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Christ and Krishna

Winfried Corduan, Ph.D

Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religion
Taylor University

The Catalyst for this Series

In certain circles it has become virtually conventional wisdom that there are remarkable resemblances between the life and mission of Jesus Christ and of the Hindu avatar/deity Krishna. This phenomenon came to my attention once again a while back due to events to which I was merely an outside observer and sideline commentator.

Krishna has been worshiped throughout India, but there are several regions in which devotion to him is particularly prominent. One of those areas is the state of Bengal, where in the sixteenth century, a devotee named Caitanya particularly emphasized worship of Krishna by dancing and repeating the Mahamantra ("Great Mantra," viz. "Hare Krishna, Hare Rama," etc.). The group that we often refer to as the "Hare Krishna" movement is officially called the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, abbreviated ISKCON. It is a very specific organization arising out of the broader phenomenon, often called Gaudiya Vaishnavism, where "Gaudyia" is another word for Bengali, and "Vaishnavism" is the worship of the god Vishnu. Traditionally, Krishna is considered to be an avatar (a corporeal descent) of Vishnu, but many adherents of Gaudyia Vaishnavism believe he is the highest form of God apart from any qualifications. They say that Krishna is the highest form of personal Godhead; but they imply that the personal form is also higher than any non-personal form, as does the Bhagavad Gita (12:1,2).

Here are some pictures of evening aarti ("celebration of lights"), kirtana ("dancing") and puja ("worship, offering") at the Hare Krishna temple in Chicago.

Now, it is frequently stated that being a devotee of Krishna and a believer in Christ are compatible. Ultimately they are alleged to be the same person. Thus, formerly Christian philosopher, Michael Sudduth, who converted to Gaudiya Vaishnavism, declared in his own statement, which was circulated around the web, that

Krishna as Cowherd

I'm not going to do anything as silly as to respond to something that Dr. Sudduth has not yet written. For all that I know, none of what I'm about to write may have anything to do with his personal views. His statement simply reminded me of the many bizarre assertions that people have made on the subject. So, for example, I just entered "Christ and Krishna" (nothing else) into the Google search box, and the first site I hit made the following declaration with just a little rhetorical aggressiveness:

So, it appeared to be time for Vishnu to descend once again to make things right. But that doesn't necessarily happen automatically. It took Mother Earth herself to have an audience with the gods in heaven to bring this about. She took on one of her special forms as cow and called on Brahma. He was sorry, but there was nothing he could do about it at the moment, but maybe Shiva would. Shiva, however, also was in no position right then to deal with Kamsa, so he led her to Vishnu. The Preserver listened to her and promised that he would deal with the situation by coming to earth in human form.

  1. The "Earth Mother" was known in the Vedas as Prithvi Mata . Later on, she was called Bhumi , which simply means "the earthy one" (with feminine gender), or Bhudevi , the "earth goddess." Under that last name, she is frequently considered to be one form of Lakshmi , the goddess of wealth and good fortune, and consort (shakti) of Vishnu. Hindu mythology tends to get complex.
  2. Why did Mother Earth put on a cow suit to see the gods? The cow is one way in which, in Indian thought, motherhood is glorified. At a Mother's Day gathering of local Hindus one year, I heard children read essays praising motherhood under three categories: their own mother, Mother Earth, and Mother Cow.
  3. Also, note that at this level what I said earlier about the cosmic significance of Krishna as the one who helps humanity get out of the cycle of reincarnations does not come up. The mission is temporary and local: Get rid of Kamsa!

Luckily for Ugrasena and Padmavati, they had other offspring, including a beautiful daughter named Devaki, possibly an avatar of an earlier goddess. She was getting married to a nobleman by the name of Vasudeva. On the way to the temple, Kamsa was acting as coach driver for the chariot of the bride and groom when he suddenly heard a loud voice from heaven pronouncing sentence on him. Devaki's eighth child will kill him.

My sources don't tell me how Devaki reacted to the news that she would have at least eight pregnancies; regardless, she had a bigger immediate problem at hand. Kamsa was obviously disturbed by this unexpected prophecy, but he figured that he could derail it pretty easily if he killed Devaki right then and there. Fortunately, the quick-minded Vasudeva thought of a way of keeping his bride alive. He said to Kamsa, "Please let my wife live! Whenever she gives birth, we'll bring the baby to you, and you can kill it, right up to and including number eight, so you'll be safe."

Kamsa accepted the compromise, though Vasudeva and Devaki had to live in prison. For the first six children, Vasudeva kept his word. As soon as a child was born, he brought the infant to Kamsa, who immediately killed him or her.

However, things got tense with pregnancy number seven. Vishnu started to get involved. This time, the child growing within Devaki was none other than a new avatar of Lakshman, the brother of Rama, who had been Vishnu's previous avatar. He should not get killed, so Vishnu moved the fetus into the womb of another woman. The recipient was another wife of Vasudeva's by the name of Rohini. Vasudeva reported to Kamsa that Devaki had suffered a miscarriage. Miscarriage or not, it still counted as number seven. In the meantime, Rohini carried the child to full term, gave birth to him, and she and Vasudeva gave him the name Balarama, "Rama the Strong."

Then Vasudeva and Devaki had their eighth child. There was no switching of embryos this time. At midnight of the fateful evening, Krishna, incarnation of Vishnu, came into the world.

Would Kamsa kill the newborn Krishna? Would Krishna escape somehow? Would shepherds come from their fields and magi come to visit him from the East and bring presents? When are we going to get to the astounding similarities? Read on.

Balarama

BalaramaBefore finding out whether Krishna survived beyond the day of his birth, let me quickly throw out a few comments on the person of Balarama, Krishna's older brother in this version of the story. I mentioned specifically that he was supposed to be an avatar of Lakshman, Rama's brother, Vishnu's descent in a previous generation. However, there are other interpretations as well, and I'm not going to say that they are necessarily mutually exclusive, but they certainly can get confusing.

  1. One complicating factor is that according to various accounts, Balarama was (also?) an embodiment of the sacred serpent Shesha, at least in the sense that he lived as long as she indwelt him.  Balarama died (much later) when eventually Shesha slipped out of his body.
  2. Balarama is also often considered an avatar of Vishnu. There are several possibilities.
    1. In South-Indian temples, he is often substituted as the ninth avatar of Vishnu, instead of the Buddha. So, how can we account for two avatars being present simultaneously?
      1. We can say, why not? This would not have been the first time.  The sixth avatar, Parashurama (Rama with an axe), had come to earth with specific instructions to kill all members of the Kshatriya caste (the warriors and rulers). The Ramayana tells us that, in the course of carrying out this mission, he came calling on Rama (more formally Ramachandra), the seventh avatar, who at the time was a prince of Ayodhya, and thereby, a Kshatriya. So, the two avatars of Vishnu engaged in a fight and Rama defeated Parashurama. He did not kill him, but deprived him of his spiritual rewards. (I'm just telling the story.) So, if you could have had two avatars then, why not also at the time of Krishna and Balarama.
      2. Another option is to say that Vishnu's greatness exceeds that of any one human avatar, so neither person was a complete embodiment of the god, but each was a fraction, maybe a half, of an avatar.
    2. In circles where Krishna himself is thought to be the highest form of God, Balarama is thought to be an avatar of Krishna, appearing before Krishna himself took on human form. In those traditions, the well-known idea of the "ten avatars of Vishnu" does not apply, at least not in its customary form.

VishnuNow let us recall that Balarama, though genetically the son of Vasudeva and Devaki, had been implanted by Vishnu himself into the womb of Vasudeva's other wife, Rohini, and had been spared death. He was still a little toddler when Krishna was born.

So, Devaki gave birth to Krishna at midnight. Remember that Vasudeva was imprisoned, so that the evil Kamsa could kill all of Devaki's children. But arrangements had been made. At the same time as Krishna had been conceived, a woman by the name of Yasoda, the wife of Nanda, a cowherd, also became pregnant. She gave birth to her infant, a girl named Yogamaya (or Yoganidra), at the same time as Devaki gave birth to Krishna. She placed the baby beside her and fell asleep. Now Vasudeva went to exchange children. He took tiny little Krishna and found his way clear out of the prison because the door was open and the guards were sound asleep. Some versions of the story say that the aforementioned serpent, Shesha, helped Vasudeva find his way; others say that he took Balarama along that very night, in which case, assuming that Balarama was indwelt by Shesha, the serpent came along in that guise. Nanda and Yasoda lived on the other side of the Yamuna river, which happened to be flooding at the time. (This is the river next to which the Taj Mahal was built, which has nothing whatsoever to do with this story.) The waters receded so that Vasudeva could cross over safely. Without anyone noticing, he crept into Nanda's house, located Yasoda, laid down baby Krishna next to her, and absconded with her baby. As you will see in a moment, she got the better deal.

