as man for helping the salvation of the world. And if you analyse what is meant by that phrase, what, to the mind of the Christian, is conveyed by the thought of the second Person of the Trinity—for remember in dealing with a religion that is not yours you should seek for the thought not the form, you should look at the idea not at the label, for the thoughts are universal while the forms divide, the ideas are identical while the labels are marks of separation—if you seek for the underlying thought you will find it is this: the sign of the second Person of the Trinity is duality; also, He is the underlying life of the world; by His power the worlds were made, and are sustained, supported, and protected. You will find that while the Spirit of Wisdom is spoken of as bringing order out of disorder, kosmos out of chaos, that it is by the manifested Word of God, or the second Person of the Trinity, it is by Him that all forms are builded up in this world, and it is specially in His image that man is made. So also when we turn to what will be more familiar to the vast majority of you, the symbology of Hinduism, you will find that all Avataras have their source in Vishnu, in Him who pervades the universe, as the very name Vishnu implies, who is the Supporter, the Protector, the pervading, all-permeating Life by which the universe is held together, and by which it is sustained. Taking the names of the Trimurti so familiar to us all—not the philosophical names Sat, Chit, A'nanda, those names which in philosophy show the attributes of the Supreme Brahman—taking the concrete idea, we have Mahadeva or Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma: three names, just as in the other religion we have three names; but the same fact comes out, that it is the middle or central one of the Three who is the source of Avataras. There has never been a direct Avatara of Mahadeva, of Shiva Himself. Appearances? Yes. Manifestations? Yes. Coming in form for a special purpose served by that form? Oh yes. Take the Mahabharata, and you find Him appearing in the form of the hunter, the Kirata, and testing the intuition of Arjuna, and struggling with him to test his strength, his courage, and finally his devotion to Himself. But that is a mere form taken for a purpose and cast aside the moment the purpose is served; almost, we may say, a mere illusion, produced to serve a special purpose and then thrown away as having completed that which it was intended to perform. Over and over again you find such appearances of Mahadeva. You may remember one most beautiful story, in which He appears in the form of a Chandala at the gateway of His own city of Kashi, when one who was especially overshadowed by a manifestation of Himself, Shri Shankaracharya, was coming with his disciples to the sacred city; veiling Himself in the form of an outcaste—for to Him all forms are the same, the human differences are but as the grains of sand which vanish before the majesty of His greatness—He rolled Himself in the dust before the gateway, so that the great teacher could not walk across without touching Him, and he called to the Chandala to make way in order that the Brahmana might go on unpolluted by the touch of the outcaste; then the Lord, speaking through the form He had chosen, rebuked the very one whom His power overshadowed, asking him questions which he could not answer and thus abasing his pride and teaching him humility. Such forms truly He has taken, but these are not what we can call Avataras; mere passing forms, not manifestations upon earth where a life is lived and a great drama is played out. So with Brahma; He also has appeared from time to time, has manifested Himself for some special purpose; but there is no Avatara of Brahma, which we can speak of by that very definite and well understood term.
[Footnote 5: An outcaste, equivalent to a scavenger.]
Now for this fact there must be some reason.
Why is it that we do not find the source of Avataras alike in all these great divine manifestations? Why do they come from only one aspect and that the aspect of Vishnu? I need not remind you that there is but one Self, and that these names we use are the names of the aspects that are manifested by the Supreme; we must not separate them so much as to lose sight of the underlying unity. For remember how, when a worshipper of Vishnu had a feeling in his heart against a worshipper of Mahadeva, as he bowed before the image of Hari, the face of the image divided itself in half, and Shiva or Hara appeared on one side and Vishnu or Hari appeared on the other, and the two, smiling as one face on the bigoted worshipper, told him that Mahadeva and Vishnu were but one. But in Their functions a division arises; They manifest along different lines, as it were, in the kosmos and for the helping of man; not for Him but for us, do these lines of apparent separateness arise.
Looking thus at it, we shall be able to find the answer to our question, not only who is the source of Avataras, but why Vishnu is the source. And it is here that I come to the unfamiliar part where I shall have to ask for your special attention as regards the building of the universe. Now I am using the word "universe," in the sense of our solar system. There are many other systems, each of them complete in itself, and, therefore, rightly spoken of as a kosmos, a universe. But each of these systems in its turn is part of a mightier system, and our sun, the centre of our own system, though it be in very truth the manifested physical body of I'shwara Himself, is not the only sun. If you look through the vast fields of space, myriads of suns are there, each one the centre of its own system, of its own universe; and our sun, supreme to us, is but, as it were, a planet in a vaster system, its orbit curved round a sun greater than itself. So in turn that sun, round which our sun is circling, is planet to a yet mightier sun, and each set of systems in its turn circles round a more central sun, and so on—we know not how far may stretch the chain that to us is illimitable; for who is able to plumb the depths and heights of space, or to find a manifested circumference which takes in all universes! Nay, we say that they are infinite in number, and that there is no end to the manifestations of the one Life.
