Category Archives: 1.03 Incarnations

Glories of the Self and God

The sages asked, “If God takes birth and ‘has incarnations,’ is he not just like us?”

Suta answered, “God’s form is itself pure spiritual formlessness, beyond the limitations of an individual shape created by material elements We souls are also beyond limitation of form but we confuse the observer with the observed and thereby identify our self with limiting things like our mind and body.”


Beyond this is something imperceptible, having no formal shape created by qualities. It is a substance unseen, unheard. It is the life-force which is born repeatedly.

Beyond the mind and body is the actual “self.” Both God and you are this substance, beyond all objectivity and subjectivity. Beyond objects and subjects is the true self. But, this self takes so many limiting forms again and again due to projection of the observer (the soul) into the observation (the world).


We can have spiritual vision when perfect knowledge itself rejects all these persistent and temporary forms imposed by ignorance.

If spiritual substance is beyond objectivity and subjectivity how can it be experienced? It can be experienced only by “knowledge itself” – sva-saṁvit. Godhead possesses three categories of spiritual potency: existence, awareness, and enjoyment. The second, awareness, is termed saṁvit. We must beg from the divine an infusion of saṁvit as a catalyst to awaken the saṁvit inherent within us, now rusted shut from disuse. Awakened self-knowledge casts off the haze of all illusory objects and subjects and grants spiritual perception (brahma-darśan), and thus access to the realm of transcendent objectivity and subjectivity.


If the goddess’ illusion withdraws, comprehension becomes perfect. Thus enriched, one understands one’s inherent exalted glories.

We possess the inherent capacity to understand and experience Godhead and spiritual truth. All that is required is for the intoxication of the “goddess’ illusion” (devī-māyā) to wear off. When we beg the saṁvit catalyst, it blows away the fog of delusions that currently obscure our capacity for transcendental perception and comprehension. Without such illusions, the inherently exalted glories of the self become self-evident.

What is the essence of that glory? We are made of God, by God, for God. The full richness of this exaltation is tasted when we let go of the illusion of all other self-conceptions.


The births of the birthless and the deeds of the deedless have been thus described by the learned. The lord of the heart is the confidential secret of true knowledge.

In one sense the lord of the heart (hṛt-pateḥ) is the self, for the self dwells in the core of what we are and empowers our body and mind to be “alive.” In another sense the lord of the heart is God, for God dwells in the core of the self and empowers it to exist and comprehend.

The lord of the heart is birthless, without beginning. Yet we see that we have been born, and we hear that even Godhead incarnates. The lord of the heart has no action and reaction, beyond causality. Yet we are completely entangled in the reactions of our actions, and we hear that Godhead also performs deeds. Both the self and Godhead are thus a true mystery, the final subject of true knowledge (veda-guhya). Suta has tried to pass on to us the benefit of what those who have studied thus subject to its utmost have explained about it.


So too is He of Untainted Activity. He creates and destroys everything without entanglement in anything. He is within all beings, but is independently self-situated. He is the master of six powers, the mere fragrance of which are the six qualities.

The sages asked if Godhead is limited like we are, since he takes birth and has a name, form and activities like we do. Suta answered by explaining that even the soul is not limited by its birth, name, form and activities. Neither the soul nor Godhead is limited by its name and form, etc.

Suta explained the difference between Godhead and the soul. The soul accepts material illusions and confuses the observation (non-self) with the observer (self), thus forgetting its unlimited nature. Godhead never does so. His activities are always untainted by ignorance (amogha-līla). He never acts out of ignorant selfishness and therefore he never gets entangled in his karma, even in his “dirty work” of creation and destruction. He is within all things and beings, but never loses his individual identity. He is the master of all opulent powers, which he enjoys with cognizant intent and without impurity.


Who, with meager knowledge, can understand the names, forms, and activities of the expert creator? The theories and arguments of fools cannot grasp the dramas he plays! Only one who unreservedly, unrelentingly, and lovingly adores the lotus-flower scent of his feet He can understand the creator – who held a chariot wheel in his hand, whose prowess is endless, and whose praise is transcendent.  

