What are Avatars?
Sanatana Dharma recognizes a
perennial stream of various great teachers and sages, some whose
spiritual qualities are so pure that they could be called veritable
incarnations of God. Certain special Divine incarnations can be
called avatars, literally "Divine descents," though the
term may be used loosely today for various great teachers, sometimes
outside of its meaning in the Hindu tradition.
In the traditional Hindu
sense, avatars appear to uphold and renovate Sanatana Dharma or the
eternal teaching. They represent the manifestation of Lord Vishnu,
the Divine power that preserves and protects the universe. Avatars
do not come into being to found new religions in their own image or
to establish different and contradictory religious identities and
beliefs. Such great avatars of Vishnu were Rama and Krishna and, by
some accounts, the Buddha.
The lives of avatars, which
often contain various mythic and legendary elements, are grand
symbols of the spiritual search and go far beyond anything merely
human. They thereby become models for others to study and emulate.
The worship of avatars is an important part of Hindu devotional
practice, but only one of its several streams and not all Hindu
groups follow it.
Yet such avatars, however
great, are symbols of our own inner Being which should be the real
goal of our seeking. More important than any historical avatar is
the Self-realized teacher who helps us understand who we really are.
More important than the teacher is the student and his or her
practice. Sanatana Dharma requires that each one of us realizes our
inherent Divinity. An avatar helps teach us how to do that, but
worship of an avatar as an external being is but a preliminary part
of our own Self-discovery.