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The Avatāras

Lord Caitanya continued to explain to Sanātana Gosvāmī that the expansions of Lord Kṛṣṇa who come to the material creation are called avatāras, or incarnations. The word avatāra means “One who descends,” and in this case the word specifically refers to one who descends from the spiritual sky. In the spiritual sky there are innumerable Vaikuṇṭha planets, and from these planets the expansions of the Supreme Personality of Godhead come into this universe. id1

The first descent of the Supreme Personality of Godhead from the expansion of Saṅkarṣaṇa is the puruṣa incarnation, Mahā-Viṣṇu. It is confirmed in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (1.3.1) that when the Supreme Personality of Godhead descends as the first puruṣa incarnation of the material creation, He immediately manifests sixteen elementary energies. Known as the Mahā-Viṣṇu, He lies within the Causal Ocean, and it is He who is the original incarnation in the material world. He is the Lord of time, nature, cause and effect, mind, ego, the five elements, the three modes of nature, the senses and the universal form. Although He is master of all objects movable and immovable in the material world, He is totally independent. id2

The influence of material nature cannot reach beyond the Virajā, or Causal Ocean, as confirmed in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (2.9.10). The modes of material nature (goodness, passion and ignorance), as well as material time, have no influence on the Vaikuṇṭha planets. On those planets the liberated associates of Kṛṣṇa live eternally, and they are worshiped both by the demigods and the demons. id3

Material nature acts in two capacities as māyā and pradhāna. Māyā is the direct cause, and pradhāna refers to the elements of the material manifestation. When the first puruṣa-avatāra, Mahā-Viṣṇu, glances over the material nature, material nature becomes agitated, and the puruṣa-avatāra thus impregnates matter with living entities. Simply by the glance of the Mahā-Viṣṇu, consciousness is created, and this consciousness is known as mahat-tattva, The predominating Deity of the mahat-tattva is Vāsudeva. This created consciousness is then divided into three departmental activities according to the three guṇas, or modes of material nature. Consciousness in the mode of goodness is described in the Eleventh Canto of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. The predominating Deity of the mode of goodness is called Aniruddha. Consciousness in the mode of material passion produces intelligence, and the predominating Deity in this case is Pradyumna. He is the master of the senses. Consciousness in the mode of ignorance causes the production of ether, the sky and the sense of hearing. The cosmic manifestation is a combination of all these modes, and in this way innumerable universes are created. No one can count the number of universes. id4

These innumerable universes are produced from the pores of the Mahā-Viṣṇu's body. As innumerable particles of dust pass through the tiny holes in a screen, similarly from the pores of the Mahā-Viṣṇu's body innumerable universes emanate. As He breathes out, innumerable universes are produced, and as He inhales, they are annihilated. All of the energies of the Mahā-Viṣṇu are spiritual, and they have nothing to do with the material energy. In Brahma-saṁhitā (5.48) it is stated that the predominating deity of each universe, Brahmā, lives only during one breath of the Mahā-Viṣṇu. Thus Mahā-Viṣṇu is the original Supersoul of all the universes and the master of all universes as well. id5

The second Viṣṇu incarnation, the Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu, enters each and every universe, spreads water from His body, and lies down on that water. From His navel, the stem of a lotus flower grows, and on that lotus flower the first creature, Brahmā, is born. Within the stem of that lotus flower are fourteen divisions of planetary systems, which are created by Brahmā. Within each universe the Lord is present as the Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu, and He maintains each universe and tends to its needs. Although He is within each material universe, the influence of material energy cannot touch Him. When it is required, this very same Viṣṇu takes the form of Lord Śiva and annihilates the cosmic creation. The three secondary incarnations-Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva-are the predominating deities of the three modes of material nature. The master of the universe, however, is the Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu, who is worshiped as the Hiraṇyagarbha Supersoul. The Vedic hymns describe Him as having thousands of heads. Although He is within the material nature, He is not touched by it. id6

The third incarnation of Viṣṇu, Kṣīrodakaśāyī Viṣṇu, is also an incarnation of the mode of goodness. He is also the Supersoul of all living entities, and He resides on the ocean of milk within the universe. Thus Caitanya Mahāprabhu described the puruṣa-avatārasid7

Lord Caitanya next described the līlā-avatāras, or “pastime” avatāras, and of these the Lord points out that there is no limit. However, He describes some of them-for example, Matsya, Kūrma, Raghunātha, Nṛsiṁha, Vāmana and Varāha. id8

