Question: I have a question, the answer to which should help me frame a paper I will write later this summer for an interfaith presentation on the topic of God among us: ‘A Catholic-Vaiṣṇava Dialog, the Incarnation and Avatāra.’ Śrī Kṛṣṇa appears in innumerable forms throughout the universes. Some forms appear to be human-like while others resemble lower species, such as the boar, fish, tortoise, etc. Śrīla Prabhupāda writes:
“In each and every universe there are innumerable planets inhabited by different grades of living entities in different modes of nature. The Lord (Viṣṇu) incarnates Himself in each and every one of them and in each and every type of living society. He manifests His transcendental pastimes amongst them just to create the desire to go back to Godhead. The Lord does not change His original transcendental position, but He appears to be differently manifested according to the particular time, circumstances and society.” (Bhāgavatam 1.2.34 purport)
The human form of life is the best for achieving self-realization. The activities of the animals are eating, mating, sleeping and defending. The animals cannot understand God. Yet, Śrīla Prabhupāda says that Kṛṣṇa is the friend of both human and animal society. I suppose if He appears among humans to deliver us, it would only be sensible that He appears among the animals to deliver them. I’m wondering if the dynamic is different among other species. When He appears among the humans or higher species, He can deliver those in His immediate association, and then His teachings are recorded to inspire posterity. When the Lord appears among the lower species, how does He deliver them? They cannot practice religion as humans do (though Lord Caitanya made deer, tigers and elephants chant Hare Kṛṣṇa and liberated the dog under Śivānanda Sena’s care). Does He deliver only the current generation among that species (after all, animals don’t maintain written historical records)? This may seem to be an obscure inquiry, and I’m probably not mature enough to understand the answer, but it came to mind, so I was wondering if the ācāryas offer us any insight into this matter.
Answer: The conception that God incarnates in the species of those living entities who are lower than human beings has always troubled the mind of the western theologian. Knowing this, Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura has dealt with the topic of the Lords incarnations in lower species in his book ‘Śrī Kṛṣṇa-saṁhitā.’ I suggest that you consult that book in detail before writing your proposed essay.
When the Lord appears in lower species He delivers those species by giving them auspiciousness due to His association. The living entities are then promoted to human life and there they are given a chance to come to God consciousness and love of God. That is my understanding. By the Lord’s association the living entity awakens a desire for God consciousness. This desire for God consciousness is also awakened by the association of pure devotees of the Lord and sometimes by ajñāta-sukṛti. Categorically the Lord appears in every species.
jalajā nava-lakṣāṇi sthāvarā lakṣa-viṁśati
kṛmayo rudra-saṅkhyakāḥ pakṣiṇāṁ daśa-lakṣaṇam
triṁśal-lakṣāṇi paśavaḥ catur-lakṣāṇi mānuṣāḥ
“There are 900,000 species living in the water. There are 2,000,000 non-moving living entities such as trees and plants. There are 1,100,000 species of insects and reptiles, and 1,000,000 species of birds. As far as quadrupeds are concerned there are 3,000,000 varieties, and there are 400,000 human species.”
That the Lord appears in all species of life, means that He appears in each category, not that He appears as each and every individual form like each and every type of fish, each kind of reptile, every type of quadruped (animal) etc. But in each category the Lord appears.
Among the aquatics in the water the Lord appears as Matsya-avatāra. Among the trees and plants He appears as dāru-brahman (the trees bearing the signs of Viṣṇu from which the Jagannātha Deities are then manifested) (banyan trees and others may also be considered as the Lord’s incarnation). Among the insects and reptiles, He appears as the vajrakīṭa (the worm from Vaikuṇṭha) that carves the signs on the śālāgrāma-śīlas and also as Ananta-śeṣa and Kūrma-avatāra, the tortoise. Among the birds He appears as Haṁsa-avatāra. Among the animals with four feet He appears as Varāha-avatāra. And among the humans He appears as Kṛṣṇa, Rāma, and Śrī Caitanya.
As stated above the Lord creates auspiciousness for the living entities in the lower species of life by appearing among them. This would benefit those living entities who directly associated with the particular incarnation and it would also benefit all future living entities appearing in that species. That is my understanding. If any species comes in contact with any avatar then there is certainly benefit for those living entities, without doubt. What to speak of the particular species — each and every time the Supreme Lord appears in this universe all the living beings present in the universe are benefited. Some are liberated directly and others are elevated and liberated after some time. The ways of the Supreme Lord are wonderful and sometimes difficult for the tiny brain to understand. Nonetheless, śraddhā (faith) tells us that the Lord is all-merciful, the friend of all living beings, and the knower of everything. How He is doing everything may be known to Him alone, but faith tells us that He is the doer of everything and whatever He does is for our benefit.