Swami Shivananda, one of Ramakrishna’s disciples, said: “If God does not come down as a human being, how will human beings love him? That is why He comes to human beings as a human being. People can love Him as a father, mother, brother, friend—they can take any of these attitudes. And He comes to each in whatever form that person loves.”

Throughout the ages, spiritual renewal has come to humanity through God manifesting in human form. The Sanskrit word “avatar” literally means “descent of God.” Most of the world’s religions have been given impetus and direction by these spiritual giants—the incarnations, prophets, and messengers of God. Jesus and Buddha, Rama and Krishna, Moses and Muhammad, Chaitanya and Ramakrishna—all have been torchbearers in the world of spirituality, pouring new energy into religions that were sliding into hypocrisy and self-indulgence.

The Bhagavad Gita declared thousands of years ago:

When goodness grows weak,
When evil increases,
I make myself a body.
In every age I come back
To deliver the holy,
To destroy the sin of the sinner,
To establish righteousness.

One of the great distinctions between Western and Eastern thought is that the West tends to think in terms of linear time—the world and human history having a definitive beginning, middle, and end. On this horizontal time line, God has specific, historical interventions. In contrast, the East thinks in terms of great cycles: ascension and descension, creation and destruction, growth and decay; these cycles are seen as continually repeating waves in an eternal cosmic process. Civilizations, religions, and individuals are all part of this ongoing cycle. The appearance of the avatar is essential to this eternal movement of spiritual decline followed by regeneration.

According to Vedanta, spiritual truth is eternal and universal: no particular religion or sect can have a monopoly on it. The truth that Christ discovered is the same truth that was revealed to the sages of the Upanishads; it is the same truth that Krishna and Buddha taught as well. Gautama said that there were many Buddhas before him, and in the years to come there will be many more manifestations of God on earth.

Is there a purpose in all this? Yes. First, every avatar has a specific message to impart to humanity: Muhammad taught equality and the brotherhood of humanity; Christ revealed the primacy of God’s love over the letter of the Law; Buddha rejected priestcraft and taught people to be lamps unto themselves; Krishna taught mental equanimity and detached action; Ramakrishna taught the ideal of the harmony of religions. Each incarnation has a message particular to the age in which he appears.

The second reason why the avatar incarnates is to reestablish the one eternal religion—spiritual truth. While every avatar has specific teachings, all incarnations come to pour spiritual fire into a world sinking into religious mediocrity. No matter where the avatar appears on earth, the entire world is uplifted and regenerated by his advent.

Does this mean that, according to Vedanta, God can be realized only through his personal aspect? No. Does this mean that Vedanta says that we must think of God as a person? No.

What Vedanta says is that God can and does manifest through human form, and that, for most people, it is easier to meditate upon and love a God with form rather than a nebulous idea of infinite being, consciousness, and bliss. This, however, is a matter of temperament. Many people achieve spiritual growth through meditation upon the avatar; they are followers of the path of bhakti yoga. Yet for others this is entirely the wrong approach: those who are more intellectual than emotional may well achieve greater spiritual awareness through jnana yoga.