The doctrine of the avatara is a deeply mystical one. It will lead us, perhaps more than any other teaching, to a realization that wonderful indeed are the mysteries hidden behind the veil of the outer seeming. An avatara is a spiritual transitory event. (Avatara is a Sanskrit word meaning 'descent,' from ava, down, and tri, to 'cross over.') It comes as a blinding light from heaven into the world of men, passes athwart the sky of human affairs, and vanishes. There will be many avataras in the future, as there have been many in the past.
The avatara is a magical composition, a putting together of spiritual, psychical, astral, and physical elements. Just as is an ordinary human being, it is composed of three bases: spirit, soul, body; but instead of being a man -- a reincarnating ego with a long karmic past stretching back into the infinitudes of duration, and with a long karmic future ahead of it -- the avatara is a temporary union of these three elements, in order to produce a more or less permanent spiritual and intellectual effect among men. It is a sublime feat of the highest white magic deliberately brought about by the masters of wisdom and compassion, in order to introduce into our human atmosphere the direct influence and energy of a god.
The avatara has no past and no future because it possesses no reincarnating ego in the sense that a complete human being does. The intermediate nature of an avatara is loaned by a very highly evolved human being of buddha-type. Lord Gautama the Buddha was the one who furnished his own psycho-spiritual apparatus to the avatara Sankaracharya in India, and also to Jesus the Christos. Neither of these two had any past or future karma, in the usual meaning of the word. The avatara, as such, is an illusion, a pure maya, and obviously it is impossible for an illusion to reimbody itself. Yet, strangely enough, it is this maya which does a wonderful work in the world. The divinity is no maya, the buddhic element is no maya, the body is no maya, but it is the combining of these three into a temporary union which is the maya.
The following extract describes graphically, yet succinctly, the main characteristic of the nature and function of all avataric beings, but especially of the upapadaka avataras. (7) It is taken from papers left by H.P.B., which were published after her death as a so-called third volume of The Secret Doctrine:
There is a great mystery in such incarnations and they are outside and beyond the cycle of general re-births. Rebirths may be divided into three classes: the divine incarnations called Avataras; those of Adepts who give up Nirvana for the sake of helping on humanity -- the Nirmanakayas; and the natural succession of rebirths for all -- the common law. The Avatara is an appearance, one which may be termed a special illusion within the natural illusion that reigns on the planes under the sway of that power, Maya; the Adept is re-born consciously, at his will and pleasure; the units of the common herd unconsciously follow the great law of dual evolution.
What is an Avatara? for the term before being used ought to be well understood. It is a descent of the manifested Deity -- whether under the specific name of Shiva, Vishnu, or Adi-Buddha -- into an illusive form of individuality, an appearance which to men on this illusive plane is objective, but it is not so in sober fact. That illusive form having neither past nor future, because it had neither previous incarnation nor will have subsequent rebirths, has naught to do with Karma, which has therefore no hold on it.
A Buddha of Compassion can incarnate in a human body whenever he so wills, but this they very rarely or perhaps never do, because nature's spiritual mechanisms are so delicately adjusted that they come at certain cyclic times in racial history. Nevertheless their great influence is flowing out from them constantly, permeating the human heart and stimulating the human intellect -- at least whenever the divine visitor is welcomed. It is they who are the sublime hope of the human race, the inspirers and teachers of mankind. They are the nirmanakayas in their different stages; and to this day the nirmanakaya of him who is known as Gautama remains on earth, and is known by great initiates and mahatmas; and he teaches and inspires and initiates in earth's most holy spot, an unknown district of Central Asia, known in mystic records as Sambhala. There the great initiations take place. There are the Buddhas born, and reborn.
A buddha is one who has ascended the rungs of the ladder of life one after the other, and who thus has attained buddhahood, which means human plenitude of spiritual and intellectual glory, and who has done all this by his own self-directed exertions along the far past evolutionary pathway. An avatara, on the contrary, is a flaming spiritual splendor which passes across the horizon of human history, stays for a while, and then disappears. An avatara comes at certain cyclical periods, when evil is running strong in the world and virtue is fading from men's hearts; then there occurs a descent or imbodiment of a divine being, which in the spiritual realms is ready and waiting. But in order to make contact with the sphere of human life, an unusually evolved and holy intermediate vehicle or principle is necessary to step down the divine current. This intermediary is furnished by a Buddha of Compassion in order that the imbodying divinity may shine through and thus illumine still more strongly this loaned intermediate nature of the Buddha which thereupon incarnates in a human seed.
