Man reincarnates and God Incarnates. Man reincarnates because of his karma which rules his birth and rebirth. God has no karma, hence He Incarnates by His own choice whenever He wishes to. By nature, man is bound, and God is free. So long as his life is entangled in Karma and its results, man cannot become free. In order to be free and happy, he must get rid of his karma and love God resolutely, taking refuge in Him.
This is the conviction held by the Bhaktas, which is founded on Dualism, comprising two principal Bhakti Shastras, namely, Srimadvagavatamand Srimadvagavad- Gita that explicitly eulogize the Advent of Incarnations. Of the two, the latter is by far the most emphatic and unequivocal. The idea of Divine Incarnation has its origin in the Vedic Age itself. Rishis then differed among themselves according to the powers they had. Those who possessed special spiritual power “were called adhikari purushas, or persons with special “Authority”.
Kapila the founder of Sankhya Philosophy, who didn’t believe in the existence of God, “acknowledged the existence of those advanced Rishis.” The Sankhya said those extraordinary beings were consummations of purity, self-control, and other divine qualities and they nursed an intense desire to serve humanity for its spiritual growth. However, it was at “the end of the Age of Philosophy that an era of Bhakti was highly developed” when the thought of Divine Incarnation found a logical explanation to be established as a faith.
Subsequently, in the wake of his realization of Nirvana, Buddha momentarily perceived in the first quarter of that night that he was born uncountable. When his vision expanded through deeper meditation during the second quarter he discerned how an eternal law of karma as well as janmantara (transmigration of soul) kept man and the Universe perpetually captive and active to govern and control unobtrusively.
In the light of this experience he framed his pivotal precept of Pratityasamutpat or the law of dependent origination, according to which man is fettered by a chain of 12 links (nidans) connected as cause and effect with one another in tandem, beginning with avidya (ignorance) to be completed in jaramarana (decay and death), repeatedly moving in cycles between births and deaths until liberation was achieved by dint of rigorous practice of renunciation and meditation.
He thus endorsed the theory of karma or karma, and, with it, the reincarnation of man, although he rejected the ritualistic karma portion (karma kanda) of the Vedas for a specific social purpose. He was famously a pragmatist, having to do with the concentration of mind to its culmination in Nirvana. He was all along silent about the question of the existence of God, let alone the question of His Divine Incarnation. However, the way Buddha lived and taught conformed to the Way of Incarnation, which is why he was recognized as an Avatara in the Hindu pantheon.
Notably, Mahayani Buddhists also worship him as an Incarnation of God. As regards the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, Spinoza had a clear conception. In a letter to Oldenberg Spinoza wrote: “It is not absolutely necessary to know Christ according to the flesh; but it is very different when we speak of that Son of God, that is to say that Eternal wisdom manifested in all things, and more fully manifested in the human soul, and far above all in Jesus Christ, … and because this wisdom, as I have said, was manifested in Jesus Christ, in the fullest way, therefore his disciples to whom it was revealed by him, should preach it, and they showed that they could glory in being filled with the spirit of Christ more than other men were … that God himself assumed human nature….” Eckhart similarly mentioned the Christ-hood of man ~ which practically resembles with the Rishi-hood of man ~ in his Sermons and Collations repeatedly.
For example, he once said: “God makes us to know him, and his knowing is his being, and his making me know is the same as my knowing, so his knowing is mine, … And because his knowing is mine, and his knowing is his substance and his nature and his essence, it follows that his substance and his nature and his essence are mine. And his substance and his nature and his essence being mine, therefore I am the Son of God.” On the other hand, the idea that God Incarnates isn’t acceptable to Non-Dualism. According to Non-Dualism, God exists in everybody, so the question of His special manifestation is impertinent. But, ironically, Sankaracharya the greatest exponent of Non-Dualism didn’t deny the idea altogether.
Of course, he had a point in his favour to do so as Rishi-hood received support of the earlier nondualists. He interpreted the birth of Lord Krishna in a sort of compromise. Maya is the inscrutable Divine player inherent in and not different from God that catalytically makes the impossible possible and vice versa. She by Her magical Power puts up the show of Macrocosm and microcosm which is apparently real, but not absolutely real. With the awakening of the knowledge and vision of God, one gets released from maya and sees that God alone is Real and everything else is unreal.
The Non-dualist stand is: creation is Relative and the creator Real because Absolute. Sankaracharya wrote commentaries on The Brahmasutras, The Upanishads and The Gita ~ three non-sectarian fundamental scriptures wnich rationally delineated to determine and uphold the Absolute (paramartha) as the ultimate Reality ~ from the point of view of Monism. While dealing with the verses concerning the Incarnation in the Gita he perhaps toned down his arguments a bit, for those are the verses marked with Dualism and birth of God in the form of man, with which in principle he couldn’t otherwise agree as a non-dualist. Coming to recent times, we had Sri Ramakrishna diligently dilating on the matter of Incarnation.
His was a view based on direct experience of God. He classified Incarnations as the degree of God’s Power they individually manifested according to the need of the world. He said, “The Incarnation is the play of the Absolute as man.” But how does the Absolute play as man? He answered it thus: “It is like rushing down of water from a big roof through a pipe; the power of Satchidananda (God the Existence- Knowledge-Bliss Absolute) – nay, Satcidananda Itself – descends through the conduit of a human form as water descends through a pipe. Then the question immediately arises: How does an Incarnation behave? His reply to this was: “God, incarnating as man, behaves exactly like a man.
That is why it is difficult to recognize an Incarnation. … He has the same hunger, thirst, disease, grief, and sometimes even fear.” But why should He behave exactly like man? Sri Ramakrishna brought the question of Incarnation in his conversations often in order to stress its importance for the sustenance of creation. His devotees looked upon him as an Incarnation. Girish Chandra Ghosh first announced it before the public with unflappable conviction, for he had marked that Sri Ramakrishna behaved differently, which seldom matched with human behaviour. Besides, Swami Vivekananda also vocally declared the same as he had himself realized God in Sri Ramakrishna. Sri Ramakrishna, too, made it clear.
He asked the Bhaktas, “Well, what do you think of me?” Then he said to them to indicate that he was really an Incarnation of Lord Rama: “Once my father went to Gaya. There Raghuvir said to him in a dream, ‘I shall be born as your son.’” Many a time he had directly or indirectly hinted the same. Towards the end of his life he again confirmed it for the umpteenth time, dispelling the doubt from Swami Vivekananda’s mind that he was indeed Rama and Krishna born once again as Ramakrishna in the Modern Age. He accepted the reality of numerous Divine Incarnations, including Buddha, Christ, Sankaracharya and Chaitanya.
(The writer is with Ramakrishna Mission, Narendrapur)