An Avatar is an Incarnation of God. In a broad sense, everything in the Universe is a manifestation of God. Yet, the term Avatar is reserved for those Incarnations wherein the Lord deliberately assumes a specific form for a specific purpose.
About the meaning of the word Avatar, Swami says,
The word Avatar means descent. It is not coming down from the peak of a mountain or the top storey of a tall building. It is a descent from the state of the Atma to the level of the body.
There is nothing infra-dig about the descent, as Bhagavan points out. He says,
No blemish attaches to the Divine as a result of the descent. There is no diminution in Divine power either. Let us say there is a child playing on the ground. If the mother feels it is beneath her dignity to bend, and tells the child to leap into her arms, the child cannot do so.
The mother does not ask the child to do such an impossible thing. Instead, full of love, the mother stoops and lovingly picks up the child. Likewise, the Lord incarnates assuming a human form to bless and rescue those who cannot rise to the level of the Divine. Incarnation is an act of benediction.
What about the name ‘Sai Baba’ of the present Poorna Avatar? Swami has this to say:
The name ‘Sai Baba’ means ‘Divine Mother and Divine Father’. Like a mother, I will be tender and soft and give you happiness, and like a father, I will punish you when needed. Through these methods I shall take you to a high level.
Why does God incarnate? No doubt Krishna has already outlined the reasons, but Swami goes deeper into the subject. He says,
To elevate man to the level of Supreme Consciousness, God has to incarnate as man. God has to speak to man in his own style and language. He has to teach mankind the methods that it can adopt and practice. Birds and beasts need no Divine incarnation to guide them for they have no inclination to stray away from their respective duties. Man alone forgets the goal of life.
In other words, God comes to play the role of a teacher and a Guru. As Swami elaborates,
The essential quality of an Avatar is to teach you to make good and proper use of your thought, word and deed. Depending on the conditions and the environment in the country, the Avatar will teach and show the right use of the Divine faculties gifted to man.
In earlier incarnations, the Lord physically annihilated the evil. What about this time? Swami has the answer:
In this Kali Age, the wicked have to be reformed and reconstructed through Love and Compassion. That is why this Avatar has come unarmed. The Avatar has come with the Message of Love.
My objective is to establish unity in mankind, to reveal the aspect of the Divinity latent in man, and that God must be the only goal in life. It is also My duty to make you realize the kind of relationship that should exist between fellow human beings.
This is something very important, and all of us would do well to remember it. The first item on the agenda of this Avatar is to make each and every one of us realise our intrinsic Divine nature. Swami goes on to add,
There is considerable change in human outlook that I have to bring about. No one can stop Me or deter Me from fulfilling these tasks for which I have come, namely the establishment of the one unchanging Truth. In this task, you have a part to play.
Playing a role in Swami's global Mission calls for a proper attitude and frame of mind. Many people are carried away by Baba's miracles, but that is not correct, as Swami warns. He says:
You must take a path by which you can see deep in My heart, and experience the various Divine aspects of Mine. You must understand the all-knowing power in Me. Do not be led away by people who always talk of having got a locket or a watch or a ring from Me. These things have no deep meaning.
Swami is Love - in fact, Pure Love. No surprise, since God is Love and Love is God. Swami adds that all Incarnations are embodiments of Pure Love, as indeed man also is. He says,
Divine Love is associated with Immortality. It is to teach mankind the truth about this Divine Love that Love itself incarnates on earth in human form.
It is to drive home the point that we all are sparks of the Divine, that Swami invariably begins His Divine Discourses with the words: “Embodiments Of Divine Love” Or “Embodiments Of The Divine Atma”.
Because the Avatar has a human form, man thinks (mistakenly of course) that the Avatar too is just another human being. In this context, Swami points out that,
When Narayana (Supreme God) takes the form of a man and wants to help humanity, He will act like a man. Just because God comes in human form, it is no excuse for man to be indifferent. He must realise that all the Poorna Avatars are incarnations of the same Formless, Eternal, Supreme Consciousness and the Cosmic, Omnipresent, Omnipotent, and Omniscient God.
Swami conveys this idea in the following manner. He says:
Rama, Krishna, and Sai Baba appear different because of the dress donned, but it is the selfsame Entity!
It has always happened that many people around the Avatar knew that the Avatar was God in human form; yet, they often forgot that fact. Why? Swami explains:
When the Avatar appears in human form, we find that He exhibits human consciousness along with Divine Consciousness. Ordinary people cannot grasp the Divine Consciousness of the Avatar.
God appears to be an ordinary human being to the limited intelligence of lay people because of the co-existence of the Divine and the human aspects of the Consciousness exhibited by Him. Man's perception is limited to the level of human consciousness.
Therefore, human comprehension is restricted by the limits of human consciousness. But the sages of yore were able to cognise the Formless God in the visible Form because they had imbued themselves with Divine Consciousness. Thus, according to their levels, different people regard an Avatar as a mere human being or the Cosmic Reality.
