In Chapter 2, Krishna gave a gist of Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga.
In Chapter 3, Karma Yoga was elaborated.
In Chapters 4 and 5, Jnana Yoga is elaborated.
The 4th Chapter is the “jnana yoga pradhana”. There is a small diversion in the first 8 verses before diving into jnaana yoga. In the first three verses, Lord Krishna glorifies this knowledge consisting of Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga. The very essence of karma and jnana has already been taught in Veda at the beginning of the creation and this was received by Surya Bhagavan. This same wisdom is revived again in the name Gita. Veda was received by Surya Bhagavan and Gita is received by Arjuna. Therefore, it is an ancient and time-tested wisdom making it a reliable and a valid one.
Arjuna has a doubt about the timeline between creation and his current time. The times are different by few millennia, students are different yet the teacher is the same!
Krishna says in Chapter 4, Sloka 1:
इमम् विवस्वते योगम् प्रोक्तवान् अहम् अव्ययम् | (अहम् प्रोक्तवान् I taught)
And now also, Chapter 4, Sloka 3:
सः एव अयम् मया ते अद्य योगः प्रोक्तः पुरातनः | (मया प्रोक्तः taught by Me).
Arjuna asks “Your birth is recent but your initial student’s birth was too long ago. How can a recent person teach an ancient student?”
Krishna answers Arjuna from Verse 5 though Verse 8.
श्रीमदभगवद्गीता Chapter 4 Sloka 5
बहूनि मे व्यतीतानि जन्मानि तव चार्जुन ।
तान्यहं वेद सर्वाणि न त्वं वेत्थ परन्तप ।।4.5।।
बहूनि may मे My व्यतीतानि have passed away जन्मानि births तव thy च and अर्जुन O Arjuna तानि them अहम् I वद know सर्वाणि all न not
त्वम् thou वेत्थ knowest परन्तप O Parantapa.
The Blessed Lord said Many births of Mine have passed as well as of thine, O Arjuna; I know them all but thou knowest not, O Parantapa (scorcher of foes).
Lord Krishna introduces the topic of avatara in his answer to Arjuna. The Lord’s incarnation is different from a human birth. Human birth is called janma but when the Lord appears in creation, it is called avatara. Krishna wants to point the differences between janma and avatara.
Swamiji elaborates on the topic of birth and incarnation before explaining Verse 5.
The differences between manushya janma and Ishvara avatara are:
Cause, Nature and Purpose
FIRST: the cause; at the cause level there is “kaaraNa bheda”.
In the case of the birth of a jeeva, it is caused by ignorance of the jeeva.
Because of ignorance, the jeeva has the problem of ahankaara (ego).
Because of ego, there is the problem of karma.
Because of karma, there is the problem of punyam and paapam.
Because of punyam and paapam, there is the janma.
The birth of a jeeva is due to ignorance, so we can call this as a “fall of a jeeva”.
In the case of Ishvara, His birth takes place never because of. It is because of His omniscience. Because of the knowledge alone, Bhagavan chooses to appear on Earth. This is knowledge and compassion based. Avatara means coming down out of compassion. There is a difference between falling into a well (helpless phenomenon) and going down the well. kaaraNa bheda is the first difference.
SECOND: the nature; svaroopam is different; “svaroopa bheda”.
Since jeeva-janma is because of ignorance, jeeva continues to be a samsaari. He is a bound person, born with sorrow. He is helpless, not a master of himself. Janma is samsaaraH.
Since Ishvara avatara is backed by knowledge, it is nitya mukta svaroopa or asamsaari.
Jeeva is samsaari while Avatara is asamsaari.
Another technical difference that Krishna points out is that all the bodies are made up of matter whether it is manushya shariram or avatara shariram. But the scriptures say that there is a difference between the two sharirams. The jeeva shariram is not directly born out of prakrti or maya. Jeeva shariram is indirectly born out of maya. Maya or prakriti gets converted into five elements called pancha bhutani and these five elements get converted into paancha bhoutika shariram. Thus maya does not directly produce the body (jeeva shariram) but it produces through the five elements alone. Jeeva shariram is called paancha bhoutika shariram. From maya to bhutaas to the physical body.
In the case of Ishvara avatara, the maya does not go through the intermediary stage of five elements. Maya directly gets converted into Ishvara avatara shariram. Avatara shariram is called mayika shariram. From maya to the physical body.
So the second difference is in the nature of jeeva shariram and avatara shariram.
Jeeva shariram is bound or samsaari shariram; paancha bhoutika shariram.
Avatara shariram is free or asamsaari shariram; mayika shariram.
This is the svaroopa bheda.
THIRD: the purpose; “karya” or “udheshya bheda”.
