The Nature of an Avatar
When an enlightened soul chooses to reincarnate on Earth in order to help humanity or for any other reason, does this being know he is enlightened since the moment he has consciousness after birth? Or, he is born ignorant of this and later in his life he realizes his true nature? How does this work?
—Alex M, Costa Rica
The way Swami Kriyananda explained it is that, for the enlightened being, to incarnate in the material world is like going to a movie that he has seen before. He knows the whole plot already. Even as a baby his consciousness is free. Still, he allows himself to get caught up in the story, for the sake of setting an example for others.
He has to yearn, and seek, and find, just like anyone else, if his life is to be helpful to others. He shows us by his divine example how life can be perfectly lived. If he didn’t participate at all, his life would be of little value to anyone, and then what would be the point of incarnating?
At any moment, however, the enlightened being can step back from human life completely and see the whole divine panorama in a way that the ordinary person cannot do.
When Swamiji asked Master how deeply involved an avatar — one who is completely free before he is born — is in the events of his own life, Master replied, “Inwardly, you are always free.”
Sometimes I think of it like this. Everyone but an avatar is compelled to incarnate in a physical body because of unfinished karma — lessons still to be learned. Once we incarnate we are bound by the limitations of the material world.
It is like being in prison. But it is okay, because we are guilty in the sense of having unlearned lessons. An avatar, by contrast is innocent. He has no karma, no unlearned lessons. He comes into the prison only to help others understand how to get out of the prison forever.
The way Jesus put it was to say that he alone was born without sin, i.e., karma or ignorance, but that everyone else was born with sin, i.e., with karma, which is to say unlearned lessons. Jesus had perfect knowledge of divine law and perfect ability to live in harmony with divine law. The rest of us are still learning.
Still, once the avatar incarnates in a physical body, he, too, is bound – to a certain extent – by the limitations of the physical world. He can transcend them when appropriate – doing what we call miracles – but for the most part he has to work hard to succeed like any other human. He doesn’t just materialize his goals. He has to find a guru, be disciplined, meditate, earn money, build buildings, train people, experience setbacks, disappointments, betrayal, misunderstandings, and so on.
He is in prison, just like us, but the big difference is that he is innocent. He could walk out at any time, whereas we have to stay until our sentence is served, which is to say until all our karma is resolved.
So even though we all live in the same limited reality, and all appear to be imprisoned by the mystery of physical incarnation, the avatar could walk out of the prison any time, whereas we can’t. We have to serve our sentence. We have to stay until all our karmic lessons are learned.
These are not easy things to understand, since we are not at the level of consciousness where they are happening. But perhaps this gives you some idea.
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