Commentary on the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Discourse 8: The Fourth Chapter Begins – The Avataras of God

We have studied three chapters of the Bhagavadgita. If you have listened to me carefully, you would have noticed that the compressed matter that has gone into the first three chapters lays the very foundation, as it were, of the whole spiritual teaching for mankind. As difficult it is to remember all these things, so difficult it is to make out the various facets involved in the teaching; and more difficult it is to put them into daily practice. The poor human individual with a frail intellect, with an even more frail body, with tensions which are political, social and of many other types—how will this individual be able to grasp this teaching? Where is the brain for it? It is difficult to intellectually comprehend the inner secrets hidden even in the first three chapters. So much has been said about practically everything. Nobody will remember all these things—except this tape recorder. It will record everything, but others cannot remember everything in detail.

This difficulty is likely to be felt by everyone, as ordinary human individuals are subject to limitations of every kind. Is the human individual to feel disappointed that, after all, it seems to be too big an affair and we are perhaps not fit, either physically or mentally, to face the profound realities of this world? Are we to be in a state of despondency and feel a sense of helplessness? No. There is a guiding hand operating through the cosmos. It is not merely a picture of problems and difficulties and scientific interconnections that has been placed before us. The picture of the universe in terms of modern physics, chemistry and astronomy may be enough to frighten us out of our wits. We cannot even imagine what kind of world it is, with such width and such depth and such intricacies of inner composition. Such are the gunas of prakriti; such is prakriti; such is purusha; such are the involvements of consciousness and matter, and individuality, and whatnot. All sorts of things have been told. We seem to be as far from this lofty teaching as we are from the stars. Is it so?

The Fourth Chapter begins with a great consolation. The element of spiritual guidance is brought into the focus of the attention of the student. There is a perpetual guidance flowing from every part of the cosmos. The whole universe is composed of friends, well-wishers, who are eager to see that we are protected, that we are guarded and enabled to rise higher and higher, to more and more profound states of perfection. They are the directions of the heavens which are dominated and superintended by divinities called the Ashtadiggajas, the divinities of the four quarters, the gods who superintend over our sense organs and our mental psyche, the very prakriti itself whose sattva, rajas and tamas are in our own personality, and the supreme purusha, which is implanted in the recesses of our heart. These are the highest friendly forces. There are no enemies in this world.

The highest possibility of help comes from a Universal intelligence which permeates through the entire material universe and all the fourteen lokas; and whenever there is disharmony among the parts of the cosmos, the power of God descends as an avatara. The incarnation of God is nothing but the cosmic intelligence operating through required media at a given time, in a given manner, for a given purpose.

yadā yadā hi dharmasya glānir bhavati bhārata
abhyutthānam adharmasya tadātmānaṁ sṛjāmyaham
paritrāṇāya sādhūnāṁ vināśāya ca duṣkṛtām
dharmasaṁsthāpanārthāya sambhavāmi yuge yuge

At every juncture of experience, whether created knowingly or unknowingly, God manifests Himself, just as healing forces in the body work perpetually when there is disease in the system. If there is some illness in the body, the protective forces immediately gird up their loins and powers called anabolic forces stand against the catabolic forces which are intent on destroying the body. As gods and demons fight in heaven, the constructive healing forces fight, as it were, against disease-forming toxins—just as whenever there is even a little pain in the foot due to a thorn that has gone into it, the entire body descends as an incarnation of power to set right that element that has entered as something totally alien to the bodily requirement.

When does God incarnate? Is it sometimes, occasionally, always, or only in some ages? The word ‘yuga’ is used in this verse: yuge yuge. Yuga also means the fourfold cycle of time known as Krita Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dvapara Yuga and Kali Yuga. These four ages of the time process are called yugas in Sanskrit. “In every yuga I manifest myself” is one meaning. We will find in the Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana or the Vishnu Purana or other Puranas that the incarnation of God in some form—Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, and so on—took place in every yuga. But yuga also means a junction, a crisis, a situation where there is a conflict of forces, outwardly as well as inwardly. There is a necessity for the descent of redemptive forces, in the same way as the constructive redeeming forces of the body do not act only sometimes. They do not even sleep. The anabolic forces, or constructive forces to which I made reference, are perpetually working in the body to see that health is maintained and the body does not deteriorate.

Just as the intelligence maintaining the human body works continuously, without winking and without sleeping, in order to maintain this psychophysical organism, in the same way, God acts in this world through manifestations which are myriad in number. Santi sahasraśaḥ—thousands and thousands are the ways in which God can reveal Himself for the purpose of bringing about a rapprochement of conditions, a harmony among conflicts arising in any way whatsoever. God can reveal Himself positively in the form of an amelioration of all the conditions causing pain to people, or negatively by the amputation of a limb of a body if that becomes unavoidable, which God does only under extreme cases in the form of battle, war, epidemics, cyclones, earthquakes, floods and tornadoes. All these come as incarnations of God. He may come as the beautiful butter-stealing child Krishna—so tender, so attractive, so beautiful and so adorable—or He may also come as the terrific tooth-and-claw Narasimha. Hence, we should not expect Him to manifest Himself only in the manner we like.