Now that is true physically. Look at the physical universe with the eye of spirit, and you see in it a picture of the spiritual universe. A great word was spoken by one of the Masters or Rishis, whom in this Society we honour and whose teachings we follow. Speaking to one of His disciples, or pupils, He rebuked him, because, He said in words never to be forgotten by those who have read them: "You always look at the things of the spirit with the eyes of the flesh. What you ought to do is to look at the things of the flesh with the eyes of the spirit." Now, what does that mean? It means that instead of trying to degrade the spiritual and to limit it within the narrow bounds of the physical, and to say of the spiritual that it cannot be because the human brain is unable clearly to grasp it, we ought to look at the physical universe with a deeper insight and see in it the image, the shadow, the reflection of the spiritual world, and learn the spiritual verities by studying the images that exist of them in the physical world around us. The physical world is easier to grasp. Do not think the spiritual is modelled on the physical; the physical is fundamentally modelled on the spiritual, and if you look at the physical with the eye of spirit, then you find that it is the image of the higher, and then you are able to grasp the higher truth by studying the faint reflections that you see in the world around you. That is what I ask you to do now. Just as you have your sun and suns, many universes, each one part of a system mightier than itself, so in the spiritual universe there is hierarchy beyond hierarchy of spiritual intelligences who are as the suns of the spiritual world. Our physical system has at its centre the great spiritual Intelligence manifested as a Trinity, the I'shvara of that system. Then beyond Him there is a mightier I'shvara, round whom Those who are on the level of the I'shvara of our system circle, looking to Him as Their central life. And beyond Him yet another, and beyond Him others and others yet, until as the physical universes are beyond our thinking, the spiritual hierarchy stretches also beyond our thought, and, dazzled and blinded by the splendour, we sink back to earth, as Arjuna was blinded when the Vaishnava form shone forth on him, and we cry: "Oh! show us again Thy more limited form that we may know it and live by it. We are not yet ready for the mightier manifestations. We are blinded, not helped, by such blaze of divine splendour."
And so we find that if we would learn we must limit ourselves—nay, we must try to expand ourselves—to the limits of our own system. Why? I have met people who have not really any grasp of this little world, this grain of dust in which they live, who cannot be content unless you answer questions about the One Existence, the Para-Brahma, whom sages revere in silence, not daring to speak even with illuminated mind that knows nirvanic life and has expanded to nirvanic consciousness. The more ignorant the man, the more he thinks he can grasp. The less he understands, the more he resents being told that there are some things beyond the grasp of his intellect, existences so mighty that he cannot even dream of the lowest of the attributes that mark them out. And for myself, who know myself ignorant, who know that many an age must pass ere I shall be able to think of dealing with these profounder problems, I sometimes gauge the ignorance of the questioner by the questions that he asks as to the ultimate existences, and when he wants to know what he calls the primary origin, I know that he has not even grasped the one-thousandth part of the origin out of which he himself has sprung. Therefore, I say to you frankly that these mighty Ones whom we worship are the Gods of our system; beyond them there stretch mightier Ones yet, whom, perhaps, myriads of kalpas hence, we may begin to understand and worship.
Let us then confine ourselves to our own system and be glad if we can catch some ray of the glory that illumines it. Vishnu has His own functions, as also have Brahma and Mahadeva. The first work in this system is done by the third of the sacred great Ones of the Trimurti, Brahma, as you all know, for you have read that there came forth the creative Intelligence as the third of the divine manifestations. I care not what is the symbology you take; perchance that of the Vishnu Purana will be most familiar, wherein the unmanifested Vishnu is beneath the water, standing as the first of the Trimurti, then the Lotus, standing as the second, and the opened Lotus showing Brahma, the third, the creative Mind. You may remember that the work of creation began with His activity. When we study from the occult standpoint in what that activity consisted, we find it consisted in impregnating with His own life the matter of the solar system; that He gave His own life to build up form after form of atom, to make the great divisions in the kosmos; that He formed, one after another, the five kinds of matter. Working by His mind—He is sometimes spoken of as Mahat, the great One, Intelligence—He formed Tattvas one after another. Tattvas, you may remember from last year, are the foundations of the atoms, and there are five of them manifested at the present time. That is His special work. Then He meditates, and forms—as thoughts—come forth. There His manifest work may be said to end, though He maintains ever the life of the atom. As far as the active work of the kosmos is concerned, He gives way to the next of the great forces that is to work, the force of Vishnu. His work is to gather together that matter that has been built, shaped, prepared, vivified, and build it into definite forms after the creative ideas brought forth by the meditation of Brahma. He gives to matter a binding force; He gives to it those energies that hold form together. No form exists without Him, whether it be moving or unmoving. How often does Shri Krishna, speaking as the supreme Vishnu, lay stress on this fact. He is the life in every form; without it the form could not exist, without it it would go back to its primeval elements and no longer live as form. He is the all-pervading life; the "Supporter of the Universe" is one of His names. Mahadeva has a different function in the universe; especially is He the great Yogi; especially is He the great Teacher, the Mahaguru; He is sometimes called Jagatguru, the Teacher of the world. Over and over again—to take a comparatively modern example, as the Gurugita—we find Him as Teacher, to whom Parvati goes asking for instruction as to the nature of the Guru. He it is who defines the Guru's work, He it is who inspires the Guru's teaching. Every Guru on earth is a reflection of Mahadeva, and it is His life which he is commissioned to give out to the world. Yogi, immersed in contemplation, taking the ascetic form always—that marks out His functions. For the symbols by which the mighty Ones are shown in the teachings are not meaningless, but are replete with the deepest meaning. And when you see Him represented as the eternal Yogi, with the cord in His hand, sitting as an ascetic in contemplation, it means that He is the supreme ideal of the ascetic life, and that men who come especially under His influence must pass out of home, out of family, out of the normal ties of evolution, and give themselves to a life of asceticism, to a life of renunciation, to share, however feebly, in that mighty yoga by which the universe is kept alive.