Suta has explained that Godhead is always unlimited, but the soul becomes bewildered by illusions. How can a bewildered thing comprehend something beyond bewilderment? By its own means, it cannot. The soul must beg saṁvit from Godhead. The light of saṁvit dispels the darkness of illusion and the soul’s inherent capacity for transcendental perception and activity awakens. Therefore if you desire to truly comprehend spirituality and Godhead, you must approach the study as a beggar, not as a conquistador. You must take a childlike attitude towards Godhead, feeling in need to shelter and protection and education. This is quite embarrassing for proud fools such as we, or at least such as I. Therefore Suta asks us to cast aside our shame and inhibitions. Unreservedly, unrelentingly adore the fragrance of Śrī Kṛṣṇa which spreads like a lotus perfume on the pleasant breezes of kirtan spoken and sung by those whose hearts are enrapt with his charm.

Do you have such opportunities? You do now. Suta will speak Śrīmad Bhāgavatam to give us exactly this chance to hear.

Does God Really Have Form Like Us?

Some of the sages ask, “An ordinary soul has many reincarnations. Now it seems from what you have just told us that Godhead also has many incarnations and reincarnations. Does God really incarnate and take forms like us?”


Suta answers, “God’s forms are really formless spiritual consciousness. The individual’s incarnations are material elements manufactured by the qualities of illusion.”

Some philosophers argue that to think of God with some sort of eyes and ears and arms and legs is primitive anthropomorphism. They think that God must be beyond all form. Suta agrees that God is beyond form, but does not agree that God therefore must be formless, without specific beauty and individuality. He says that “the forms of God are beyond form.” He does not say that God is formless, but that the form of God is beyond form. There is a world of difference!

Suta teaches that God has form, but this form is beyond form because it is made of limitless pure consciousness. This contrasts against the form we see in the mirror: a thing manufactured from material elements by the qualities of illusion.

In summary, God has limitless form.


Seeing clouds or dust in the sky, we think it is dirty. The foolish observer transposes an observation upon the observed.

When we look at a thing, we do not see it! We see only our perception of it. An observation is different from the thing observed. This difference is the mind that comprehends the observation. We do not directly observe reality. We observe only what our minds can make sense of. This is really quite important to admit. Especially today, in a world that defines reality based on what some people can observe empirically.

English: The sunrising behind some clouds.

Image via Wikipedia

Suta makes the idea more concrete by using an analogy: “When you see clouds or dust in the sky, you think the sky is cloudy or dusty.” The sky is always clear blue. Clouds and dust exist only at a low level of atmosphere. If our observation point is below that level, the sky seems cloudy or dirty. We wrongly impart our vantage point upon the reality of what we see.

An ordinary person looks at a painting or statue of Godhead and sees something like what they see in the mirror: hair, eyes, hands, feet, etc. “That can’t be right,” they ponder, “because that means Godhead is just like me: limited within a certain form, susceptible to bad-hair days, eye infections, arthritis, etc.” This logic has the flaw of imposing one’s own conditions upon things one observes. Our experience of form is limiting and prone to be problematic. Therefore when we observe form, we think it must be restrictive. However, our experience of form is troublesome only because our form is an artificial imposition manufactured by illusions. Just because spiritual forms superficially look like material forms does not make them material. God’s forms are pure spiritual formlessness. They are not forms of illusory material energy. We must not transpose our small comprehension of form upon the infinite spiritual form of the All-Attractive.

Is Krishna an Incarnation?

Continuing the sequential list of the more prominent incarnations of Godhead, we come to those who are relatively more contemporary.


He took the form of a fish during the world-devastating flood of the “Cākṣuṣa” era, and protected the lord of humans, Vaivasvata Manu, be keeping him up on a boat.


In the form of a tortoise his shell provided the foundation for Mt. Manara when the gods and demons were churning the ocean. This was the eleventh incarnation of the All-Powerful.


Dhānvantari was the twelfth. And then in the thirteenth, as a woman, she gave nectar to the gods while charming the others with her allure.

The eleventh, twelfth and thirteen incarnations all happened in relatively rapid succession during the churning of the ocean. Dhānvantari is the incarnation of Godhead who delivered medical science to humanity. The thirteenth usually is addressed by the name Mohinī.


