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03/15/2010

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Patrick S. O'Donnell

Forgive me, but I can't help but think of such questions in comparative terms, in this instance, with regard to Hinduism. As many readers are probably aware, in post-Vedic Hinduism there is the notion of avatāra (i.e., 'the Supreme Lord appearing in this world in His/Her own Eternal Form out of His/Her own inconceivable prerogative'), which is comparable to the doctrine of the Incarnation in Christianity, although in the former there exist, in principle, an open number of such "divine descents," with the Vaishnava tradition [not all diacritics available, hence the 'h'] recognizing ten major such incarnations, including Krishna of the Bhagavad Gīta. And early incarnations were not limited to human form.

I'm intrigued by the fact that Gandhi, who incidentally had a rather idiosyncratic metaphorical and allegorical intepretation of the Gīta, understood the avatar idea as indicative of man's wish to become perfect, like God, rather than a literal divine descent as it were. Thus the Godwinian conception of perfectibility is important to Gandhi, meaning not that man is capable of perfection as such, rather,

"the word seems sufficiently adapted to express the faculty of being continually made better and receiving perpetual improvement; and in this sense it is here to be understood. The term perfectible, thus explained, not only does not imply the capacity of being brought to perfection, but stands in express opposition to it. If we could arrive at perfection, there would be an end to our improvement. There is however one thing of great importance that it does imply: every perfection or excellence that human beings are competent to conceive, human beings, unless in cases that are palpably and unequivocally excluded by the structure of their frame, are competent to attain."

In several traditions, for example Jainism, Advaita Vedānta (on of the six orthodox philosophical schools of post-Vedic Hinduism), and Buddhism, it would seem there IS the idea of man being capable of utter perfection, at least with regard to divine omniscience, as the ultimate fruition of what is termed jñāna yoga. In Advaita Vedānta this is characterized as the spiritual realization of nirguna Brahman (similar to notions of apophatic mystical experience in theistic traditions).

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