Pratima is a substitute or symbol. For a beginner Pratima is an absolute necessity. By worshiping an idol Isvara is pleased. The Pratima is made up of five elements. Five elements constitute the body of the Lord. The idol remains an idol; but the worship goes to the Lord. Just as a man is pleased by shaking hands with his friends by touching a small portion of his body, so also God is pleased when a small portion of His Virat (cosmic) body is worshiped. Just as the child develops the maternal Bhava (mother-feeling) by playing with its imaginary toy-child made up of rags, and suckling it in an imaginary manner, so also the devotee develops the feeling of devotion by worshiping the Pratima and by concentrating upon it. Pictures, drawing, etc., are only a form of Pratima. The devotee associates the attributes of God with the image and feels His presence or immanence there. He finds it easy to concentrate his mind on the image. The mind wants a concrete prop to lean upon in the beginning stage of practice.
Bhagavan Sri Sankaracharya defines Bhalrti as devotion unto Atman. You cannot entirely separate Bhakti from Jnana. When Bhakti matures, it becomes transmuted into Jnana. A real Jnani is a devotee of Lord Hari, Lord Krishna, Lord Rama, Lord Siva, Durga, Sarasvati, Lakshmi, Lord Jesus and Buddha. He is a Samarasa Bhakta.
If a Vedantin excludes Bhakti, remember, he has not really grasped and understood Vedanta.
Lord Krishna takes a Jnani as a first-class Bhakta. “Of these, the wise, constantly harmonised, worshiping the One, is the best; I am supremely dear to the wise, and he is dear to Me. Noble are all these but I hold the wise as verily Myself; he self-united, is fixed on Me, the highest path.” (Gita: VII-17, 18.) Jnana intensifies Bhakti.
God takes a human form for elevating human beings. There is descent of God for the ascent of man. This is known as Avatara or incarnation of God. In the Gita (IV-6, 7, 8) you will find: “Though unborn, the imperishable Self, and also the Lord of all beings, brooding over nature, which is Mine own, yet I am born through My own power. Whenever there is decay of righteousness, then I Myself come forth. For the protection of the good, for the destruction of evil-doers, for the sake of firmly establishing righteousness, I am born from age to age.”
Avataras generally proceed from Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. They cannot come out of Isvara Himself. Just as a tailor who makes coats for others can make a coat for himself also, God who has created the bodies for others, can create a body for Himself as well.
Lord Krishna told Arjuna that this was the ancient and imperishable Yoga which he taught to Vivasvan the Sun-God; Vivasvan taught it to Manu; Manu taught it to Ikshvaku and so it was handed down through Parampara from royal sage to royal sage till it is decayed in the world by great efflux of time and was now renewed for Arjuna as he was His devotee and friend.
God is the Antaryamin, the Inner Self of all beings. He is not an absolute landlord of this world. He is not extra-cosmic or super-cosmic deity. He pervades and permeates all atoms and the whole universe. He is the Lord of the breath, mind and all organs. In him we live, move and have our very being.
A simple Jivanmukta is like a star that glitters at night. He throws a little light only. Somehow or other he has crossed to the other shore through some Tapas and Sadhana. He cannot elevate a large number of people. Whereas an Avatara is a mighty person. He removes the veil of ignorance of thousands of men and women and takes them to the land of eternal rest, bliss and sunshine.
The Lord incarnated as Nara and Narayana. The object of the incarnation was to teach by precept and example the performance of duty without desire for reward. Nara and Narayana were doing severe penance at Badrikashram. The Lord appeared as a swan to teach Atma-Yoga to Brahma. Dattatreya, the Kumaras, four sons of Brahma are all partial incarnations of Vishnu. Lord Vishnu has taken ten Avataras up till now. Dakshinamoorthy was an Avatara of Lord Siva.
The philosophy of Jesus Christ, the Yogi of Nazareth, is the best of its kind for the European world as is the philosophy of Buddha for Thailand, China, Japan and Sri Lanka. So is the philosophy of Mohammed for Arabia. All are the sons of God made in His image to give to the different parts of the great wide world a message of peace and of the secret of life.
Very few people like Bhishma recognized Lord Krishna as the Avatara. That is the reason why Lord Krishna says: “The foolish disregard Me, when clad in human semblance, ignorant of My Supreme nature, the great Lord of beings.” (Gita: IX-11.) “Those devoid of reason think of Me, the unmanifest, as having manifestation, knowing not My supreme nature, imperishable, most excellent.” (Gita: Vll-24.)
The pseudo-Avataras dress themselves as Lord Krishna with crown and peacock-feathers on their heads and appear before credulous disciples and say: “I am Lord Krishna. Drink my Charanamrita. I shall give you Mukti.” Any saint who wants to rise up should not allow his disciples to advertise.
In this Kali-Yuga, Kali-Avatara is expected.
Excerpts from “Practice of Bhakti Yoga” by Swami Sivananda