The fourteenth was the Man-Lion, Nārasiṁha. His claws split open the powerful demon-god, like a carpenter splitting wood.


In the fifteenth incarnation he became the dwarf, Vāmana. He went to Bali’s ritual court to peacefully beg three steps of land, to reclaim the three worlds.


The sixteenth avatār saw that the kings began to hate moral guidance and so protected the earth by annihilating all the militias twenty one times.

His name is Bhṛgupati, also known as Paraśurāma.


Then, becoming the seventeenth, he entered the womb of Satyavatī through Parāśara, to present the many branches of the tree of knowledge (Veda) in a way which less intellectual commoners could grasp.

His name is Vyāsa.


After that, he assumed the role of a human king and, for the sake of the gods, performed many heroic deeds like controlling the ocean.

The name of this eighteenth incarnation is Rāma.


The nineteenth and twentieth, known as Rāma and Kṛṣṇa, were born in the Vṛṣṇi family. The All-Attractive removed the earth’s burden.

This “Rāma” is the short form of Balarāma, who advented as Kṛṣṇa’s brother.


Then, as the age of Kali comes in, he will bewilder those who dislike the godly. He will be named Buddha, the son of Añjanā of Gayā.

This is in future tense relative to the storyline. Suta spoke these words to the sakes more than a dozen centuries before Buddha, the twenty-first avatār.


When the age of Kali draws to a close and almost all the rulers are criminals he will take birth to protect the world with the name Kalki, son of Viṣṇu Yaśā.

Suta’s list of primary incarnations of the Purusha thus closes with twenty one. This is not a complete list.


O sages, Hari is a vast sea of being. Inexhaustible thousands of rivers and lakes flow from this sea. Likewise, his avatars are beyond counting.


You should know that all the sages, gods, progenitors, and the original lords of mankind and their extremely powerful descendants are portions of Hari.


All of them are fragments or portions of the Purusha, and incarnate in various ages to protect the world whenever it is disturbed by the enemies of the gods. But Kṛṣṇa is different. He is the All-Attractive One himself.

With this, Suta concludes his list of the incarnations of Godhead, answering in summary one of the original inquiries of the sages, “tell us about the incarnations of the All-Attractive.”

He first described that the fundamental incarnation of Godhead is Purusha, who exists in three facets: outside the universes, inside each universe, and inside each particle – including each soul. Then he said that innumerable incarnations spring from the Purusha to assist the development and well-being of the world, and he gave a chronological list of twenty-one prominent instances of such incarnations.

This list included various types of incarnations. Some – like The Kumara, Narada, and Vyāsa – are aveśa incarnations. Aveśa means “dressed.” They are individual souls who are “dressed” in the supernatural powers of God and therefore act as incarnations on his behalf. Others – like the Man-Lion, the Dwarf, and Rāma – are more literally incarnations of Godhead.

Then Suta reminded us that the list cannot be complete and said that all extremely powerful entities are incarnations of Godhead. This is a third type of avatār, called vibhūti. It is more distant than aveśa from being a literal “incarnation.”

Suta has given a list which may seem to lump together at least three different grades of incarnations. He mentions Kṛṣṇa in the same breath as Narada or Buddha and others. Suta wants to correct any possible misunderstanding, so makes an explicit statement with the help of the word tu: “but.” In all languages, “but” is an important word, marking the topic at hand as being a sharp contrast to the previous. When we see this word in Sanksrit it calls our attention to an important topic that stands out in contrast to the other subjects around it. Suta says, “ete cāṁśa-kalāḥ puṁsaḥ, kṛṣṇas TU bhagavān svayam.” It means, “All of the many personalities I have just mentioned are fragments, or fragments of fragments, of the Purusha incarnation. BUT Kṛṣṇa is the All-Attractive himself.”

Remember that Purusha is the first incarnation of bhagavān, the All-Attractive Supreme Entity. All of the incarnations we have just heard enumerated by Suta are incarnations of that incarnation of bhagavān. Kṛṣṇa belongs on this list because he accesses the material domain via his own expanded conduit: through the Purusha’s into the particle-pervading Supersoul and out into materially tangible reality. But equally, Kṛṣṇa does not belong on this list, because everyone else on it is a fragment or partial fragment of Bhagavān’s Purusha incarnation, but Kṛṣṇa is Bhagavān himself.

