The only religions that admit a true incarnation of Ultimate Reality in human form and consider it very important in their theology are Vaishnava Hinduism and Christianity. They both assume that God descended into the world and dwelt among humans in order to save them. Vaishnava Hinduism ascribes ten incarnations (avatars) to the god Vishnu, while Christianity proclaims the sole incarnation of God the Son in Jesus Christ. Could they be equivalent? In other words, could Jesus Christ be considered a mere Western avatar, come into our world according to the Hindu pattern? On the other hand, could the avatars of Vishnu have fulfilled the same goal as Jesus? Or are there irreconcilable differences between them? As we witness today many claims that they express a similar theology, a proper investigation is necessary for unveiling the mystery that surrounds this topic.
The following analysis will investigate why the incarnation of God was necessary, how the problem arose that he came for, what the form of the divine embodiment is and how it actually solves the problem.
Vaishnava Hinduism states in its major writings, the Puranas, that the god Vishnu causes a cyclic manifestation and dissolution of the world. Each cosmic cycle (mahayuga) has four ages (Krita Yuga - 1.728.000 years, Treta Yuga - 1.296.000 years, Dvapara Yuga - 864.000 years and Kali Yuga - 432.000 years) followed by the dissolution (pralaya) of the physical world. The whole cycle is repeated 994 times, which is a period called kalpa, and then a dissolution (pralaya) of both the physical and subtle world follows. 36.000 kalpas and pralayas make the lifespan of Brahma, the creator god, which is followed by a total dissolution (mahapralaya) of the physical, subtle and causal world. Then all worlds, time and space return into Brahman, and the whole cycle starts again in an endless process of manifestation and dissolution.
In Christianity, on the other hand, the world was created only once, and not as a necessity (as the cyclic manifestation of Vishnu implies) but out of God's superabundant love. Although the world became corrupted by sin, this situation doesn't belong to a normally repeated scenario (as in Hinduism) but is the result of a wrong human response to God's love. Despite the fact that our world is different from what God has originally intended, it will not follow a repeated cycle of manifestation and dissolution. The "new heaven and new earth" presented at the end of the Revelation account (21,1) is not a new creation similar to the one presented in Genesis. Otherwise it would indeed confirm a cyclic manifestation of the world according to the Hindu pattern. The Bible doesn't confirm such a mechanism. The "new heaven and new earth" is rather an everlasting world where sin is eradicated and there will be "no more death or mourning or crying or pain" (Revelation 21,4). It will belong to those who accepted His grace through Jesus Christ (21,27) and will never have a pralaya to end it.
The god Vishnu is said to descend ten times into our world during each cosmic cycle (mahayuga) in order to restore the balance between good and evil. His incarnations (avatars) vary depending on the Hindu writing that describes them. The Mahabharata gives three lists of Vishnu's avatars: First there are mentioned four, then six, and finally there is a list of ten, in the form of: (1) swan, (2) tortoise, (3) fish, (4) boar, (5) man-lion, (6) dwarf, (7) Bhargava Rama, (8) Dasaratha Rama, (9) Krishna, and (10) Kalki. The Garuda Purana lists 19 avatars of Vishnu, while the Bhagavata Purana lists 22 in one place and 23 in another. Since the time of the Bhagavata Purana the number of avatars has been uniformly recognized as ten. Therefore we will use the following list in the present analysis: (1) fish, (2) tortoise, (3) boar, (4) man-lion, (5) dwarf, (6) Parasurama, (7) Rama, (8) Krishna, (9) Buddha and (10) Kalki. The first nine have occurred already and the last one is still to come. Let us give a brief description of each avatar and see what its goal was and the method used for fulfilling it.
(1) The fish (Matsya). The Vedas were stolen from Brahma by a demon, so the gods sent a flood on the earth to drown him and thus recover the holy scriptures. Vishnu took the form of a fish, predicted the coming deluge to the saint Manu and saved him together with his family by leading his ship to safety.
(2) The tortoise (Kurma). During the deluge that destroyed the world the cream of the milk ocean (amrita), by which the gods renewed their youthfulness and avoided death, was lost. Both gods and demons together set about producing amrita by churning the ocean of milk, using a mountain as churning stick and the incarnation of Vishnu as a pivot on which to rest it. Their action was successful and the amrita recovered.