Krishna and Mother

No sooner had Vasudeva returned to his home in prison, when the guards awakened and heard the cry of a baby. They immediately notified Kamsa of the birth of Devaki's eighth child, the one that was supposed to kill him. He rushed into Devaki's room and picked up the infant and was about to smash the little girl on a stone. However, he never got that far. The baby sudden immaterialized in his hands, started to ascend to heaven, and pronounced something along the line of, "You stupid idiot. I'm not the one you're looking for. I'm Yogamaya, the Great Illusion. The child that you're after has already been born and is safe." With those unfriendly words she disappeared.
 

Baby KrishnaKrishna and MotherKamsa was highly annoyed. He did keep his word and set Vasudeva and his household free. If he hadn't done so before, then now Vasudeva took Balarama to Nanda and Yasoda. He explained matters to them, and they were happy to raise both Krishna and Balarama. But Kamsa needed to find this dangerous baby and kill it before it killed him. Since, he had no idea where this child might be, he set up a method intended to eradicate his kingdom of all newborn infants.  He hired a demonic wet-nurse named Putana. Every infant was supposed to suck from her breasts, which dispensed an instantly fatal fluid. Eventually she came around to Nanda and Yasoda, and commanded them to have little Krishna partake of this mandatory feeding. Little Krishna actually happily complied. He put his mouth to one of her breasts and sucked. And sucked and sucked. He sucked the life right out of her. By the time he was done, he was fine, but the evil woman was dead.

Still, this event allowed Kamsa to identify Krishna as the eighth of Devaki's children, the one who was destined to kill him. So, he commissioned several demons to come after him in various ways, but in each case, Krishna was able to kill the demon with his divine power. He now began his childhood among the cowherds and milkmaids who were living in the area surrounding his new home.  

We still have a long way to go, but, before continuing, why don't you go back to the list of supposed resemblances between Christ and Krishna with which we began, and see how well that comparison stands up, once you look at the details.  Remember, the conclusion we were supposed to reach was that they were indeed one and the same person.  Are we getting there?

Some Early Reflections

Okay, let's take a break from the narrative and assess where we are so far with regard to the supposed identity of Krishna and Jesus. As you recall, I googled "Christ and Krishna" and went with the first website listed, which unsurprisingly made the claim that there are enough similarities between the two figures to "prod" the curious mind "into the proposition that they were indeed one and the same person." "Analyze this!"challenges Mr. Subhamoy Das on About.com/Hinduism/Christ-Krishna . After Mr. Das points to what he considers to be an amazing resemblance in names (Krishna/Christ), he lists 10 points of alleged similarity.

    1. Both are believed to be sons of God, since they were divinely conceived.
    2. The birth of both Jesus of Nazareth and Krishna of Dwarka and their God-designed missions were foretold.
    3. Both were born at unusual places: Christ in a lowly manger and Krishna in a prison cell.
    4. Both were divinely saved from death pronouncements.
    5. Evil forces pursued both Christ and Krishna in vain.
    6. Christ is often depicted as a shepherd; Krishna was a cowherd.
    7. Both appeared at a critical time when their respective countries were in a torpid state.
    8. Both died of wounds caused by sharp weapons: Christ by nails and Krishna by an arrow.
    9. The teachings of both are very similar: both emphasize love and peace.
    10. Krishna was often shown as having a dark blue complexion: a color close to that of Christ Consciousness.

I already addressed the fact that, with regard to number 10, the idea of Christ Consciousness, let alone its color, is something with which I am not familiar. I've also shown that there is no similarity in the two names other than an accidental one, and I've mentioned that, in the large, cosmic aspects of their respective religions, Jesus and Krishna play different roles. Now, after having acquainted ourselves with some of the early parts of the Krishna myth, we can address a few other alleged similarities.

We should keep several important points in mind. For one thing, remember the basic axiom that I keep having to bring up in many different contexts: All things are identical to each other as long as we ignore their differences. In other words, if we claim that what appear to be two persons are actually "one and the same person," we can allow for the fact that different people may see the person from different perspectives, but their identity is not possible if their characteristics turn out to be mutually exclusive once we look at the details. My cat, Poly, and I both are living organisms, we both have two eyes and a mouth; we even live at the same address. So, presumably if we were to leave it at that, we would be one and the same mammal. But I'm pretty sure that if we look at further details, the resemblance vanishes. Similarly, we can't leave any case for the identity of Krishna and Christ, let alone of Krishna-focused Vaishnavism and Christianity, with vague generalities.

Baby BuddhaThe other important point to keep in mind is that miraculous birth narratives are hardly limited to Krishna and Jesus.

The fact of the matter is that many of the founders of world religions have stories of miraculous or unusual births. So, unless we want to assimilate them all into one person (and there are some people who do!) the details had better be highly similar. And, of course, we cannot simply change the stories in order to make them be closer to each other than they are. We're not looking concepts and doctrines for the moment, but simply the content of the respective narratives.

1. Let us proceed, then, to the first point on the list. "Both are believed to be the sons of God since they were divinely conceived." How do we analyze this?

Baby Krishna2. The second point is that the missions of both Jesus and Krishna were foretold. This feature occurs in virtually all religions, and there's not much point in pursuing it to establish identity. The founder is usually portrayed as having been prophesied, and more often than not, there's a prophecy of someone similar coming in the future.

3. Point three refers to the fact that both Krishna and Christ were born in unusual places, Jesus in a lowly manger and Krishna in the prison attached to Kamsa's palace. This is a good instance of how one can make things sound similar by being sufficiently vague, but as soon as one becomes more specific, one wonders what all the excitement should be about. You have to be born somewhere. The Buddha's birth place in the flowering grove at Lumbini was unusual as well, not to mention that he died in the same place. And let's not forget about Moses' birth in hiding, to be followed up by a short boat ride on the Nile.

4. The fourth point: Both were divinely saved from death pronouncements. I assume that Mr. Das is referring to both Kamsa and King Herod killing numerous innocent children because they did not know which baby was the one they needed to fear. And in each case the infant in question survived the danger. That's definitely a point of resemblance; one possible parallel might be the high priest Jehoiada hiding the infant Joash from the genocide of Athaliah (2 Kings 11). Regardless, whatever similarity there may be once again vanishes in the details.

  • King Herod had the infants in Bethlehem slaughtered (presumably by soldiers with swords), whereas Kamsa sent a fiendish woman with poisonous breasts around his kingdom.
  • Even though his adoptive parents had moved (a fact that I did not mention earlier), relocating did not save Krishna from encountering the menace. He saved himself from this danger, as well as the subsequent ones, by his divine power. Baby Jesus was saved because the magi did not return to Herod, and an angel told Joseph to move his family to Egypt.
  • Joseph, Mary and Jesus did not return home until Herod was dead. Kamsa remained alive, awaiting the inevitable encounter with Krishna.

In the next section we'll go on with the story of Krishna. But before we get back to the narrative, let me interject one more important observation. A good reason why such alleged superficial resemblances, such as the ones Mr. Das puts forward, appear convincing to any number of people may be that such generalities are the extent of the knowledge of their religion, whether we are referring to nominal Christians or devotees of Krishna. And, a forteriori, their knowledge of the other religion is undoubtedly even slimmer. No wonder, then, that they can be so easily be misled by such superficial reasoning.

As I said earlier, I'm assuming that the majority of my readership pretty much consists of people who are familiar with the gospel accounts of Jesus, and they are best served with some data about Krishna to reinforce the difference. But I know that this assumption is not very safe. Christians are often less knowledgeable in the Scriptures or the basics of their faith than some of us are probably thinking. Here's the problem: If all of us assume that everyone sitting in church is being taught the basics by someone other than us, a lot of church people are going to go untaught. Whether you are in a formal teaching position, such as pastor, Sunday School teacher, college instructors, etc. or an informal one, viz. someone who has conversations with people about important topics, don't be afraid of stressing the basics. You might be surprised for whom the basics are new information. I might also mention that at the time at which I am editing the collection of blog entries (October 2012), I have begun a blog series of an in-depth look at the gospel of Luke, which you can consult for greater details about the life of Christ, as the study moves along.

