How to Identify an Avatar
By His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
Founder-Acharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness
Lecture given in New York City on December 26, 1966
Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu points to the Vedic scriptures as unerring spiritual authority.
sarvajna munira vakya – shastra-‘paramana’
ama-saba jivera haya shastra-dvara ‘jnana’
Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu said, “The Vedic literatures composed by the omniscient Mahamuni Vyasadeva are evidence of all spiritual existence. Only through these revealed scriptures can all conditioned souls attain knowledge.” – Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya-lila 20.353
We should always think that we are in the mode of ignorance. We are just trying to make progress from ignorance to goodness and then transcend. This is the process of spiritual realization. We should not think that we are perfect. We cannot be. God is. Only God is perfect, and we are all imperfect. Even in our so-called liberated stage we are still imperfect. Therefore one has to take shelter of authority, because constitutionally we are imperfect.
Lord Chaitanya says, ama-saba jivera haya shastra-dvara ‘jnana.’ For real knowledge we have to consult the scriptures,shastra. Sadhu-shastra-guru. Sadhu means a pious, religious, honest person. One whose character is spotless is called a sadhu. Sastra means scripture, and guru means the spiritual master. They are on an equal level. Why? Because the central point is scripture. The guru is considered liberated because he follows the scripture. The sadhu is considered honest and saintly because he follows scripture. Nobody can become a sadhu if he does not accept the principles of scripture. And nobody can be accepted as guru, or spiritual master, if he does not follow the principles of scripture. This is the test.
tad-vijnanartham sa gurum evabhigacchet
samit-panih shrotriyam brahma-nishtham
“To understand these things properly, one should humbly approach, with firewood in hand, a spiritual master who is learned in the Vedas and firmly devoted to the Absolute Truth. (Mundaka Upanishad 1.2.12) Srotriyam means that one who has accepted the Vedic literature, the shastra, as the guide can be a guru, not an extravagant upstart who makes some group and religious principle of his own.
Sanatana Goswami had asked Chaitanya Mahaprabhu how to know who is an avatar. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu says the medium for understanding is shastra, and the direction is the guru. Sometimes we find a contradiction in the scripture, but that is not a contradiction; that is our poor fund of knowledge. I cannot understand; therefore the assistance of a guru, a spiritual master, is required. Here Lord Chaitanya says that we have to see through the shastra whether a person is an incarnation or not. We should not blindly accept anybody as an incarnation, because nowadays there are numberless “incarnations.”
In the next verse He says,
avatara nahi kahe – ‘ami avatara’
muni saba jani’ kare lakshana-vichara
“An actual incarnation of God never says ‘I am God’ or ‘I am an incarnation of God.’ The great sage Vyasadeva, knowing all, has already recorded the characteristics of the avatars in the shastras.” This is another significance of an incarnation. An incarnation never says, “I am an incarnation of God.” I have read a book about a big “avatar” in India. He was canvassing his students, “Do you now accept me as an incarnation? Do you now accept me as incarnation?” And the disciple was denying, “No.” Then, after a time, the disciple said, “Yes, I accept you.”
This is not an avatar. Here Chaitanya Mahaprabhu says that an avatar does not canvass. Similarly, the guru does not canvass, the sadhu does not canvass. Automatically, by his qualities, he becomes accepted.
Those who are thinkers, muni, see the symptoms and specify, “Yes, here is an avatar.” How are the symptoms of an avatar analyzed? The first symptom is that there is a reference in the shastra, scripture, that in such and such time, such and such personality will come. He will be an incarnation of God. Even his father’s name, his birthplace – everything is written in the scripture. We have to identify by lakshana, the symptoms. He’ll come like this, and he’ll act like this.
Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu never said, “I am an avatar.” But from His symptoms, from His characteristics, later on great sages, great philosophers decided that He’s an avatar.
Here Sanatana Goswami is trying to get Lord Chaitanya to confirm that He is an avatar. In the Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.5.32) the symptoms of the avatar for this age, Kali-yuga, are described: krishna-varnam tvishakrishnam sangopangastra parshadam. He is in the category of Krishna, but His complexion is nonblack, akrishna. He’s always followed by confidential associates. And people who are intelligent worship Him by the process of sankirtana. Yajnaih sankirtana-prayair yajanti hi su-medhasah. Su-medhasah means persons who have got good brain substance. Not foolish persons. Su-medhasah – a man of great brain substance – can understand, “Oh, here is an incarnation of Krishna.” Lord Chaitanya’s appearance is spoken about in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, in the Mahabharata, in the Upanishads, in the Puranas. There are many symptomatic explanations. But still there are many fools who do not accept these authoritative statements.
Accept or not accept, God’s work and activities and characteristics will be known because God will be known. Lord Buddha, for example, is accepted as an incarnation in the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Emperor Ashoka patronized Buddhism. So Buddhism was broadcast throughout India and practically the whole of the Far East, and most people in these places became Buddhists. Practically the whole of India became Buddhist during Ashoka’s time. But later on, Sankaracharya drove against Buddhism. He wanted to establish the difference between Buddhism and Hinduism. Lord Buddha did not accept Vedic authority.