(3) The boar (Varaha). Brahma had been forced to grant the boon of immortality to a demon that had perfor-med austerities. Under the cover of this boon, the demon persecuted both men and gods and even stole the Vedas from Brahma and dragged the earth under the ocean, down to his dark abode. However, he forgot to mention the boar when reciting the name of gods, men and animals from which to be immune, so Vishnu took the form of a huge boar, descended into the ocean, killed the demon with his tusks, recovered the Vedas and released the earth.
(4) The man-lion (Narasinha). A demon had obtained the boon of immunity through asceticism from the attacks of men, beasts and gods. He had the assurance from Brahma that he could not be killed either day or night, inside or outside his house. This demon grew very powerful and forbade the worship of all gods and sub-stituted it with worship for himself. Vishnu took the form of half-man, half-lion (neither man nor beast) and tore the demon into pieces in the evening (neither in the day nor in the night) in the doorway of his palace (neither inside nor outside it).
(5) The dwarf (Vamana). The king Bali had gained too much power by his sacrifices, so the gods were endangered of losing their heavenly position to him. Therefore Vishnu was incarnated as a dwarf and asked the king the gift of three paces of land. Once accepted, the dwarf suddenly grew to an enormous size and covered all the earth and the heavens by his paces and Bali was left with only the nether regions.
(6) Parasurama (Rama with the ax). The warrior caste (kshatriya) was exercising tyran-ny over all men, especially over the Brahmins, so the priestly caste was endangered. Vishnu came to earth as Parasurama and exterminated the whole kshatriya caste with his ax.
While he was still on earth, the next avatar (Ramachandra) came and the two had to struggle. Ramachandra defeated him in a trial of strength and broke his bow. (Both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata recollect this episode. In the Mahabharata Parasu-rama is knocked senseless by Rama-chandra.)
(7) Ramachandra (Rama), the hero of the Ramayana epic. The demon Ravana had practiced austerities in order to propitiate Brahma, who had granted him immunity from being killed by gods, gandharvas and demons. Under this cover, Ravana perse-cuted gods and men. Vishnu took the human form of prince Rama, for Ravana was too proud to ask immunity from men. Many adventures followed in his trip to save his wife Sita, who was kidnapped by the demon and taken to the Lanka Island. Rama raised an army of monkeys and bears led by the monkey-god Hanuman and a great battle was fought in front of the gates of the city. Rama used a magic weapon infused by the power of many gods, killed Ravana and rescued his wife.
(8) Krishna. The objective of Vishnu's incarnation as Krishna was to kill the demon Kamsa, who had become a tyrannical king, killing children and banning the worship of Vishnu. Krishna's mission had three phases: childhood, youth and middle age. During childhood he performed many feats of strength, killing all demons sent against him by Kamsa. In his youth, Krishna had many amorous adventures with married cowgirls. At last, in his middle-age, he killed Kamsa and took part in the Bharata war (with the most famous episode being the one recollected in the Bhagavad Gita). His mission accomplished, Krishna retreated into the forest in meditation. A hunter mistook his foot for a deer and shot it, thus piercing Krishna's one vulnerable spot and mortally wounding him.
(9) Buddha. The demons had stolen the sacrificial potions of the gods and performed asceticism, so the gods could not conquer them. Vishnu incarnated as a man of delusion in order to propagate false ideas and lead them astray from their old faith. Buddha preached that there is no creator, that the three major gods (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) were just ordinary mortals, that there is no dharma, that death is total annihilation, that there is no heaven and hell and that the sacrifices are of no value. Obviously, Buddha as avatar of Vishnu has no historical background. He was a kind of devil's advocate who managed to weaken the opponents of the gods. The demons became Buddhists, abandoned the Vedas and consequently were killed by the gods. This story was first presented in the Vishnu Purana (5th century AD) and is obviously an attempt to subordinate Buddhism to Hinduism.
(10) Kalki. The last avatar, who is still to come, puts an end to the degenerated earth, accomplishing the final destruction of the wicked and preparing the way for the renewal of creation and the resurgence of virtue in the next mahayuga.
The following table summarizes the meaning of Vishnu's past 9 avatars:
God the Son incarnated as Jesus Christ
The Christian account of divine incarnation presents God the Son willingly leaving His divine glory, taking a human body and descending into our world through the virgin birth. The Apostle Paul states:
Christ Jesus, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness (Philippians 2,6-7).