Adolescent Years

3D KrishnaWe know very little about Jesus from the time of his birth until around age thirty, when he began his public ministry. We do know that the various claims that during this time he visited India, lived with the Essenes at Qumran, worked at McDavid's in Tel Aviv, or whatever, have no credibility. Joseph, his legal father, was a carpenter, and so was he (Matthew 16:35, Mark 6:3). From all that we know, Jesus lived in Nazareth most of that time (he may have moved to Capernaum), learning and plying his trade.

We have one glimpse of Jesus as a twelve-year old, carrying out pilpul with the Pharisees at the temple and astounding everyone with his acumen. He referred to the temple as his father's house. As strange as it is to say this, Jesus was a very religious adolescent.

But it's no longer a strange observation when we contrast Jesus and Krishna at that time of life. Krishna, along with his older brother Balarama, grew up in the company of cowherds and milkmaids, the celebrated gopis. Well, that's stretching the meaning of "growing up" a bit. It would seem that he set records for immature behavior. From an early age on the gopis loved little Krishna, and he paid them back by playing tricks on them. He would steal their milk and butter and enjoy himself immensely. When questioned, he would accuse other people. Even as a child he already played with the gopis in unseemly ways. For example, at one time, while the young women were bathing in the river, he took all of their clothes. He would only return them on the condition that they came to him naked out of the water, which they wound up doing eventually. Still, they enjoyed the tingle of playing along with him. Krishna also destroyed the occasional demon, so his existence was not entirely devoted to pleasure.

Krishna with DeerWith all of that notoriety, his Uncle Kamsa, the evil king, decided it was time to put an end to Krishna once and for all. He sent an invitation to Krishna and Balarama to come back to his town for a sports festival. They agreed, much against the advice of both the messenger and the gopis, who accompanied them tearfully, fearing that they were walking into a trap. Needless to say, they were. Kamsa set up a wrestling match for the boys with two men who were supposed to cheat and kill the boys, and, if they were unsuccessful, then an elephant was supposed to smash them.

Balarama and Krishna walked to their destination. Along the way, Krishna dispensed of a demon who, in the form of a horse, tried to destroy him. As the two avatars grew near to the city, they became aware of the bad shape their clothes were in. Luckily, they happened across the man whose duty it was to launder Kamsa's clothes, carrying out his job by the river. They asked him if they could borrow two of the outfits. The laundry man declined, so Krishna killed him, picked out clothes suitable to their taste, and the two boys walked into Kamsa's town wearing Kamsa's own clothes.

When it came time for the wrestling match, the two crooked wrestlers had no chance against the two avatars; neither did the elephant, and, while they were busy doling out death, Krishna finally fulfilled the prophecy and executed Kamsa, the mission for which he had actually come to the world.

Krishna and Balarama did not return to Nanda and Yasoda, but to their birth parents, Vasudeva and Devaki.

Love and Marriage

Despite the many unfounded conjectures that make for best-selling novels and put dubious documents in the lime light, there is no good reason to believe that Jesus was ever married, not even to Mary Magdalene. Furthermore, if he had been, there is no good reason to believe that this information would have been withheld. The pagan-inspired emphasis on celibacy and asceticism, which rather speedily attached itself to the Christian church, was not a part of Jesus' world in 1st-century Judaism.

Neither, as I have hinted at previously, would "asceticism" be exactly the mot juste to describe the life of Krishna. In contrast to Jesus not having any wife, Krishna had 1,6008 of them, not that this amount sufficed for his needs or abilities. Eight of these wives were his "main" ones. Just as Rama's wife Sita was an incarnation of Vishnu's shakti (consort), Lakshmi, two of Krishna's wives fit into that category as well. They were simultaneous avatars of Lakshmi. Sorry; that's confusing again. Let me explain.

Bhudevi, Vishnu, Sridevi

None of the gods or goddesses of Hinduism are ever confined to just one form. Frequently they not only have many different names, but also different personalities and appearances. For example, in the formation on the left, Vishnu is often called Venkateshvara, the "Lord of this Age." In that depiction he is flanked by two forms of Lakshmi. On his left is Sridevi, the beautiful goddess, by far the more common representation of Lakshmi. On Vishnu's right is Bhudevi, the earth goddess, whom we met earlier as the deity who petitioned Vishnu to incarnate himself to rid the world of Kamsa. Now we get to know her as another deity form of Lakshmi as well.

[By "deity-form" I mean the form that a god may take on while remaining a god, as opposed to an "avatar-form" when the god appears as a human being or animal. Ditto for goddesses.]

Enter the gopis, the milk maids. During the time of Rama they had been enamored with this previous avatar, but Rama had to remain faithful to Sita, or the whole story of the Ramayana would have been spoiled. However, it was promised to them that they could indulge themselves to their uttermost in a future incarnation with another avatar, and so now they did. Not that Krishna minded.

Krishna DancingThe 16,000 additional wives to which I referred earlier were not necessarily all gopis, or milkmaids. Depending on the version of the story, they had been stolen and imprisoned by either one or several asuras (demons), whom Krishna subsequently conquered. So now, the young, beautiful women were free, but freedom meant little to them.

If I may go back to Rama and Sita once more, after Rama had liberated his wife Sita from the evil demon king Ravana, there was a big question mark looming as to whether their marriage could continue, because, if Ravana had taken advantage of Sita, she would now be defiled, and Rama could not be married to an impure wife. Sita demonstrated her purity by willingly letting herself be engulfed in a large bonfire and, after a few moments, coming back out totally unscathed.

However, there were not going to be 16,000 fires testing the purity of 16,000 maidens. For that matter, there was a good chance that at least some of them may have been raped. So, free or not, none of these women were going to have decent lives because they would not be able to marry, due to the possibility of defilement hanging over them. However, this situation presented no obstacle for Krishna. He married all of them. At once. All 16,000 of them. In one night. Again, there are variation on the story, but the most beautiful one also makes for beautiful pictorial representations. It symbolizes Krishna's union with each of these women as a dance, for which he multiplied himself 16,000 times so that he would be there as dancing partner with each of them simultaneously. In the picture, which is only a small excerpt of a much larger mural, each blue-colored figure represents Krishna.

RhadakrishnaNeedless to say, Radha was incredibly jealous of all of these women, gopis, goddesses, and other objects of Krishna's affection. However, Krishna assured her that no love could possibly exceed the love that he had for her.

--Excuse me, but who is this Radha? Is she another wife that you forgot to mention earlier?

--- Oh, sorry. I hadn't explained about her yet. Actually, Radha was not married to Krishna. She had another man as a husband, just as Krishna had many wives. However, theirs was supposed to have been a really true and pure form of love. If one takes a symbolic, "transcendental," approach to this phase of the myth, one is supposed to see that the love between Radha and Krishna represents the unlimited love that the god has for a human person, a love that overcomes all obstacles and boundaries, whether physical or social. In no way is the relationship between Radha and Krishna supposed to be emulated by human beings. Just because a god can do something, doesn't mean that it's okay for a human being to do it. Of course, this explanation is not an interpretation that is directly attached to the myth, but it is the customary Hindu understanding. Krishna's actions, no matter how immoral they may seem to us, occur on a transcendental plane, which illustrate divine attributes as acts of passion that are not appropriate for human beings.

Nevertheless, I find these explanations to be ad hoc rationalizations for some unacceptable aspects of the myth. How does a god lead us to proper behavior if he is not only exempt from the standards, but violates them in the crassest of ways? I can't help but protest that Krishna's affair with Radha was adultery, and, therefore, wrong. Certain elements in Krishna's life, whether it be wanton killing and theft or sexual exploits, contradict some of our most basic instincts of morality. It's all very well to say that Krishna was not under obligation to live by the same laws as we do, and that we should exalt him as "transcendental." Or, perhaps, we could just relegate him to the category of yet one more deity who is, after all only human. (That's a slight adaptation of a statement made by Aristotle at one time in a satirical commentary on the Greek gods.) To be honest, aside from all of the other reasons that I'm bringing up in this essay against identifying Krishna with Jesus, I am strongly bothered by the notion that this antinomian avatar was the same person as the righteous Son of God. And I'm puzzled that so many people who are not chained to a parochial mentality, not only rationalize his actions as recounted in the stories, but worship him and even look to him for moral and religious guidance.

We'll leave it there for the moment. On the web site that we've been using as our foil, Mr Das tells us that both Jesus and Krishna taught peace and love. That'll be our topic in the next section.