He then manifests not as Avatara, but such manifestations come from Him who is the God, the Spirit, of evolution, who evolves all forms. That is why from Vishnu all these Avataras come. For it is He who by His infinite love dwells in every form that He has made; with patience that nothing can exhaust, with love that nothing can tire, with quiet, calm endurance which no folly of man can shake from its eternal peace, He lives in every form, moulding it as it will bear the moulding, shaping it as it yields itself to His impulse, binding Himself, limiting Himself in order that His universe may grow, Lord of eternal life and bliss, dwelling in every form. If you grasp this, it is not difficult to say why from Him alone the Avataras come. Who else should take form save the One who gives form? who else should work with this unending love save He, who, while the universe exists, binds Himself that the universe may live and ultimately share His freedom? He is bound that the universe may be free. Who else then should come forth when special need arises?
And He gives the great types. Let me remind you of the Shrimad-Bhagavata, where in an early chapter of the first Book, the 3rd chapter, a very long list is given of the forms that Vishnu took, not only the great Avataras, but also a large number of others. It is said He appeared as Nara and Narayana; it is said He appeared as Kapila; He took female forms, and so on, a whole long list being given of the shapes that He assumed. And, turning from that to a very illuminative passage in the Mahabharata, we find Him in the form of Shri Krishna explaining a profound truth to Arjuna.
There He gives the law of these appearances: "When, O son of Pritha, I live in the order of the deities, then I act in every respect as a deity. When I live in the order of the Gandharvas, then I act in every respect as a Gandharva. When I live in the order of the Nagas, I act as a Naga. When I live in the order of the Yakshas, or that of the Rakshasas, I act after the manner of that order. Born now in the order of humanity, I must act as a human being." A profound truth, a truth that few in modern times recognise. Every type in the universe, in its own place, is good; every type in the universe, in its own place, is necessary. There is no life save His life; how then could any type come into existence apart from the universal life, bereft whereof nothing can exist?
We speak of good forms and evil, and rightly, as regards our own evolution. But from the wider standpoint of the kosmos, good and evil are relative terms, and everything is very good in the sight of the Supreme who lives in every one. How can a type come into existence in which He cannot live? How can anything live and move, save as it has its being in Him? Each type has its work; each type has its place; the type of the Rakshasa as much as the type of the Deva, of the Asura as much as of the Sura. Let me give you one curious little simple example, which yet has a certain graphic force. You have a pole you want to move, and that pole is on a pivot, like the mountain which churned the ocean, a pole with its two ends, positive and negative we will call them. The positive end, we will say, is pushed in the direction of the river (the river flowing beyond one end of the hall at Adyar). The negative pole is pushed—in what direction? In the opposite. And those who are pushing it have their faces turned in the opposite direction. One man looks at the river, the other man has his back to it, looking in the opposite direction. But the pole turns in the one direction although they push in opposite directions. They are working round the same circle, and the pole goes faster because it is pushed from its two ends. There is the picture of our universe. The positive force you call the Deva or Sura; his face is turned, it seems, to God. The negative force you call the Rakshasa or Asura; his face, it seems, is turned away from God. Ah no! God is everywhere, in every point of the circle round which they tread; and they tread His circle and do His will and no otherwise; and all at length find rest and peace in Him.
Therefore Shri Krishna Himself can incarnate in the form of Rakshasa, and when in that form He will act as Rakshasa and not as Deva, doing that part of the divine work with the same perfection as He does the other, which men in their limited vision call the good. A great truth hard to grasp. I shall have to return to it presently in speaking of Ravana, one of the mightiest types of, perhaps the greatest of, all the Rakshasas. And we shall see, if we can follow, how the profound truth works out. But remember, if in the minds of some of you there is some hesitation in accepting this, that the words that I read are not mine, but those of the Lord who spoke of His own embodying; He has left on record for your teaching, that He has embodied Himself in the form of Rakshasa and has acted after the manner of that order.
Leaving that for a moment, there is one other point I must take, ere speaking of the need for Avataras, and it is this: when the great central Deities have manifested, then there come forth from Them seven Deities of what we may call the second order. In Theosophy, they are spoken of as the planetary Logoi, to distinguish them from the great solar Logoi, the central Life. Each of These has to do with one of the seven sacred planets, and with the chain of worlds connected with that planet. Our world is one of the links in this chain, and you and I pass round this chain in successive incarnations in the great stages of life. The world—our present world—is the midway globe of one such chain. One Logos of the secondary order presides over the evolution of this chain of worlds. He shows out three aspects, reflections of the great Logoi who are at the centre of the system. You have read perhaps of the seven-leaved lotus, the Saptaparnapadma; looked at with the higher sight, gazed at with the open vision of the seer, that mighty group of creative and directing Beings looks like the lotus with its seven leaves and the great Ones are at the heart of the lotus. It is as though you could see a vast lotus-flower spread out in space, the tips of the seven leaves being the mighty Intelligences presiding over the evolution of the chains of worlds. That lotus symbol is no mere symbol but a high reality, as seen in that wondrous world wherefrom the symbol has been taken by the sages. And because the great Rishis of old saw with the open eye of knowledge, saw the lotus-flower spread in space, they took it as the symbol of kosmos, the lotus with its seven leaves, each one a mighty Deva presiding over a separate line of evolution. We are primarily concerned with our own planetary Deva and through Him with the great Devas of the solar system.
Now my reason for mentioning this is to explain one word that has puzzled many students. Mahavishnu, the great Vishnu, why that particular epithet? What does it mean when that phrase is used? It means the great solar Logos, Vishnu in His essential nature: but there is a reflection of His glory, a reflection of His power, of His love, in more immediate connection with ourselves and our own world. He is His representative, as a viceroy may represent the king. Some of the Avataras we shall find came forth from Mahavishnu through the planetary Logos, who is concerned with our evolution and the evolution of the world. But the Purnavatara that I spoke of yesterday comes forth directly from Mahavishnu, with no intermediary between Himself and the world that He comes to help. Here is another distinction between the Purnavatara and those more limited ones, that I could not mention yesterday, because the words used would, at that stage, have been unintelligible. We shall find to-morrow, when we come to deal with the Avataras Matsya, Kurma, and so on, that these special Avataras, connected with the evolution of certain types in the world, while indirectly from Mahavishnu, come through the mediation of His mighty representative for our own chain, the wondrous Intelligence that conveys His love and ministers His will, and is the channel of His all-pervading and supporting power. When we come to study Shri Krishna we shall find that there is no intermediary. He stands as the Supreme Himself. And while in the other cases there is the Presence that may be recognised as an intermediary, it is absent in the case of the great Lord of Life.
