Avatars, Geniuses, and Channeling the Divine

Printed in the  Spring 2020  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Grasse, Ray"Avatars, Geniuses, and Channeling the Divine" Quest 108:2, pg 34-36

By Ray Grasse

Theosophical Society - Avatars, Geniuses, and Channeling the Divine - Ray Grasse is a Chicago-based writer, musician, photographer, and astrologer. He worked for ten years on the editorial staffs of Quest Books and The Quest magazine. The term avatar has become a buzzword in pop culture these days, largely because of its association with the blockbuster movies of director James Cameron, but look up the word in the spiritual literature and you’ll sometimes find it defined as the “direct incarnation of the Divine into our world.”

In Hinduism, for instance, we’re told of the ten appearances of Vishnu in forms that included a fish, tortoise, boar, a half man/half lion, and still more developed figures like Rama, Krishna, Buddha, and (latest of them all) Kalki. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Prince Arjuna:

Whenever there is a decline of righteousness [dharma] and rise of unrighteousness then I send forth Myself. For the protection of the good, for the destruction of the wicked, and for the establishment of righteousness, I come into being from age to age.

It’s inspiring, to be sure. Yet I’ve long felt there was something paradoxical around the avatar concept, largely because in some of these accounts the avatar refers explicitly to having had numerous past lives. For instance, Krishna also says this to Arjuna: “Many, many births both you and I have passed. I can remember all of them, but you cannot.”

Why is that paradoxical? Because if the avatar is indeed a direct incarnation of the divine, why would these accounts also speak of a multitude of past lives, just like for any other mortal? Note that Krishna didn’t simply speak about eight, nine, or ten past lives, but of “many, many births”—almost as if he were an ordinary human enduring the interminable round of rebirths himself. (And by the way, aren’t we all incarnations of the Divine?) So just how direct an incarnation is the avatar anyway?           

Becoming a Suitable Vessel

For the sake of discussion, let’s assume it’s indeed possible for the Divine to enter into our world, whether we think in terms of God or simply as some highly evolved spiritual being who wishes to come down and help us out—a divine emissary. Either way, this divine intelligence would necessarily be vastly more evolved than ordinary mortals.

If so, though, how could that spiritual being simply incarnate directly into our realm? To use an analogy, try to imagine a human—say, Martin Luther King—trying to incarnate down into the level of the ant kingdom to help out the ants. How could he adjust to the massive constriction that he’d encounter in that conversion? And how would he be able to relate to the profoundly different mind-set and biology of the ant world?

In a similar way, we need to ask: how would a massively evolved divine entity—perhaps even God herself—simply slip into an ordinary human form and relate to us on our level?

There’s a relatively simple solution to this problem: the divine intelligence could employ a human conduit through which to operate. That is, if there was a human on earth who had evolved sufficiently over many lifetimes to resonate with that lofty divine impulse, he or she could serve as a channel, a suitable host, for that divine inspiration.

This concept resonates closely with one of the central features of the life of Jesus as portrayed in the Bible. Up to around the age of thirty, Jesus acted like a comparatively normal person, and hadn’t yet risen to the full status of his appointed destiny. If we are to believe the written accounts, even he didn’t seem to consider his transformation complete until he was formally baptized. (Think about that: why would a purported Son of God feel any need to be baptized by a mere mortal?) At his baptism in the river Jordan, the Holy Spirit descended into him—taking on the form of a dove, we’re told—at which point a voice issued from heaven saying, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” At that point, you might well say he was transformed from simply being Jesus the carpenter to Jesus the Christ—having now become a conscious conduit for God the Father, a willing channel for the Divine will.

Even up to the end of his life, Jesus seemed to exhibit ambivalence about that dual existence of his, simultaneously mortal and divine, as was obvious in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Gospel of Matthew describes it this way: “He told them, ‘My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death.’ . . . He went on a little farther and bowed with his face to the ground, praying, ‘My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine’” (Matthew 26:38–39, New Living Translation). This clearly implies that there was still a very human personality alongside the divine one, and they hadn’t completely fused into a single entity.

The Avatar-Genius Connection

To my mind, there is an analogy here to the lives of great geniuses, whether they be artistic, literary, or scientific in nature. Every now and then we come across a true genius who produces a work that seems transcendent in its brilliance, as if he or she had tapped into something far beyond ordinary human capacity and brought down the fire of the gods into tangible form.

