Ramayana Mahabharata Divine Incarnation Essay

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Ramayana and the Mahabharata offer a cohesive explanation of the Hindu concept of the avatar, the manifestation of divinity in various forms. The god that practices avatara most is Vishnu, the Lord of Preservation whose intervention in the world has a direct impact on the lives of human beings and the outcomes of human civilization itself. Vishnu practices avatara in order to promote dharma, which refers to ethical duty and right action. The avatar concept is explored most deftly and explicitly in the two Hindu epics comprising the Itihasa, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Both narratives demonstrate that divine avatars are necessary for restoring cosmic and social order and for redeeming humanity.

The protagonists of these two tales are both avatars of Vishnu, but the Ramayana and Mahabharata relay completely different concepts of dharma and ethics. Dharma to Lord Rama is related to family and the commitments between men and women in the marriage relationship. The central issue for Rama is restoring order to his household. Dharma to Lord Krishna in the Mahabharata is related to political issues and much less so to the interpersonal relationships central to the Ramayana. This is why Rama as Vishnu is portrayed in human terms, whereas Krishna as Vishnu is unabashedly and unapologetically a god.

Yet in spite of the obvious differences in characterization, plot, and theme, Ramayana and Mahabharata both convey similar ideals for the cosmological, theological, and social order and use avatara to achieve their goals of divine intervention. Both epics show that avatars are required when humanity is at a low moral ebb. Human society is depicted as being cyclical, going "from the heights of moral perfection to the depths of depravity," (Woods, 2014, p. 26). Except in rare occasions, human beings do not fully learn their lessons or achieve moksha. As it is Lord Vishnu's role in the cosmic order to ensure that humanity never fully self-destructs, the god incarnates at critical moments in human history -- when there is some crisis point where chaos reigns over law, order, or morality. "Whenever negative energies are rampant and the world is in great peril, in danger of imminent destruction or chaos, Vishnu is said to return. He comes to guide humanity back to righteous living (dharma) in order to preserve the harmonious order of the universe," (Halligan, n.d., p. 89). Both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata show the core function of avatara, as Vishnu incarnates specifically to restore order and "rejuvenate" the society, lifting it up and redeeming it from its wayward ways (Woods, 2014, p.

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26). Thus, even if the setting, plot, and characterization are different, Ramayana and Mahabharata still explicate the concept and purpose of avatara in this way because it is integral to Hindu cosmology, metaphysics, and theology. In fact, the methods and means by which Vishnu manifests reflects the social mores and norms that governed ancient Indian society and continue to do so in the 21st century -- hence the enduring relevance and popularity of Ramayana and Mahabharata even as these narratives reinvent themselves for each successive generation.

The hero of the Ramayana, Lord Rama, preserves cosmological and social order through a pragmatic dharma that focuses almost exclusively on the political and social domains of human life. Those domains are best preserved and consecrated through patriarchal marriage and community life. In fact, Vishnu incarnates as a human, Lord Rama, rather than as a divine being, in order to underscore the human psychological and social dimensions of the moral lessons being taught in the epic narrative. Chastity and monogamous commitment in a heterosexual marriage are established as premier social norms. Sita is the avatar of Lakshmi, Vishnu's cosmic counterpart. As above, so below, as the husband and wife team incarnate as a couple together to deliver an instructional message to humanity about the divine importance of commitment in marriage. In the Ramayana, Vishnu's nemesis Ravana abducts Sita but fails in his attempts to sexually assault her -- but the burden of proof is placed not on Ravana but on Sita. Had she been raped, she might have been considered unfaithful to her husband. The patriarchal social order can only be maintained through the sexist double standard. Sita in fact has to prove her chastity by being willing to self-immolate, a symbolic act that has been grossly distorted into an actual political practice in the subcontinent. Human beings have a tendency to confuse the symbolism of avatar with real life; the same can be said for the Christian myth (Halligan, n.d., p. 89).

On the other hand, the hero of the Mahabharata, Lord Krishna, incarnates as a fully divine being who self-consciously….....

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Works Cited

Halligan, Fredrica R., n.d., "Avatar." Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion, pp. 89-90.

Jones, Naamleela Free, 2015, "From Gods To Gamers: The Manifestation of the Avatar Throughout Religious History and Postmodern Culture." Berkeley Undergraduate Journal 28(2). Available: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/4mn5k202

Woods, Julian F., 2014, Destiny and Human Initiative in the Mahabharata. SUNY Pres.

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