Leaving that for further elaboration then to-morrow, let us try to answer the next question, "How arises this need for Avataras?" because in the minds of some, quite naturally, a difficulty does arise. The difficulty that many thoughtful people feel may be formulated thus: "Surely the whole plan of the world is in the mind of the Logos from the beginning, and surely we cannot suppose that He is working like a human workman, not thoroughly understanding that at which He aims. He must be the architect as well as the builder; He must make the plan as well as carry it out. He is not like the mason who puts a stone in the wall where he is told, and knows nothing of the architecture of the building to which he is contributing. He is the master-builder, the great architect of the universe, and everything in the plan of that universe must be in His mind ere ever the universe began. But if that be so—and we cannot think otherwise—how is it that the need for special intervention arises? Does not the fact of special intervention imply some unforeseen difficulty that has arisen? If there must be a kind of interference with the working out of the plan, does that not look as if in the original plan some force was left out of account, some difficulty had not been seen, something had arisen for which preparation had not been made? If it be not so, why the need for interference, which looks as though it were brought about to meet an unforeseen event?" A natural, reasonable, and perfectly fair question. Let us try to answer it. I do not believe in shirking difficulties; it is better to look them in the face, and see if an answer be possible.
Now the answer comes along three different lines. There are three great classes of facts, each of which contributes to the necessity; and each, foreseen by the Logos, is definitely prepared for as needing a particular manifestation.
The first of these lines arises from what I may perhaps call the nature of things. I remarked at the beginning of this lecture on the fact that our universe, our system, is part of a greater whole, not separate, not independent, not primary, in comparatively a low scale in the universe, our sun a planet in a vaster system. Now what does that imply? As regards matter, Prakriti, it implies that our system is builded out of matter already existing, out of matter already gifted with certain properties, out of matter that spreads through all space, and from which every Logos takes His materials, modifying it according to His own plan and according to His own will. When we speak of Mulaprakriti, the root of matter, we do not mean that it exists as the matter we know. No philosopher, no thinker would dream of saying that that which spreads throughout space is identical with the matter of our very elementary solar system. It is the root of matter, that of which all forms of matter are merely modifications. What does that imply? It implies that our great Lord, who brought our solar system into existence, is taking matter which already has certain properties given to it by One yet mightier than Himself. In that matter three gunas exist in equilibrium, and it is the breath of the Logos that throws them out of equilibrium, and causes the motion by which our system is brought into existence. There must be a throwing out of equilibrium, for equilibrium means Pralaya, where there is not motion, nor any manifestation of life and form. When life and form come forth, equilibrium must have been disturbed, and motion must be liberated by which the world shall be built. But the moment you grasp that truth you see that there must be certain limitations by virtue of the very material in which the Deity is working for the making of the system. It is true that when out of His system, when not conditioned and confined and limited by it, as He is by His most gracious will, it is true that He would be the Lord of that matter by virtue of His union with the mightier Life beyond; but when for the building of the world He limits Himself within His Maya, then He must work within the conditions of those materials that limit His activity, as we are told over and over again.
Now when in the ceaseless interplay of Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas, Tamas has the ascendancy, aided and, as it were, worked by Rajas, so that they predominate over Sattva in the foreseen evolution, when the two combining overpower the third, when the force of Rajas and the inertia and stubbornness of Tamas, binding themselves together, check the action, the harmony, the pleasure-giving qualities of Sattva, then comes one of the conditions in which the Lord comes forth to restore that which had been disturbed of the balanced interworking of the three gunas and to make again such balance between them as shall enable evolution to go forward smoothly and not be checked in its progress. He re-establishes the balance of power which gives orderly motion, the order having been disturbed by the co-operation of the two in contradistinction to the third. In these fundamental attributes of matter, the three gunas, lies the first reason of the need for Avataras.
The second need has to do with man himself, and now we come back in both the second and the third to that question of good and evil, of which I have already spoken. I'shvara, when He came to deal with the evolution of man—with all reverence I say it—had a harder task to perform than in the evolution of the lower forms of life. On them the law is imposed and they must obey its impulse. On the mineral the law is compulsory; every mineral moves according to the law, without interposing any impulse from itself to work against the will of the One. In the vegetable world the law is imposed, and every plant grows in orderly method according to the law within it, developing steadily and in the fashion of its order, interposing no impulse of its own. Nay, in the animal world—save perhaps when we come to its highest members—the law is still a force overpowering everything else, sweeping everything before it, carrying along all living things. A wheel turning on the road might carry with it on its axle the fly that happened to have settled there; it does not interpose any obstacle to the turning of the wheel. If the fly comes on to the circumference of the wheel and opposes itself to its motion, it is crushed without the slightest jarring of the wheel that rolls on, and the form goes out of existence, and the life takes other shapes.