As far as the guṇa-avatāras, or qualitative incarnations of Viṣṇu, are concerned, they are three-Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva. Brahmā is one of the living entities, but due to his devotional service he is very powerful. This primal living entity, master of the mode of material passion, is directly empowered by the Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu to create innumerable living entities. In Brahma-saṁhitā (5.49) Brahmā is likened to valuable jewels influenced by the rays of the sun, and the sun is likened to the Supreme Lord Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu. If in some kalpa there is no suitable living entity capable of acting in Brahmā's capacity, Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu Himself manifests as Brahmā and acts accordingly. id9

Similarly, by expanding Himself as Lord Śiva, the Supreme Lord is engaged when there is a need to annihilate the universe. Lord Śiva, in association with māyā, has many forms, which are generally numbered at eleven. Lord Śiva is not one of the living entities; he is, more or less, Kṛṣṇa Himself. The example of milk and yogurt is often given in this regard-yogurt is a preparation of milk, but still yogurt cannot be used as milk. Similarly, Lord Śiva is an expansion of Kṛṣṇa, but he cannot act as Kṛṣṇa, nor can we derive the spiritual restoration from Lord Śiva that we derive from Kṛṣṇa. The essential difference is that Lord Śiva has a connection with material nature, but Viṣṇu or Lord Kṛṣṇa has nothing to do with material nature. In Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (10.88.3) it is stated that Lord Śiva is a combination of three kinds of transformed consciousness known as vaikārika, taijasa and tāmasaid10

The Viṣṇu incarnation, although master of the modes of goodness within each universe, is in no way in touch with the influence of material nature. Although Viṣṇu is equal to Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa is the original source. Viṣṇu is a part, but Kṛṣṇa is the whole. This is the version given by Vedic literatures. In Brahma-saṁhitā the example is given of an original candle which lights a second candle. Although both candles are of equal power, one is accepted as the original, and the other is said to be kindled from the original. The Viṣṇu expansion is like the second candle. He is as powerful as Kṛṣṇa, but the original Viṣṇu is Kṛṣṇa. Brahmā and Lord Śiva are obedient servants of the Supreme Lord, and the Supreme Lord as Viṣṇu is an expansion of Kṛṣṇa. id11

After describing the Līlā and guṇa-avatāras, Lord Caitanya explains the manvantara-avatāras to Sanātana Gosvāmī. He first states that there is no possibility of counting the manvantara-avatāras. In one kalpa, or one day of Brahmā, fourteen Manus are manifest. One day of Brahmā is calculated at 4 billion 320 million years, and Brahmā lives for one hundred years on this scale. Thus if fourteen Manus appear in one day of Brahmā, there are 420 Manus during one month of Brahmā, and during one year of Brahmā there are 5,040 Manus. Since Brahmā lives for one hundred of his years, it is calculated that there are 504,000 Manus manifest during the lifetime of one Brahmā. Since there are innumerable universes, no one can imagine the totality of the manvantara incarnations. Because all the universes are produced simultaneously by the exhalation of the Mahā-Viṣṇu, no one can begin to calculate how many Manus are manifest at one time. Each Manu, however, is called by a different name. The first Manu is called Svāyambhuva, and he is the son of Brahmā. The second Manu, Svārociṣa, is the son of the predominating deity of fire. The third Manu is Uttama, and he is the son of King Priyavrata. The fourth Manu, Tāmasa, is the brother of Uttama. The fifth Manu, called Raivata, and the sixth Manu, Cākṣuṣa, are both brothers of Tāmasa, but Cākṣuṣa is the son of Cākṣu. The seventh Manu is called Vaivasvata, and he is the son of the sun-god. The eighth Manu is called Sāvarṇi, and he is also a son of the sun-god, born of a wife named Chāyā. The ninth Manu, Dakṣasāvarṇi, is the son of Varuna. The tenth Manu, Brahmasāvarṇi, is the son of Upaśloka. Four other Manus are known as Rudrasāvarṇi, Dharmasāvarṇi, Devasāvarṇi and Indrasāvarṇi. id12

After describing the Manu incarnations, Lord Caitanya explained the yuga-avatāras to Sanātana Gosvāmī. There are four yugas, or millennia-Satya, Tretā, Dvāpara, and Kali-and in each millennium the Supreme Lord incarnates, and each incarnation has a different color according to the yuga. In the Satya-yuga the color of the principal incarnation is white. In the Tretā-yuga the color is red, in the Dvāpara-yuga the color is blackish (Kṛṣṇa), and in the Kali-yuga the color of the principal incarnation is yellow (Caitanya Mahāprabhu). This is confirmed in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (10.8.13) by the astrologer Gargamuni, who calculated Kṛṣṇa's horoscope in the house of Nanda Mahārāja. id13

