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Saturday, January 28th 2012


Krishna and Christ: The Resemblances Examined

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: Headache today

In certain circles it has become almost conventional wisdom that there are remarkable resemblances between the life and mission of Jesus Christ and of the Hindu avatar/deity Krishna. This phenomenon was brought to my attention again recently by hearing of the conversion of Dr. Michael Sudduth of San Francisco State University to a version of Gaudya Vaishnavism (broadly speaking, a Bengali Hindu school of devotion to Vishnu in which Krishna is considered to be the supreme personal Godhead, though not the well-known ISKCON "Hare Krishna" movement). Still, since his strain is also derived from the Vaishnavism initiated in the early sixteenth century, who emphasized that devotees of Krishna ought to dance and repeat the Mahamantra, I'm surmising that it is not entirely different from the aforementioned form. Here are some pictures of evening aarti ("celebration of lights") and puja ("worship, offering") at the Hare Krishna temple in Chicago. 

 I don't know Prof. Sudduth personally, though he was kind enough to send me an e-mail correcting some errors on my part in a letter that was posted (with my permission) on the Triablogue.  In his own statement, circulated around the web, he declared that

    ... the basic principles of Gaudiya Vaishnavism are logically compatible with a number of fundamental Christian beliefs: the deity of Christ, virgin birth, his resurrection, and the soteriological importance (even necessity of) his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. In converting to Vaishnavism I do not relinquish these beliefs but simply situate them in a different philosophical and theological context. That being said, I intend in the future to write on the subject of the relationship between the above aspects of GV and Christian theism.

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 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:

    Similarities in just the names of 'Christ' and 'Krishna' have enough fuel for the curious mind to prod into the proposition that they were indeed one and the same person. Although there is little historical evidence, it is hard to ignore a host of likenesses between Jesus Christ and Lord Krishna. Analyze this!

    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

KrishnaLet me immediately tell you, with regard to #10, that I have no clue what anyone would mean by "the color of Christ Consciousness." Krishna is, indeed, usually pictured as dark, often as dark blue. In fact, that's actually the literal meaning of his name k&Z[, "the dark one," or "the dark blue one."

And that observation, of course, takes us to the first (unnumbered) assertion on the site, the apparent resemblance in names. As I just said, Krishna's name is derived from the color of his complexion in traditional iconography (or vice versa). The word "Christ" is derived from the Greek word that translates the Hebrew "Messiah," the "Anointed One." It's not even a name, but a title. His name was "Jesus" (or its Hebrew equivalent, Yashua). Regardless, it's a long road from "the dark blue one" to "the anointed one," and the only way one can get there is by "synonymbolism." This term is a neologism that occurred to me in the context of my previous discussion of deciphering the supposed inner meanings of Chinese characters. It describes a technique: If you can't get some symbol to say what you want it to, keep trying until you find the right synonym for it, and you have your "surprising" result. The same website quotes A. C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada, the founder of ISKCON as saying:

    "When an Indian person calls on Krishna, he often says, Krsta. Krsta is a Sanskrit word meaning attraction. So when we address God as Christ, Krsta, or Krishna we indicate the same all-attractive Supreme Personality of Godhead. When Jesus said, 'Our Father who art in heaven hallowed be Thy name', the name of God was Krsta or Krishna."

So, an occasional synonym for Krishna can be Krsta, which means attraction. Since Krishna is the Supreme God he is attractive. Jesus was referring to the same God, who was, therefore, also attractive. Consequently, Jesus must have used the word Krsta. And since Krsta is an occasional synonym for Krishna, Jesus was directing our attention to Krishna. You've got to give Prabhupada points for creativity, but, I'm afraid he loses them all for lack of soundness in his argument.

Strictly speaking, the name of God in the Bible is "Yahweh." He is also frequently referred to as "El" and "Elohim." In Aramaic, the language that Jesus used, the word for God is "Elah." But, of course, what Jesus was saying there was not specifically that the phoneme referring to God should be hallowed, but the reality represented by the phoneme. Regardless, I'm quite sure Jesus was not using a Sanskrit word.  But even if he had been, how would that lead to "Christ" as "Krishna" being synonymous?