So is the wheel of law in the three lower kingdoms. But with man it is not so. In man I'shvara sets himself to produce an image of Himself, which is not the case in the lower kingdoms. As life has evolved, one force after another has come out, and in man there begins to come out the central life, for the time has arrived for the evolution of the sovereign power of will, the self-initiated motion which is part of the life of the Supreme. Do not misunderstand me—for the subject is a subtle one; there is only one will in the universe, the will of I'shvara, and all must conform itself to that will, all is conditioned by that will, all must move according to that will, and that will marks out the straight line of evolution. There may be swerving neither to the right hand nor to the left. There is one will only which in its aspect to us is free, but inasmuch as our life is the life of I'shvara Himself, inasmuch as there is but one Self and that Self is yours and mine as much as His—for He has given us His very Self to be our Self and our life—there must evolve at one stage of this wondrous evolution that royal power of will which is seen in Him. And from the A'tma within us, which is Himself in us, there flows forth the sovereign will into the sheaths in which the A'tma is as it were held. Now what happens is this: force goes out through the sheaths and gives them some of its own nature, and each sheath begins to set up a reflection of the will on its own account, and you get the "I" of the body which wants to go this way, and the "I" of passion or emotion which wants to go that way, and the "I" of the mind which wants to go a third way, and none of these ways is the way of the A'tma, the Supreme. These are the illusory wills of man, and there is one way in which you may distinguish them from the true will. Each of them is determined in its direction by external attraction; the man's body wants to move in a particular way because something attracts it, or something else repels it: it moves to what it likes, to what is congenial to it, it moves away from that which it dislikes, from that from which it feels itself repelled. But that motion of the body is but motion determined by the I'shvara outside, as it were, rather than by the I'shvara within, by the kosmos around and not by the Self within, which has not yet achieved its mastery of the kosmos. So with the emotions or passions: they are drawn this way or that by the objects of the senses, and the "senses move after their appropriate objects"; it is not the "I," the Self, which moves. And so also with the mind. "The mind is fickle and restless, O Krishna, it seems as hard to curb as the wind," and the mind lets the senses run after objects as a horse that has broken its reins flies away with the unskilled driver. All these forces are set up; and there is one more thing to remember. These forces reinforce the rajasic guna and help to bring about that predominance of which I spoke; all these reckless desires that are not according to the one will are yet necessary in order that the will may evolve and in order to train and develop the man.
Do you say why? How would you learn right if you knew not wrong? How would you choose good if you knew not evil? How would you recognise the light if there were no darkness? How would you move if there were no resistance? The forces that are called dark, the forces of the Rakshasas, of the Asuras, of all that seem to be working against I'shvara—these are the forces that call out the inner strength of the Self in man, by struggling with which the forces of A'tma within the man are developed, and without which he would remain in Pralaya for evermore. It is a perfectly stagnant pool where there is no motion, and there you get corruption and not life. The evolution of force can only be made by struggle, by combat, by effort, by exercise, and inasmuch as I'shvara is building men and not babies, He must draw out men's forces by pulling against their strength, making them struggle in order to attain, and so vivifying into outer manifestation the life that otherwise would remain enfolded in itself. In the seed the life is hidden, but it will not grow if you leave the seed alone. Place it on this table here, and come back a century hence, and, if you find it, it will be a seed still and nothing more. So also is the A'tma in man ere evolution and struggle have begun. Plant your seed in the ground, so that the forces in the ground press on it, and the rays of the sun from outside make vibrations that work on it, and the water from the rain comes through the soil into it and forces it to swell—then the seed begins to grow; but as it begins to grow it finds the earth around. How shall it grow but by pushing at it and so bringing out the energies of life that are within it? And against the opposition of the ground the roots strike down, and against the opposition of the ground the growing point mounts upward, and by the opposition of the ground the forces are evolved that make the seed grow, and the little plant appears above the soil. Then the wind comes and blows and tries to drag it away, and, in order that it may live and not perish, it strikes its roots deeper and gives itself a better hold against the battering force of the wind, and so the tree grows against the forces which try to tear it out. And if these forces were not, there would have been no growth of the root. And so with the root of I'shvara, the life within us; were everything around us smooth and easy, we would remain supine, lethargic, indifferent. It is the whip of pain, of suffering, of disappointment, that drives us onward and brings out the forces of our internal life which otherwise would remain undeveloped. Would you have a man grow? Then don't throw him on a couch with pillows on every side, and bring his meals and put them into his mouth, so that he moves not limb nor exercises mind. Throw him on a desert, where there is no food nor water to be found; let the sun beat down on his head, the wind blow against him; let his mind be made to think how to meet the necessities of the body, and the man grows into a man and not a log. That is why there are forces which you call evil. In this universe there is no evil; all is good that comes to us from I'shvara, but it sometimes comes in the guise of evil that, by opposing it, we may draw out our strength. Then we begin to understand that these forces are necessary, and that they are within the plan of I'shvara. They test evolution, they strengthen evolution, so that it does not take the next step onward till it has strength enough to hold its own, one step made firm by opposition before the next is taken. But when, by the conflicting wills of men, the forces that work for retardation, to keep a man back till he is able to overcome them and go on, when they are so reinforced by men's unruly wishes that they are beginning, as it were, to threaten progress, then ere that check takes place, there is reinforcement from the other side: the presence pf the Avatara of the forces that threaten evolution calls forth the presence of the Avatara that leads to the progress of humanity.
We come to the third cause. The Avatara does not come forth without a call. The earth, it is said, is very heavy with its load of evil, "Save us, O supreme Lord," the Devas come and cry. In answer to that cry the Lord comes forth. But what is this that I spoke of purposely by a strange phrase to catch your attention, that I spoke of as an Avatara of evil? By the will of the one Supreme, there is one incarnated in form who gathers up together the forces that make for retardation, in order that, thus gathered together, they may be destroyed by the opposing force of good, and thus the balance may be re-established and evolution go on along its appointed road. Devas work for joy, the reward of Heaven. Svarga is their home, and they serve the Supreme for the joys that there they have. Rakshasas also serve Him, first for rule on earth, and power to grasp and hold and enjoy as they will in this lower world. Both sides serve for reward, and are moved by the things that please.