In the Satya-yuga the process of self-realization was meditation, and this process is taught by the white incarnation of God. This incarnation gave a benediction to the sage Kardama by which he could have an incarnation of the Personality of Godhead as his son. In the Satya-yuga, everyone meditated on Kṛṣṇa, and each and every living entity was in full knowledge. In this present age, Kali-yuga, people who are not in full knowledge are still attempting this meditative process which was recommended for a previous age. The process for self-realization recommended in the Tretā millennium was the performance of sacrifice, and this was taught by the red incarnation of God. In the Dvāpara millennium, Kṛṣṇa was personally present, and He was worshiped by everyone by the mantra: id14

namas te vāsudevāya
namaḥ saṅkarṣaṇāya
pradyumnāyāniruddhāya
tubhyaṁ bhagavate namaḥ

“Let me offer my obeisances unto the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vāsudeva, Saṅkarṣaṇa, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha.” This was the process of self-realization for the Dvāpara age. In the next millennium-this present age of Kali-yuga-the Lord incarnates to preach the chanting of the holy name of Kṛṣṇa. In this age the Lord is yellow (Caitanya Mahāprabhu), and He teaches people love of God by chanting the names of Kṛṣṇa. This teaching is carried out personally by Kṛṣṇa, and He exhibits love of Godhead by chanting, singing and dancing with thousands of people following Him. This particular incarnation of the Supreme Personality of Godhead is foretold in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (11.5.32): id15

kṛṣṇa-varṇaṁ tviṣākṛṣṇaṁ
sāṅgopāṅgāstra-pārṣadam
yajñaiḥ saṅkīrtana-prāyair
yajanti hi sumedhasaḥ

“In the age of Kali the Lord incarnates as a devotee, yellowish in color, and is always chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa, Hare Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa, Hare Hare/ Hare Rāma, Hare Rāma, Rāma Rāma, Hare Hare. Although He is Kṛṣṇa, His complexion is not blackish like Kṛṣṇa's in Dvāpara-yuga but is golden. It is in Kali-yuga that the Lord engages in preaching love of Godhead through the saṅkīrtana movement, and those living entities who are intelligent adopt this process of self-realization.” It is also stated in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (12.3.52): id16

kṛte yad dhyāyato viṣṇuṁ
tretāyāṁ yajato makhaiḥ
dvāpare paricaryāyāṁ
kalau taddhari-kīrtanāt

“The self-realization which was achieved in the Satya millennium by meditation, in the Tretā millennium by the performance of different sacrifices, and in the Dvāpara millennium by worship of Lord Kṛṣṇa, can be achieved in the age of Kali simply by chanting the holy names, Hare Kṛṣṇa.” This is also confirmed in Viṣṇu Purāṇa (6.2.17) where it is stated:. id17

dhyāyan kṛte yajan yajñais
tretāyāṁ dvāpare 'rcayan
yad āpnoti tad āpnoti
kalau saṅkīrtya keśavam

“In this age there is no use in meditation, sacrifice and temple worship. Simply by chanting the holy name of Kṛṣṇa-Hare Kṛṣṇa, Hare Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa, Hare Hare/ Hare Rāma, Hare Rāma, Rāma Rāma, Hare Hare-one can achieve perfect self-realization.” id18

When Lord Caitanya described the incarnation for this age of Kali, Sanātana Gosvāmī, who had been a government minister and was perfectly capable of drawing conclusions, directly asked of the Lord, “How can one understand the advent of an incarnation?” By the description of the incarnation for the Kali millennium, Sanātana Gosvāmī could understand that Lord Caitanya was indeed that incarnation of Kṛṣṇa, and he could also understand that in the future there would be many people who would try to imitate Lord Caitanya because the Lord played as an ordinary brāhmaṇa, despite the fact that His devotees accepted Him as an incarnation. Since Sanātana knew that there would be many pretenders, he asked the Lord, “How can one understand the symptoms of an incarnation?” id19

“As one can understand the different incarnations for different millenniums by referring to Vedic literatures,”the Lord replied, “one can similarly understand who is actually the incarnation of Godhead in this age of Kali.” In this way the Lord especially stressed reference to authoritative scriptures. In other words, one should not whimsically accept a person as an incarnation but should try to understand the characteristics of an incarnation by referring to scriptures. An incarnation of the Supreme Lord never declares Himself to be an incarnation, but His followers must ascertain who is an incarnation and who is a pretender by referring to authoritative scriptures. id20

