Avatar – Digital, Christian, monistic and bhakti conceptions

by July 6, 2016

Central to the concept of avatar is the idea of crossing over from one realm to another. In its original Sanskrit philosophical context, avatar refers to the Absolute Truth descending from the spiritual world to the material world. The divine’s existence beyond this world is called transcendence, whereas his existence in this world is called immanence. The question of how the transcendent can become immanent has intrigued many thinkers throughout history. To get a sense of the question’s profundity, let’s look at the digital, Christian, monistic and bhakti conceptions of avatar.

Digital avatar

The Sanskrit word avatar has become mainstream in English due to both a Hollywood blockbuster and computer role-playing games. In contemporary usage, avatar refers to an icon representing a person in digital arenas such as video games and Internet forums. In such usage, the crossing over implicit in avatar is from the physical world to the digital world. Our digital avatar is a step-down from the reality of who we are. Even if our video game avatar is expert at doing many things, still it has no consciousness. Its apparent consciousness results from the projection of our consciousness into it through the game’s interfacing mechanism. So, when we refer to something unconscious as our avatar, we conceive ourselves in reduced terms. Such a reduction is revealing, for it points to two distinct thought-trains:

  1. A mechanistic conception of the self which makes us think that we can be represented by a digital profile that is as unconscious as the electrons that comprise the digital world.
  2. A longing for crossing over to some reality other than our present mundane reality with all its inanity.

Though the word avatar traditionally refers to the Absolute Truth’s descent to this world, the word’s contemporary usage refers to the self, not the Absolute. Still, the problems of crossing over associated with the notion of avatar surface when applied to the self too.


Christian incarnation

Avatar is frequently translated in English as incarnation. This English word is intricately associated with Abrahamic conceptions about how the divine manifests in this world. In Christianity, the word “incarnation” refers usually to Jesus, who is conceived of as God descended in flesh as a human being. Jesus was born in a Jewish tradition that was heavily messianic, driven by the longing for a future messiah who would deliver people from their various problems. Based on Jesus’s teachings and miracles, his followers thought of him as the messiah. This notion was falsified for some by his crucifixion, but it was reinforced for others by his claimed resurrection. For nearly four centuries thereafter, the identity of Jesus was a matter of vigorous, even acrimonious, debate in the Christian community. Eventually, the Nicene Creed elevated Jesus from messiah to Incarnation. The Creed resolved that the divinity of Christ had manifested in the humanity of Jesus, who was therefore both fully human and fully divine. But the ascription of full divinity to him was problematic, given the relatively recent and undeniable historical memory of Jesus’ life as a human. The Bible itself compounded the problem through statements such as “My Father is greater than I.” (John 14:2) While some quotes support the oneness of the Father and the Son, the Bible also indicates implies that his “oneness” with God is not exclusive to him – it can be achieved by others too: “As You and I are one, let them also be one in Us.” (John 17:21)

This blurring of the human-divine boundaries in conceiving the identity of Jesus reflects a larger blurring of the material-spiritual boundaries in Christian philosophy. The Bible refers to the soul, but doesn’t clearly describe it or categorically differentiate it from the body – it is frequently used as a metaphorical reference to our non-material essence. With such ontological ambiguity about the soul, the notion emerged that all faithful believers would receive bodily resurrection, as had Jesus. Here again we see how conceptions of the divine are intertwined with conceptions of the self.


Monistic avatar

Monists hold that reality comprises ultimately only one substance. Technically, materialists who hold that matter is all that exists are also monists – they are materialist monists. But conventionally, monist refers to spiritualists who hold that one spiritual substance is all that exists. For such monists, the material world with all its variety is ultimately an illusion. They also hold that our self-conception as individual beings is also an illusion. They believe that liberation means merging into the non-differentiated oneness of the Absolute.

For monists, matter is just an illusion; spirit is all that exists, and it is a non-differentiated oneness. So, in the monistic worldview, there exists no material world to cross over to and no supreme spiritual being to cross over.

Monists try to resolve such problems in their philosophy by granting provisional reality to matter – matter is seen as real as long as people are in material consciousness or, in other words, in illusion. They hold that avatar too is such a provisional reality – the impersonal absolute temporarily becomes personal during the period of descent. Avatar is thus treated as a helpful illusion that can aid us in resisting the harmful illusions of material existence: the many sense objects that allure us towards worldly pleasures. When we focus our consciousness on the avatar, we can become detached from sense objects and situated in the relatively elevated mode of goodness. Still, no matter how helpful, avatar is deemed ultimately an illusion – an illusion that needs to be transcended for attaining liberation. Thus, monism treats avatar not as a spiritual truth, but as a convenient fiction useful for spiritual growth.


