Ramanuja, who is not considered to equal Shankara in importance, fulfilled a similar function that is, he is considered to be a man with spiritual authority. Greater saints may have been born in India, but they have not enjoyed the same authority as has Ramanuja. Unlike Shankara, he was a theist, that is to say, a devotee of God. Although Shankara was also a devotee of God, at the same time he was a monist, feeling that he himself and every other being was identical with God. Ramanuja, on the other hand, emphasized the soul’s devotional relationship with God, and so he described God in one particular way. Later on, I shall have occasion to refer to his view.
Now, if you consider all the saints of this class, all the mahapurusas, you find that some enjoy the greatest authority. Not only are they saints, not only are they men of God they have also become God-men. And some God-men for example, Sri Krishna or Buddha or Sri Ramakrishna are so great that you find the so-called man aspect, human aspect, is almost gone: there remains in them God and nothing but God. Such God-men have been called Divine Incarnations.
Of course, as you can well understand, there has been a great deal of controversy amongst the Hindus about whether the idea of Divine Incarnation is legitimate or not. At the very outset, who are those who can call a God-man or a saint an Incarnation of God? If we call someone a Divine Incarnation, that might be awfully nice of us, indicating that we feel a great deal of devotion towards him, but that does not prove anything. After all, we are ignorant people. Once a disciple of Buddha began to praise him in his presence. He said, There has never been so glorious a person as you.’ Well, Buddha, who never liked this kind of flattery, just said, I imagine you have known all the Buddhas at the present time?’ No, sir.’ Maybe you knew all the Buddhas of the past?’ No.’ Of the future?’ No.’ Then how can you say this?’ Well, a similar question arises: How do you know that a saint, or a mahapurusa, is an Incarnation of God? It’s a very difficult question to answer, and I may frankly tell you that probably never will this question be answered to the satisfaction of all or of even a large number of people. It will always remain problematical.
There are, however, certain specialities ascribed to a Divine Incarnation (of course, whether a given saint has these specialities, it would be very difficult to prove or disprove). One special mark is that he has no ordinary history of previous lives. Whereas it is assumed that an ordinary soul has gone through many births and has suffered from many kinds of disabilities in the course of its spiritual evolution, the Divine Incarnation has a divine history; he may say, Yes, I was incarnated as Christ in such and such a time; now I am incarnated as this.’ That is to say, his history is always the history of a Divine Incarnation and never the history of an ignorant man.