Myth, God, or Man: What Does the Word "Avatar" Actually Mean?


Many spiritual teachers in the modern age have been hailed as “avatars,” a word which has come to mean a person who is a divine incarnation, messiah, or world teacher of the highest order. Since Ramakrishna—whose disciples first claimed that he was an avatar at the end of the last century—a number of the spiritual teachers of India have been called avatars by their followers. Perhaps the two best known in this regard are Meher Baba and Satya Sai Baba, but other groups have conferred avatar status on their gurus as well. Nor is this claim limited to those in the Hindu tradition. We find mention of it among the Theosophists, who in the early twentieth century claimed that J. Krishnamurti was the avatar. Abdul Bahai of Persia in the Bahai movement is another avatar figure. In fact, there are now so many people who have been labeled “avatar” that it’s no longer clear what the word really means.

The extent to which the word “avatar” has been devalued is best revealed by an organization in the United States that trains people to become “avatars,” giving them their own “avatar number” when they complete a course. This group has additional training to turn people into avatar masters, who are then certified to train other people to become avatars. Exactly what “avatar” means to them is best revealed by a third training course, which claims to turn avatar masters into wizards. Thus, an avatar is only an understudy for a wizard! While this can be dismissed as advertising hype, it does show how much confusion abounds around the concept of avatar.

The Classical Concept

“Avatar” is a Sanskrit word meaning a “descent.” In general, it can refer to a new, unexpected, or revolutionary person or event. Specifically, it has been used to refer to the appearance of a deity on earth, whether in human form or as an apparition. As a descent of the Divine into animal or human form, “avatar” primarily refers to descents of Vishnu, the divine power which preserves and maintains the universe. There were traditionally said to be ten avatars of Vishnu, although some texts list twenty-six. The ten are: Fish (Matsya); Turtle (Kurma); Boar (Varaha); Man-lion (Narasingha); Dwarf (Vamana); Parashurama; Rama; Krishna; Buddha; and Kalki, who is yet to appear.

“Avatar” is a Sanskrit word meaning a “descent.”

This short list covers all human history and apparently the animal world as well. Three of the ten avatars are animals and one is a mythological figure. The fish and turtle are common mystical symbols, and the man-lion incarnation also appears in Egypt as the sphinx. Only the last five avatars are human and between each of them are periods of hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Thus, if all those who have been called avatars in the modern age actually are avatars, there have been more avatars in the last hundred years than in all of history.

In the ancient tradition of yoga, avatars are seen as symbols. The demons they defeat represent obstacles that the aspirant encounters in his spiritual practices. This list of avatars does not include the most famous sages in the Indian tradition, such as the seven rishis of the Vedas; Yajnavalkya, the foremost of the Upanishadic sages; the great philosopher Shankaracharya; Kapila, the founder of the Sankhya system; or Patanjali, the compiler of the Yoga Sutras. Thus, it is obviously not intended to encompass all the great teachers of India.

In fact, the worship of avatars is not seen as essential in yogic and meditative traditions, which emphasize Self-knowledge rather than outer worship. In the Vedantic tradition, those seeking Self-realization are not encouraged to worship an avatar any more than they are required to worship a particular deity, though they can do so if the avatar or deity is seen as a form of the Self.

The Modern Notion

Today, when people use the term “avatar,” they generally mean a direct divine incarnation—a being who does not take birth out of any personal karma, but who is the Divine itself, manifesting to take care of the needs of humanity. The founders of religions—particularly Christ, Buddha, and Mohammed—are regarded by many as avatars. This is a departure from the classic concept, as none of the avatars of Vishnu ever founded a new religion. The Buddha is regarded an avatar of Vishnu by the Hindus not because he founded a religion but because he propounded the ancient teaching of dharma or natural law.

Just as the focus on avatars is not a part of yoga, so is it also in contrast to many streams of religious thought, which do not believe in divine incarnations. Islam does not recognize divine incarnations but only prophets who bring historical revelations. Mohammed is considered to be the final prophet—Muslims expect no other. To make Mohammed into an avatar is contrary to the doctrines of Islam, which hold that the divine should never be worshiped as a human. Most Jews have a similar idea and do not believe that an individual can become God, much less that God can be born as a person. Historically, Judaism and Islam rejected Christianity on the ground that Christ could not be the son of God because God cannot assume human form.

Buddhism does not recognize any divine creator or Ishvara but holds that the world comes into being through karma alone. Instead of divine incarnations, Buddhists have great enlightened teachers (Buddhas) who have had previous lives, attain liberation, and continue in the world for the benefit of others. They also have bodhisattvas, beings who, having already achieved their liberation from the cycle of karma, take birth purely to help others, not out of any karmic need of their own, having already achieved their liberation from the cycle of karma.

Many Shaivites (worshipers of Shiva) do not believe that the Divine can directly incarnate through a person, though Shaivism does recognize that portions or aspects of the Divine (amsas) can work through different individuals and that individuals can attain Self- or God-realization.

To many Hindus, great siddhas, yogis, and jnanis are more important than avatars. Such great beings exist beyond the world and its religious identities. Although they may never become known, these teachers may be more important than the few who have become known, including the so-called avatars. The greatest teachers may never reveal themselves to the outer world but do their work in anonymity, silence, and seclusion. To have contact with such great beings, which is possible for seekers who are firmly committed to the path of spirituality, is considered to be the highest form of blessing.

