It is very often stated, and as often admitted, that the idea of an incarnation of the Deity is not peculiar to Christianity, and is in fact common in Oriental mythology. In this we for a time indolently acquiesced, and were content to rest upon the essential differences between the incarnations of the Hindu gods and that of the Messiah. But on looking more closely into the matter, after venturing to assume the possibility that even great authorities might be mistaken, we feel inclined to deny that there is in Eastern mythology any incarnation in any sense approaching that of the Christian, and that least of all is there any, where it has been most insisted on.

In the Hindu religion there are numerous avatars of the gods, commonly, but erroneously, translated incarnations. But avatar means a descent; and the three great gods, their consorts, their offspring, and numerous other mythological personages, are represented as descending in human, in animal, or in a compound monstrous form, for some special objects, such as to reward righteousness or to redress and punish wrong. These are mostly such transformations, or assumptions of form, as we read of in classical mythology, and which no one has thought of comparing with the Christian incarnation. But when we speak of Hindu avatars, we think mainly of the ten avatars of Vishnu—nine past, and one to come. Note: The ten avatars are usually thus arranged—1. Matsya, the fish, or man-fish. 2. Kurma, the tortoise, or man-tortoise. 3. Varaha, the boar, or man-boar. 4. Narasingba, the lion, or man-lion. 5. Vamana, or the dwarf. 6. Parasu Rama, the name of the favored person in whom Vishnu became incarnate. 7. Sre-Ram, the same. 8. Khrishna, the same. 9. Buddha, the same. 10. Kalki, the horse, or man-horse. Observe, it is a question between the Brahminical and Buddhist sects, whether the Buddha of the ninth avatar is the same with the founder of Buddhism or not. But even here we find the same want of proper analogy to the real idea of the Divine incarnation; and we see, moreover, that the incarnation of Christ is effectual once for all—whereas these heathen gods are continually descending to set right things that have gone out of joint. In one of Vishnu’s avatars, the god becomes a gigantic man-boar to draw up the earth from the ocean in which it had been submerged; he appears in another as a mighty man-tortoise to sustain the globe, which was convulsed by the malignant potency of demons; in a third, he veils his glory in the form of a devouring man-lion, and, rushing from a pillar of marble, rescues a religious son from an impious father, and destroys the father to vindicate the majesty of offended justice. The fabulists with whom these singular fictions originated, proceed with equal or greater wantonness of fancy to detail various other descents of the divine nature. The two last avatars (if they be two, for some think them essentially the same) are those only which can be said to make a distant approach to our ground. In these the god is born of woman—that is to say, instead of taking possession of the form of an adult, he takes possession of an unborn infant; and the child of human parents is born into the world, and grows up through childhood to youth and manhood. The first of these two is that of Krishna, to which we have formerly referred, Note: Morning Series: Third Week—Monday. in the representations of whom, as a

The Avatars of Vishnu

child, have occurred those supposed pictorial resemblances to the Virgin and Child of the Roman Catholic painters. But this sort of analogy must always exist where a woman, with a child at her bosom, is depicted; and in the case before us, the female figure is not that of the mother Devahi, as some imagine, but of the foster-mother Yesuda. In the last avatar, that of Vishnu as of Buddha, it is even questioned whether the god was born a child or not; for, according to some accounts, he appeared at once as a shepherd boy. In either case, after a career of unutterable carnality, mingled with heroic achievements and redress of wrongs; he returns to the joys of his celestial mansion, having imparted all moral and political precepts to his favored followers. The particulars are all throughout as different as heaven is from earth—and it may be regretted that the details which show the complete difference between the gospel and the Hindu idea of an incarnation of the Deity, are too revolting to be cited in a book like this.

In none of the Hindu legends to which we refer, is the mother a virgin, and in the most striking of them she has already borne seven children. These facts render it clear that the roost pointed incident in the history of our Lord’s incarnation could not be derived from the mythology of the far East, as some have dared to allege; and even they admit that this circumstance affords no trace of Jewish invention, seeing that among that people marriage was held in the highest esteem, and celibacy in disrespect; and it is admitted that they never did, and do not now, expect the Messiah to be born of a virgin. If, therefore, it were not a fact—no basis for it either in Jewish or heathen ground could be discovered, for it as an invention or myth.