According to Hindu culture, if somebody does not accept the Vedic authority, then he’s not an authority. There are different parties in India. Generally two parties: the Mayavada philosophers and the Vaishnava philosophers, or the impersonalists and the personalists. Ultimately, the Mayavadi philosophers say that God, the Supreme Absolute Truth, is impersonal, and the Vaishnava philosophers say that in the ultimate end, the Absolute Truth is a person, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna. Krishnas tu bhagavan svayam (Bhagavatam 1.3.28).
This is the little difference between the two groups, and they stick to their positions and fight. “Fight” means by philosophical arguments. That has been going on for a very long time. But both of them belong to the sanatana (eternal) Hindu dharma because both of them will talk on the Vedanta philosophy. They give different interpretations, but they cannot say, “We don’t accept Vedanta.” Oh, then the view is at once rejected.
One must give an interpretation on the Vedanta philosophy; then he’ll be accepted as an acharya. Three things: Vedanta philosophy, Bhagavad-gita, and Srimad-Bhagavatam. One must be able to explain these three books. Then he’ll be accepted as an acharya. These are the principles.
Recently, impersonalists have also accepted Krishna. Sankaracharya accepted Krishna. He said sa bhagavan svayam krishna: “Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” People may misunderstand that Krishna may be some other Krishna because the present followers of Sankaracharya are interpreting in that way. But Sankaracharya, just to specify Krishna, said devaki vasudeva jatah. This means Krishna who appeared Himself as the son of Devaki and Vasudeva. That Krishna.
Sankaracharya has a nice prayer to Krishna. The present followers of Sankaracharya cannot say that this is not composed by Sankaracharya. It is very famous.
bhaja govindam bhaja govindam
bhaja govindam mudha mate
prapte sannihite kale marane
na hi na hi rakshati dukrin-karane
Sankaracharya has made many prayers about Krishna, especially about His Vrindavana pastimes. He has worshiped Krishna in many ways. And this is his last composition of poetry. Bhaja govindam bhaja govindam bhaja govindam mudha mate: “You fools, you mudha mate.” Mudha mate means “you fools.” He was addressing the whole world: “You fools.” Bhaja govindam: “Just become a devotee of Krishna. Just become Krishna conscious.” Prapte sannihite kale marane na hi na hi rakshati dukrin-karane: “You are philosophizing. You are talking on grammar and this way and that way.” Such people want to establish impersonalism from Bhagavad-gita by the strength of grammar. This is nonsense. They want to understand God through grammar. God is so cheap that He can be understood through grammar. Therefore Sankaracharya specified, prapte sannihite kale marane: “When death will catch you, your grammar will not save you, you fools. Please become Krishna conscious.”
That was the instruction of Sankaracharya. And he has especially mentioned Bhagavad-gita and Ganges water. ” A little Ganges water and a little study of Bhagavad-gita will save you from many dangerous positions.”
Because Krishna displays the identifying symptoms, even Sankaracharya has accepted Him as Bhagavan, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. But there are many people who do not accept.
Wisdom from Ramanuja’s Guru
Sri Yamunacharya, a great devotee, is understood to be the spiritual master of Ramanujacharya. He was a great king, and later on he became a great devotee. Within the Ramanuja-sampradaya, the line of Ramanuja, there are twelve great acharyas, and he’s one of them. He has written a very nice verse:
tvam shila-rupa-charitaih parama-prakrishtaih
sattvena sattvikataya prabalaish cha shastraih
prakhyata-daiva-paramartha-vidam mataish cha
naivasura-prakritayah prabhavanti boddhum
“O my Lord, those influenced by demoniac principles cannot realize You, although You are clearly the Supreme by dint of Your exalted activities, forms, character, and uncommon power, which are confirmed by all the revealed scriptures in the quality of goodness and the celebrated transcendentalists in the divine nature.” (Stotra-ratna 12) Asura prakritayah means the atheistic demons. In the Vedic literature, the atheists are called demons, rakshasas. Ravana, for example, was a great scholar in Vedic philosophy. He was the son of a brahmana, and he was very learned. And he materially advanced his kingdom so nicely that his capital was called Golden Lanka. He was so rich. In every way – in education, in opulence, in power, everything – he was so great. His only fault was that he was an atheist. Therefore he’s called rakshasa and asura. The only fault of all the asuras mentioned in the shastra is that they are atheists. Otherwise, in education and opulence, they are very much advanced.
Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita (7.15),
na mam dushkritino mudhah
asuram bhavam ashritah
“Those miscreants who are grossly foolish, who are lowest among mankind, whose knowledge is stolen by illusion, and who partake of the atheistic nature of demons do not surrender unto Me.” As soon as one becomes an atheist, oh, it is very difficult to convince him. Therefore our preaching should avoid the atheist class. Of course, the current time is so nice that 99.9% of the people are atheists. So we have to take the risk of talking with atheists also. But generally it is advised that preachers should not talk to the atheist class because they simply argue. Their only point is to simply argue and waste your time. That’s all. They’ll never accept, however you may try to convince them with reason and argument.
