When we make a comparative study of the spiritual beliefs and ideals of India and of other countries, we notice a vast difference between them From very ancient times India has taken the entities beyond the senses, like God, the self, the next world, etc., to be real, and has employed all its efforts to their direct realization, with the result that it has made their immediate experience or direct knowledge the final goal of the national as well as the individual endeavour. All its activities have accordingly been coloured by intense spirituality throughout the ages.
When we seek out the source, of this absorbing interest in things beyond the senses, we find that it is due to the frequent birth in India of men possessing a direct knowledge of these things and endowed with divine qualities. India came to acquire a firm faith in their extraordinary visions and unique manifestations of power, and became deeply interested in them, because it always had an opportunity to witness and discuss them Its national life was thus established from very ancient times on the solid foundation of spirituality; and keeping its gaze firmly fixed on this, it brought into existence a society of unique customs and practices, which enabled its individual members to attain the ultimate object of God-realization in a most natural manner through the performance of their daily duties according to their special tastes and qualities. As these rules and regulations have been followed generation after generation, the spiritual ideas of India are still alive and vigorous. In consequence, men and woman have, even today, a strong conviction that with the help of austerity, self-control and intense yearning everyone can have a direct vision of God, the Cause of the universe, and become forever united with Him
That the religion of India is founded on God-vision becomes clear when we reflect upon the significance of words and expressions like Rishi (seer), Apta (one who has attained the goal of life), Adhikari (one possessed of authority), Prakriti-lina Purusha (a person merged in the cause of the universe), etc. These names have been used since Vedic times to describe the teachers who came to re-establish religion. It is beyond doubt that such men were designated by these names because they had given proof of their unique powers, acquired as a result of direct knowledge of the reality beyond the senses. This statement holds good in the case of every one of them, from the Rishis of the Vedic period to the divine incarnations of the Puranic (Epic) Age.
It does not take one long to understand that certain Rishis of the Vedic period came to be recognized during the Puranic period as incarnations. In the Vedic period it was understood that certain persons had the power to perceive the reality beyond the senses, but not that they possessed different degrees of that power. People were content to call all of them “Rishis” In course of time, however, as their intelligence and sense of discrimination became keener, they realized that not all the Rishis were endowed with the same degree of power. In shedding light on the spiritual world, some of them shone like the sun, some like the moon, some again, like bright stars, and others like ordinary fire-flies. They then began to classify the Rishis, and in so doing found that some of them were endowed with especial powers for manifesting spiritual truths or possessed these powers preeminently. Thus, in the Philosophic Age, some Rishis came to be known as Adhikari-Purushas (persons of authority). Even Kapila, the founder of the Sankhya philosophy, who was sceptical regarding the existence of God, had to accept the existence of these Rishis; for he could not doubt what he actually saw. Accordingly, Kapila and his followers, in their writings, put these “Adhikari Purushas” in the class of those “merged in Prakriti”. Searching for the cause of the advent of these uniquely powerful persons, the Sankhya philosophers came to the conclusion that, endowed with good qualities, such as purity, self-control, etc., they had acquired infinite knowledge, but that an intense desire to do good to the people had prevented them, for a time, from being merged in the real nature of the Self of infinite glory. Plunged, instead, into the all-powerful Prakriti, by virtue of that desire, they had come to know its powers to be their own; and, possessing the special powers, they did good to men in an infinite number of ways for one cycle, and at last became completely identified with the Self.
The Sankhya teachers have, again, divided the “persons merged in Prakriti”, according to the difference in their powers, into two classes: “Kalpaniyamaka Isvara” (ruler for one cycle) and “Isvarakotis” (those within the orbit of the former).
After the Philosophic Age, came a period when love for the divine was especially developed. At that time, through the overwhelming influence of Vedanta, people came to believe in an Isvara, an all-pervading Person, the aggregate of all beings. They acquired also the strong faith that Knowledge and Yoga could be had to the fullest degree by meditation on Him with single-minded devotion. And they soon came to believe that Isvara, in His capacity as ruler for a cycle, was either a partial or a full manifestation of the all-pervading Personal Isvara who is by nature eternally pure, eternally awake and eternally free. Thus the belief in the doctrine of God-incarnate arose in the Puranic Age, and those Rishis of the Vedic Age who possessed unique and extraordinary qualities began to be known as incarnations. It was the advent of persons endowed with such qualities that made people gradually believe in the existence of incarnations. Founded on the supersensuous visions and experiences of these persons, the unshakable edifice of religion gradually rose, like the snow-capped Himalayas, to reach the sky. Because these persons had achieved the highest goal of life, they were called “Aptas”, and their words, expressing the highest knowledge, came to be known as the Vedas.
Another reason for accepting certain Rishis as incarnations was the practice of worshipping the spiritual teacher (Guru). In India, from the time of the Vedas and the Upanishads, men and women worshipped the teacher, the giver of spiritual knowledge, with great reverence. This worship, combined with meditation, convinced them in course of time that no man could occupy the position of a spiritual teacher till the divine, super-conscious power manifested itself in him. At first they looked upon and worshipped the Guru as belonging to a different and higher type of humanity, because they found that, in contrast with the selfishness of the ordinary human being, the true teacher did good to the people out of pure compassion and without any selfish motive. Later, through faith, reverence and devotion, they perceived directly in the Guru the manifestation of the divine power, and this convinced them more and more of his divine attributes. They had prayed for so long a time to the gracious Lord, imploring Him to “protect them with His compassionate face” (Rudra yat te dakshinam mukham, tena mam pahi nityam)1 that their prayer was granted at last; and the compassion of the Lord stood revealed before them in the person of the Guru.
