Many people are familiar with the term avatar, but few people, even in India, understand it except superficially. An avatar is one who, having attained final liberation, out of compassion returns to this world to help all humanity to fulfill its spiritual destiny. An avatar, as distinct from lesser saints and masters, has a universal mission. He (or she) has the power to bring as many souls to freedom as come for guidance and enlightenment. His power, like the power of God Himself, is infinite.
All avatars have realized the eternal, unchanging truth, and they have never opposed one another’s teachings. Their disciples and followers, however, due to their limited understanding, have repeatedly introduced incorrect interpretations into their guru’s teachings. Thus the avatars come again and again, to correct people’s misunderstandings of the eternal, unchanging truth.
Why Buddha didn’t talk about God
Buddha came at a time when people were abusing the Vedic teachings to gain worldly ends. So Buddha, a Hindu, was not sanctioning sectarianism when he urged people not to depend on Vedic gods and rituals. He was seeking only to correct their misunderstanding of the scriptures. By emphasizing self-effort, he sought to encourage people to take spiritual responsibility for their lives, and not to depend passively on God, or on minor “gods,” for boons of temporary fulfillment.
Because Buddha was working against a strong trend, when he talked about the importance of self-effort, he couldn’t afford to say, “But on the other hand, grace is also important,” without leaving people totally confused, even though the truth includes both teachings. Buddha came during the dark age of Kali Yuga when mankind had fallen into a lower state of consciousness, and couldn’t easily bring these two teachings together.
So when people asked about God, he consistently refused to speak of God and affirmed the need for the individual self-effort. Because of that emphasis, his disciples thought he didn’t believe in God. As a result, Buddhism evolved as an atheistic religion. But the fact that Buddha never said not to pray—indeed, Buddhists themselves pray to the Buddha—shows that he didn’t exclude God or divine grace: He simply emphasized the importance of personal effort in addition to faith in God.
Ultimately, the problem with Buddhism, as the Buddhists presented it, was that it offered nothing toward which people could direct their love and devotion. Without love, spiritual progress is ineffectual, like a man on crutches in a race against Olympic athletes.
Swami Shankaracharya: Seek union with the Absolute
Swami Shankaracharya or Shankara (as he was also known), centuries later, corrected misconceptions on the part of Buddha’s followers, and brought many people back to Hinduism. But it wasn’t Buddha’s teachings he contested, only people’s misunderstandings of them.
Rejecting the atheism of Buddha’s followers, Shankara explained that God is pure Spirit beyond all duality and the only reality in existence. He taught that the goal of life is union with that Absolute, which he described as Satchidananda—ever-existing, ever-conscious, ever-new bliss. One attains union, according to Shankara, by meditation on the inner Self and discrimination.
Shankara also corrected the mistaken understandings of the doctrine of nirvana on the part of Buddha’s followers, who defined nirvana as a state of nothingness or annihilation. Shankara explained that nirvana exists, but that beyond nirvana there is another state of consciousness, which we all are longing for: Satchidanandam.
Paramhansa Yogananda later elaborated, saying that in the final merging into God there is, in the beginning, nirvana—a cessation of all waves and desires, a state of nothingness. But then, in that darkness, suddenly comes the great bliss of Satchidanandam.
Misconceptions among Shankara’s successors
Shankara’s followers later took his teaching not only as his reply to the mistaken understandings of Buddha’s followers, but as a new definition of Hinduism. Nothing, they proclaimed, exists except that Absolute; all else is delusion, a dream. And since, by their understanding, manifested creation is only a dream, it doesn’t even exist.
Here was another of the misconceptions that surface repeatedly in religion. For dreams do, of course, exist—as dreams! If a person hits his head in a dream, his dream head will hurt. Creation, in other words, does exist in its own context. It simply isn’t what it appears to be.
Shankara’s followers became known as Advaitins, believers in advaita or a non-dualistic view of reality. The problem with advaita, as Shankara’s successors presented it, was comparable to the problem with Buddhism as interpreted by Buddha’s successors: there was no place for love or devotion. Love implies the duality of subject and object, of lover and beloved. But if only the Absolute exists, then the duality of lover and beloved cannot exist. Who can be devoted to whom? Overlooked by Shankara’s followers was that Shankara himself had composed a book of devotional hymns to God as the Divine Mother.
