“Avatar” originally referred to an individual who came from the Divine with a special mission to humanity. They’re not ascenders to God, as we are, but descenders from God. “Avatar” means a descent of the Divine.
An avatar is like a Babushka doll. On the outside is the human vessel (Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, Ramakrishna, etc.). Next below that can be a step-down transformer from a higher dimension, such as Sananda was for Jesus.
And next inside is the Divine Mother, Holy Spirit, Shakti (all the same), present in an avatar in a way and to an extent vastly different than for the ordinary person. It’s the descent of the Divine Mother that results in the use of the word “avatar.”
Avatars don’t generally acknowledge their avatarhood. Here’s Jesus on the subject. I’m going to cite him at length because he answers numerous questions in his replies.
Steve Beckow: You mentioned the Holy Spirit in flesh, and that raises questions about your ministry. Do you consider that the word “avatar” applies to you and your ministry?
Jesus: Avatar is not a word that I particularly cherish. Let me put it that way. … There are those who wish to label me as an avatar. And I would accept that label, but I would not choose it. I would choose the label, or the description, of teacher. …
S: Sri Ramakrishna considers you an avatar (1) and publicly declared that. Can we talk about who was here then, please? You were here in bodily form.
S: Sananda was also here overlighting you, was he not?
S: So that would be a second layer to your ministry, so to speak, the overlighting.
J: That is correct.
S: And then in addition to that, the Holy Spirit [Divine Mother] descended into your form. Is that correct?
J: That is correct.
S: And did that, by the way, happen when you were being baptized in the River Jordan?
J: No, it happened at a very early age, actually. The baptism was a symbolic refilling, if you want to put it that way. But, no, in order for me to go forward in my journey on Earth, there was an infilling of the Holy Spirit at a very early age, of about five, five and a half. And then it was renewed, or – symbolically renewed – so that the people would know that this was available to everybody.
S: All right. Well, if you were the human form that was overlit by a spirit as exalted as Sananda, and the Holy Spirit descended in you, that I would call an “avatar.” Would you disagree?
J: [Laughs] I do not disagree. I simply say to you that it is a designation that I am not so eager to claim. …
And I will tell you why. Because you, or your listeners, will then say, “Oh, well, he had this overlighting, he had this infilling, and that makes him different or separate,” and it does not. If anything, it allows me to be closer to you.
S: All right, I accept that, Lord.
J: All right. So I have made my point, then! (2)
The Divine Mother is the primal creative vibration, usually denoted by the word “Aum” or “Amen.” (3) Therefore for St. John to say, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” (4) is literally true. Since the Mother is the core of all avatars, the Word has indeed been made flesh.
An avatar like Sri Ramakrishna demonstrated for spiritual adepts all the forms of enlightenment and how they might be achieved. Krishna came to re-establish spirituality on a firmer basis. Others might re-establish a particular form of practice like devotion (Chaitanya) or meditation (Buddha).
All that you’d like to know about the physical experience of an avatar could best be learned, in my view, from reading the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, where he lays bare the inner experience of an avatar. That’s the best book on that subject that I’m aware of: a daily record of the life of an avatar.
You can also find an extensive treatment of the subject here: http://goldengaiadb.com/A#Avatars_.28Incarnations_of_God.2C_Embodiments_of_the_Divine.2C_God-men.2FGod-women.29
Yes, there are differences in an avatar’s body and a regular body and in the caring of it. There are three cosmic forces or gunas – sattwa, rajas, and thamas – and the avatar’s body is made of the purest constituent – sattwa. Of the gunas Swami Nikhilananda says:
“The word guna is usually translated into English as “quality”, which does not give the precise meaning of the original. Sattva, rajas, and tamas are not qualities of maya [the phenomenal and hence illusory world] in the same sense that hardness is a quality of iron, or softness of butter, or heat of fire. The three gunas are the ingredients of maya; they may be compared to three strands with [sic] constitute the rope of maya, the rope by which maya binds man to the illusory world.” (5)
Avatars are fashioned from pure sattwa. Here’s Swami Nikhilananda on what sattwa is and does:
“Sattva is the giver of happiness and is the real friend of man in his effort to realize Truth. It manifests itself, in man, as humility, guilelessness, self-control, unselfishness, purity, contentment, truthfulness, fearlessness, faith, devotion, yearning for Liberation, and other similar spiritual attributes.