In this verse by Yamunacharya, written, say, about one thousand years ago, we see that the atheists were also present then.
Yamunacharya writes prabalaish cha shastrair. There are different kinds of authority. The first authority is authorized shastra, scripture. There the descriptions of an avatar, his characteristics and his work, are mentioned. And prabala means the very powerful. Vedanta philosophy is very powerful, Bhagavad-gita is very powerful, and Srimad-Bhagavatam is very powerful. So we give evidence from these powerful shastras.
Then: prakhyata-daiva-paramartha-vidam mataish cha. Another authority is the opinion of great, famous stalwarts, like Vyasadeva. Who can be more famous than Vyasadeva? He’s the compiler of all the Vedic literature. And Narada is the greatest rishi, sage. Asita, Devala, Vasishtha – there are many stalwarts. The twelve mahajanas are great authorities: Brahma, Narada, Lord Shiva, the Kumaras, Kapila, Manu, Prahlada, Janaka, Bhishma, Bali Maharaja, Shukadeva Goswami, and Yamaraja. But even though great stalwarts and sages accept the evidence in authorized scriptures, still the asura prakriti, the atheistic persons, will never accept it. They’ll never accept. They’ll simply go on arguing.
The Vedic process is that if something is mentioned in the Vedas and accepted by the previous acharyas, then it is accepted as fact. That’s all. I have nothing to bother about. This is the simple process.
Suppose I am a fool number one. That doesn’t matter. I may be a fool, but if I follow the previous authorized acharyas, then I am all right. If an innocent child catches the hand of his father, then he’s all right; he can cross the street. This is the Vedic process. There is no research in the Vedic process. What research will you do? What sense have you got? You shall research about God? There is no research. Research is not accepted in Vedic philosophy. You have to accept the authority. That’s all.
Here Yamunacharya says, tvam shila-rupa-charitaih parama-prakrishtaih: “Your most eminent character, form, and activities.” Krishna’s character was certified by Bhishma, Arjuna’s grandfather. So in age he was also Krishna’s grandfather. He was a great warrior, a kshatriya fighting on the battlefield. He’s called pitamaha, “grandfather.” His character is spotless. Although he was living as a householder, he was more than any sage or any saint. He was the son of the Ganges, and his father, Maharaja Santanu, after the death of Bhishma’s mother wanted to marry again. At that time Bhishma was about twenty years old. Instead of getting the son married, the father was himself very much anxious to get married. So he selected a very beautiful girl, but she belonged to a low-caste family. Kshatriyas could marry from anywhere. That was the injunction. They were not within the boundary of the caste system. The girl was a fisherman’s daughter. Maharaja Santanu wanted to marry that girl, but her father was very cunning.
He said, “No, no. I cannot offer my daughter to you. You are an old man. You have your son. So I cannot offer her.”
He was bargaining.
“No? Why? I shall give your daughter a palace. We shall enjoy so many years.”
“No. I can offer you my daughter only if my daughter’s son becomes the king after your death. Then I can offer her to you.”
“Oh, I cannot agree to that, because my eldest son is living.”
Bhishma understood, “My father wants to marry that girl, but the only impediment is that the father of the girl is making a condition that her son should be king, and my father is declining because I am present and I should be king.”
Oh, he at once approached the girl’s father.
“What is your condition, sir?”
“This is my condition.”
“All right, I shall not accept the kingdom of my father. Your daughter’s son will be king. I agree to this.”
“Oh, no. You may agree, but your son will make the claim to the throne, because you are the proprietor, the prince.”
“Oh, you think so? Then I shall not marry. Is that all right?”
He promised, “I shall never marry in my life. That’s all right? Then marry your daughter to my father.”
He was so pious and so strict. Bhishma was a brahmachari from the very beginning of life, but at the Rajasuya-yajna, he proclaimed Krishna’s superiority in self-control. Maharaja Yudhishthira performed the Rajasuya-yajna. When one performs that sacrifice, all the princes of the world are invited, and they select him as the emperor of the world. That is called Rajasuya-yajna. So in that yajna, all the princes of the world were present, and Krishna was proposed to become the president of that assembly, although He was a relatively young man. Sishupala and Dantavakra were very much against Krishna, and they objected: “Oh, Krishna cannot be the president. There are many others more qualified.” But Bhishma recommended, “Nobody present here has the spotless character of Krishna. When He was sixteen years old, He was surrounded by girls, but He had no sex desire. I am a brahmachari from my birth, but I think I could not be such a restrained personality as Krishna.” He recommended like that. That is mentioned in the Mahabharata. This is character.
So Yamunacharya says, “Your character, Your beauty, and Your wonderful work are accepted by great authorities. You are mentioned in the shastras. In spite of all this, the atheists will never accept You.” The characteristics of an avatar are there in the shastra. We should follow its authority. This is the important point.
Thank you very much.