Jesus – an avatar?
Christian faith holds that Jesus is God-Incarnate. Incarnation (in-flesh-ment) has its scriptural basis in John 1:14 – the logos became flesh. There is somewhat similar idea within Hinduism. The word used to describe the ‘coming down’ of God within Indian tradition is Avatara. The word Avatara literally means one ‘who descends’ i.e. from the abode of the Gods to this earth. Within the Bhakti tradition, it is believed that God takes human form and comes down to earth from time to time.
“ Whenever there is a decline of law, O Arjuna and an outbreak of lawlessness, I incarnate myself. For the protection of the good, for the destruction of the wicked and for the establishment of the Law, I am born from age to age” – Gita IV. 7-8.
Can Jesus be referred to as an ‘avatar’? The use of the term Avatara presents many difficulties. We shall briefly see some of the difficulties that we encounter while using the term.
DURATION: In Hinduism, there are many Avatara. However, Christ’s incarnation is ‘once-for-all’.
HISTORICITY: Hinduism places no stress on the historicity of an Avatara. For example Hinduism is not interested in whether Krishna was a historical figure or not. The Hindu Avatara is docetic. It is more God appearing in disguise as a human, a spirit or a ghost and leaves no footprint on the earth as he passes. For Christian faith, Jesus lived in the flesh at a certain period of time and place. The historicity of Jesus is a very important and distinguishes between truth and falsehood.
CHARACTER OF THE AVATAR: Hinduism faces a problem in reconciling the Krishna of the Gita with the Krishna of the Puranas. However, the Christian testimony is that of the love and purity and selflessness of Jesus.
PURPOSE: Gita describes the purpose of the Avatara as ‘protection of the good and the destruction of the wicked’. However, in Christianity, Jesus came to bring life and not destruction (John. 3:16).
RELATION OF THE DIVINE-HUMAN: Hinduism speaks of partial Avataras like Rama and Lakshmana as well as the complete Avatara of which Krishna is an example. Jesus is the complete revelation of God. Jesus is the complete God-man
Indian-Christian thinkers are divided on this point. Some Indian thinkers (like Sadhu Sunder Singh, Bishop Appasamy and V. Chakkarai) accept it and give it a Christian interpretation. There are others (Swami Abhishiktananda and Brahmabandhab Upadhyaya) who find the concept of Avatara unsuitable to describe Jesus.
In spite of difficulties, Indian-Christian thinkers like Appasamy and others have come to the conclusion that Avatara is a conception which can be useful in Indian Christian theology. Some of the reasons given for their stand are:
- The literal meaning of the word Avatara, which means ‘one who descends’, can be justified scripturally. For example, Ephesians 4:9-10, the word ‘ascended’ implies that he also descended to the lowest level, down to the very earth. The idea of ‘descend’ has also a prominent place in the Nicene Creed, where it is said that Jesus ‘came down’ from heaven.
- It (Avatara) is already used for incarnation in popular Christian hymns and Christmas carols.
- In Jesus the avatar (1932), Chakkarai uses the Avatara conception as the basis of his Christology. An important theme in Chakkarai’s exposition is “continuing Avatara”. According to Hinduism the Avatara comes to earth only for a short time. And thereafter, merges with God. On the contrary, Chakkarai stresses on a continuing Avatara of Jesus i.e. Jesus is incarnate and he remains God-man even after the ascension. Therefore Chakkarai interprets Avatara as dynamic, rather than static concept.
In western Christology, there is a heavy use of Greek categories such as substance and person (hypostasis). Can we not use Indian categories to explicate the coming down of God in the person of Jesus? It is possible to use the term Avatara provided there are certain safeguards. One of the advantages of the Avatara conception is that it brings Christology into the realm of action.
For these many reasons, the concept of Avatara maybe used to describe the person of Christ but we must be careful provided it is used with Christian content. So, Christ is the purna Avatara, he comes once and once only. He comes to bring fullness of life not destruction. He is fully God and fully Man.