And in order, as our time is drawing to a close, that I may take one great example to show how these work, let me take the mighty one, Ravana of Lanka, that we may give a concrete form to a rather difficult and abstruse thought. Ravana, as you all know, was the mighty intelligence, the Rakshasa, who called forth the coming of Shri Rama. But look back into the past, and what was he? Keeper of Vishnu's heaven, door-keeper of the mighty Lord, devotee, bhakta, absolutely devoted to the Lord. Look at his past, and where do you find a bhakta of Mahadeva more absolute in devotion than the one who came forth later as Ravana? It was he who cast his head into the fire in order that Mahadeva might be served. It is he in whose name have been written some of the most exquisite stotras, breathing the spirit of completest devotion; in one of them, you may remember—and you could scarcely carry devotion to a further point—it is in the mouth of Ravana words are put appealing to Mahadeva, and describing Him as surrounded by forms the most repellent and undesirable, surrounded on every side by pisachas and bhutas, which to us seem but the embodiment of the dark shadows of the burning ghat, forms from which all beauty is withdrawn. He cries out in a passion of love:
Better wear pisacha-form, so we Evermore are near and wait on Thee.
[Footnote 6: Ceylon.]
[Footnote 7: Goblins and elementals.]
How did he then come to be the ravisher of Sita and the enemy of God?
You know how through lack of intuition, through lack of power to recognise the meaning of an order, following the words not the spirit, following the outside not the inner, he refused to open the door of heaven when Sanat Kumara came and demanded entrance. In order that that which was lacking might be filled, in order that that which was wanting might be earned, that which was called a curse was pronounced, a curse which was the natural reaction from the mistake. He was asked: "Will you have seven incarnations friendly to Vishnu, or three in which you will be His enemy and oppose Him?" And because he was a true bhakta, and because every moment of absence from his Lord meant to him hell of torture, he chose three of enmity, which would let him go back sooner to the Feet of the Beloved, rather than the seven of happiness, of friendliness. Better a short time of utter enmity than a longer remaining away with apparent happiness. It was love not hatred that made him choose the form of a Rakshasa rather than the form of a Rishi. There is the first note of explanation.
Then, coming into the form of Rakshasa, he must do his duty as Rakshasa. This was no weak man to be swayed by momentary thought, by transient objects. He had all the learning of the Vedas. With him, it was said, passed away Vaidic learning, with him it disappeared from earth. He knew his duty. What was his duty? To put forward every force which was in his mighty nature in order to check evolution, and so call out every force in man which could be called out by opposing energy which had to be overcome; to gather round him all the forces which were opposing evolution; to make himself king of the whole, centre and law-giver to every force that was setting itself against the will of the Lord; to gather them together as it were into one head, to call them together into one arm; so that when their apparent triumph made the cry of the earth go up to Vishnu, the answer might come in Rama's Avatara and they be destroyed, that the life-wave might go on.
Nobly he did the work, thoroughly he discharged his duty. It is said that even sages are confused about Dharma, and truly it is subtle and hard to grasp in its entirety, though the fragment the plain man sees be simple enough. His Dharma was the Dharma of a Rakshasa, to lead the whole forces of evil against One whom in his inner soul, then clouded, he loved. When Shri Rama came, when He was wandering in the forest, how could he sting Him into leaving the life of His life, His beloved Sita, and into coming out into the world to do His work? By taking away from Him the one thing to which He clung, by taking away from Him the wife whom He loved as His very Self, by placing her in the spot where all the forces of evil were gathered together, so making one head for destruction, which the arrow of Shri Rama might destroy. Then the mighty battle, then the struggle with all the forces of his great nature, that the law might be obeyed to the uttermost, duly fulfilled to the last grain, the debt paid that was owed; and then—ah then! the shaft of the Beloved, then the arrow of Shri Rama that struck off the head from the seeming enemy, from the real devotee. And from the corpse of the Rakshasa that fell upon the field near Lanka, the devotee went up to Goloka to sit at the feet of the Beloved, and rest for awhile till the third incarnation had to be lived out.
[Footnote 8: A name for one of the heavens.]
Such then are some of the reasons by, the ways in which the coming of the Avatara is brought about. And my last word to you, my brothers, to-day is but a sentence, in order to avoid the possibility of a mistake to which our diving into these depths of thought may possibly give rise. Remember that though all powers are His, all forces His, Rakshasa as much as Deva, Asura as much as Sura; remember that for your evolution you must be on the side of good, and struggle to the utmost against evil. Do not let the thoughts I have put lead you into a bog, into a pit of hell, in which you may for the time perish, that because evil is relative, because it exists by the one will, because Rakshasa is His as much as Deva, therefore you shall go on their side and walk along their path. It is not so. If you yield to ambition, if you yield to pride, if you set yourselves against the will of I'shvara, if you struggle for the separated self, if in yourselves now you identify yourself with the past in which you have dwelt instead of with the future towards which you should be directing your steps, then, if your Karma be at a certain stage, you pass into the ranks of those who work as enemies, because you have chosen that fate for yourself, at the promptings of the lower nature. Then with bitter inner pain—even if with complete submission—accepting the Karma, but with profound sorrow, you shall have to work out your own will against the will of the Beloved, and feel the anguish of the rending that separates the inner from the outer life. The will of I'shvara for you is evolution; these forces are made to help your evolution—but only if you strive against them. If you yield to them, then they carry you away. You do not then call out your own strength, but only strengthen them. Therefore, O Arjuna, stand up and fight. Do not be supine; do not yield yourself to the forces; they are there to call out your energies by opposition and you must not sink down on the floor of the chariot. And my last word is the word of Shri Krishna to Arjuna: "Take up your bow, stand up and fight."