When a fever arises in the body, it is a very painful and very unpleasant thing that is taking place, but it is a healing process. A big war is taking place within the body, and a heightened form of energy rises up into action in order to drive out all the toxic forces. In this war, sometimes the soldiers in the battle who drive out the toxic elements also die. The warriors do not always come back hale and hearty. Many of them perish. The white corpuscles in the blood are supposed to be the warriors, and when they die there is pus in the body. That pus is nothing but the blood corpuscles dying in the war for the sake of our welfare. Soldiers die for the nation. Nations survive; soldiers die. In the same way, these poor white cells fought with the elements that came as toxins, and when the toxins were too powerful—like Ravana and Kumbhakarna—many of these cells died, sacrificing themselves for the welfare of the body.

Similarly, the manifestation of God is with an ultimate purpose. It is not with an individual, motivated, localised purpose. God does not descend for your sake or my sake, or for this country’s sake or that country’s sake. There is no such thing as ‘mine’ and ‘his’ for God. The total intention of creation, taken in its completeness, is the intention of God. He wants the health and the harmony of the entire creation in the same way as we want the health and the perfection of the entire body. We do not want part of the body to suffer and part of the body to be healed by medical treatment. What is the good of it? If we are partially sick and partially healthy, we cannot be regarded as healthy at all. As a good medical practitioner, God takes the view that the entire body should be protected. It is not enough if only some limb is protected; and if for the sake of the protection of the entire organism which is the body, some part has to be eliminated, He will eliminate it—by a cyclone or something like that. But God does not always come as a disease or a threat or a Narasimha. He can also come as a friend, a well-wisher. Suhṛdaṁ sarvabhūtānāṁ jñātvā māṁ śāntim ṛcchati (5.29): “Knowing Me as the friend of all beings, you shall attain peace.” A terror like Narasimha, or a fearsome force like Bhagavan Sri Krishna, yet the kindest, most merciful, most adorable, is the manner in which incarnations come.

“Whenever dharma declines and adharma rises up, I will manifest Myself.” Dharma is the integrating force; adharma is the disintegrating force. That which keeps society, the world as a whole, intact as an organic completeness is dharma. Dharma is a cohesive force, a cementing element, even in the midst of the worst of diversities of being. Adharma is the opposite. It cuts into pieces all the unity that we can have anywhere—brother fights with brother, the husband throws away his wife, the wife deserts her husband, the son sues his father, and nobody wants anybody. These kinds of terrible, diversifying situations can be the outcome of adharma working with great rapacity, which comes as Hiranyakashipus, Ravanas and Kumbhakarnas, etc., or as destructive cosmic forces.

It is the intention of God to see that His creation is in a state of harmony and well being. I ask you to remember that the universe is made in the same way as our bodies are made, so the universe works in the same way as our bodies work. As the anatomical and physiological functions protect this body in a requisite manner, there is a cosmic anatomy and physiology, in the light of which the balance in the cosmos is maintained. For the sake of this there is the avatara, which is the coming of God for the sake of protecting dharma—that is, to establish the power of unity against the destroying and disturbing elements that go out of the centre. “Then I incarnate Myself.”

Whenever we feel some pain in the body, even in a finger or a toe, it means the whole body is sick, and immediately the healing forces start working. At once the centre of the universe acts, just as the centre of our personality acts when we start sneezing or we have a headache or a wound in the foot, etc. In order to illustrate the similarity of the cosmic structure and the human structure, the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita tell us that the universe is one person. Just as we are one person, the whole universe is also one person. He is called Mahapurusha, Supreme Purusha, Purushottama. How many people are there in this world? There is only one person. Sahasraśīrṣā puruṣaḥ sahasrākśaḥ sahasrapāt (P.S. 1): Million-headed, million-eyed and million-eared is that single Purusha. And where are those million heads and million eyes? They are here. Your head and my head, your eyes and my eyes, your legs and my legs are actually His heads and His eyes, through which He is speaking and working. But the ego of the individual, which is a part thereof, asserts its individuality and cuts itself off from the healing forces that come from the cosmos.

God never breaks His promise. We may break our promises, but not God. Once God decides, it is decided forever. Like an eternally conscious invigilator, God-consciousness operates in this cosmos. God knows what we are speaking, what we are thinking, what we are feeling, what we are doing. Even the movement of a mouse in a corner of a house is known to that Centre of the cosmos. There is no such thing as private action in this universe. It has been beautifully said that we cannot touch a flower in the garden without disturbing the stars in heaven. Such is the organic connection. There seems to be a vast distance between the stars and the little flower in our garden, but the connection is such that the stars will know that a flower is being interfered with.