When the avatara vanishes the body is dissipated, and the loaned part returns to the Buddha -- yet to say that it 'returns' would give a wrong idea, because it suggests that it had been separated from the Buddha, which is inexact. It is the Buddha; but after the death of the avatara, the Buddha then is in full possession and use of all his faculties, instead of being in the position of having loaned the noblest portion of his psychical apparatus. The divinity receives back to itself its divine ray, the projection of its essence which it had sent forth into the avatara composition. As a tongue of flame from a fire will leap forth and then recede, so does the divine ray flash back to its divine source -- and this is instantaneous, for the action of the spirit is quicker than thought.
There are really two kinds of avataras: the upapadaka and the anupapadaka, and the distinction between these avataric 'descents' is seen in the Sanskrit words themselves. Upapadaka means 'caused to follow along or according to,' 'caused to occur.' Anupapadaka is the opposite of this, 'not caused to follow along,' etc., and consequently may be translated as one who does not go or come according to a line of succession; hence, not signifying a messenger in a line of messengers, each passing the torch of Light to the hand of his successor.
The upapadaka class of avataric beings is almost unknown popularly, and scarcely even suspected in the philosophical schools of India and elsewhere, whereas the anupapadaka is fairly well understood as being a 'descent' of a portion of a divine being into a human individual for the purpose of carrying out some great and lofty objective in the world. The upapadakas, quite rare in human history, are called such because they are caused to follow along or to occur by the swabhava of the psychological instrument through which the avataric ray functions, much as a ray of brilliant sunlight streaming through a stained-glass window is caused to be the color of the glass. In other words, the divine ray, although having its own swabhava, nevertheless is de facto modified in its expression by the strong characteristics and individuality of the Buddha's psychological apparatus through which it works; and thus is said to be upapadaka.
Now the anupapadaka avataras are much more numerous since this class includes all the various modes by which a divine ray manifests itself in human life. The term anupapadaka was somewhat paraphrased by H.P.B. as "self-born of divine essence," and this exactly describes the nature and type of this class of avatara in any world where such manifestations take place.
As instances of the anupapadaka class, there are, first, the dhyani-buddhas, self-born from the womb of the cosmic intelligence, and nevertheless appearing through their own inherent spiritual swabhava and urge. Again, the various kinds of true logoi are likewise anupapadaka avataras in a sense, and indeed the dhyani-buddhas are rays from such logoi, although these dhyani-buddhas themselves are of anupapadaka character. As other examples of somewhat different types of anupapadakas, we may point to those fairly rare cases of surpassing human spiritual and intellectual genius, where the dhyani-buddha of the man himself inspires or infills by its direct radiance the man's own psychological apparatus; and perhaps the most noteworthy of this type of anupapadaka avataric descents are the manushya-buddhas, such as Gautama the Buddha.
All this teaching regarding the avataras is typically esoteric and therefore was only pointed to by H.P.B., and then usually in rather ambiguous terms and even sometimes in language which, while correct, is a 'blind.' In her Theosophical Glossary (p. 44) -- a posthumous work which never underwent her correcting hand -- she states that "there are two kinds of avatars: those born from woman, and the parentless, the anupapadaka. "Now the anupapadakas are indeed "parentless," for they are divine rays arising in the bosom of the divine monad and streaming downwards in their various descents in order to do their work in the world through their reflections or representatives on earth -- i.e. their own human vehicles. It is the much rarer cases of the upapadakas who are "born from woman"; and just here is the blind, for naturally, as far as physical bodies go, any human being who is an anupapadaka avatara likewise must work through a body born from a woman.
The point here is that the upapadaka avataras are really 'creations' of a sublime and lofty white magic. Sankaracharya was one, as was Jesus; and these two alone, with their greatly differing characteristics, show that the upapadakas vary among themselves.