For example, a great writer, like Shakespeare or Herman Melville, will pen a work that seems to operate on multiple levels simultaneously and opens itself up to countless interpretations for years or centuries to come, sometimes in ways that even the author didn’t seem to fully understand. Artists, songwriters, or poets often claim they didn’t feel entirely responsible for their work, as if their creativity was more akin to channeling something from beyond. So where did it come from?

In ancient Greece, this line of thought was sometimes explained in connection with the notion of the Muse. The nine Muses were regarded as the source and inspiration for all great achievements in art, dance, poetry, comedy, astronomy, music, and history. A related notion is the Latin genius, which refers to the guardian deity or spirit which watches over each person from birth, as well as in the concept of the genie, familiar from those Middle Eastern tales about spirits in bottles who possessed unusual powers.

But whereas the notion of the avatar would seem to require an extraordinary degree of moral and spiritual purification over multiple lifetimes in order to qualify a mortal as a suitable host, it’s different in the case of artistic or intellectual geniuses. Here it seems to be more a matter of developing one’s creative and mental qualities over time more than any explicitly spiritual or moral ones. (Just consider how so many of our greatest artists have shown themselves to be seriously flawed human beings). If you aren’t comfortable with a reincarnational model, you might  think in terms of author Malcolm Gladwell’s proverbial 10,000 hours, which suggests that one achieves a certain degree of excellence only after so many hours and years of practice in a discipline.

Either way, this more explicitly creative form of genius requires a person to hone their talents to such a degree that the necessary motor skills become instinctual. At this point, higher influences can enter in and guide one’s faculties—whether these influences are external intelligences or simply one’s own intuitive powers. As someone who has been involved in various creative projects over the decades, I’ve come to believe that most of those involved in the arts for any period of time have experienced such moments of inspiration, however fleetingly. At this point, it can feel as though something has been handed to you, and you’re completely surprised by the outcome.

But I think we can bring this closer to home and talk in even more mundane contexts, since the process I’m describing here likely can occur in any area where one has developed mastery. One example can be seen with sports players. I remember watching an interview with a successful pro football player years ago, in which he spoke about special moments during games where he felt completely “in the zone,” when time seemed to slow down and he made precisely the right moves in throwing the ball to a downfield receiver. It’s safe to say that he tapped into his own personal “genius” in those moments.

One hears similar comments from martial artists, skiers, and baseball players, as well as from dancers, master chefs, or participants in religious or magical rituals. During my brief time living at a Zen monastery in New York, I took part in a ceremony in which my movements and those of fellow participants flowed together in a way that suggested a telepathic connection among us. Although it’s difficult to describe, it felt as if something bigger than our surface personalities was directing the show.

What exactly is happening during such moments? Should we chalk it up to an external deity or muse that’s guiding our consciousness? Does it involve our own higher selves? Or might it simply be a matter of higher brain functions, with no need for theories of God, angelic beings, or spiritual factors? I’m not sure it really matters, since in any event the result is the same.

Master One Thing 

I’d like to close by suggesting a specific way to cultivate and develop this ability in our own lives, and it stems from something I heard a spiritual teacher once say to his students. In order to formally study with him, he insisted that a key prerequisite was for them to “master one thing”—whether it be a subject, talent, manual skill, or spiritual practice—and to “become the best and most knowledgeable in the world at that thing.”

The more I’ve thought about this over the years, the more I think it relates to what we’ve been looking at here. By taking a skill or subject and developing a degree of mastery with it, several things take place. For one, it serves as a grounding or centering discipline that organizes one’s mental and physical energies and brings one’s life into sharper focus. In a sense, it offers a way of mastering yourself.

This practice also paves the way for a higher intuitive genius to enter in and operate from a level beyond the conventional mind. It’s a bit like knocking a hole in the ceiling to create a skylight so that sunlight can pour in. By mastering a given skill or subject, I’d suggest that it helps create a “skylight” in oneself, through which one can develop a back-and-forth communication between the lower and higher levels of one’s nature.

In so doing, one eventually becomes an avatar to oneself—and quite possibly to others as well.

Ray Grasse worked on the editorial staff of the Theosophical Society during the 1990s,. He is the author of several books, most recently An Infinity of Gods: Conversations with an Unconventional Mystic (Inner Eye, 2017). His website is www.raygrasse.com.