When a jeeva is born, it is purely to exhaust the punyam and paapam, which have been acquired in the past, called prarabdha. The prarabdha has to be exhausted. Prarabdha punyam is exhausted through sukham and prarabdha paapam is exhausted through dukham. To experience pleasure and pain, we require the body medium. It is the prarabdha that determines the type of the body for exhausting punya-paapa. The very design of the body is for the purpose of punya-paapa exhaustion. The purpose of jeeva-janma is for the depletion of punyam and paapam.
What is the purpose of an avatara? Avatara is not ignorant, not a samsaari, and does not suffer from the problem of ego. Since there is no ego, there is no question of punyam or paapam. Therefore, Ishvara does not need to take an avatara to exhaust punya-paapa.
Krishna tells an avatara’s purpose in Chapter 4, Verse 8:
परित्राणाय साधूनां विनाशाय च दुष्कृताम् |
धर्मसंस्थापनार्थाय सम्भवामि युगे युगे || 8||
To protect the righteous, to annihilate the wicked, and to reestablish the principles of dharma I appear on this earth, age after age.
Ishvara Avatara’s purpose is for the protection of dharma and destruction of adharma by protecting the dhaarmic people and destroying the adhaarmic people. This is why the very nature of avatara shariram is designed for protecting the people and establishing dharma. The design is determined by the type of protection that is required. Before every avatara comes, there is a portion in the Puranas, where all the noble people pray to the Lord to save them from some rakshasa (Hiranyakashipu, Ravana, etc). Rama Avatara’s purpose was destruction of Ravana. The design of the body depends upon the situation.
Ravana’s peculiar boon is that he cannot be killed by anyone or anything, except he didn’t include humans, out of over-confidence. So, if Ravana had to be destroyed, Bhagavan’s avatara had to be human. Hence the design of the body is determined by the purpose of the avatara. When the atrocities were done by Hiranyakashipu, the design for the avatara had to fit the loop holes of his boon. He could not be killed by humans nor animals nor any weapons; and not during the day nor night. The avatara was Narasimha with sharp nails.
In summary: the difference between janma and avatara:
Cause: kaaraNa bheda – ajnaanam vs jnaanam
Nature: svaroopa bheda – samsaari vs asamsaari
Purpose: udheshya bheda – depletion of punya-paapa vs protection of dharma
Krishna tells in this sloka that since avatara is not restricted by ignorance, the avataras know the past, present and future. Krishna says that He knows all his previous incarnations. However, in the case of jeeva-janma, since ignorance limits the jeeva, the jeeva cannot know the past janmas.
How do you know if one is avatara or janma? We really don’t have a method of knowing. We accept one as avatara wherever there is scriptural support ie. Rama is an avatara as written in the scriptures. If it is not mentioned in the scriptures, we cannot prove is one is an avatara or janma. It then becomes our personal belief.
If you consider people with extraordinary powers to be an avatara; then rakshasas will also fall under this. Having extraordinary powers is not proof that this person is an avatara.
Limitations does not disprove avatara. Certain avataras showed limitations. For example, Rama, who is accepted as an avatara, had several natural limitations. It is one’s personal belief to accept someone as an avatara even with limitations and not accept someone with extraordinary powers as an avatara.
One consolation is that we do not need to know if one is an avatara or not for our spiritual growth. We need purity of mind! To attain purity of mind, worshipping any form of God is good enough.
The next thing required for spiritual growth is knowledge. This requires a Guru; who need not be an avatara. Even if an avatara has to bless, the blessing can be only by becoming a Guru. Krishna can never give moksha to Arjuna by any method other than by being his Guru.
Swamiji recites from Dhyana Slokas:
वसुदेव-सुतं देवं कंस-चाणूर-मर्दनम् |
देवकी-परमानन्दं कृष्णं वन्दे जगद्गुरुम् ||
प्रपन्न पारिजाताय तोत्र वेत्रै कपाणये |
ज्ञानमुद्राय कृष्णाय गीतामृत दुहे नम: ||
Therefore, for चित्त शुद्धि we don’t require an avatara. Nor for knowledge. There may or may not be an avatara right now. I may be willing to accept someone as an avatara. The important aspect is to purify, know and be free.
We all uniformly accept Krishna as an avatara. Krishna says, “Arjuna, I am an avatara, different from you. My cause of birth is knowledge, my nature is moksha, my purpose is परित्राणाय साधूनां (Chapter 4, Verse 8). This is the topic of avatara given in this portion.
With this background, let’s look at Verse 5.