All the above are quotes of Swami's pronouncements about Avatars in general. Let us now look at what Swami has said about the current Sathya Sai Avatar. He once observed:
Because I am like an ordinary individual when I am talking with you and playing with you, many people do not understand My true nature. Even people with great strength of mind cannot recognize the true nature of Sai, and the difference between the external appearance and the internal aspect. Sai knows everything. That people are in doubt is due to the maya (illusion) of the Avatar.
There is no use telling people who refuse to know. For people who know, there is no need to tell. But for people who know and yet do not know, it becomes necessary to present what I call My ‘visiting card’. Therefore, if today I have chosen to tell you about Myself, it is with a view to present you with My visiting card. In the whole of our spiritual history, we find that only Krishna had proclaimed His Divinity in this manner.
Miracles, no doubt, have a powerful effect on all those who witness them. Since miracles are considered super-natural, miracles alone are regarded as a sign of Divinity. Swami emphatically declares that miracles alone are not the signature of Divinity. He says in this context,
To talk of the Vibhuti that I give or to talk of the things that I materialize and the miracles I perform is not correct. Sometimes, I feel like laughing at the ignorance of people when they attach such importance to My miracles. People talk only of such things and forget the much bigger aspect in Me.
The most sacred quality in Me is Prema (Love). This Prema is immeasurable!
I am Love, Love and Love. I am always Love! Love is everything but people do not understand Love!
Yes, God is Love and Love is God. Thus, Love is the true form of God, and it would benefit us to always see Bhagavan Baba as nothing but the embodiment of Purest Love.
Lets us get back to the aspect of maya confusing the devotees. Warning devotees not to be deluded by His finite form, Baba cautions,
Since you see me in close proximity, you are not able to assess Me properly. Familiarity has deceived you to the point of delusion. Swami's form is Big, Vast and Infinite!
One of the reasons why all of us fall into the trap of maya is that most of the time, Swami acts just like an ordinary human being - there are no miracles. People then tend to forget the Infinite Divine Power latent in Him. About this, Swami says,
The attributes and the power of the Avatar remain unaltered in their pristine amplitude. The Divine manifests His powers according to the needs, the circumstances, and the conditions prevailing at a particular time or place.
Take, for example, the case of a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He has the power to both, protect or punish. These powers can be exercised only when he is sitting in the judicial chair. The same Chief Justice, when he is at home, confers joy on his grandson by letting him ride on his back. By allowing the grandchild to play in this manner, does the Chief Justice forfeit his judicial powers? Similarly, the Avatar does not forgo any of His Supreme Powers merely because He lives and moves amongst human beings as a man.
An Avatar is capable of all things at all times. Yet, the Avatar will not undertake to demonstrate His powers all the time. The Avatar will exercise such powers only when exceptional circumstances demand it, and will shed Grace on a deserving person alone.
There is no limitation to My Power. There is no reason to limit or confine My Power and My Grace to any one place. Infinite Power and Infinite Grace are present in My hands. To state these things with regard to Myself becomes necessary at times.
People are sometimes confused. Why are there at times, setbacks in the life of an Avatar? Actually, there are never any setbacks. There cannot be. What seems to us as a set back is all a part of the Divine Drama. Sometimes we may understand the mystery but most of the time we do not. About this business of so-called apparent impediments to the Mission of the Avatar, Swami has this to say:
In an Avatar, there never will be a situation in which you can find fault with Him. The individual who accuses an Avatar will be hurting himself in his eye with his own finger.
Here is a quote from a remarkable discourse given by Bhagavan during the Summer Course in 1974. This Discourse appears as Chapter 16 of Part II of the Proceedings and is entitled: WHO IS SAI BABA? In this, Bhagavan says:
Inherent beauty and attractiveness are obvious in His playing and in His singing. These are the aspects of Shiva Shakti that is immanent in Him. How is it possible for anyone to understand Sathya Sai merely from His external Form?
One very important characteristic of an Avatar is that He is totally selfless. Divinity knows no selfishness. God is ever compassionate, ever ready to sacrifice, and is totally free from desires. As Baba puts it,
There is no desire in Sai. Where is the space for desire in Sai? Everything is already Mine! Sai does not think. My will is instantly realized. Whatever it may be, it immediately appears.
To put it all simply, no one can understand the Avatar and His actions. As Baba once declared,
If Balarama (the brother of Krishna) himself could not understand Me, how can you?!
Indeed. So it is a futile exercise to try to understand Bhagavan and analyse His actions. Instead, one must concentrate on His teachings, absorb them, and follow them. We must appreciate that God has come on earth as man for an exalted purpose. We must not, even if it be unknowingly, trivialise the Divine Mission by asking Swami for trinkets. Swami of course does not mind. He gives us all that we ask for, even if they are useless. Why does He do so? Swami Himself has given the answer. He says,
I readily give you what you want, so that one day you may want what I have come to give you.And what is it that He is so eager to give us? The very same thing that He gave to Arjuna five thousand and odd years ago on the battle field - the Knowledge of the Universal Self or Atmavidya. That is what the Avatar has come to give us and that really is what we must seek earnestly from Him. And once we have that, our lives too, just like the Avatar’s, will transform into a saga of perennial bliss.