Lord Krishna’s Avatars

Every year, the May/June issue of Back to Godhead coincides with the celebration of the appearance of Lord Nrisimha, Krishna’s ferocious incarnation as half man, half lion. To protect His five-year-old devotee Prahlada from Prahlada’s evil father, Lord Nrisimha burst forth from a palace pillar at dusk on the fourteenth day of the waxing moon of the month of Madhusudana, corresponding to May 6 on the modern calendar this year.

Honoring the Lord’s avatars is an important part of Vaishnava life. Anyone devoted to Lord Krishna naturally wants to hear all about Him, including His incarnations. The most important source of information about Krishna is Srimad-Bhagavatam, which begins with a gathering of sages fifty centuries ago. In the first chapter, the leader of these sages, Saunaka Rishi, asks the chosen speaker, Suta Goswami, six questions, one of which, phrased as a request, is “His transcendental acts are magnificent and gracious, and great learned sages like Narada sing of them. Please, therefore, speak to us, who are eager to hear, about the adventures He performs in His various incarnations.” (Bhagavatam 1.1.17) “His” here refers to Lord Krishna, whom Saunaka Rishi has already mentioned (1.1.12): “All blessings upon you, O Suta Goswami. You know for what purpose the Personality of Godhead appeared in the womb of Devaki as the son of Vasudeva.”

While Srimad-Bhagavatam describes the activities of many avatars, the overall focus of the book is clearly Lord Krishna, the original Personality of Godhead. As Vaishnava commentators have pointed out, when the various inquirers throughout the Bhagavatam ask to hear about particular avatars of the Lord, they are clearly asking to hear about how Krishna appeared as those avatars. In essence the devotees are saying, “Krishna has appeared in many amazing forms. Please tell me about this one.” They know that Nrisimha, for example, is Krishna appearing as half man, half lion to reciprocate the love of His pure devotee Prahlada. They know that Lord Ramachandra is Krishna playing the role of an ideal king.

Lord Krishna’s avatars and expansions display varying degrees of opulence, and the Vedic scriptures categorize them accordingly. For example, the two forms of the Lord just mentioned – Nrisimha and Ramachandra – are listed, along with Krishna Himself, in the top category, called para-avastha. Srila Rupa Goswami, in his Sri Laghu-bhagavatamrita, proves with scriptural evidence that Lord Krishna is the leader of this category. He is svayam bhagavan, or “the Lord Himself.” All others are considered amshas, or parts, of Him.

The Vedic scriptures reveal a vast amount of information about God. By reading Srimad-Bhagavatam we can learn about the Lord’s activities when He descends to this world in various forms, and we can learn why He descends. We can know God’s motivations, His inner life.

God, Krishna, acts only by His own sweet will. No one and nothing can compel Him to do anything; all His activities are lila – “pastimes” or “play.” Krishna does what He wants to do. And what He wants to do most of all is favor His devotees.

Being God, Krishna is greater than everyone else in every way. His devotees feel eternally indebted to Him because with His unlimited opulence He serves them better than they can ever serve Him. His avatars demonstrate this dynamic. To please His devotees, Krishna appears before them in whatever form of His they find the most endearing. Though Lord Nrisimha terrifies the wicked, for Prahlada there’s no one more beautiful or affectionate, and he wants nothing other than the privilege of serving Him eternally.

  • Nagaraja Dasa