This "making Himself nothing" performed by God the Son is called in theology "the kenosis of Christ" (lit. = "emptying"). It does not mean a subtraction of deity, but the addition of humanity with its consequent limitations. Although taking a human nature was a real humbling for God the Son, it did not involve the giving up of any divine attributes. The doctrine of the kenosis involves the veiling of His preincarnate glory (John 17,5), taking on Himself the likeness of human sinful flesh (Romans 8,3) and the temporary nonuse of divine attributes during His earthly ministry.
The kenosis of Christ was His free will initiative and not a necessity imposed by His nature, as is the case with the periodical incarnations of Vishnu. According to Christianity, Jesus Christ is the only incarnation of God, descended into our world with a unique and non-repeatable mission in history. He is not a mere avatar, a periodical incarnation of a Hindu god, but the unique incarnation of God the Son, become God the Man, perfect in both His divine and human nature. This double nature of Jesus Christ is the key for understanding His mission of reconciling man with God.
In Vaishnava Hinduism none of the avatars has a perfect union of the two natures. As they have no historical basis, it is very difficult to speculate on how their divine nature combined with the physical one (animal or human). Due to considering the physical body a mere garment that is put on and off (according to Bhagavad Gita 2,22), there cannot be any real association of god with a physical body. Christ came to redeem the physical body as well, therefore His association with it was real. For the same reason there is so much accent laid on His physical resurrection, which for a Hindu avatar would be completely absurd. Therefore the avatar fits best in the Docetic understanding of Christ (the appearance of a physical body, with no intrinsic value to it), which is considered a classic heresy in Christianity.
The most striking difference from Hindu avatars regards Christ's death. This was the crux of His incarnation: He had to die on the cross for our redemption from sin and reconciliation with God. The Apostle Peter states in his epistle:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2,24; see also 1,18-21; 3,18).
Jesus Christ as "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1,29) is the cornerstone of Christianity and its non-paralleled element. Mocked and spit upon by the human race, nailed on a cross and forsaken by the Father, Jesus Christ took our place in punishment. While dying on the cross, Jesus shouted, "It is finished" (John 19,30). In Greek, the expression used was Tetelestai, which means, "the debt was paid in full". What was meant here is the debt that man deserved to pay for his sins in hell, through eternal torment. By His death, Jesus paid in full the price required for the salvation of mankind from sin.
Was the suffering of Christ on the cross a mere illusion, as some esoteric interpretations suggest? Obviously not! His torment and death were so real that none of those who saw it could expect a future victory over death. This proves the full incarnation of God the Son. He did not die only in physical appearance, as the Docetist heresy suggests, but as a poor miserable man, experiencing suffering in its fullest sense. His death proves both the seriousness of our sin and the unfathomable love of God, as Jesus once proclaimed:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3,16).
What are demons?
According to Hinduism, demons are either beings that appeared through the primordial act of manifestation, or humans that didn't follow their duty (dharma) or performed bad deeds during their lifetime. Consequently they reincarnate as evil beings which cause much suffering in the world. However, the evil they do is not arbitrary, as the law of karma makes sure that the humans afflicted by demons are justly punished for their own bad deeds performed in previous lives. Therefore, from a global point of view the demons' bad deeds must be seen as necessary in balancing karma. On the other hand, the demon stage of existence is limited, and eventually there is reincarnation back into human form and henceforth a new chance given to attain liberation.
Keeping this in mind, it becomes absurd that Vishnu has to intervene in the world by descending as an avatar to save it. Save it from what? From the consequences of karma, a spiritual law that can never be abolished? As long as karma operates in the world, the killing of a demon has a very limited effect. It doesn't guarantee that the demon will not create problems in his next existence. According to the reincarnation doctrine, only one's physical frame can be "killed" (see Bhagavad Gita 2,19), not the "infinite, immortal soul". For this reason, demons never stop creating problems, so there are necessary periodical incarnations of the divine, at least 10 in each mahayuga. As the periodical manifestation of the world created by Vishnu never ends, so does the affliction of it by the demons. Therefore, the solution of killing the demons by the avatars is only a short-term solution to the problem of evil in the world.
On the other hand, in Christianity, demons have a different nature and destiny. They are fallen angels who will never reincarnate, return to their initial status or attain salvation. As the present world has a limited time span and there is no re-manifestation of it, the demons will be eternally separated from the Kingdom of God at the judgment day.