Ramanuja and Chaitanya: a relationship of love with God
Ramanuja tried centuries later to correct this flaw in advaitic reasoning by teaching a devotional form of advaita known as Vishishta-Advaita. He declared that the soul is not a delusion but exists eternally; when we merge into God, we never lose the soul. Therefore we can, and must, develop a relationship of love with the Creator.
Chaitanya, centuries after Ramanuja, also emphasized the importance of devotion. Already famous as a brilliant scholar when a dramatic vision of Krishna changed his life forever, he began urging people to abandon philosophical speculation as dry and useless and to immerse themselves in the love of God.
Man, he said, needs nothing except God’s love. He taught people to worship the Lord by chanting to Him devotedly in the form of Krishna. “The Lord’s name, the Lord’s name, the Lord’s name is man’s only path to salvation!” This was his famous declaration.
Misconceptions among Chaitanya’s successors
Many of Chaitanya’s followers (Vaishnavas, they are called) took his teaching literally and insisted that Krishna himself is the Lord. The truth, of course, is quite the opposite. Krishna, the man, could not possibly be God. God, rather, is all His manifestations, including Krishna. The wave is not the ocean. On the contrary: the ocean has become all of its waves. It is a fallacy to claim that any one wave can be the whole ocean! Christians have made this same mistake regarding Jesus Christ.
Images of Krishna symbolize a number of deep truths. Vaishnavas, however, have accepted those symbols as the truth itself. Because tradition depicted Krishna as blue-skinned, for example, Vaishnavas say his skin was therefore actually blue. His traditional coloring is, in fact, symbolic of the sky, which in turn is a symbol for infinity. God, in other words, is infinite. Indeed, He is also formless.
Moses: a teaching similar to Buddha’s
In Palestine, another great master, Moses, taught people to worship one God instead of many gods. In this respect his teachings were like Buddha’s. Both masters insisted on self-effort and right action. And both spoke against the worship of lesser deities—angels as they are called in Christian tradition—in the hope of receiving wealth, pleasure, success, and worldly power in recompense. Moses again, like Buddha, urged people to develop their own inner strength, and to shun all lesser goals as ultimately disillusioning. He taught people to love the Supreme Lord, and to obey His commandments faithfully.
In the centuries following Moses, the Jews, with considerable ingenuity, developed endless ramifications of the Law of Moses. They forgot his supreme commandment, to love God with one’s whole heart, and to love everyone in God’s name. Instead, they fell away gradually from devotion to God, and became engrossed in religious technicalities. Such always is the danger, when the priesthood of a religion gains too firm a hold on guiding it: Minor details—important to professionals in every field—take precedence over the spontaneous expression of love.
Again and again, the prophets sought to guide the Jewish people back to a closer relationship with the Lord. Alas, again and again the Jews returned to their legalisms. They even went so far as to persecute their prophets, whose only desire was to help them.
Jesus Christ: the supreme importance of loving God
What Jesus Christ taught was not a contradiction of the Mosaic Law but, as he himself stated, its fulfillment. He stressed the supreme importance of loving God. Western emphasis on group consciousness, however, soon changed what was an essentially Eastern approach to truth, bringing his teachings under the control of a central organization. In exercising this control, the church diluted Christ’s message, developing an essentially outward focus. Herein lay its own special misunderstanding of the truth.
Christianity, too, needs to balance its understanding of truth: to bring organizational control into harmony with individual conscience.
Is there any hope for religion?
Is there any hope for religion in this tumult of contradictions? Indeed there is! The hope for religion lies in religious history itself—not in its lamentable squabbles, but in the repeated efforts of great masters to return mankind to the underlying, eternal purpose of religion.
The great Moslem woman saint, Rabbi’a, once said, “He is no true lover of God who does not forget his suffering in the contemplation of the Divine Beloved.” The message of every great master is the same: “Forget your sorrow-producing conflicts: Love God!”