The wide range of the anupapadaka class includes all the different individuals who send a radiance from themselves through their own lower constitution. Hence they extend all the way from the dhyani-buddhas and logoi down to those great men and women who are inspired each one by his or her inner god. Examples of avataras which are anupapadaka are very numerous in history, and are often mentioned in religion and philosophy. We may cite the long line of the true manushya-buddhas, of which Gautama was one. Tsong-kha-pa of Tibet, who lived in the fourteenth century of the Christian era, was a sort of minor anupapadaka manushya-buddha likewise. Krishna was another example of an anupapadaka avatara.
The 'second coming' of Christ -- not of Jesus but of the Christ-spirit -- alludes to the universally held belief that Adi-buddha or the Christos, the Logos, manifests itself from time to time in the world. In other words, the 'second coming' is simply a new manifestation of the Logos, the Christos. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad-Gita:
Whenever, O descendant of Bharata, a decline of duty comes into being -- a springing up of unrighteousness -- then, indeed, I emanate myself.
For the preservation of the righteous, for the destruction of the evil-doers, for the sake of establishing Duty, I take birth from age to age. -- Chapter iv, slokas 7-8
Here we have Krishna, the type-avatara of Hindustan, implying that he comes at different times into the manifested world as an avataric energy at the beginnings of descending or materializing cycles in human experience. He spoke in his divine capacity as being one of the gods who inspirit and invigorate our universe. It is obvious from the reach of this teaching that many gods can and do have avataric manifestations. The one who was in Krishna as the divine essence may have manifested as an avatara many times before, and inevitably will manifest again; and the same divinity which worked through Jesus must have sent a divine ray into other human beings in the past, i.e. into other avataric entities, and will do so again.
In a way every human being's own inner god, who is a spark of the cosmic spirit, could say the same words as those ascribed to Krishna. For the average man today, buffeted as he is by the winds of destiny because he has no spiritual holding-power, it would be a manifestation resembling that of an avatara if his inner divinity -- the heart of his reincarnating ego -- were to express itself more or less continuously through his consciousness, and therefore through his physical brain. When such an event happens, we have a buddha -- one no longer an ordinary human being, but one glorified.
A buddha is one who, during past ages, through self-directed evolution, has evolved forth the god within himself. Working for all that is, he advances steadily towards godhood; and it is this utter self-sacrifice of the human being, of the most lofty type conceivable, which makes of a buddha so holy and exalted a being. That is why any Buddha of Compassion is considered in the esoteric philosophy to be even above an avatara. Nevertheless, so far as rank goes, the avatara stands higher. We should not confuse mere rank with evolutionary development. Nothing on earth stands higher in evolution than the Buddhas of Compassion, for they are the very imbodiment of wisdom and love. It is they who form the Guardian Wall around mankind.
The avatara is a most sublime event in the spiritual history of mankind -- like the coming of a great light for purposes esoteric and wonderful; but the light comes and passes; while a buddha continues his noble work forever, time without ending. But they really cannot be compared. The buddha assists the coming of the avatara. Both come at cyclic periods: the avataras usually at the beginning of a downward cycle, the buddhas at the beginning of ascending as well as descending cycles.
As said earlier, the dhyani-buddhas are all anupapadaka; yet they themselves (whether we count them as seven or as ten or twelve) were divine avataric rays from the Adi-buddha, the Logos, which Buddhist mystical writings call Avalokitesvara. Avalokitesvara itself is thus the synthesis or origin of the dhyani-buddhas radiating from it; and, furthermore, is a grand logoic avatara of the anupapadaka class.
Now, in a certain sense, every buddha, as being a manifestation of the spiritual efflux of a dhyani-buddha, is an anupapadaka avatara. Every time a human being unites himself with his inner god, even if it be momentarily, he becomes for that brief period an anupapadaka avatara -- self-made or self-born. He is not necessarily made so by initiation, nor by an act of white magic as the other class of avataras is. For the same reason every buddha may be said to be an anupapadaka, a self-born avatara, because he is allied with the dhyani-buddha, the celestial buddha. For the time being he becomes the vehicle or channel through which this celestial buddha, his own inner divinity, manifests with relative fullness. In such case it is more than the buddha's own spiritual ego at work.
