When an enlightened soul chooses to be born on Earth to help humanity, does he know he is enlightened? Or is he born ignorant again, and only later in this life he realizes his true nature?
The way Swami Kriyananda explained it is that when an enlightened being comes into the material world to help humanity, it’s like going to a movie that he has seen before. He knows the plot already. Even as a baby, his consciousness is free. Still, he allows himself to get caught up in the story for the sake of setting an example to others.
He must long for God and seek Him like we do, if his life is serve as a useful example to others. He shows us by his divine life how we, too, can climb the peak of happiness.
At any moment, the enlightened ones can step back from this human life and see it all as divine show.
When Swamiji asked Paramhansa Yogananda how deeply involved an avatar (one who is completely free before he is born) is in the events of his life, the Master replied, “Inwardly, you are always free.”
I like to think of it in this way. Everyone except for an avatar is compelled to be born in a physical body because of his unfinished karma — the lessons he still needs to learn.
(Painting: Arjuna meets his guru Sri Krishna. An avatar and world savior such as Krishna never loses inward awareness of his complete oneness with God, even as he plays the scenes of his earthly life as an example for struggling brothers and sisters.)
Once we incarnate, we are bound by the limitations of the material world. It is like being in prison. But it is all right, because we are “guilty” in of having unlearned lessons. An avatar, by contrast, is completely innocent. He has no karma, no unlearned lessons. He comes into the prison purely to help others understand how to get out forever.
Still, once the avatar incarnates in a physical body, he too is bound to a certain extent by the limitations of the physical plane. He can rise above them when it is appropriate — doing what we call “miracles” — but for the most part he chooses to work to succeed like other human beings. He has to find a guru, let himself be disciplined, meditate, earn money, build buildings, train people, and experience setbacks, disappointments, betrayals, misunderstandings, and so on.
He is in prison, like us, but he is innocent, and he can walk out at any time, whereas we must stay in our cells until our sentence is served, which is to say until all of our karma is resolved.
These are not easy things to understand, since we are not at the level of consciousness where they are completely understood. But perhaps this will help.