Love and Peace

There may be some surprises in store for you as I continue the story of Krishna and clarify the difference between him and Jesus Christ. If you only have a superficial knowledge of Krishna, based on unverified assumptions, this particular section may do away with some of the stereotypes people bandy about. I think that part of the reason that people have come to think of Krishna in this particular way is because the time of greatest popularity of the Krishna movement in the United States was during the early 1970, when "peace and love" were abused as the slogans for anything and everything outside of the "establishment." Krishna-devotion definitely did not typify life in suburbia, so it's only natural that many people assumed that Krishna must have been another advocate of these ill-defined notions of "peace" and "love." So, on the website that I picked just because it was the first to pop up in my google search, About.com/Hinduism/Christ-Krishna, Mr. Subhamoy Das tells us:

    The teachings of both are very similar: both emphasize love and peace.

There certainly is no question that such was the teaching of Jesus. Not only did he teach love and peace, he brought the two virtues together when he said that we should love our enemies. And I'm quite sure that he did not mean to imply that we love our enemies by teaching them a lesson and killing them. Thus, when Peter was actually using his sword in order to defend Jesus at Gethsemane and got as far as cutting off the ear of the high priest's servant (I don't think Peter had much practice in swordsmanship), Jesus reprimanded Peter:

    Put your sword back in its place because all who take up a sword will perish by a sword. Or do you think that I cannot call on My Father, and He will provide Me at once with more than 12 legions of angels? Matthew 26:51-53 (HCSB)

Preaching the   GospelMore substantially, he taught in the sermon on the mount:

    You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don't even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don't even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Mt. 5:43-48 (HCSB)

And again,

    But I say to you who listen: Love your enemies, do what is good to those who hate you. Luke 6:27 (HCSB)

Of course, we shouldn't just love our enemies. Christians should love each other as well with a love founded in Christ's love for them.

    I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.  John 13:34-35 (HCSB)

Christ's teaching on love, actually had its roots in the Old Testament: 

    Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands. Mt 22:37-40 (HCSB)  See Deuteronomy 6:5,  Leviticus 18:19.

We could go on. Let's remind ourselves that the point here is not how people have interpreted and applied these verses over time, or how they should do so. And please, it's certainly not about how people have ignored them. Regardless of how much or how little people who call themselves "Christians" have implemented Christ's teachings, there can be no question that he himself consistently taught taught love and peace.

Krishna in   ChariotSo, we turn to Krishna and ask whether he, too, taught love and peace. And my answer is: I wouldn't know where he supposedly did so. Let us look to the central book devoted to Krishna's teaching, the Bhagavad Gita. There are as many variations in the interpretation of the Gita as there are subgroups of Hinduism, but for our purposes here they make little difference because all we need to do is follow the basic content of the plot.

Now, it's hard to believe that Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita is the same Krishna as the one of the Srimat Bhagavatan, one of the puranas  or "ancient tales," that tells the stories of Krishna as we have recounted it heretofore.  There is no trace of the lusty cowherd amusing himself with the gopis in the Gita. He is a serious warrior, the leader of an army (see below), a god of great wisdom. Here he is exalted and magnificent, teaching about the nature of the world, demonstrating his very deity form in all its awe-inspiring glory, and authoritatively disclosing the way of redemption, viz. moksha, the means of escaping from samsara, the cycle of reincarnations. One could be tempted to draw a sharp line of division between the two and maybe even think in terms of two distinct personae, Krishna, the demon slayer and lover of the gopis, and Krishna, the teacher of the Bhagavad Gita.

But such a distinction is not possible for us. For one thing, in the dialog between Krishna and Arjuna that constitutes the content of the Gita, Arjuna uses epithets of Krishna that connect him to his other side. Most importantly, Arjuna calls him "Govinda," Govinda, a somewhat engimatic term in its Sanskrit etymology. Gopas gopasare "cowherds," and gopis gopis are "cowgirls," better known as "milk maids," Krishna's close and enthusiastic girlfriends. So, it appears that Govinda is;composed of go gorefering to "cows" in some way and vinda, vindawhich seems to be based on the root vidvid "to see", or "to find." Thus, literally, the term could mean "Finder of the Cows," or maybe someone who "oversees the cows," but it is usually translated as "Chief Cowherd." Nevertheless, he's nothing like a cowherd in the Bhagavad Gita, so this name appears to be a reflection of the mythology of Krishna among the cowherds and milkmaids, which was developing at the same time.

Then, some of the other epithets of Krishna that are mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita allude to other events in his life that are not a part of the Gita's story. For example, Arjuna calls him Keshinisudhana , slayer of the demon named Keshi , an event that came up within the parallel mythology.

RadhakrishnaFinally, and perhaps most importantly, regardless of how we might decide to reclassify the aspects of Krishna, it remains a fact that devotees of Krishna do not make a distinction between Krishna of the mythology and Krishna of the Bhagavad Gita.  In most of his statues, what you will see is Radhakrishna, Krishna and his girl friend Radha, and in his hands he will hold his flute, murli.  Instead of divorcing the two depictions from each other, they bring them together, usually with the explanation that the prankish, lying, and adulterous side of Krishna needs to viewed as expressing transcendental truths about him as god.

So, let us turn to the Bhagavad Gita and follow its conversation for a little while.  

The Baghavad Gita is a part of a truly massive epic, the Mahabharata, and it would be impossible to summarize it all here. So, please let me just set the stage so that the ensuing conversation will make some sense. The Gita opens with two armies arrayed against each other, ready to begin battle. As a literary device, the narrative is the report on the battle narrated by a supernatural seer, Sanjaya, to the blind king Dhritarashtra. The principal opponents are two sets of brothers, the one hundred Kauravas, who are sons of the king, and the five Pandavas, led by the unsurpassed archer Arjuna. The Pandavas and Kauravas were cousins. The reader's sympathies on the whole are going to be with the Pandavas, who have been defrauded by the Kauravas numerous times, though not always without some fault of their own. Krishna is definitely on their side. However, he has taken a vow not to fight directly, so he works as Arjuna's chariot driver, a role at which he excels. He is also Arjuna's confidante and strategic advisor.

PandavasArjuna has Krishna move the chariot just a little bit ahead of the impending battle line. He blows his battle horn, and so does Krishna. The enemies answer. We are just moments away from the charge of the two armies against each other, the clash of weapons against armor and against weapons, the shouts, the commands, the battle cries, the jubilation over the first kills, the moans of the first victims, the helpless, mindless gyrations of the maimed on the ground, the screams of desperation, the growing piles of carcasses of both men and horses, the smell of flesh and blood . . ."I can't do this," says Arjuna.

Let me summarize and paraphrase his speech a little bit more. "This is insanity," Arjuna continues, addressing Krishna. "What are we fighting for? A kingdom? Justice? To right certain wrongs? Are they worth killing for? Look at all these people, Krishna! They are not only mere human beings, but they are my relatives. How can I possibly set out to take all of these lives? Actions have consequences (karma), and what could be worse than engaging in the slaughter of thousands of people, many of whom are of your own blood? And I'm not just talking about consequences to myself, Krishna. What we are about to do here is such a great sin that it's going to have repercussions on all of humanity and the entire planet. I'm torn up over this, but the more I look at these, my enemies, the more I cannot possibly bring myself to engage in battle with them. Sure, we can say that they deserve it. However, compared to the cosmic consequences that we are about to bring down on ourselves and everyone else, these matters vanish in comparison. I'm sorry, but I don't know what else to do. I cannot fight, Krishna." This is a paraphrase of part of book 1 of the Bhagavad Gita.

Now here is the essence of Krishna's response: "Arjuna, you're a coward and a disgrace!"

Let me get more specific here. In chapter 2, verses 2 and 3 Krishna gives his first answer, and, just to make sure that you don't think I'm choosing some off-the-wall translation to make my point, I shall give it to you in two different translations, the ones by Sargeant and Prabhupada (see my comments on translations at the end). Krishna had no sympathy with Arjuna's concerns.

Sargeant Translation

The Blessed Lord spoke:
Whence this timidity of yours
Come to you in time of danger?
It is not acceptable in you,
     does not lead to heaven,
And causes disgrace, Arjuna.

Do not become a coward, Arjuna.
This is not suitable to you.
Abandoning base faintheartedness,
Stand up, Arjuna!

Prabhupada Translation

The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: My dear Arjuna, how have these impurities come upon you? They are not at all befitting a man who knows the value of life. They lead not to higher planets but to infamy.

