I have discussed the subject of avatars, sages and mystics many times here. The nature of consciousness is studied internally by witnessing your mind and externally by looking at outliers. In the material sense it’s genius who is to be studied and also mentally ill and in the spiritual- saints and avatars are to be studied.
As I’ve told before it’s totality which makes anything possible so avatars and saints are as much a product of special circumstances as anything else. Look at the bhakti movement of middle ages in India. It gave a number of saints and avatars to the world in a very short span of time. There was more harmony in the environment somehow and it flowered consciousness in many humans together. Or you may look at it differently and say that many movements and reforms needed to happen as oppression and darkness was at its peak–this gave rise to the need of saints. You may compare this spiritual event with political uprise in India in the century before its independence from british rule. Gandhi became one of the greatest political heroes of all times.
Is there a difference between avatars and sages?
Avataras are divine beings who are always sages but sages might or might not be called avataras. Founders of greatest religious movements are all avataras. For example–Krishna, Buddha, Nanak, Kabir, Jesus and Muhammad are all avataras. The criterion for avatara primarily includes great power and wisdom personified together. The amount of work done is equal to amount of energy spent, therefore bigger a religious movement the greater is the influence of the founder. Sages are wise, that is, they have self-realization but they might or might not influence a wide array of people.
Swami Vivekananda once said that the greatest of humans have never been discovered by the masses, Buddha and Christ are merely ripples on the surface. Ramana Maharshi told someone in response to an inquiry that the personality determines the difference in the degree of realization in case of sages. Weak personality suggests strong realization and strong personality suggests weak realization.
I will build upon these premises and use a bit of Astrology to corroborate. It’s evident that whatever we know about spirituality comes from teachers. You might say that self-realization gives wisdom in the truest sense, still you will look to teachers for the confirmation of your realization. If not at their teachings then at their lives. Movements which sprang forth from avataras and teachings which came from sages have been the cause(direct or indirect) of awakening of most of the human beings.
Let’s take examples from recent past. Very old avatars and sages are shrouded much in the mystery and since fact can barely be separated from the fiction in those cases we don’t reach clarity if we consider them. Ramana Maharshi and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa were two sages in the past two centuries. Both of them are widely regarded as enlightened. Can you see the difference in their personalities? I would put Ramana in the category of sages and Ramakrishna in the category of avataras. Though some people regarded Ramana as an avatar of Karthikeya he was mostly a sage. He taught directly and by his presence and living. Ramana influenced many people including HWL Poonja and UG Krishnamurti. Ramkrishna inspired Vivekananda and his mission became one of the greatest religious movements to spread values of Hindu wisdom in India and world. This movement also worked to reform society and alleviate suffering. Horoscopes of Ramana and Ramkrishna confirm my observations.
Avataras have very powerful personalities . The current of power is expressed in the movements. It’s a burden and it is bound to express itself despite realization of Self. Ramana used to say that a sage doesn’t see anything else other than Self and hence he can’t do anything to help others because there are no others. Body and mind of a sage do keep acting as required by the situation and most intelligently because they are aligned with the universal intelligence but in case of avatars there is a compulsion to act because of their compassion. Nisargadatta Maharaj said that a Jnani(sage) is a non-doer while God is an all-doer. You may interpret it to mean that avataras feel a need of change in society and world towards divinity. Their body and minds have harbored energies which are spent on doing welfare of many and activity is more pronounced. In case of sages there might not be much activity or teaching because realization is deeper and personality is weak.
Nisargadatta also said once that when a bigger ego burns the light produced is more. Example of emperor Ashoka can be taken here who was a ruthless king until the war of Kalinga. When he got converted to Buddhism he did more for the movement than any other ruler in the history.
Now let’s take example of Gautama Buddha. He was a sage who realized self. Why did he need to teach? In the previous example of Ramana and Ramkrishna we observe that Ramana had a weak personality compared to Ramakrishna and hence deeper realization. Ramana has only Mars in its own sign as strongest planet. No other planet is very strong or exalted. Ramakrishna had Venus, Mars, Saturn, Rahu and Ketu exalted which confirms the standard charts of divine incarnations of Krishna, Rama and Shiva. In charts of avatars many planets are exalted and in kendra(power) houses which makes their personalities very strong. Buddha was an ascetic and when he got enlightened he might not have become a world teacher had there not been a great destiny for him. The astrologer who predicted about him after his birth told the king(his father) that the child was going to be a great king or a king among sages who will be known all over the world. The reason being the stellium of five planets in the tenth house with exalted Sun and Mars. Debilitated Saturn made him a great renunciate who saw existential nightmare very closely and became detached but the cancellation of debility made him a balanced sage who stopped torturing the body and advocated middle path. So you may say that even when he attained self realization there was a lot of personality left in him.
Ramana uses term bhoga-hetu-vasana for these traces of personalities in jivanmuktas. These vasanas can’t cause bondage or further birth. Sage doesn’t see anything else but self but others see him active–eating, walking and sleeping–therefore there must be some vasanas which need to be exhausted–they’re bhoga-hetu-vasanas. These bhoga-hetu-vasanas were so strong in Buddha that he became a compassionate teacher and kept teaching for about 40 years after his enlightenment. 5 strong planets in the tenth house made him capable of influencing one of the greatest religious movements and he created a new vocabulary of terms.
Let’s come back to Ramakrishna and Ramana again. Ramana left home when he was 17 in order to do penance for realization of self. His realization became deeper in time but he did no experimentation other than the inquiry Who am I. Ramkrishna, on the other hand did many experiments. He did spiritual practices as suggested by Bhakti, Vedanta, Christian, Sufi and Tantra paths. Why was this all needed? Because he was supposed to do great work for the upliftment of humanity so he needed to show people that all paths lead to the same supreme Truth. This is because avatara has special burden and compulsion to act in the cosmic drama whereas a sage can stand in a corner on a stage.
A sage doesn’t see any difference between a sage and avatara because there is only self. An avatara also finds no differences but his powerful personality and compassion makes it a compulsion for him to act. As long as there is a universe there are avataras and sages. Some people have childish interpretation of divine power of kings and interpret it to mean that most powerful people make others write history as they wish it to be. The example–Rama and Krishna are worshipped because they were mighty kings and hence made historical conquests a long time ago and then dictated people to worship them as gods. As hilarious as it sounds today it seemed like logical truth to me in my teenage when I was rebellious. I didn’t stop to ponder then that Hitler, Napoleon, Ashoka, Chandragupta and Genghis Khan–all of them had great empires but they are not worshipped as avataras. Self-realization is the difference between avatars and mighty kings. Rama was a mighty king and parabrahman too.