This is a comparative study of the two important concepts of avatāra and incarnation1 as found in Hinduism and Christianity.2 After tracing the development of the two beliefs, we shall highlight the main similarities and differences between the two understandings. Such comparison not only facilitates better mutual understanding but also helps each tradition to understand itself better. The more a religion remains within its own ghetto, the poorer will be its self-understanding. It is precisely through comparison and contrast that a faith can come to comprehend itself more deeply. It is only through encounter with another that we understand our own identity. The similarities with other traditions help us to appreciate the larger significance of our beliefs and practices, and the differences give us insights into the unique features of our own tradition. Furthermore, the correlation and distinction that we notice can inspire us to question things that we have taken for granted, and we can also benefit from a cross-cultural fertilization through an ongoing interreligious dialogue.
The Development of the Doctrine in the Two Traditions
Derived from ava (down) and tī' (to cross), an avatāra is generally a "descent" of a deity, or part of a deity, or of some other superhuman being in a manifest form. An extraordinary human being may also be called (a secondary) avatāra. The avatāra doctrine is most typical of Vaiṣṇavism. One normally speaks of avatāras of Viṣṇu3 or of someone associated with him, for example Kṛṣṇa. Although we do find avatāras in Śaivism and Śaktism, they are not universally accepted in these two traditions.4 One also comes across references to avatāras of other deities, for example of Sūrya,5 as well as of sages, demons, and others.6
Although earlier texts mention deities taking on various forms, the first formulation of the doctrine of avatāras is found in the Bhagavad-gītā,7 which was probably composed around the second century B.C.E.8 In the frequently quoted verses 4.5-9 of the Gītā, it is said that even though Kṛṣṇa is unborn and changeless, he freely, and by his own power (i.e., unlike those who are born because of their past karman), comes into being in different ages. He does so in order to protect the good, destroy the wicked, reestablish righteousness (dharma), and free his devotees from rebirth. Kṛṣṇa also comes to teach the paths to salvation, which he does through most of the Gītā.
From the text of the Gītā we can conclude, first, that the form of the avatāra is real, and not merely an appearance. Even though Kṛṣṇa is himself unborn and [End Page 98] changeless, he nonetheless comes into being (sambhavāmi) (4.6, 8), emanates himself (sṛjāmi) (4.7), has many births (janman) (4.5), and resorts to or assumes (āśarita) a human (mānuṣī) form or body (tanu) (9.11). In other words, even though Kṛṣṇa is eternal and changeless as a divine being, he evolves his avatāra body in the form of a human being. From this it is quite natural to conclude that Kṛṣṇa's human form is a real body and not an illusory one.9 Second, we should deduce that the human body of Kṛṣṇa is imperfect, since he comes into being by resorting to (adhiṣṭhāya) prakṛti or material nature (4.6). This prakṛti is made up of the three imperfect guṇas, and hence his form has to be defective. It should be noted that although the three guṇas may be said to be "perfect" insofar as they follow their own nature, they are imperfect in comparison with higher types of being, just as matter, by its very nature, is imperfect compared to spirit, which is more perfect, or just as creatures are imperfect in contrast to God, who is most perfect. Since Kṛṣṇa's body is made of this imperfect prakṛti, we may deduce that...