Oh son of Pritha, do not yield to such degrading impotence. It does not become you. Give up such petty weakness of heart and arise, O chastiser of the enemies.

Just in case you're wondering, neither translation is entirely literal. "Supreme Personality of Godhead" is a little bit of an expansion on Sribhagavan, which Sargeant translates with less extravagance as "Blessed Lord." On the other hand, in his flowing translation Sargeant usually dispenses with epithets. In the last two places where he just has "Arjuna," Prabhupada gives us the more literal "son of Pritha" and "chastiser of the enemies." Both translators tap dance around Krishna's phrase, "It is not acceptable in you," (Sargeant) and "they are not at all befitting a man who knows the value of life," (Prabhupada). The literal term is something along the line of "This is inappropriate for an Aryan," (anaryajustam anaryajustam"). Even without attaching any ethnic connotations (which is not easy to do), it would at least have meant, "This is not appropriate for a member of the nobility," or maybe "someone of noble disposition."

Krishna does not simply leave it with vituperating Arjuna. He immediately follows up his first comments with a lesson on how all bodies must perish anyway and one's eternal soul can never die, so why make a big deal about killing someone's body? We learn that Arjuna must learn to fight only out of duty, not for the "fruit" of his actions. In other words, he must take on a detached attitude and fight with neither sorrow nor pleasure. To be a warrior is a duty (a karmic action) based on his caste, and Krishna tells him that he personally devised the system of four castes.  (B.G. 4:13--a claim at variance with Rig Veda Book 10, 90) Thus, Arjuna's fighting will be an act of devotion to Krishna, in fact, it is the highest such act that is possible for a member of the Kshatriya caste. So, peace is not really on Krishan's agenda.

The idea that Arjuna should not act for the sake of bettering the fruit of his karma, but only for the sake of his karmic duty, can easily lead to misunderstanding or distortion. Arjuna is supposed to fight with detachment and not worry about what his actions will due to his karma. So, one can conceivably say that, therefore, Krishna instructs Arjuna to act self-lessly, and then equate such "self-less" actions with what we might call "altruistic" actions, viz. actions done entirely for the benefit of other people. But such an interpretation would miss the point entirely. After all, what Arjuna is commanded to do is to kill lots of people without caring about them any more than he is supposed to care about himself. This "selflessness" implies to divorce yourself from the notion of doing anyone any good. The whole point is to separate what one does from considerations of their intrinsic morality or their consequences. The only thing that counts is to fulfill one's caste obligations and devote oneself to Krishna in the process.

In one sense, of course, love is a very important part of Krishna's life. But what we see in the mythology is kama kaama, which is physical and sensual love or desire, which, according to the Bhagavad Gita, would hold someone back from moksha. Self-giving love between people (agape in Christian terms) is not at all a theme of the Bhagavad Gita. The one way in which love plays an important role in the Gita is the love that Krishna gives to his devotees and that the devotee will return to him, as exemplified by his relationship with Radha.

Well, the temptation is for me to continue now to go through the Gita and summarize most of what Krishna is saying. But I need to resist. Some of it gets quite technical, and I address some of it in some of my (so-far) unpublished papers on Hindu metaphysics. I think I have established the point that, when it comes to teaching peace and love, I'm familiar with it from Jesus, but I'm not aware of it in any meaningful way in Krishna's teachings. Now, two things on that point: If Krishna did not want to teach peace or love but a message of detachment, that would be his choice. I can't fault him for what he intended to teach (though I can assess its truth), but if "peace and love" were not a part of his agenda, I shouldn't say that they were. Second, if Krishna did teach on those themes, and I missed out on some important passages, please let me know. Just please desist from calling me ignorant without telling me where I can learn about what is correct.

Their Deaths

Let's think about the deaths of Jesus and Krishna respectively. The website under our consideration, About.com/Hinduism/Christ-Krishna, written by Mr. Subhamoy Das, says:

    Both died of wounds caused by sharp weapons: Christ by nails and Krishna by an arrow.
I have also seen an additional apparent similarity adduced: both of their deaths involved trees; it takes "Stretchman" of Saturday morning cartoon fame to make that last idea work. But even without that last addition, the idea that what unites them is that they both died by sharp weapons would be utterly insipid if it weren't wrong.

Again, I'm assuming a basic knowledge of the story of Christ as recorded in the gospels. Let me give a quick summary, and, if anyone has any specific questions, please e-mail me. The point that I want to make is that Jesus' death had a significant purpose.  After spending several years teaching and working miracles, Jesus was captured by the authorities in the garden of Gethesame and tried before the council, the San Hedrin. Having been declared to be guilty of blasphemy, he was put on trial before the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate. Although Pilate could not find any crime of which to convict Jesus, he gave in to the mob that had gathered in the square, who wanted Pilate to pass the ultimate death sentence on him--crucifixion. The Roman soldiers mocked and tortured Jesus, and then they crucified him, flanked by two murderers. Later in the day, Roman soldiers discovered that Jesus had died earlier than expected from the crucifixion, and they certified his death by piercing his heart with a lance. But that's not what killed him, nor did the nails in his hands and feet. Death by crucifixion essentially is a form of asphyxiation.

Pontius Pilate gave permission to Joseph of Arimathea to place Jesus in the cave-like tomb that Joseph had initially purchased for his own later use, and Pilate himself put his seal on it. However, on the third day of his entombment (counting in the traditional Jewish manner), Jesus was resurrected from the dead. His tomb was found to be empty by some women who wanted to finish embalming his body, but were unsure how to get past the large (and sealed) boulder that served as closure for the tomb. When they got there, the tomb was empty--and there has yet to be a plausible explanation on normal historical grounds of how it got to be empty other than due to his supernatural resurrection. Jesus showed himself from time to time to his disciples over the next forty days and then ascended bodily into heaven. Jesus had predicted his death and resurrection (e.g., Mark 8:31), and that his death was necessary for us to be reconciled to God (John 14:6). So, Christianity has understood the death of Christ to be a positive thing because it constitutes an atonement for our sin. His resurrection and ascension assure us that we have a living Lord, who is available for us to forgive us our sins, make it possible for us to go to heaven, and to be our constant Friend.

Krishnapal's Baptismal Site

The death of Krishna, according to the mythology, was Kafkaesque. After the death of Kamsa and the events of the Mahabharata, Krishna spent further time on earth, killed a few more demons, enjoyed numerous affairs, shared some adventures with his brother, Balarama, and slowly got weary and cynical. He had fulfilled the mission for which he had become an avatar, and his life appeared to hold no further content. He seemed to have moved from the epitome of joie de vivre to being downright moribund. A part of the burden he was bearing was that he had come under a curse. We mentioned earlier that Krishna played an important role in the Mahabharata, guiding Arjuna and the Pandavas in their victory over the Kauravas. Gandhari, mother of the Kauravas, took the defeat of her one hundred sons personally and announced that Krishna's entire clan, the Yadavas ("the descendants of Yadu")would be annihilated.

Krishna now lived in the city of Dwaraka. In the nearby countryside there dwelled a holy man called Narada, who is sometimes considered to be a partial avatar. Some boys in Dwaraka decided to play a trick on Narada and dressed up Samba, one of Krishna's sons, as a pregnant girl. They took him to Narada to test his spiritual powers and asked the saint about the supposedly coming child. He was annoyed at this importunity and declared: "It will be an iron rod, and it will serve as cause for the annihilation of your race."

The boys thought that this was really hilarious as they went home. However, it stopped being funny when Samba actually manifested symptoms of impending motherhood. When the time came, he gave birth (don't ask me how) to an iron rod, just as Nanda had predicted. Ugrasena, who was again on the throne of Matura, ordered that the rod should be ground to powder. His workmen complied, but there was one piece at the end of the rod that resisted being pulverized. They had to give up and, on Ugrasena's order, the powder and the left-over inch or so of the rod were dumped into the sea.

The problem with supernatural iron rods is that you can't get rid of their supernatural nature just by grinding them up. So, all the powder washed ashore and grew into rushes. But, of course, these were not your ordinary rushes; they were your iron-fortified weapons-grade rushes, as we shall see shortly. As to the indestructible piece, it was swallowed by a fish, which was caught by a fisherman, who sold it to a hunter named Jala, who was able to turn it into an arrowhead.