The subject this morning, my brothers, is in some ways an easy and in other ways a difficult one; easy, inasmuch as the stories of the Avataras can be readily told and readily grasped; difficult, inasmuch as the meaning that underlies these manifestations may possibly be in some ways unfamiliar, may not have been thoroughly thought out by individual hearers. And I must begin with a general word as to these special Avataras. You may remember that I said that the whole universe may be regarded as the Avatara of the Supreme, the Self-revelation of I'shvara. But we are not dealing with that general Self-revelation; nor are we even considering the very many revelations that have taken place from time to time, marked out by special characteristics; for we have seen by referring to one or two of the old writings that many lists are given of the comings of the Lord, and we are to-day concerned with only some of those, those that are accepted specially as Avataras.
Now on one point I confess myself puzzled at the outset, and I do not know whether in your exoteric literature light is thrown upon the point as to how these ten were singled out, who was the person who chose them out of a longer list, on what authority that list was proclaimed. On that point I must simply state the question, leaving it unanswered. It may be a matter familiar to those who have made researches into the exoteric literature. It is not a point of quite sufficient importance for the moment to spend on it time and trouble, in what we may call the occult way of research. I leave that then aside, for there is one reason why some of these stand out in a way which is clear and definite. They mark stages in the evolution of the world. They mark new departures in the growth of the developing life, and whether it was that fact which underlay the exoteric choice I am unable to say; but certainly that fact by itself is sufficient to justify the special distinction which is made.
There is one other general point to consider. Accounts of these Avataras are found in the Puranas; allusions to them, to one or other of them, are found in other of the ancient writings, but the moment you come to very much detail you must turn to the Pauranic accounts; as you are aware, sages, in giving those Puranas, very often described things as they are seen on the higher planes, giving the description of the underlying truth of facts and events; you have appearances described which sound very strange in the lower world; you have facts asserted which raise very much of challenge in modern days. When you read in the Puranas of strange forms and marvellous appearances, when you read accounts of creatures that seem unlike anything that you have ever heard of or dreamed of elsewhere, the modern mind, with its somewhat narrow limitations, is apt to revolt against the accounts that are given; the modern mind, trained within the limits of the science of observation, is necessarily circumscribed within those limits and those limits are of an exceedingly narrow description; they are limits which belong only to modern time, modern to men, in the true sense of the word, though geological researches stretch of course far back into what we call in this nineteenth century the night of time. But you must remember that the moment geology goes beyond the historic period, which is a mere moment in the history of the world, it has more of guesses than of facts, more of theories than of proofs. If you take half a dozen modern geologists and ask each of them in turn for the date of the period of which records remain in the small number of fossils collected, you will find that almost every man gives a different date, and that they deal with differences of millions of years as though they were only seconds or minutes of ours. So that you will have to remember in what science can tell you of the world, however accurate it may be within its limits, that these limits are exceedingly narrow, narrow I mean when measured by the sight that goes back kalpa after kalpa, and that knows that the mind of the Supreme is not limited to the manifestations of a few hundred thousands of years, but goes back million after million, hundreds of millions after hundreds of millions, and that the varieties of form, the enormous differences of types, the marvellous kinds of creatures which have come out of that creative imagination, transcend in actuality all that man's mind can dream of, and that the very wildest images that man can make fail far short of the realities that actually existed in the past kalpas through which the universe has gone. That word of warning is necessary, and also the warning that on the higher planes things look very different from what they look down here. You have here a reflection only of part of those higher forms of existence. Space there has more dimensions than it has on the physical plane, and each dimension of space adds a new fundamental variety to form; if to illustrate this I may use a simile I have often used, it may perhaps convey to you a little idea of what I mean. Two similes I will take each throwing a little light on a very difficult subject. Suppose that a picture is presented to you of a solid form; the picture, being made by pen or pencil on a sheet of paper, must show on the sheet, which is practically of two dimensions—a plane surface—a three dimensional form; so that if you want to represent a solid object, a vase, you must draw it flat, and you can only represent the solidity of that vase by resorting to certain devices of light and shade, to the artificial device which is called perspective, in order to make an illusory semblance of the third dimension. There on the plane surface you get a solid appearance, and the eye is deceived into thinking it sees a solid when really it is looking at a flat surface. Now as a matter of fact if you show a picture to a savage, an undeveloped savage, or to a very young child, they will not see a solid but only a flat. They will not recognise the picture as being the picture of a solid object they have seen in the world round them; they will not see that that artificial representation is meant to show a familiar solid, and it passes by them without making any impression on the mind; only the education of the eye enables you to see on a flat surface the picture of a solid form. Now, by an effort of the imagination, can you think of a solid as being the representation of a form in one dimension more, shown by a kind of perspective? Then you may get a vague idea of what is meant when we speak of a further dimension in space. As the picture is to the vase, so is the vase to a higher object of which that vase itself is a reflection. So again if you think, say, of the lotus flower I spoke of yesterday, as having just the tips of its leaves above water, each tip would appear as a separate object. If you know the whole you know that they are all parts of one object; but coming over the surface of the water you will see tips only, one for each leaf of the seven-leaved lotus. So is every globe in space an apparently separate object, while in reality it is not separated at all, but part of a whole that exists in a space of more dimensions; and the separateness is mere illusion due to the limitations of our faculties.