But heathendom, we shall be told, is not exhausted. There is Buddhism, which offers still more striking analogies, so that it has been sometimes carelessly called “the Christianity of the remote East.” Is it not on record that Buddha was born of a woman—born of a virgin? So were the Fohi of China, and the Sckaka of Tibet, no doubt the same, whether a mythic or a real personage. We are also told that the Jesuits in China were appalled at finding in the mythology of that country the counterpart of the “Virgo Deipara.” One, referring to this, adds: “There is something very curious in the appearance of the same religious notions in remote and apparently disconnected countries, where it is impossible to trace the secret manner of their transmission.” Note: Milman’s History of Christianity, i, 99. The resemblance we have in certain points allowed formerly, as in the traditions respecting the Creation, the Fall, and the Deluge—and we found all this adequately accounted for by the heritage of common primitive traditions by all the races of men descended from that one family which survived the Deluge; and we might have no difficulty in referring to the same source the matter now under consideration, regarding them as embodied traditions of the promise made to the woman that her seed should bruise the serpent’s head. Indeed, we have ourselves referred to this source certain circumstances in the history of the Hindu Krishna. Note: Morning Series: Third Week—Monday. But what we now inquire after are analogies of the Incarnation, which, in the gospel sense, was not likely to be deduced from that promise by the heathen descendants of Noah, seeing that the Jews themselves did not deduce it.

Now, if the gospel idea of the incarnation be that of God descending to take upon himself in the womb of a woman’s entire nature—to become a man such as we are, “yet without sin,”—there is as little of this in Buddhism as in Brahmanism—and indeed far less. In the former, the god does at least descend, does at least lower himself to earth. But Buddhism has no god to descend; and Buddha must be born of woman, not as God descending to take upon Him flesh, but as man rising to take upon him a kind of temporary godhead. Instead of similarity, therefore, we find the greatest contrariety between these two things.

Let us try to make this clear.

Buddha is the name for God, not of any god in particular. There have been several Buddhas, and there will be one more. And here we may remark how all systems concur in the belief that the world is near or is approaching its last ages. Brahmanism expects but one more avatar of Vishnu; Buddhism looks but for one more Buddha to appear. At large intervals of time, men have appeared, who, in transmigrations through long ages, from one form of being and one state of life to another, and behaving increasingly well in each, have gone on accumulating an immense stock of merits, and higher degrees of sanctity, till they are at length born into a state of supernatural knowledge and power—have in fact attained perfection, and can go no higher, and therefore, after the next death, are born no more, but pass into annihilation.

Gaudama, the last Buddha

It is while be exists in this final state on earth, previous to annihilation, that this personage is Buddha, and is worshipped as a god, and after his death continues to be worshipped—not as a present god, but as a memory; and the rules and precepts which he has left, form the rule of life, worship, and religion for the people, till the next Buddha appears. Thus the system is practical atheism, built on a foundation of human merits. Its god is dead, and its final hope is annihilation. Where is the resemblance to Christianity—where any analogy to the incarnation in all this? Note: “The last Buddha was Gaudama, born son of a king in Hindustan about the year 626 B.C. He had previously lived in four hundred millions of worlds, and passed through innumerable conditions in each. In this world he had been almost every sort of worm, fly, fish, or animal, and almost every grade or condition in life. Having in the course of these transmigrations attained immense merit, he was at length born son of the king mentioned. The moment be was born he jumped upon his feet, and spreading out his arms exclaimed, ‘Now I am the noblest of men! This is the last time I shall ever be born.’ His height when grown up was nine cubits. His ears were so beautifully long as to hang upon his shoulders; his hands reached to his knees his fingers were all of equal length; and with his tongue he could touch the end of his nose. All of which were deemed irrefragable proofs of his divinity. When in this state his mind was enlarged, so that he remembered his former conditions and existence. Of these he rehearsed many to his followers. Five hundred and fifty of these narratives have been preserved; one relating his life and adventures as a deer, another as a monkey, elephant, fowl, etc. The collection is called Dyat, and forms a very considerable part of the sacred books. Gaudama became Buddha in the thirty-fifth year of his age, and remained so forty-five years, at the end of which time having performed all sorts of meritorious deeds, and promulgated his laws far and wide, he obtained Nicban, that is, he entered into annihilation, together with 500 priests by whom he had been long attended.

“The next Buddha is to appear about seven or eight thousand years from the present time. His height will be eighty cubits; his mouth will be five cubits wide, and the length of the hair of his eyebrows five cubits”—Rev. Howard Malcolm’s Travels in South-Eastern Asia.

It is a system in which the incarnation of the Godhead is a simple improbability, there being no god to incarnate—Buds being merely an eminent saint exalted into a demigod. If, therefore, we should hear stories regarding preternatural conceptions, or even of births from virgins in the case of Buddhas, and Buddhist saints, this has nothing at all to do with the subject—that is, with the incarnation of the Godhead—seeing that they are avowedly circumstances conferring honors upon the birth of a mortal, and the only Biblical comparison to which they are open, are with the births of Isaac, of Samson, of the son of the woman of Shunem, and of John the Baptist.