Any intelligent person can understand the characteristics of an avatāra by understanding two features-the principal feature, called personality, and the marginal features. In the scriptures there are descriptions of the characteristics of the body and the activities of an incarnation, and the description of the body is the principal feature by which an incarnation can be identified. The activities of the incarnation are the marginal features. This is confirmed in the beginning of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (1.1.1) where the features of an avatāra are nicely described. In that verse, the two terms param and satyam are used, and Lord Caitanya indicates that these words reveal Kṛṣṇa's principal feature. The other marginal features indicate that He taught Vedic knowledge to Brahmā and incarnated as the puruṣa-avatāra to create the cosmic manifestation. These are occasional features manifest for some special purposes. One should be able to understand and distinguish the principal and marginal features of an avatāra. No one can declare himself an incarnation without referring to these two features. An intelligent man will not accept anyone as an avatāra without studying the principal and marginal features. When Sanātana Gosvāmī tried to confirm Lord Caitanya's personal characteristics as being those of the incarnation of this age, Lord Caitanya Himself indirectly made the confirmation by simply saying, “Let us leave aside all these discussions and continue with a description of the śaktyāveśa-avatāras.” id21

The Lord then pointed out that there is no limit to the śaktyāveśa-avatāras and that they cannot be counted. However, some can be mentioned as examples. The śaktyāveśa incarnations are of two kinds-direct and indirect. When the Lord Himself comes, He is called sākṣāt, or a direct śaktyāveśa-avatāra, and when He empowers some living entity to represent Him that living entity is called an indirect or āveśa incarnation. Examples of indirect avatāras are the four Kumāras, Nārada, Pṛthu and Paraśurāma. These are actually living entities, but there is specific power given to them by the Supreme Personality of Godhead. When a specific opulence of the Supreme Lord is invested in specific entities, they are called āveśa-avatāras. The four Kumāras specifically represent the Supreme Lord's opulence of knowledge. Nārada represents the devotional service of the Supreme Lord. Devotional service is also represented by Lord Caitanya, who is considered to be the full representation of devotional service. In Brahmā the opulence of creative power is invested, and in King Pṛthu the power for maintaining the living entities is invested. Similarly, in Paraśurāma the power for killing evil elements is invested. As far as vibhāti, or the special favor of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is concerned, it is described in the Tenth Chapter of Bhagavad-gītā that a living entity who appears to be especially powerful or beautiful should be known to be especially favored by the Supreme Lord. id22

Examples of direct or sākṣād-avatāras are the Śeṣa incarnation and the Ananta incarnation. In Ananta the power for sustaining all planets is invested, and in the Śeṣa incarnation the power for serving the Supreme Lord is invested. id23

After describing the śaktyāveśa incarnations, Caitanya Mahāprabhu began to speak about the age of the Supreme Lord. He said that the Supreme Lord Kṛṣṇa is always like a sixteen-year-old boy, and when He desires to descend on this universe, He first of all sends His father and mother, who are His devotees, and then He advents Himself as an incarnation, or He comes personally. All His activities-beginning with the killing of the Pūtanā demon-are displayed in innumerable universes, and there is no limit to them. Indeed, at every moment, at every second, His manifestations and various pastimes are seen in different universes (brahmāṇḍas). Thus His activities are just like the waves of the Ganges River. Just as there is no limit to the flowing of the waves of the Ganges, there is no cessation of Lord Kṛṣṇa's incarnations in different universes. From childhood He displays many pastimes, and ultimately He exhibits the rāsa dance. id24

It is said that all the pastimes of Kṛṣṇa are eternal, and this is confirmed in every scripture. Generally people cannot understand how Kṛṣṇa performs His pastimes, but Lord Caitanya clarified this by comparing His pastimes to the orbit of the earth about the sun. According to Vedic astrological calculations, the twenty-four hours of a day and night are divided into sixty daṇḍas. The days are again divided into 3,600 palas. The sun disc can be perceived in every sixty palas, and that time constitutes a daṇḍa. Eight daṇḍas make one prahara, and the sun rises and sets with in four praharas. Similarly, four praharas constitute one night, and after that the sun rises. Similarly, all the pastimes of Kṛṣṇa can be seen in any of the universes, just as the sun can be seen in its movement through 3,600 palasid25

Lord Kṛṣṇa remains in this universe for only 125 years, but all the pastimes of that period are exhibited in each and every universe. These pastimes include His appearance, His boyhood activities, His youth and His later pastimes up to those pastimes at Dvārakā. Since all these pastimes are present in one or another of the myriad universes at any given time, they are called eternal. The sun is eternally existing, although we see it rise and set, appear and disappear, according to our position on the planet. Similarly, the Lord's pastimes are going on, although we can see them manifest in this particular universe only at certain intervals. His abode is the supreme planet known as Goloka Vṛndāvana, and by His will, this Goloka Vṛndāvana is manifested in this universe and in other universes as well. Thus the Lord is always in His supreme abode, Goloka Vṛndāvana, and by His supreme will His activities there are also manifested in innumerable universes. When He appears, He appears in those particular places, and in every manifestation His six opulences are displayed. id26

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