Now I have made this introduction in order to show you that when you read the Puranas you consistently get the fact on the higher plane described in terms of the lower, with the result that it seems unintelligible, seems incomprehensible; then you have what is called an allegory, that is, a reality which looks like a fancy down here, but is a deeper truth than the illusion of physical matter, and is nearer to the reality of things than the things which you call objective and real. If you follow that line of thought at all you will read the Puranas with more intelligence and certainly with more reverence than some of the modern Hindus are apt to show in the reading, and you will begin to understand that when another vision is opened one sees things differently from the way that one sees them on the physical plane, and that that which seems impossible on the physical is what is really seen when you pass beyond the physical limitations.
From the Puranas then the stories come.
Let me take the first three Avataras apart from the remainder, for a reason that you will readily understand as we go through them. We take the Avatara which is spoken of as that of Matsya or the fish; that which is spoken of as that of Kurma or the tortoise; that which is spoken of as that of Varaha, or the boar. Three animal forms; how strange! thinks the modern graduate. How strange that the Supreme should take the forms of these lower animals, a fish, a tortoise, a boar! What childish folly! "The babbling of a race in its infancy," it is said by the pandits of the Western world. Do not be so sure. Why this wonderful conceit as to the human form? Why should you and I be the only worthy vessels of the Deity that have come out of the illimitable Mind in the course of ages? What is there in this particular shape of head, arms, and trunk which shall make it the only worthy vessel to serve as a manifestation of the supreme I'shvara? I know of nothing so wonderful in the mere outer form that should make that shape alone worthy to represent some of the aspects of the Highest. And may it not be that from His standpoint those great differences that we see between ourselves and those which we call the lower forms of life may be almost imperceptible, since He transcends them all? A little child sees an immense difference between himself of perhaps two and a half feet high and a baby only a foot and a half high, and thinks himself a man compared with that tiny form rolling on the ground and unable to walk. But to the grown man there is not so much difference between the length of the two, and one seems very much like the other. While we are very small we see great differences between ourselves and others; but on the mountain top the hovel and the palace do not differ so very much in height. They all look like ant-hills, very much of the same size. And so from the standpoint of I'shvara, in the vast hierarchies from the mineral to the loftiest Deva, the distinctions are but as ant-hills in comparison with Himself, and one form or another is equally worthy, so that it suits His purpose, and manifests His will.
Now for the Matsya Avatara; the story you will all know: when the great Manu, Vaivasvata Manu, the Root Manu, as we call Him—that is, a Manu not of one race only, but of a whole vast round of kosmic evolution, presiding over the seven globes that are linked for the evolution of the world—that mighty Manu, sitting one day immersed in contemplation, sees a tiny fish gasping for water; and moved by compassion, as all great ones are, He takes up the little fish and puts it in a bowl, and the fish grows till it fills the bowl; and He placed it in a water vessel and it grew to the size of the vessel; then He took it out of that vessel and put it into a bigger one; afterwards into a tank, a pond, a river, the sea, and still the marvellous fish grew and grew and grew. The time came when a vast change was impending; one of those changes called a minor pralaya, and it was necessary that the seeds of life should be carried over that pralaya to the next manvantara. That would be a minor pralaya and a minor manvantara. What does that mean? It means a passage of the seeds of life from one globe to another; from what a we call the globe preceding our own to our own earth. It is the function of the Root Manu, with the help and the guidance of the planetary Logos, to transfer the seeds of life from one globe to the next, so as to plant them in a new soil where further growth is possible. As waters rose, waters of matter submerging the globe which was passing into pralaya, an ark, a vessel appeared; into this vessel stepped the great Rishi with others, and the seeds of life were carried by Them, and as They go forth upon the waters a mighty fish appears and to the horn of that fish the vessel is fastened by a rope, and it conveys the whole safely to the solid ground where the Manu rebegins His work. A story! yes, but a story that tells a truth; for looking at it as it takes place in the history of the world, we see the vast surging ocean of matter, we see the Root Manu and the great Initiates with Him gathering up the seeds of life from the world whose work is over, carrying them under the guidance and with the help of the planetary Vishnu to the new globe where new impulse is to be given to the life; and the reason why the fish form was chosen was simply because in the building up again of the world, it was at first covered with water, and only that form of life was originally possible, so far as denser physical life was concerned.
You have in that first stage what the geologists call the Silurian Age, the age of fishes, when the great divine manifestation was of all these forms of life. The Purana rightly starts in the previous Kalpa, rightly starts the manifestations with the manifestation in the form of the fish. Not so very ridiculous after all, you see, when read by knowledge instead of by ignorance; a truth, as the Puranas are full of truth, if they were only read with intelligence and not with prejudice.
But some of you may say that there is confusion about these first Avataras; in several accounts we find that the Boar stands the first; that is true, but the key of it is this; the Boar Avatara initiated that evolution which was followed unbrokenly by the human; whereas the other two bring in great stages, each of which is regarded as a separate kalpa; and if you look into the Vishnu Purana you will find there the key; for when that begins to relate the incarnation of the Boar, there is just a sentence thrown in, that the Matsya and Kurma Avataras belong to previous kalpas.
Now if we take the theosophical nomenclature, we find each of these kalpas covers what we call a Root Race, and you may remember that the first Root Race of humanity had not human form at all but was simply a floating mass able to live in the waters which then covered the earth, and only showing the ordinary protoplasmic motions connected with such a type of life and possible at that stage of its evolution. It was a seed of form rather than a form itself; it was the seed planted by the Manu in the waters of the earth, that out of that humanity might evolve. But the general course of physical evolution passed through the stage of the fish; and geology there gives a true fact, though it does not understand, naturally, the hidden meaning; while the Purana gives you the reality of the manifestation, and the deeper truth that underlies the stages of the evolving world.