I have elsewhere stated that all of the manushya-buddhas, the racial buddhas, are, each one, the representative or reflection on earth of his respective dhyani-buddha. For example, Amitabha, the dhyani-buddha, radiated the inner god of Sakyamuni called Gautama the Buddha; and the same Amitabha radiated the inner individual buddha or inner god of Tsong-kha-pa. Now this fact alone establishes a very intimate or personal connection between Gautama the Buddha and Tsong-kha-pa. I quote here the significant passage from The Secret Doctrine (I, 108) which bears directly upon this matter:
Esoterically, however, the Dhyani-Buddhas are seven, of whom five only have hitherto manifested, and two are to come in the sixth and seventh Root-races. They are, so to speak, the eternal prototypes of the Buddhas who appear on this earth, each of whom has his particular divine prototype. So, for instance, Amitabha is the Dhyani-Buddha of Gautama Sakyamuni, manifesting through him whenever this great Soul incarnates on earth as He did in Tzon-kha-pa. As the synthesis of the seven Dhyani-Buddhas, Avalokiteswara was the first Buddha (the Logos), so Amitabha is the inner "God" of Gautama, who, in China, is called Amita (-Buddha). They are, as Mr. Rhys Davids correctly states, "the glorious counterparts in the mystic world, free from the debasing conditions of this material life" of every earthly mortal Buddha -- the liberated Manushi-Buddhas appointed to govern the Earth in this Round. They are the "Buddhas of Contemplation," and are all Anupadaka (parentless), i.e., self-born of divine essence.
Each one of these seven dhyani-buddhas is the spiritual guide or Manu for one of the seven globes of our planetary chain, and during each round on any such globe, the manushya-buddhas respectively appearing in the seven root-races are all the anupapadaka 'reflections' of the dhyani-buddha of that globe.
There has been a good deal of rather gushy and vapid writing in certain circles about the coming of the next Buddha, whom Buddhists everywhere expect to come in the due course of the cycling ages, and whom they have called Maitreya -- a Sanskrit word which can be translated as the Friendly. Now just when the Buddha-Maitreya is to appear is known only by the mahatmas themselves, and by those higher than they; but it certainly will not be for many thousands of years. The reason for this is twofold: (a) the Buddha-Maitreya in his manifested fullness of power will be the racial buddha of the seventh root-race on this globe in this fourth round; and (b), a minor racial buddha appears in every one of the seven great subraces of a root-race; and hence the Buddha-Maitreya who is expected to be the next buddhic avataric manifestation among men will be that particular minor manushya-buddha, called 'Maitreya,' who will appear at the end, or the seventh and last part, of our present great subrace and therefore at the beginning of the succeeding great subrace -- and this is many, many thousands of years distant.
The Buddhists have always stoutly denied that their BUDDHA was, as alleged by the Brahmans, an Avatara of Vishnu in the same sense as a man is an incarnation of his Karmic ancestor. They deny it partly, perhaps, because the esoteric meaning of the term "Maha Vishnu" is not known to them in its full, impersonal, and general meaning. There is a mysterious Principle in Nature called "Maha Vishnu," which is not the God of that name, but a principle which contains Bija, the seed of Avatarism or, in other words, is the potency and cause of such divine incarnations. All the World-Saviours, the Bodhisattvas and the Avataras, are the trees of salvation grown out from the one seed, the Bija or "Maha Vishnu." Whether it be called Adi-Buddha (Primeval Wisdom) or Maha Vishnu, it is all the same. Understood esoterically, Vishnu is both Saguna and Nirguna (with and without attributes). In the first aspect, Vishnu is the object of exoteric worship and devotion; in the second, as Nirguna, he is the culmination of the totality of spiritual wisdom in the Universe -- Nirvana, in short -- and has as worshippers all philosophical minds. In this esoteric sense the Lord BUDDHA was an incarnation of Maha Vishnu.
This is from the philosophical and purely spiritual standpoint. From the plane of illusion, however, as one would say, or from the terrestrial standpoint, those initiated know that He was a direct incarnation of one of the primeval "Seven Sons of Light" who are to be found in every Theogony -- the Dhyan Chohans whose mission it is, from one eternity (aeon) to the other, to watch over the spiritual welfare of the regions under their care. -- From papers left by H.P.B., and published after her death as 'S.D., III.'
