Limitations on the Avatar

Children’s questions can embarrass even theologians: “Could Jesus have got down off the cross if he wanted to?” Or in the Old Testament: “Why does it say it say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart every night, and then sent another plague in the morning to make him change his mind?” Similarly, in the Indian epic Ramayana, the Avatar Rama who is God incarnate lay unconscious and paralysed on the battle field, in the grip of magic snakes projected by the villainous enemy. Rama’s allies are bewildered; how can this happen, how can the incarnation of omnipotent God lie there helpless. Some of them say: “It is not for us to have doubts and questionings. This must be a voluntary act, so we should simply wait till the Lord chooses to recover, throw off the snakes, and get up in his own good time.”

But this is not at all the divine intention, and others of his allies have a clearer vision. They send out to find Garuda, the eagle-god, and he comes directly to the scene and only then does Rama rise and again take charge of the war against the evil Ravna.

Here and in other places the epic story makes it clear that others besides the Lord are given parts to play, and until they do so, events do not follow as they should.

Sometimes a great teacher gives his pupils a similar chance. Dr Shastri was a famous scholar of Sanskrit and had translated a number of ancient texts hitherto unknown to the West. Then the inspiration came to him that he should make a translation of the huge Ramayana epic which consists of 24,000 verses. He mentioned this to a disciple who expected that he would begin at once as was his custom when a spiritual inspiration came. But, uncharacteristically, he dithered. “How can my paltry knowledge of Sanskrit cope with this masterpiece with its poetry and rhetoric? How can a firefly stand before the sun? And so on and so on for over a month. At last she said to him: “Teacher, please do it. Let us begin now.” “Yes he replied vigorously, let’s begin now, get some paper.” He took down the first volume of the book and dictated a section then and there.

Why did he not do this before? The answer is that he gave her a chance to make a positive suggestion and play a little part in the great work. It was completed years later in three volumes and is now the standard translation. On the front page there is a dedication to her.

The divine voluntarily restricts itself so that human beings may play a part in freeing it, as it were. In this way they can make spiritual progress and experience a flash of the divine impulse within themselves.

© 2000 Trevor Leggett

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