Right about then Krishna received a message from the gods that the time had come for all of the Yadavas to be eradicated. Krishna was not willing to accept that verdict without attempting to avoid it. He counseled all of the people of Dwaraka, which was populated by his clan, to leave the city and emigrate to the nearby Prabhasa. Somehow Krishna thought that evacuating the city could avert the disaster. The Dwarakites thought that such a journey would be a fun thing to undertake, and, as they were walking along the seashore, they stopped to hold a "Walking-to-Prabhasa" party. So, the liquor flowed, and the times were hot, and everyone was having a great time until somebody said something that irritated someone else, which really ticked off a third person, and, as these things go, pretty soon the scene became a free-for-all exhibition of modified mixed martial arts. Then somebody picked up one of the iron-fortified rushes and discovered that it made a good weapon, and pretty soon everyone followed his example, and a lot of blood began to flow. Krishna and Balarama were horrified and attempted to intervene, but the people would not listen to them. The descendants of Yadu just kept on massacring each other, until none was left standing. Ghandari's curse and Narada's prophecy were almost fulfilled; all but two Yadavas, namely Krishna and Balarama, were dead.

After this agonizing event, Krishna and Balarama sat by a river in the forest, contemplating their sorrow. All of a sudden, as Balarama opened his mouth, the white serpent, Shesha, emerged. It slid out between his lips, slithered onto the ground, and slipped away into the forest. Since Shesha had been Balarama's life force, her departure meant that he had died. More grief for Krishna.

But Krishna would not have to suffer long. The hunter Jala, who had made an arrowhead out of the indestructible piece of iron, was not having a good day finding game animals. He saw Krishna, who may have been partially obscured by a tree, and thought he was a deer. Jala let loose the special arrow, and it killed Krishna, thereby ending the eighth incarnation of Vishnu.

So, at the end of Krishna's life we find him killed accidentally by a hunter's arrow, which was initially the result of a stupid prank played by one of his sons, but not before he saw all of his people slaughter themselves before his eyes. Remember that it was to save these people from Kamsa that Krishna had become an avatar to begin with. It was a death with no meaning, and one can't help but ask how much meaning had remained to his life and his mission by that point.

The Sources

I've received some inquiries concerning the date of the sources and their manuscript history. Reliable information is very hard to come by since ideologies and party-line interpretations are making the waters extremely murky. If you look at various web sites, you get some radically different opinions. One doesn't have to look too far to find Bengali or Tamil writers claim that the original versions of the scriptures stemmed from their cultures, and then were corrupted by the Brahmins who translated them into Sanskrit. Brahmins complain about the insidiousness of Western scholarship. One now-defunct web site claimed that the Gita as we have it now was patched together by the Brahmins in order to compete with the monotheism of Christianity and Islam. There's one part about that idea that I appreciate, namely that the author at least recognized the theistic nature (and I don't mean "theistic elements") of the Gita. However, having said that much, there's not much else of value to that verdict. Islam came way too late on the scene to be considered an influence on the Gita, and if the Gita was supposed to emulate Christian scriptures, the people doing so could not have read the Christian scripture. The differences are far too stark. For that matter, even though I do think "theistic" is an appropriate term for the overall world view of the Bhagavad Gita, it is beset by too many elements that frequently prevent people from recognizing the theism at its core to think that it could have constituted serious competition in making a case for monotheism. So, I don't buy the substitute-monotheism theory.

A surprisingly large number of people believe that the Gita in its final form must have been composed in the A.D. era because it appears to show Christian influence. As I have just implied and will amplify in the next section, I don't see that. At least not if by Christianity you mean the religion based on the New Testament.

Let me record what I have been able to figure out about the dating of the Gita and the Vishnu Purana, the two most important sources concerning Krishna.

Krishna and ArjunaThe Bhagavad Gita. Even among quite objective scholars, dates vary greatly.  E.g., the Wikipedia article puts its composition somewhre between 200 BC and AD 200, which leaves an enormous amount of latitude. As to any historical occurrence with which it may be connected, this is pure supposition. It would depend on whether there is a historical basis for the Mahabharata and, then, where one would place these events. Personally, it seems to me that the Mahabharata would have to be rewritten radically in order to locate a historically acceptable basis, and, since I don't believe in rewriting sources to suit my presumptions, I don't think that it's historical. If it were connected somehow to events during the Aryan immigration and settlement in India, it would have to have taken place between 2000 and 1000 BC. That time frame is much later than what is claimed by some Hindus, e.g. 3,500 BC, but I find those early dates unacceptable since there were no Aryans on the subcontinent yet. 

A popular Hindu response to that objection is to claim the earlier Indus Valley civilization, which flourished at that time, as their own, but this claim is unwarranted. Despite frequent assertions along that line, there is very little to connect the Harappan culture with later Aryan culture, and much to disconnect it. I love the understated way in which the Wikipedia article on Harappa  phrases it,

    The ascription of Indus Valley Civilization iconography and epigraphy to historically known cultures is extremely problematic, in part due to the rather tenuous archaeological evidence of such claims, as well as the projection of modern South Asian political concerns onto the archaeological record of the area. This is especially evident in the radically varying interpretations of Harappan material culture as seen from both Pakistan and India-based scholars.

Nicely put. The Harappa-Mohenjo-Daro culture has become a political and ideological football. Since we cannot decipher the writing, and the culture is clearly not connected to any other culture of the subcontinent, an easy claim goes like this: It is given that my culture, "A," is the primordial culture, if not of the world, then at least of India. Since the Indus Valley culture does not fit in with other cultures, such as B or C, by default it must have been an early version of A. And anyone who disagrees is obviously partisan against culture A.

In short, it is highly unlikely that the Mahabharata had historical roots beyond the fact that various factions of Aryan immigrant tribes fought with each other. Given the content and language, a  reasonable time frame for its initial formulation, as contrasted with the timing of the events, would be simultaneous with the earliest Upanishads (pre-500 BC). It includes much of the pantheon of later Hindu mythology, but without the later somewhat more standardized arrangements among the deities.

The Gita is most likely a late supplement (an addition or elaboration perhaps) to the Mahabharata, and it really stands out from it with its lengthy discourse that runs far deeper than the other content of the epic. It still does not accept the later levels of deities insofar as it declares Krishna to be the highest form of godhead (not an avatar of Vishnu as understood later). Its content revolves around the concepts of karma and samsara, though with the striking difference that Krishna declares himself to be the judge of karma. (16:19). It refers to the darshans (philosophical schools) of Samkhya and Yoga, but uses the technical terminology in different, somewhat simplified, ways. This is an important criterion for me because Samkhya may have been one of the earlier darshanas, again dating from the time of the Upanishads, but seems to have been eclipsed in importance rather thoroughly by subsequent schools, including Yoga and Buddhism. In short, what I see in the Bhagavad Gita would fit in well with its composition as early as 300 BC, but not really later than the BC era.

ShankaraThe first manuscripts of the Gita apparently date from the time when Shankara wrote a commentary on it. Shankara, the fountainhead of the robust Advaita Vedanta system, squeezes his point of view onto the Gita, as has been the custom for most Hindu philosophers. It clearly does not fit, but, what is more important, in the process he appears to be arguing against the proponents of other interpretations, which would lead us to assume that other manuscripts were around previously. Shankara's dates may have been AD 788-820, though there are still a lot of questions about them. To the best of my knowledge that's about as much as we can do with textual origins. There are several truly minor variants in the manuscripts that we have, but nothing that would be highly consequential. As I said, to the best of my present knowledge. . .

The Vishnu Purana's final date of composition cannot be any earlier than the fourth century AD because it makes reference to political rulers around that time. Its nature is such that it would seem very odd to me if much of its content would not go back centuries prior to that date, but that's speculation on my part. As far as I know, actual manuscripts are no earlier than the late middle ages.

One thing that I need to point out is that Hinduism as a religion had a period when it was seriously overshadowed by Buddhism and, to a certain extent, by Jainism (the latter probably more as a phenomenon than in numbers of adherents). Allowing for a period of growth after the Buddha in the sixth century BC, Buddhism's glory days in India begun around 400 BC, culminating around 250 BC when King Ashoka declared Buddhism to be the national religion of India (though allowing freedom of religion), and slowly declining from then on. During this time there was much activity on the part of Hindu philosophers, but the religious side appears to have been relatively static. The Gita foreshadowed the coming Bhakti revolution, which would not become real until about a thousand years later. The Upanishads held the material that would eventually blossom under Shankara, Ramanuja, and Madhva, but during the time of their writing, Hinduism was not yet as creative in its religious imagination as it would become in later times.