A child comes down a slide, but the slide does not produce the child. Similarly Kṛṣṇa comes down into our domain through the Purusha. Unlike other incarnations, however, Kṛṣṇa does not originate from the Purusha at the “top of the slide.” Rather the Purusha emanates from Kṛṣṇa, and is then utilized by him to advent within our conceptual space as an avatār.

Is Kṛṣṇa an incarnation? Yes in a sense, but he is an incarnation of himself. Kṛṣṇa is the original All-Attractive supreme entity. Suta, selected as the most authoritative sage among sages, has made this declaration.

The Śrīmad Bhāgavatam will, in the course of its 18,000 verses, expand upon the amazing details of almost all of the incarnations just listed, especially focusing all upon the All-Attractive original Godhead, Kṛṣṇa.


A person who carefully recites this list of confidential incarnations of the All-Attractive in a spirit of devotion in the morning and evening gets freed from all misery.

Krishna Holding Mount Govardhan ca. 1790 Color...

Image via Wikipedia

Prominent Early Incarnations of Godhead

The Purusha incarnation, just previously described, is the primary incarnation for the material world, existing through the entire thing – before and after it as well – and maintaining its reality. The first aspect of the Purusha creates the primordial potentialities for all the universes. The second aspect enters each potential universe and generates Brahmā, the agent of actual creation. The third aspect enters within each quantum particle of the universe, including each soul therein, and makes their mutual existence and exchange possible.

From this third aspect comes a myriad of “avatār” (incarnations). Suta will now enumerate some of the prominent  ones.

English: Four Kumaras: Source is from Editor i...

The Kumara


The first avatār occurs within the “Childhood” age of creation. “The Children” performed the very difficult task of Brahmā: uninterrupted celibacy.

The quadruplet sons of Brahmā (the god who creates) are the first avatār of the Purusha. They appeared in a very early cycle of creation, called the “Childhood Age” (kaumāra sargam). Brahmā asked them to create thousands of offspring to generate the initial population base of the world. They declined and took up a more difficult, implicit order: to cultivate spiritual knowledge. Such endeavor is made much more efficacious if one desists from simultaneously cultivating anti-knowledge: which is the ignorance that the soul deserves to be a central figure of gratification via the world’s resources. So celibacy is one of the important components of classical spiritual discipline. The Children (Kaumara. Or, “The Four Kumaras”) had a very novel idea. They did not allow their bodies to age into puberty, a really great solution to the often troubling practice of celibacy!


The second avatār of He For Whom Sacrifices Are Meant appeared when the Earth fell into the lowest dregs of the universe. Appearing as a boar, this avatār rescued the world by lifting it back to its proper orbit

He is more popularly named Varāha.


The third avatār came during the “Sage Age” as the Sage of the Gods. He compiled purifying manuals regarding how to live in the world without becoming entangled in selfishness.

He is most popularly known as Nārada.


English: ~ NaraNarayana ~ DasAvatara Mandir ~ ...

Nara Naryana

The fourth came during the “Age of Dharma’s Wife” as Sage Nara-Nārāyaṇa. His task was to show how to perform very serious disciplines of self-control.


The fifth is named Kapila, the master of the accomplished ones. He restored empiric material sciences, which had been lost over time, by teaching Āsuri.


The sixth is Atri’s, because his wife Anasūyā prayed for such a son. He instructed spiritual knowledge to Alarka, Prahlāda and others.

The name of Atri and Anasūyā’s son is Dattātreya. Many of these initial incarnations came for the purpose of giving spiritual knowledge to humanity. Knowledge which is beyond the human mind cannot exist unless a being which is beyond the human mind comes and delivers it in a manner which the human mind could hope to comprehend.

Among Dattātreya’s students is the name Prahlāda. It seems this could not be the famous Prahlāda associated with a later incarnation.


Then the seventh avatār, Yajña, appeared from his mother Ākūti and father Ruci. He took care of the world during the difficult transition out of the “Svāyambhu Age.”