How did the demons attain power over the gods?
A very interesting fact in Hinduism is that anyone - god, human or demon - can attain the same magical power through performing austerities (tapas). Once this power is attained, nobody can break it. In fact, the 3rd, 4th, 7th, 8th and 9th avatars of Vishnu all came because a demon performed so many austerities that the god Brahma was forced to grant him the boon of immortality as a reward. The mechanism of attaining such power is beyond the control of the gods, which proves their weakness in ruling the world. As a result, the avatar has to find a way of killing the demon without breaking the promises made to him by Brahma. The solutions are sometimes very funny (see for instance the 3rd and the 4th avatar).
On the other hand, in Christianity demons have no possible way of blackmailing God. They cannot attain more power than they were left with at the fall. Neither angels nor demons could ever represent a threat for God. According to Christianity, such a power as that attained by the Hindu demons cannot be attained by any creature in our world, by any possible way of asceticism. Power can only be given by God, in a limited measure, and only in order to recognize the true source of power, who is God himself.
Who did the divine incarnation came to save, gods or humans?
In Hinduism not only can demons force the gods to admit their merits, but the descent of the divine into human form is more concerned with saving the world of the gods than that of humans. For instance, there are 8 avatars (no. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8 and 9) involved in saving the world of gods from the power attained by demons, while only 6 (no. 1, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8) are concerned with saving humans. This proves that the gods have a very fragile position and are more concerned about themselves than the problems of humankind.
In Christianity the idea of God becoming incarnate to save Himself is absurd. God is not affected at all by anything demons could do. From this point of view, the coming of Christ could never have occurred as necessary. The only purpose of God's incarnation in Jesus Christ is the salvation of humans from the effect of sin. The problem in Christianity is not that demons are a threat to God, but that man has chosen to disobey God. Through the act of the divine incarnation man can gain a chance to return to personal communion with his Creator.
How does the divine incarnation save?
Usually the Hindu avatar kills the demon (no. 3, 4, 7, 8, only the demon-king Bali is spared and sent to hell by no. 5). The killing is performed with much caution, so that the promises made by the god Brahma should not be broken. However, due to reincarnation this "killing" is not of much effect, being only a limited solution to the problem of evil.
On the other hand, in Christianity, Jesus Christ didn't literally kill Satan. In accordance with the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, Jesus let Himself be crucified for our sake. This was the "gift of God" (Romans 6,23) as ransom for our sins, a chance offered to us to be set free from the power of Satan and sin. According to the Bible, the final destruction of demons' power will only occur at the judgment day (Revelation 20,10).
Contradictory aspects of the Hindu avatars
A weird fact to mention here is the conflicts between two contemporary avatars of the Treta Yuga (Parasurama and Ramachandra). How can this be? How could two incarnations of the same god wrestle with one another? Isn't each avatar under divine control? Why didn't the first Rama leave in time? Or why couldn't he solve the problem for which the next avatar came, if he was present anyway in the world?
On the other hand, how could the gods cooperate with demons at the time of the second avatar's (Kurma) coming? How is it possible to become allies and to be both threatened by the absence of amrita? This leads us to believe that both gods and demons are of the same nature and use the same source of power.
Could Jesus Christ be assimilated with a Hindu avatar?
Christianity is a religion that breaks into history, presenting Jesus Christ as a historical God-man who was born, lived and died nearly 2.000 years ago. If his life were not a unique historical event, His whole teaching would be absurd. His claims, miracles, passion and resurrection, if taken out of history, leave nothing to Christianity. On the other hand, Hinduism is not concerned with historicism, so it can accept any tales of the repeated divine incarnation. The spiritual message of the avatars is the only element that matters, not their historical presence. Having this mindset, Hindus accept Jesus Christ as an avatar (of the Western world) with a powerful message, but being nothing more than any other avatar.On the one hand, Hinduism is very syncretistic, including even Buddha among the avatars, the one who rejected the basic tenets of Hinduism. On the other hand, Christianity is very exclusivistic when it comes to characterizing the descent of the divine into human form. Jesus Christ cannot be just another avatar, a mere variant of an eternal myth. This would deprive Him of His true identity. His passion, death on the cross and resurrection give Him a totally different portrait than the Hindu avatars.