Remember the movie Avatar? Humans could use a computer to plug into these giant purple aliens and live through them. This idea comes from the venerable and ancient religion of Hinduism. It was claimed that God often manifested himself in physical form. Sometimes this is as a man. Sometimes it is an elephant or another animal. These manifestations, called avatars, were not considered a permanent state for the deity. They were temporary scenarios where God or a god was attempting to change the karmic imbalance. God was trying to tilt the world back towards moral harmony. In Christianity, Jesus Christ is God made man as well who came to save humanity from their lack of moral wholeness. Can these two pictures be harmonized? Many in our pluralistic age have sought to do this. It is surely a tempting route to bring together all the world’s great religions. Perhaps it could help us co-exist as the bumper sticker puts it. But is this harmonization really an intellectually or existentially satisfying explanation? I’m voting no on this. Here are four reasons why.
1. Jesus permanently became a man
In the Christian Scriptures, God did not simply appear as a man. He was made man permanently. John 1:14 says that the Word, that is, the 2nd person of the Trinity, was made or became man. Everyone is familiar with the Christmas story where Jesus is born of the virgin Mary. He grows up like a regular person and lives as a man from cradle to grave, eating, drinking, becoming tired and so on. Other than his miracles and profound teaching, he is an ordinary man. Also, Christian theology recognized that he stayed a man after his death and resurrection. He now is man forever, performing the role of a priest and intercessor for all humans. I need not harp on the fact that Brahman, the one God of Hinduism does not continue to retain his human or animal forms.
2. God is radically different in both faiths
Jesus believed that God was personal, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present, loving, righteous, and good. He often referred to God as “Father” and taught his disciples to do the same (Matt. 6). It gets thicker though. Jesus also claimed to be God in some sense, equal with the Father and yet having taken the flesh of a man (Matt 11:25-27). This teaches that God is not just personal, but that he has always had a loving relationship within himself, so to speak. God is so personal, he is three-persons. That explains how God can be a loving being from all eternity. Hinduism on the other hand, points in the opposite direction; God is ultimately impersonal and beyond all distinctions. Therefore, God is really us and we are God (Atman is Brahman). On Hinduism, God is also a banana, building, and a barrio. It is true that some Hindu thinkers, such as Ramanuja, have argued that God is both personal and part of creation. Creation is God’s body, so to speak, always existent. But Biblical religion posits that creation is God’s workmanship, something he made out of nothing (Gen. 1:1). Creation is more like God’s garments that he puts on or a tent that he stretches out (Psalm 104).
3. Jesus’ teaching contradicts Hindu Avatars
Jesus not only taught that God was the infinite personal creator, but he also taught a very different way of spirituality. Hinduism has many different paths of salvation such as the way of knowledge, the way of devotion, and the way of works. Krishna, an avatar of Brahman, explains the “way of love” as a form of devotion in chapter 12 of the Bhagavad Gita, for example. All these ways imply action primarily on the part of humans to achieve salvation. Jesus teaches to the contrary that salvation is something that God achieves and that humans receive by trust (John 3:16; 6:29; Luke 15). Good works and spiritual disciplines are a response to that God-achieved salvation. Salvation is not a human achievement at all. We see this, for example, in the account of the sinful woman who came and anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume and tears (Luke 7:36-50). Jesus says that her actions were a result of faith and being forgiven, not vice versa. Loving relationship is at the center of Christ’s teaching, and it is always a gift, one where God himself is the giver and relationship with him the gift.
4. The reason for incarnation/manifestation is very different
Jesus’ came to save his people from their sins and fulfill the Old Testament Scriptures offering ultimate reconciliation with God to all people. His life, death, and resurrection is a work that accomplished God’s plan, bringing his story to its climax. God had created people to be his image bearers, his vice-regents on earth, but they have, sometime in the primordial past, turned away from him. God chose a man, Abraham, and then his descendants to be a special nation to represent him on earth. Though they failed as his representatives time and again, he sent prophets who foretold the coming of a Savior, one who would bring people into harmony with God, themselves, others, and the creation. Jesus claimed to be the Messiah and then, in a grand-reversal of everyone’s expectations, died as a sacrificial victim and rose again. I don’t have time to go into all the stunning parallels and implications or facts about all this. one thing, however, is that his resurrection is the beginning of the restoration of all of creation. As N.T. Wright points out, “The point of Christianity is not… to go to heaven when you die. [Rather, it is] putting the whole creation to rights…” This is vastly different than Hindu avatars. Avatars come to shift the karmic imbalance which, as far as Hindu scholars know, has always been the case. The material order has always been rife with karmic imbalance, so the manifestations of Brahman are there to bring things back around a little, as the endless cycle of balance and imbalance continues. Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, “For the protection of the virtuous and the destruction of evil acts, for the purpose of establishing dharma, I become fully manifest from age to age.” This karmic imbalance is one reason that salvation in Hinduism is escape from the material order, not redemption of it.
For all these reasons, Jesus is vastly different than Hindu avatars. Since he is different, he cannot therefore be another Avatar. In fact, one way to look at these two religions is to see one of them as preparatory for the other. Perhaps one is a vague shadow with some truths, pointing to a reality, and the other one is the concrete reality. The question is, which one is a vague shadow and which one a concrete reality? Is there any way to figure that out? Contrary to popular sentiment, worldviews should be assessed for their truth value, coherency, factual accuracy, and livability. This is not inherently dishonorable but can be done with gentleness and respect. Now that we have distinguished between Messiah and Avatar, we can continue on that journey of discovery.