The eighth, Urukrama, was born from his mother Merudevī and father Nābhi. He showed the path walked by those enlightened souls who are honored by all spiritualists.

A more common name for him is Ṛṣabha. “Enlightened souls honored by all spiritualists” has a specific import. There are four generally sequential spiritual orders in classical Indian culture: the student (brahmacārya), the active householder (gṛhastha), those retired to the forest (vānaprastha), and the renounced (sannyāsa). The fourth, the renounced, is honored by all the others as the objective. Within each order are sub-orders. The fourth order has four classical sub-orders: renounced in the hermitage (kuṭicaka), without a hermitage (bahudaka), without a location (parivrājaka), and the topmost swan (paramahaṁsa). The topmost swan is honored by all others, even those in the fourth order, as the ultimate objective.

The nature of such persons is that they have completed all development and require no further discipline. The eighth avatār set the standard of the nature, quality, and behavior of such very rare souls.

The person of a similar name important to the Jain religion must be named after this avatar, considering the chronology.


Answering the prayers of sages, Purusha accepted the ninth avatār as a king of the earth. By milking the earth he made her body very verdant and attractive.

He is more commonly known as Pṛthu.

Incarnations of Godhead – Creators

Suta says [1.2.34]:

I’ve spoken of how Vishnu pervades everything in the universe out of compassion to help all living beings fulfill their desires. Now I will speak of another way that the spiritual Godhead manifests his pure existence within this material realm: he performs pastimes in the role of incarnations among the gods, animals, and humans.


The All-Attractive first takes the form of Purusha, at the very beginning of the universe, with the intention to manifest all that is required for creation. This begins with manifesting the great conglomeration of energies from which sixteen primary ingredients emerge.

“Purusha” means the man. This first incarnation of Godhead, Purusha, is basically “the man of the house” where “the house” is the entirety of all material creation. The role of the male is to supply the seeds and necessary ingredients. The female role is to develop the seeds and ingredients. So the original man, Purusha, gives the seed of all ingredients required in the universe.

The sixteen primary ingredients of creation manifest from “the great conglomeration of energies” (mahat) which the Purusha produces. In due course Suta will explain all these details fully. At present, suffice to say that the sixteen ingredients are the five elements, five gathering senses, five expressing senses, and the mind.

Eighteenth century Vaishnava painting deciptin... [2]

He lies down upon the water and enters a mystic sleep. In the lake of his naval grows a lotus, from which is manifested Brahmā, the master engineer of the universe.

He does this in a second form. The Purusha has three forms. The first was described in the previous text. It is Vishnu Lying on the Ocean of Causality (kāraṇodakaśayī viṣṇu). From this first Purusha comes all the globs (mahat) in which are stored all the ingredients required to create a universe.

The current text now describes the second form of the Purusha, Vishnu Lying on the Womb-Ocean (garbhodakaśayī viṣṇu). This Purusha enters each proto-universal glob to empower its creation.


We imagine that all the many worlds are grounded within the Purusha’s expansive body. But really, the body of the All-Attractive Godhead is super-excellently pure existence.

In other words, the idea that material things exist within God is a conception only. The truth is that nothing material exists in super-excellently pure nature of God. Thus material existence itself is a conception only.

Now the sages ask, “What does this conceptual form of Godhead that contains all the various worlds look like?


Only perfect eyes can see this form; Thousands of amazing legs, thighs, hands and faces; Thousands of heads, ears, eyes, and noses; Thousands of effulgent garlands, clothes, and earrings.

Having answered their question, Suta returns to his original train of thought:


He gives the inexhaustible seed of the multitudes of incarnations. The portions of his portion create gods, animals, humans and so forth.

The second form of the Purusha creates the third form of the Purusha, Vishnu Lying on the Milk-Ocean (kṣīrodakaśayī viṣṇu). This third Purusha enters into the globule of each subatomic quantum within his universe. He is the origin of all the incarnations. His fragments and the fragments of his fragments become the gods, animals, humans, and so forth.

In the next section, Suta will describe many of the innumerable incarnations of Godhead that spring forth from this third Purusha.