Krishna says, Hey Arjuna, बहूनि जन्मानि व्यतीतानि | Many janmas have gone by तव for you. मे I have also taken many sharirams. The number of sharirams does not prove superiority. So what is the difference between you and me? अहम् तानि सर्वाणि वेद | I continue to be a free person; a सर्वज्ञः therefore I know all the past sharirams. What about you? त्वम् न वेत्थ | You do not know your past sharirams. परन्तप O Parantapa (Arjuna).
श्रीमदभगवद्गीता Chapter 4 Sloka 6
अजोऽपि सन्नव्ययात्मा भूतानामीश्वरोऽपि सन् ।
प्रकृतिं स्वामधिष्ठाय संभवाम्यात्ममायया ।।4.6।।
अजः unborn अपि also सन् being अव्ययात्मा of imperishable nature भूतानाम् of beings ईश्वरः the Lord अपि also सन् being प्रकृतिम् Nature स्वाम् My own अधिष्ठाय governing संभवामि come into being आत्ममायया by My own Maya.
Though I am unborn, of imperishable nature, and though I am the Lord of all beings, yet, governing My own Nature, I am born by My own Maya.
Krishna talks about the nature of the avatara.
अहं अजः | अहं अव्ययात्मा | अहं भूतानाम् ईश्वरः |
I know that I am birth less Brahman; I know my nature. I know I am birthless reality and this shariram is a simple वेष (assumed appearance) I have put on for a certain purpose. I know I am अजः meaning न जायते इति अजः (no birth). अव्ययात्मा I am of changeless nature, not subject to decay and death; जरा मरण वर्जितः (devoid of old age and death).
अजः means जन्म वर्जितः and अव्ययात्मा means जरा मरण वर्जितः | Not only am I free from birth and death, भूतानाम् ईश्वरः | I am the master of all living beings. I am not a limited entity but I am स्वतन्त्रः – I am the master. I have not helplessly come down to this world, I have chosen to come.
How do I manage to come down? प्रकृतिम् स्वाम् अधिष्ठाय – by keeping the prakriti, the matter, the material body under my control I am born. I am surrounded by matter; just as the jeeva also is surrounded by matter. The difference, however, is that I am the master of the matter whereas the jeeva is the slave of the matter (or shariram). Both the avatara (Bhagavan) and the jeeva are surrounded by the body-mind complex (प्रकृति) but Bhagavan is in control of the body-mind complex whereas the jeeva is controlled by the body-mind complex.
अहं संभवामि I take a body. How? आत्ममायया with the help of maya tattvam; by producing मायिक शरीरम् | This means that I don’t require the five elements. Instead from maya I can directly convert into the shariram. This is why Bhagavan does not require the regular process of creation. Even गर्भवास in case of Rama avatara is not the regular process. This is why it is said that the Lord entered into the garbha. In the case of Narasimha avatara, etc., there is no question of a father or mother. From where did the body come? They appear in full-fledged form. How is this possible? It is because of direct conversion of maya, otherwise called प्रकृति | Therefore, Krishna says आत्ममायया संभवामि | And when do I take an avatara? See Sloka 7.
श्रीमदभगवद्गीता Chapter 4 Sloka 7
यदा यदा हि धर्मस्य ग्लानिर्भवति भारत ।
अभ्युत्थानमधर्मस्य तदाऽऽत्मानं सृजाम्यहम् ।।4.7।।
यदा यदा whenever हि surely धर्मस्य of righteousness ग्लानिः decline भवति is भारत O Bharata अभ्युत्थानम् rise अधर्मस्य of unrighteousness तदा then आत्मानम् Myself सृजामि manifest अहम् I.
Whenever there is decline of righteousness, O Arjuna, and rise of unrighteousness, then I manifest Myself.
The purpose of the avatara is explained in this verse.
यदा यदा हि धर्मस्य ग्लानिः | Whenever dharma declines, values decline. धर्मस्य ग्लानिः भवति | And अधर्मस्य अभ्युत्थानम् | whenever adharma increases, unrighteousness and corruption increases. तदा आत्मानम् सृजामि | Then, I create myself. I choose whenever it is required.
From a scientific viewpoint, the world can be compared to human body, a cosmic body. Like a body or an organism, it functions in harmony. Any harmonious system, will have its own intrinsic protection device. Our body has built in self protection. Suppose something enters your nostril, you sneeze automatically. The sneeze is involuntary; it is intrinsically built into the system. A natural system has natural protection. This faculty will not be operative all the time (like sneezing). यदा यदा हि whenever the system’s harmony is disturbed, the system itself produces an appropriate remedy. The universe is a cosmic system, the Bhagavan’s shariram, and whenever there is a disturbance, the world itself will find an appropriate method of defending the dharma. It will become active whenever it is required. The avatara is like the immunity system of the universe, the cosmic immunity system. Whenever it is required, an avatara will automatically happen.