Bhakti avatar

Whereas Christianity holds that the incarnation is somehow both material and spiritual, and monism holds that the avatar is material, bhakti explains that the avatar remains spiritual even while being in the material world.

To grasp how this is possible, we need to first understand how bhakti envisions the relationship between matter and spirit. The Bhagavad-gita in its second chapter outlines a radical matter-spirit duality. Spirit is said to have none of the attributes of matter – the soul is neither born nor dies (02.20) and is immutable, being beyond fragmentation, incineration, dissolution and desiccation (02.24-25). Yet the Gita balances this radical duality with an organic unity in its seventh chapter, where it declares that both matter and spirit are energies of the same one Absolute Truth (07.04-05). That spirit is the energy of the Absolute implies that the Absolute is situated not just on the spiritual side of the material-spiritual divide, but is situated at the summit of spiritual reality. The Gita (10.12) reveals this Absolute Truth to be Krishna, declaring that he is not just brahma (spirit) but param brahma (supreme spirit). Srimad-Bhagavatam (8.3.4), another prominent bhakti text, reiterates this position of the Absolute by declaring him as parat parah, which the pre-eminent modern bhakti teacher, Srila Prabhupada glosses as “he is transcendental to transcendental, or above all transcendence.” With this metaphysical background, we are better prepared to understand how the avatar remains spiritual even in the material world.

To illustrate, Srila Prabhupada would sometimes give the example of electricity: it is one energy that can manifest through a room heater as heat and through an air conditioner as cold. Consider a device that can, by the flip of a switch, heat and, by another flip, cool. The controller of that device can, at will, get the same electrical energy to heat or cool. If all of existence is like a device, Krishna is like its controller. By operating the switch of his omnipotence, he can prevent the material energy from acting materially on him even when he manifests in the material world.

Though the Bhagavad-gita doesn’t use the specific word avatar, it talks about the descent of the divine in its fourth chapter (04.06-10). The Gita begins this discussion (04.06) by asserting that Krishna remains the imperishable Lord of all living beings even when he enters into his material nature. This declaration implies that he doesn’t come under the control of material nature, which sentences all embodied beings through time’s inexorable flow to bodily deterioration and destruction.

The eternal transcendence of avatar underscores a subtle difference between avatar and its common English translation incarnation. Etymologically, “incarnation” means “to come in flesh”; the root “carna” is seen in words such as carnivorous animals (flesh-eating animals) and carnal desires (desires to enjoy the flesh). Krishna, however, doesn’t descend in a form of flesh; he remains transcendental.

Nonetheless, bhakti teachers frequently introduce contemporary audiences to the concept of avatara with the English rendition “incarnation”. In so doing, they avoid burdening us with a double unfamiliarity: both an unfamiliar term and an unfamiliar concept. Terms are verbal handles for mental concepts. By first giving us a familiar handle to grasp an unfamiliar concept and then explaining the concept’s unfamiliar dimensions, they help us move towards comprehension, one step at a time.

When Krishna descends and performs his pastimes in this world, he transforms this world from a stage for the display of illusion to a stage for the display of the highest spiritual reality: the loving pastimes between him and his devotees. The Gita (04.09) states that those who become attracted to Krishna’s appearance and activities, understanding his transcendental position, don’t take rebirth – they attain his eternal abode.


Trailer and trail

The pastimes that the avatar performs serve an extraordinary double role: as a trailer and a trail.

Trailer: Love is our deepest aspiration; we all desire to love and be loved. However, due to the temporary nature of things in this world, our longing for love is frustrated – inevitably and repeatedly.

Krishna’s pastimes are enactments of the love that is never frustrated – pure spiritual love between the all-attractive Supreme and his devotees that goes on eternally in the spiritual world. When Krishna descends to this world, he performs some of those pastimes here, giving us tantalizing glimpses of an arena where our longing for love can be eternally and perfectly fulfilled. Thus, his pastimes serve as trailers meant to attract us to his abode.

Trail: Those with superficial understanding of Krishna’s pastimes think of them as stories meant for entertainment. But those who understand these pastimes in truth know that they are not meant to entertain; they are meant to be entered into – they occur in that eternal spiritual reality to which we as souls, parts of Krishna, belong.

To enter that reality, we need to redirect our heart from the world to Krishna. For this redirection, his pastimes provide charming and purifying subject matter that we can contemplate, churn, recollect and relish. The more we thus think about Krishna, the more our heart becomes attracted to him and the more we progress on the path towards him. By providing us substance for turning our heart to him, Krishna’s pastimes comprise the trail that leads to him.

Overall, avatar demonstrates the centrality of love in spiritual growth. It is Krishna’s love for us that inspires the transcendent to become immanent, and it is our love for him that enables us to cross over from matter to spirit, to realize our trans-material identity and become situated in spiritual reality.


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