When men had proceeded thus far in the worship of the Guru, it did not take them long to identify him — through whom the special Lila (play) of the divine power was being manifested — with the knowledge-giving, benign form of the divine Lord. Thus it seems that the continued worship of the Guru strengthened the idea of God-incarnate. As already mentioned, the doctrine of incarnation actually dates from the Puranic Age, but the idea itself originated in the Vedic Age. The experience of the attributes, actions and nature of Isvara, during the ages of the Vedas, Upanishads and Darsanas (Philosophical systems), appears to have gradually assumed a more definite shape and then given rise to the belief in the doctrine of God-incarnate, it may also be that in the age of the Upanishads, Rishis, coming down by the reverse process from the state of Samadhi achieved by the path of “not this”, “not this”, through self-control, austerity, etc., realized that the whole universe was actually the manifestation of the unqualified (Nirguna) Brahman. It was only then, perhaps, that they acquired devotion to the all-pervading Brahman with attributes (Saguna), called Isvara, and began to worship Him. Having thus obtained a clear idea of Isvara’s qualities, actions, nature, etc., they might have become convinced of the possibility of His being manifested in a special way.
It was in the Puranic Age, then, that belief in the existence of incarnations was especially developed. Notwithstanding various defects in the development of spirituality in that age, it was faith in the glory of God-incarnate that made it really great. This belief in the existence of the incarnation also enabled men to comprehend the eternal play of the Saguna Brahman. As a consequence they realized that God, the Cause of the universe, was their only guide in the spiritual world; and they were convinced that the infinite compassion of the divine Lord would never let them to be doomed, however reprobate they might be, but that the Lord would in every age take form as an incarnation, discover new paths suited to man’s nature and make Self-realization easy for him.
It will not be out of place to give here a brief summary of the essential ideas recorded in the Smritis and Puranas about the birth, action, etc. of the divine incarnation, who is by nature eternally pure, awake and free. Unlike a Jiva (mortal being), he never gets entangled in or bound by his actions, for, content in the Atman from his very birth, no selfish idea of worldly enjoyment arises in his mind, as it does in the case of a Jiva. His whole life is dedicated to the good of others. Being always free from the meshes of Maya, he retains the memory of his previous lives.
It may be asked: Does he have that unbroken memory from childhood? The Puranas reply: Although latent within him, it is not always manifest during his childhood. But as soon as his body and mind mature, he becomes aware of it with little or no effort. This applies to all of his actions. Since he assumes a human body, he has to behave in all respects like a human being.
As soon as the body and mind of the incarnation fully develops, the aim of his life is revealed to him He then realizes that the sole purpose of his coming is to re-establish religion; and whatever aids are necessary to fulfil that purpose come of themselves in an unexpected way. He walks in light where others grope in darkness; fearless, he attains his goal and beckons to men to follow in his footsteps. Untrodden paths leading to the realization of Brahman beyond Maya, and of Isvara, the cause of the universe, are discovered by him again and again, from age to age.
The authors of the Puranas did not merely analyse the actions and characteristics of the incarnation; they also came to a definite conclusion regarding the occasion of his coming to the earth. With the passage of time, the eternal universal religion declines and, deluded by the inscrutable powers of Maya, men spend their lives thinking that the world and its pleasures are all-important. Eternal verities like the Self, Isvara, liberation, etc., are looked upon as dreamland imaginings of poets of a bygone age steeped in delusion and darkness. But when men at last discover that no amount of wealth and worldly enjoyment, obtained by fair means or foul, can fill the void in their hearts, and when the waves of a shoreless black sea of despair overwhelm them, they cry out in the anguish of their hearts for deliverance. It is then that, out of His innate compassion for weak humanity, God incarnates Himself and frees from the accumulated encrustations of ages the eternal religion, which then shines like the eclipsed moon freed from Rahu.2 Then, taking hold of man’s hand, He sets him on the path of religion. An effect is never produced without a cause, nor does Isvara assume a body in His Lila till a universal need demands it. When such a want becomes overwhelmingly felt in every part of society, the infinite mercy of the Lord becomes, as it were, crystallized, and He appears as the spiritual teacher of the world. This is the conclusion that the authors of the Puranas have arrived at after witnessing the repeated appearances of incarnations.
It is the necessity of the age, then, that calls forth an incarnation of God, the all-knowing teacher of the world, who throws new light on religion. The land of India which has always been conducive to the practice of religion and spirituality, has become holy and sanctified by bearing upon its bosom the footprints of incarnations again and again throughout the ages. All-powerful incarnations have appeared in India, even up to the present time, whenever the necessity for them has arisen. It is well known how, a little more than four hundred years ago, the shining example of Bhagavan Sri Chaitanya3 made people lose themselves in esctasy in singing the name of Hari. Has such a time recurred? Did India, shorn of its glory and reduced to an object of contempt to foreigners, once again arouse the compassion of the Lord to incarnate Himself? That this has happened will become clear on a perusal of the life-story of the great soul, possessed of an infinite urge to do good, which is here recorded. India has once more been blessed by the coming, in response to the need of the age, of One who, incarnating Himself as Sri Rama, Sri Krishna and others, renewed the eternal religion again and again.