To many Hindus, great siddhas, yogis, and jnanis are more important than avatars.

In the Vedantic tradition, the attainment of a Self-realized sage is more important than that of a single divine incarnation whom everyone must worship. The Self-realized sage is one who has realized that Brahman or God alone exists. Such a sage is not bound by ideas of bondage and liberation, ignorance and enlightenment, avatars and non-avatars. He or she directs us to the inner truth, the nature of consciousness. By contrast, an avatar is generally a popular figure of the outer religion, a devotional image.

The yogic tradition emphasizes sanatana dharma, a tradition of eternal and universal truth, not a religion focused on a particular incarnation or avatar. From this point of view, all the religions of the world—to the extent that they claim exclusive ownership of truth—are a fall from sanatana dharma or the universal truth, while religious identities that separate human beings into believers and non-believers deny the unity of God and man.

The Long-Awaited Avatar

Today in the West, the concept of the avatar is often associated with the second coming of Christ, an idea which has been dominant in the European psyche for the past two thousand years. It can be seen in the concept of the Jewish messiah; in Maitreya, the next Buddha; in Kalki, the tenth incarnation of Vishnu; and in the Mahdi of the Muslims—all of which are different names for the divine incarnation who is expected to unite the world’s religions into a new global religion under his name.

This idea has been part of a syncretic trend in modern thought. To consider the founders of all religions as avatars brings them into a single family. Conceptualizing the next avatar as a figure common to all religions is a way of uniting their influence. However, such attempts at unification work on the level of names and personalities, seeking an external figure to bring people together. This popular notion ignores the fact that authentic unification must come from the realm beyond names, forms, and identities. Any true unification of religion can arise only through a recognition of the One Self in all human beings and the unitary nature of all life. It comes from direct inner experience and cannot be brought about merely through a new religious leader.

This modern notion of the avatar requires scrutiny. Even in the highly improbable event that all religions could be united under the aegis of a single individual, would this be desirable? There is one Truth which is the basis of all true religion, but that does not mean that this truth is equally represented by all religions as they exist today. All food is one in the sense that its goal is nourishing the body, but this does not mean that all food is the same or that all food is good. Religion is a phenomenon as diverse as food and requires as much discrimination in the taking. To throw all the religions together to arrive at a superfaith is like mixing all the foods of different countries together—the result is likely to be indigestion.

To look for one great teacher to represent the unity of all religions may result only in creating another sectarian belief. While the idea of a universal avatar does reflect the aspiration of humanity for a new global spiritual culture, it is not a new religion that we need so much as freedom from religious sectarianism, which will allow us to freely explore all spiritual paths. The search for a new avatar or messiah to save us, individually or globally, may be only another immature attempt at finding an external savior. What we need is to outgrow this phase of emotional neediness and come to recognize that Truth transcends all personalities.

This is not to say that all modern figures who have been called avatars are questionable as teachers or leaders. A number of them have a greatness which cannot be disputed, but debating whether or not they are avatars misses the point. Often overzealous devotees find it necessary to declare their teacher the greatest of all teachers or a direct divine incarnation. Calling the teacher an avatar has become one way to do this. Many of these teachers never considered themselves to be avatars and should not be blamed for the excessive adulation of their followers. Some of those who have allowed the term to be applied to them did not mean that they themselves were a divine incarnation but only that an important new teaching or descent of grace came through them.

Ramana Maharshi’s View of Avatars

Ramana Maharshi, one of the great sages of modern India, gained his Self-realization at the age of seventeen after only twenty minutes of inquiry. After this experience, he never departed from the Absolute and demonstrated a life of the highest character and knowledge. The lives of the founders of the world’s main religions contained more struggle and human error than his did, yet Maharshi did not claim to be an avatar and did not place much importance on the term.

When Maharshi was asked who the avatar was, he said that for him everyone is an avatar. He said that from the standpoint of jnana yoga, or the yoga of knowledge, there are no avatars, but only the One Self or One Reality in all the beings of the universe.

According to this line of thought, we should not let the avatar idea obscure the greater truth that all is God and that one who realizes the Self becomes one with everything, including all the avatars, whoever they may be. Self-realization rests upon our own sadhana, which is a matter of daily practice, not on seeking for a magical avatar whom we may never find.

Yet worship of an avatar can be an aid to the path of Self-knowledge, as can the worship of a deity. Avatars represent one way to direct our devotion to the Divine. However, this path is only one way to the direct experience. One may direct devotion to any form of the Divine, any great teacher, to the Divine without form, or to the inner Self. But on the path of Self-knowledge, none of these forms of devotion is essential, because a seeker can directly experience the Self.

Avatars represent one way to direct our devotion to the Divine. However, this path is only one way to the direct experience.

It is good for us to acknowledge divine qualities wherever we find them, but it is not necessary that we standardize this process by insisting on only one teacher or one set of teachers as the ultimate solution for all humanity. It is not another avatar that we need so much as a living tradition of Self-knowledge which is not dependent on a particular personality. We may never know whether our teacher—or any teacher—is an avatar, but we can know ourselves and, as the Vedas say, one who knows the Self knows all.

About the Teacher

teacher avatar image
David Frawley
Dr. David Frawley (Pandit Vamadeva Shastri) D. Litt., Padma Bhushan is a western born teacher or guru... Read more