That's all I can contribute to the discussion at the moment. Corrections, amplifications, and further study by your always-wanting-to-learn-more bloggist would be good. Anyone with better knowledge of the textual history of Hindu manuscripts, please set me and interested readers on a good course of study.

Theological Differences

Arjuna

Before we're done, we need to do a little more theology. I need to take us back to what I called at the beginning the "cosmic view" of Krishna and Christ. Specifically, I mentioned that you can't equate "salvation" as the term is used in Christianity, with its meaning in Hinduism. In fact, the Bhagavad Gita is one of the clearest books when it comes to understanding the nature of the human predicament according to Hinduism. Krishna, of course, is offering to take us out of that problematic situation. I would think that a good number of my readers have seen or heard from me at least a part of what follows in various writings and presentations. If so, please bear with me; I may just add another wrinkle somewhere along the line. And also, please indulge my supplying of Sanskrit terms. I'm doing so to make sure exactly what terms are involved. As I've stated before, it's all-too-easy to make a point by engaging in "synonymbolism," viz. if you're trying to equate two words, but they don't fit, you keep looking for synonyms until you've found ones that work, and you show yourself amazed at your "discovery."

Let us remember the basic setting of the Gita: the warrior Arjuna is concerned with the bad karma() he will bring about if he kills so many people, including relatives, in the battle that is about to ensue. Krishna, after getting Arjuna's attention by telling him that he is a coward and a disgrace, counsels him that it is his karmic duty to fight. Arjuna is obligated to do his caste duty, viz. to do battle and kill his enemies, and he will be fine as long as he does so simply because that is his karma as Kshatriya. He should not pursue the fruit of karma (karmaphalani--) or any other results, and he will not be committing any sin (). He should do his job simply as an act of devotion to Krishna.   In fact, anyone who devotes himself entirely to Krishna will experience release (moksha--).The problem, as we said in the earlier entry, is that of samsara () the seemingly unending cycle of reincarnations. As a lady told us at an ISKCON center:

    You had better do something now about your spiritual condition because you may not have another chance for a long time. In your next life you may be reborn as a cockroach.

Krishna teaching   Arjuna

We all know, I imagine, that in Hinduism, if we have bad karma, we may be reborn as something lower than a human being, possibly even an evil spirit. Krishna says:

    Those cruel haters, the worst of men, I constantly hurl into the womb of demons in the cycles of rebirth. (BG 16:19 Sargeant translation throughout)

However, people who are following the dharma () and are doing good works are not exempt from rebirths. They may be rewarded for being good, even to the point that they may spend some time in heaven. Still, after a while, they need to re-enter samsara. Heaven is a vacation, so to speak, but only a temporary reprieve.

    Those who know the three Vedas [1], the soma drinkers, those whose evils are cleansed, worship me with sacrifices and seek to go to heaven. They, attaining the pure world of the Lord of the gods, enjoy in heaven the gods' celestial pleasures. Having enjoyed the vast world of heaven, they enter the world of mortals when their merit is exhausted. Thus conforming to the law of the three Vedas, desiring enjoyments, they obtain the state of going and returning. (BG 9:20-21)

So, it would appear that the smart course to pursue is to do nothing. Alas, that doesn't work either. By not doing anything, you are still accumulating karmic duties, and so indolence does not help either.

    Not by abstention from actions does a man attain the state beyond karma. (BG 3:4a )
Are we stuck then? If we are bad, we get recycled; if we're good, we get recycled with an occasional break; if we do nothing we get recycled. But that's where Krishna's help comes into play. He offers to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves--but not without our cooperation. Let me be totally up front here. I'm going to cite some verses from the Gita that could seem to be teaching salvation by grace and even a doctrine of justification. But, as you will see, this is only the case if you use your eyes selectively on the text.

Arjuna was worried about the bad karmic effects of killing his relatives in battle. We already mentioned that Krishna scolded him and insisted that he must carry out his caste duty. But he should do so simply out of duty and as an offering to Krishna without any concern of what it will do to him.  He must ignore the fruit of his actions.

    Your right is to action alone; never to its fruits at any time. Never should the fruits of actions be your motive; never let there be attachment to inaction in you. Fixed in yoga, perform actions having abandoned attachment, Arjuna, and having become indifferent to success or failure. It is said that evenness of mind is yoga (BG 2:47)

Now, Krishna's aid is available to anyone.

    If even the evildoer worships me with undivided devotion, he is to be thought of as righteous, for he has indeed rightly resolved. Quickly he becomes virtuous and goes to everlasting peace. Arjuna, know for certain that no devotee of Mine is ever lost. They who take refuge in Me, Arjuna, even if they are born of those whose wombs are evil (i.e. those of low origin), women, Vaishyas, even Shudras, also go to the highest goal (BG 9:30-32).

Not only does that sound like salvation by grace, look at that phrase, "he is to be thought of as righteous." That almost appears to be the equivalent of the Protestant doctrine that justification occurs when God declares us to be righteous. And so, the translators, indeed, usually make use of the word "grace" when they talk about Krishna's promise.

    Fixing your mind on Me, you shall pass over all difficulties, through My grace; but if, through egoism, you will not listen,then you shall perish. (BG 18:58)

    Fly unto Him alone for refuge with your whole being, Arjuna. From His grace, you shall attain supreme peace and the eternal abode. (BG 18:62)

But is this really "grace," according to the way in which we understand the term in Christianity? Is there conceivably an allusion to the biblical doctrine of justification? I'm always amazed when people think they see Christian doctrines in other religions that the overwhelming number of Christians aren't even aware of. How many Christians, and I'm including true born-again believers here, could formulate the doctrine of justification as a declaration by God by which he imputes the righteousness of Christ to us? Let's just skip the idea of Luther's doctrine of justification being echoed in the Bhagavad Gita. It would be totally out of place even if it were there. But what about the idea of grace? Couldn't we discern here the concept that it is purely by his grace that Krishna takes people off the wheel of reincarnation. Sorry, but that's not there either. Grace in the Christian sense excludes human works contributing to their salvation [2], and, although you may use the word "grace" (reluctantly) in translating the Gita, it's hardly similar to what Christianity teaches us. The word that's being used here is prasada (), which can mean a lot of things, such as "mercy" or "favor," but "grace" is actually a reach. And please note that the inclusiveness displayed above means that even the people on the lowest rungs are eligible to be become Krishna's devotees and become righteous, but they still have to engage in all of the necessary works to be his followers. 

I've developed this issue more in a separate article, Words for Grace in Hinduism, and if I may, I'll just quote from it. "As long as someone practices the yoga that Krishna commands and focuses his entire being on Krishna all day every day, he becomes eligible for Krishna's grace. Or, perhaps it should go the other way around: Krishna's grace makes it possible for someone to focus his entire being on Krishna all day every day and to practice the Yoga that Krishna commands, so that he will receive redemption. Either way, this is not grace as commonly understood by the English term."

Now, please do me the favor of not considering this to be a defect in the Gita per se. It's not obligated to have a Christian doctrine of grace. However, the important point is that we shouldn't claim similarities in religions or scriptures when they're not there.

Consider these verses from the New Testament. Everyone knows or should know Ephesians 2:8,9:

    For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God's gift, not from works, so that no one can boast.

And here is a really crucial passage:

    For while we were still helpless, at the appointed moment, Christ died for the ungodly. For rarely will someone die for a just person, though for a good person perhaps someone might even dare to die. But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us! (Romans 5:6-8)

You see here the crucial point that makes Christianity different. You can claim to have grace; you can even come closer to it in your speculations than the Gita does. There's no limit to what someone can claim. But that doesn't mean that any of it is objectively true. On the other hand, as we see in that last passage, God has actually demonstrated the reality of his love and grace by sending his son to die for us on the cross and be resurrected. The doctrine is rooted in factual events in history. 

To come back to the beginning: Humanity's biggest problem is not the idea (and an idea is all that it is) that one is stuck in samsara, but the fact of being alienated from God due our fallen nature. Christ did something about that. Now, forgive me if this sounds harsh, but Krishna really has not done anything for us. There's not even good reason to believe that he existed. I'm not saying that he didn't, but if he did, we have no reliable information about him, and, at best, he made some great claims, but did not do anything that would support them or bring about the results.