There is no such thing in this world as individual, private activity. In the same way, there is no such thing as individual activity in our body. Whether we see with the eyes or hear with the ears, speak with the tongue or walk with the feet, etc., it is not individual action taking place. It is one total action manifesting itself through the different limbs. Similarly, all this world activity, the great mystery of mankind—the coming and going of things, the destroying of empires and the rising of empires, and so on—all the drama that is being played in the form of this creation is a single action taking place. The whole world is doing only one thing; it does not do many things. In the same way, our physical personality does one thing in the form of seeing, hearing, touching, digesting, speaking, walking, etc. Though they appear as diverse functions, they are really not diverse functions; it is Mr. So-and-so acting.

God acts; and when God acts, dharma rules the world. Whenever dharma’s force moves in the wrong direction by an extreme step that is taken by individuals, a cloud of darkness hovers around the heads of mankind, and we become insecure. We do not know what will happen to us tomorrow. The thoughts of people are also supposed to determine the fate of everybody. If one man thinks, it is a very feeble thought; but if the whole of humanity thinks a single thought, it draws the attention of the centre of the cosmos—just as when the whole nation cries for something, the central government will open its eyes and take steps, while if one man cries, they may not bother much.

Christ is called the son of Man. Everybody is a son of man, so why should Christ be called the son of Man? It is the son of Man with capital ‘M’. It is the descent of a divine force as a response to the call of the whole of humanity that cried for God. Otherwise, a person cannot be called a son of Man, as everybody is a son of man. This is my own interpretation of the biblical statement. Christ is also called the son of God. The bible refers to Christ as the son of Man, and the son of God.

Our thoughts and actions contribute, to a large extent, to the welfare or the suffering of mankind; and if they are very intense, they disturb the other layers of the cosmos such as Bhuvarloka, Svarloka, etc. When the Rakshasas were harassing the Devas, the Devas went to Rudra and Brahma, and finally they beseeched Narayana to take some action. Similarly, the fourteen worlds will cry for a redeeming power to act. Then the centre of the cosmos will work immediately, in a positive manner or a negative manner.

The avataras of God are described in great detail in the Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana. It is said that Narayana had twenty-four avataras, but that is only in a manner of speaking. There can be twenty-four million avataras. How many rays has the sun? We can say the sun has only one ray that, like a huge beam, inundates the entire earth in heat; or we may say that there are millions of rays—sahasrakirana. Surya is called sahasrakirana because thousands of rays emanate from it. If we close our eyes and look at the sun, sometimes we feel radiance emanating in a millionfold way.

God may cast a single action or cast a manifold action, as the case may be. Fortunately or unfortunately, this doctrine of avataras, which is so important and so dear to the heart of man because it brings God to the very earth, is briefly stated in the Fourth Chapter of the Gita in only two verses, and afterwards it goes into some other subject—though this is well compensated from the Seventh Chapter onwards, where God’s glory is abundantly described.

The society of people has to work in a state of harmony in order that it may survive; and the harmony that is expected in human society is of two kinds—a horizontal harmony and a vertical harmony. The horizontal harmony is called varna dharma, and the vertical harmony is called ashrama dharma. The social integration brought about by a cooperative action of people through the works that they perform from their own stations is a horizontal way of the working of dharma for the purpose of integrating the quantity of humanity. But the quality of the individual also has to be enhanced; it is not enough that we merely protect the quantity of people. That qualitative ascent of the individual already protected by the quantitative forces—this vertical ascent, as I called it—is ashrama dharma, which consists of Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha and Sannyasa, where we reach the apex of social solidarity and spiritual integration.

This also is conditioned by God. Cāturvarṇyaṁ mayā sṛṣṭaṁ guṇakarmavibhāgaśaḥ, tasya kartāram api māṁ viddhyakartāram avyayam (4.13). Everything taking place historically, or taking place only from the point of view of human individuals, may be said to be God’s work; and yet, God does not do anything, just as the sun is the cause of every activity in the world but is not regarded as doing anything at all. We cannot lift a finger if the sun is not shining, and yet the sun is not responsible for our lifting a finger. Nādatte kasyacit pāpaṁ na caiva sukṛtaṁ vibhuḥ (5.15): Neither is God responsible for the good that we do, nor is He responsible for the bad that we do. We are automatically rewarded or punished by a ‘computer system’ which He has set up in the form of these cosmic forces; and as the law automatically acts, our actions automatically act in the form of pleasure and pain. Therefore, the social setup—individual as well as collective—cannot be regarded as God’s work, and yet it is, in a way, God’s work because it is a tendency towards the growth of humanity towards God’s integrating Realisation. Nothing that we do can be called God’s work. It is our work; yet, without His sanction, nothing can take place. Thus, in a way, God has created the whole world and does everything, but, in another way, He has not created the world and He does nothing.

I went into great detail concerning the avataras of God because it is something very dear to the heart of man. That God comes to our house and rescues us from moment to moment, is this not a good and happy message?