The ultimate source of an avatara is in a Raja sun; but actually the spiritual part of an avatara is a ray from a god, an inhabitant of our own solar system; and more particularly this divinity is a portion of the solar spiritual essence. In India these gods thus belonging to our sun and its system are collectively called by the generic name of Vishnu, although equally they could be called Siva.
One of the oldest mythologic Hindu legends tells how Vishnu plunges into the 'waters' in the form of a boar and holds up the earth on his tusks. The story is found in some of the literary works of the Vedic cycle as well as in the Mahabharata and the Puranas. In its earliest forms, the avataras of a deity are ascribed to Prajapati, the father of mankind and of the beasts, the vegetation and all the mineral world; in other words, to Brahma. Later forms of the story as given in the Puranas attribute ten avataras to Vishnu, the Sustainer. These range from the fish-avatara, through the tortoise, the boar, the man-lion, the dwarf, and so forth to Krishna, the eighth incarnation, and on up to and including the tenth, called the Kalki-avatara. Each succeeding avatara in the world order is in a higher grade of beings than the preceding one. The Kalki-avatara has not yet appeared, and this incarnation represents what the Occident popularly speaks of as 'the coming of the Messiah' -- when all wrongs shall be righted, and when righteousness and justice shall be firmly established on earth.
All these legends are based upon facts of nature, but they are told in mythological form, so that unless one has the key to them they are difficult to understand. Some of these zoologico-mythologic figures are very interesting. For instance, in Babylonia and in Persia, also in Greece, the horse symbolized the sun; the bull and the cow were symbols of the moon. Similarly, in Hindustan, the boar which plunges into the 'waters' of space and lifts up the earth upon his tusks, and so bears it for the remainder of the manvantara, signifies not only the fourth-plane physical vitality, but likewise the cosmical vitality which infills and sustains the earth, rooted as this vitality is in the spiritual life of the god of our solar system.
In the two classes of avataras we may qualify perhaps some as avataras from Maha-Vishnu, and others as from Maha-Siva. The following thought may be helpful: men differ among themselves in character, some being aggressive, others being thoughtful and retiring; and still others, although essentially good and constructive in action, nevertheless produce results by the overthrow of evil. These last we might call human rays or very minor avataras of Maha-Siva, for these men are destroyers in the sense of regenerators. Other kinds of men, on the contrary, are preservers of the good already existing, its guardians and protectors: equally high, equally strong, as the former class, and serving an equally beneficent and lofty purpose in the world. These we may call very minor avataras of Maha-Vishnu.
Thus the avataras of Maha-Siva are the regenerators by action; and the avataras of Maha-Vishnu are the preservers not so much by the action of overthrowing evil but by saving and stimulating the good already existing. Krishna was an avatara of Vishnu, while Jesus, from the very little we know of him, was, in my judgment, an avatara of Siva; and I might add that there does not appear to be any alternation in the successive appearances of the avataras of Siva and of Vishnu.
In one very true sense the ancient Brahmans were right in regarding Gautama the Buddha as one of the avataras of Vishnu. In a sense still more recondite, perhaps, the Lord Buddha might be called an avatara of Siva. Nevertheless, he may be looked upon as a partial incarnation of that aspect of the life of our solar system which the Hindus called Vishnu -- one of the triadic elements of the heart of the sun. Viewed esoterically, Vishnu is not a personal god but an individualized divinity, one of the three loftiest of our solar system which form the apex or crown of the ethereal sun, the other two being Brahma and Siva.
The union of a great and noble man with a cosmic divinity is the kind of avatara that the Buddha Gautama was: he had raised himself so high spiritually and intellectually that, by a tremendous effort of will and aspiration, he could reach with his consciousness into the very heart of the Vishnu-energy of our solar system, and thereafter 'step down' that divine energy to his fellow men. This thought is a wonderful key. Here is a man with ages and ages of past karma; destined to have ages and ages of future spiritual karma; and always rising on the evolutionary path to ever loftier peaks of achievement; and even at the present time able to reach up by a supreme effort of his buddhic being and connect with the Vishnu-energy.