I believe I can address the rest of the points basically by telling you the story of Krishna. I'm assuming that my readers are familiar with the life of Jesus from the gospels. I will make reference to Christ by way of contrast from time to time anyway. The characterizations above are basically generalities, and the best way to see if they hold up is by examining the details. However, before doing so, let us draw our camera back as far as we can so that we can get the "cosmic" view of Christ and Krishna, viz. their basic role inside of the respective religions that worship them. What we see is that the religions stipulate different issues as the main problem besetting humankind, that they offer solutions to their own stipulated problems, which are consequently also different, and that, as a result, the two persons involved will have two completely different missions.

KrishnaIn Christianity, the basic problem besetting humanity is that, due to our sin and our fallen state, we are alienated from God, our Creator. The solution is that we can be reconciled to God on the basis of faith in the person and work of Christ in his life, atoning death, and resurrection. For Hinduism, humanity's central problem is that of existing in the seemingly never-ending cycle of reincarnations (samsara), which carries with it constant suffering. The solution is to find release (moksha) from that cycle. In the case of Krishna's teachings in the Bhagavad Gita moksha entailed 1) performing one's caste duty without attachment to its results, and 2) clinging to Krishna alone so the he can release a person from the vicious cycle. Clinging to him involves practicing the yoga that he delineates. So, we have, on the one hand, an Atoner and Reconciler to God, and on the other hand a Releaser from samsara. The cosmic view seems to indicate a rather clear dissimilarity between the two figures. Obviously, both summaries are very rough, but that's the intent. Nothing will change the disparity in basic purposes by more refined theological nuancing.

Now, let's start the story of Krishna. My basic secondary sources are: Alain Daniélou,The Myths and Gods of India (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1991, orig. 1964); P. Thomas, Epics, Myths and Legends of India (Bombay: Taraporevala, 1961); Edward Moor, The Hindu Pantheon (Los Angeles: Philosophical Research Society, 1976, orig. 1810).

A long, long time ago--I confess that I'm always amused when some Hindus specify a definite time, e.g., 10,000 years ago. We have no records whatsoever connecting this story to any historical events, except to say that, if these things happened, then they might have occurred around, say the time of the Aryan immigration, but that's just speculation. Anyway, I think I better start over.

A long, long time ago, there was a king named Ugrasena, who, together with his incredibly beautiful wife, Padmavati, ruled over the land of Mathura. In fact, when I say that she was beautiful, I mean that she was just plain irresistible. If beauty can be a curse, then this queen would be a case in point because one night an asura (demon) disguised himself as Ugrasena and inflicted himself on her. And wouldn't you know it? She became pregnant and gave birth to a really obnoxious child, who, as is usually the case with obnoxious children, turned into an obnoxious adult. His name was Kamsa.

Kamsa was mean, cruel, heartless, and selfish. According to some versions, he killed his father so that he could become king, according to others he imprisoned him in the deepest dungeon. Then he extended all of his evil attributes to all the subjects of the kingdom, and everyone was suffering. In short, things were bad.

Now whenever, the universe gets really off-track, Vishnu takes on the form of an animal or person and descends to earth to remedy the matter. The fact that he "descends" has given rise to the term avatar, where ava means "down," and so he is "the one who comes down." (The idea of an "avatar" being a cartoonish representation of a person on the web is one of those annoying, but perhaps unavoidable, twists in the development of a language.)

    In the Ramayana we read: “Whenever there is loss of dharma on earth, the Lord incarnates himself in order to destroy the demons and to restore dharma.” [Swami Venkatesananda, tr.,The Concise Ramayana of Valmiki, Uttara 8i (New York: SUNY, 1988), p. 356],

and in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna,

    Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O descendant of Bharata, and a predominant rise of irreligion—at that time I descend Myself. To deliver the pious and to annihilate the miscreants, as well as to reestablish the principles of religion, I Myself appear, millennium after millennium.(4:7-8) [Excerpted from “Srimad Bhagavatam Tenth Canto Part One” by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, courtesy of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust International, www.krishna.com].

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.  

    A couple of side comments:

  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, Kansa 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 would be the one to 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 incarnation of Lakshman, the brother of Rama, his previous incarnation. 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? Find out with the next installment.

To be continued. . .


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