Jesus welcoming   youI'm reminded of a conversation I had with a leader of an ISKCON temple, actually the husband of the lady who confronted us with the possibility of coming back as cockroaches. I need to clarify that we had known each other for a while, so this was not a total cold turkey attack, and it was in the context of a lengthy friendly chat. After his talking for quite a while, asserting many groundless notions, I eventually just had to state, "Look, P, this is all very well; you can worship Krishna all your life; you can chant; you can do kirtana and aarti every evening; at the end of your life you are still as much in your sins as you were before. It took the death of Christ to rid us of our sins so that we could be reconciled to God." Well, that didn't go over too smoothly, though we continued talking and parted on friendly terms. But that's the reality. Remember that salvation in Hinduism means to get out of samsara, but in Christianity it means something very different, the opportunity to go to heaven for eternity instead of being in a state of painful separation from God forever.

Oh, that sounds too rigid and forbidding to some people. I need to tell you, though: there's no reason why it should be. As I said, Christ is ready to accept you now, just as you are. We don't have to arrive at a certain point of piety before Christ allows us to become his "devotees." In fact, I need to quickly take back that word. The God of Christianity has no "devotees." [3] He has children adopted into his family whom he indwells by his Holy Spirit. All that is required of us is to trust him or rely on him, which is what faith means.---Don't worry, God will change your life once you're his child, but that comes afterwards.---We are all sinful by our nature and actions; nobody's sins are so bad that Christ can't forgive them. We just need to turn them over to him.

Ultimately, when it comes to comparing Christ and Krishna, it's not a matter of who is greater or better. The question is one of where the truth resides, and wonderfully, Christ is the truth and the only way to salvation (John 14:6) because he alone reconciled us to God, our Creator.

*****

[1] Of course, we know that there are four Vedas, but the fourth one, the Atharva Veda is considered to be inferior. The first three, the Rig, Sama, and Yajur Vedas are associated with the worship practices of the Brahmins, whereas the Atharva Veda is essentially a collection of magic and healing spells. As an aside that I'm not going to expand on any further at this time, the pattern of 3+1 (in this case three dominant Vedas and one inferior one) recurs frequently in various parts of Hinduism. Can you think of one or more other instances?

[2] Unfortunately and sadly, even people who supposedly speak for Christianity tend to get this basic doctrine wrong. One prominent example would be the Council of Trent (1545 intermittently to 1562). My friend Paul Krisak has demonstrated the confusion of Trent quite vividly.

[3] Along that line, I'm afraid I really dislike the term "Christ follower," which is so popular right now. A Christian's relationship to Christ is very different from the relationship between other religious teachers and their followers. It is supernatural and intimate; Christ lives within us. In the book of Hebrews, we are called "his brothers." (Hebrews 2:11-13)

*****

Thoughts concerning translations of the Bhagavad Gita into English.

These remarks are not intended to be a bibliographic review of all translations of the Gita into English. They are, as the heading says, simply some of my thoughts concerning them. Translations continue to pile up, many of them good and accurate and I'm really not sure why there continue to be so many new ones, just as I don't understand why we still need books on Heidegger, but that's a different matter. I'm particularly puzzled when a new translation doesn't provide all the helps that some of the previous ones provide. Some of them are gimmicky; some are slanted towards a particular point of view; some have nice covers. On the whole, I always have a bad feeling about a translation that adopts a form of poetry (e.g. that of Matthew Arnold), which is alien to its original setting. Can you make it rhyme and still render the text accurately? Actually, Arnold comes close, but not quite close enough.

Now, one has to be careful in passing judgment too quickly when one translation renders a word or phrase differently than several other translations. A lot of times where the translations may differ, it may be because the Sanskrit itself leaves open a number of possibilities, even though some of them appear almost contradictory, eg. the term bhavas bhavas, derived from the root bhu bhu , can be translated legitimately as either "being," "enduring," or "becoming"--that leaves a lot of room for variation.

Some of the translations come with commentaries, others practically are commentaries insofar as they abound in paraphrases so as to shoehorn them into a particular school of Hinduism without letting us know that that's what they're doing. The best ones are those that provide exegetical help as you go along, so as to help you figure out the text better, though you have to know a little bit of Sanskrit so that you can be aware of the idioms, the correct meanings of grammatical forms, and the rules for euphonic combinations.

  • Among the better works is Prabhupada's translation, The Bhagavad Gita As It Is (Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1986). In its complete version (there are abridged ones) he supplies for each verse: 1) the Sanskrit in Devanagari script, 2) a transliteration, 3) the vocabulary of the particular verse translated into English, 4) his translation, and 5) the "purport," viz. his commentary. As alluded to, his translation already clearly reflects his interpretation with a little bit of heavy paraphrasing, but he's playing fair with us insofar as he gives us the information on the text so that we can check up on whether his translation is taking things too far or not. But that's the reason why I do not think the reduced versions are a good idea; by themselves they are too filled with slants toward ISKCON doctrines. You'll be able to recognize such points more easily if you have a little knowledge of the teachings of ISKCON. Since this organization is a branch of Gaudiya Vaishnava and focuses on Krishna, and that's the topic of this essay, it's not a bad idea to become somewhat familiar with them anyway.
  • For some basic information on A. C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada and ISKCON, you might wish to start with the following:

    1. Satsavrupa Dasa Goswami, Prabhupada: He Built a House in Which the Whole World Can Live (Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1983). This is the biography (some might say, "hagiography") of Prabhupada.
    2. A. C. Bhaktivedanta Prabupada, The Science of Self-Realization (Marina del Rey, CA: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 2005, orig. 1977).
    3. Frederic Squarcine and Eugenio Fizzotti, Hare Krishna. Studies in Contemporary Religion (Denver, CO: Signature Books, 2004). This book traces events after Prabupada's death and places ISIKCON into the context of Gaudya Vaishnavism in general, but gives no help in determining to which strand someone who is a part of GV, but not ISKCON, might belong.
  • Another translation that provides a lot of help, the one that I tend to favor, comes from Winthrop Sargeant, The Bhagavad Gita (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1994). For each line of each verse Sargeant gives us 1) the Sanskrit in Devanagari, 2) a transliteration, and 3) a literal translation in interlineary fashion, followed by 4) a flowing translation of the entire verse. Alongside is the vocabulary, with each word repeated each time it occurs, parsed according to its grammatical form. It's easy to see the differences between Sargeant's literal translations and his flowing translations. In the latter, he supplies phrases in brackets with which he attempts to try to view the Gita more in line with the monistic, pantheistic Advaita Vedanta tradition than I think is really warranted by the text. But again, he's playing fair, giving us all of the apparatus, so that we can check what is there, and what is not.

  • There are (at least) two translations that I would not recommend if you don't already know your way around this material. One is S. K. Gupta, trans. Madhusudhana Sarasvati on the Bhagavad Gita (Delhi: Motilal Bernasiddas, 1977). This version supplies the translation patterned after the thought of Madhusudhana Sarasvati, a sixteenth-century Hindu saint, as well as his commentary, in which he worked too hard to fit the Gita into the monistic patterns of Advaita Vedanta, to be plausible.

    I also recommend that you do not rely on the translation made available for free by the
    International Gita Society. It is handy; you can download it; you can get it in pocket-size; it's easy to find your way around it; it's just not trustworthy. You may think you're reading a translation when you're actually getting a paraphrase. Even if the paraphrase is pretty much correct, it's still not what you should use as a translation. The introduction contains the usual propaganda: "The Gita is a doctrine of universal truth. Its message is universal, sublime, and non-sectarian although it is a part of the scriptural trinity of Sanaatana Dharma, commonly known as Hinduism." Almost all religions teach that their beliefs are applicable to all people, but that doesn't make their scriptures "non-sectarian." The Gita is Hindu; its teaching is incompatible, not only with many other religions, but also with different branches of Hinduism. It's sectarian. That doesn't exclude the logical possibility that it could be sectarian and true, but to say that it is non-sectarian is just plain deceptive. Many of the paraphrases in this translation appear to serve the purpose of making the Gita seem more appealing to non-Hindu Western readers without giving us a clue that it is doing so.

  • If you're totally unacquainted with Sanskrit, the helps provided by Prabhupada or Sargeant aren't going to be worth much to you. Two apparently reliable straight-forward translations are

    R. C. Zaehner, The Bhagavad Gita in Hindu Scriptures (New Delhi: Rupa & Co, 1992, orig. 1966), pp. 249-325, and the just a little gimmicky

    Graham Schweig, Bhagavad Gita: The Beloved Lord's Secret Love Song (New York: HarperOne, 2007).

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