“When sattva predominates, a man feels detached with respect to the world, lessens his physical activities, intensifies his contemplation, and strives in various ways to attain peace and blessedness. Through the cultivation of sattva, both rajas and tamas are kept under control.” (6)
Sri Ramakrishna’s body was so sensitive that, when a boatman hit his companion with an oar on the other side of the Ganges, the saint of Dakshineswar howled. He couldn’t touch money without experiencing pain. He could not brook the touch of an impure person without washing himself in Ganges water.
If you’re really interested, you can look here at the section on the gunas for more: http://goldengaiadb.com/G#The_Gunas_-_Reality_is_free_of_qualities.2C_unqualified
Some people have borrowed the term “avatar” to mean one’s physical form, sometimes a little picture of themselves used on Skype or Facebook or in a forum. This meaning bears no relationship to the meaning originally attached to the term. It just reflects people borrowing a word and putting it to a new use.
Words are symbols that we freely and arbitrarily bestow meaning upon. No one can stop anyone from using a word in the way they wish. If that meaning gains currency over time, then vocabulary changes. If not, its use falls away.
Unfortunately many “avatars” today have in some way failed or fallen. If I were to give examples, I’d probably get myself in trouble with their devotees. The last sound and true avatars on this planet, to whom not a speck of dust clings, are, in my view, Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sri Anandamoyima.
(1) Shivanath Shastri told Sri Ramakrishna: “Sir, one of my Christian friends has come to see you. Having heard of you from me, he was very eager to meet you.”
On hearing this Sri Ramakrishna bowed his head to the ground and said: “I bow again and again at the feet of Jesus Christ.”
Surprised at such utterance, Rev. Sannyal said: “How is it, sir, that you bow at the feet of Christ? What do you think of Him?”
Sri Ramakrishna: “Why, I look upon him as an Avatara.”
Rev. Sannyal: “Incarnation of God! Will you kindly explain what you mean by it? Is he one like Krishna and the others?”
Sri Ramakrishna: “Yes, exactly like that. An incarnation like our Rama and Krishna. Don’t you know there is a passage in the Bhagavata where it is said that the incarnations of Vishnu or the Supreme Being are innumerable?”
Rev. Sannyal: “Please explain further. I do not understand it quite.”
Sri Ramakrishna: “Just take the case of the ocean. It is a wide and almost infinite expanse of water. But owing to special causes, in special parts of this wide sea, the water becomes congealed into ice. When reduced to ice it can be easily manipulated and applied to special uses. An incarnation is something like that. Like that infinite expanse of water, there is the Infinite Power, immanent in matter and mind, but for some special purposes, in special regions, a portion of that Infinite Power, as it were, assumes a tangible shape in history, that is what you call a great man. But he is, properly speaking, a local manifestation of the all-pervading Divine Power; in other words, an incarnation of God. The greatness of great men is essentially the manifestation of Divine Energy.” (Paramahansa Ramakrishna in Swami Prabhavananda, First Meetings with Sri Ramakrishna. Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1987, 106-7.)
(2) “Transcript of An Hour with an Angel, with Jesus, Jan. 9, 2012,” at http://goldenageofgaia.com/2012/01/transcript-of-an-hour-with-an-angel-with-jesus-jan-9-2012
(3) “The Cosmic Energy, or Vibration, … has a voice of Cosmic Sound which is called Amen by Christians or Om by Hindus. This Amen is the faithful witness in the beginning of creation — that is, all vibrating creation is accompanied by the Cosmic Sound of Amen or Om or the Word or Holy Ghost, which is the first vibrating manifestation of God.” (Paramahansa Yogananda, The Second Coming of Christ. Dallas: Amrita Foundation, 1979, 2, 22.) [Hereafter SCC.]
“God is the Word or Om or Holy Ghost or Cosmic Vibration or Cosmic Energy. God is Cosmic Sound resulting from the Cosmic Energy and Cosmic Vibration. God’s first manifestation is the Word or Intelligent Cosmic Vibrating Sound.” (Paramahansa Yogananda, SCC, 2, 22.)
“O Mother! O Embodiment of Om!” (Paramahansa Ramakrishna in Swami Nikhilananda, trans., The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1978; c1942, 299.)
(4) John 1:14.
(5) Swami Nikhilananda, “Introduction” to Shankara’s Self-Knowledge. Madras, 1967, 65.
(6) Ibid., 67.