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Thursday, February 2nd 2012

0:31

Krishna and Christ, part 3 plus personal remarks

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: plodding along
Neighboring Faiths, 2nd ed.Well, life goes on. Things are continuing to be slow, but I'm getting a few things done. Sunday evening we had a great time with two former colleagues playing music. Then on Monday morning I had my regular long-range appointment with Dr. W, the movement disorder specialist in Indianapolis. She increased my L-Dopa somewhat, and, judging by the way things went today, that may carry me for a while.

I finished responding to the copy-edits of the second edition of Neighboring Faiths, which is scheduled to come out this fall. It'll be a genuine second edition, rather than the cosmetic changes that a lot of textbook publishers make just to get a new edition out. Baha'i, Sikhism, and Jainism each get a chapter of their own. Islam gets two chapters, with the second one being entirely devoted to 9/11 and radical Islam. I also expanded a little bit on the question of the exclusivity of Christianity, though the more thorough treatment is still in A Tapestry of Faiths.  Instructors of world religions invariably agree on how little time there is in a semester or even a year just to teach the content. And I really, really tried to respond to all the suggestions for corrections and changes over the years.

*****

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 .

  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
After Mr. Das points to the amazing resemblance in names (Krishna/Christ), he lists 10 points of alleged similarity. 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.

Now, we have to keep several important points in mind. For one thing, remember the basic axiom to which we referred not too long ago in a different context: All things are identical to each other as long as we ignore the 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 characteristic 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.

  • According to Buddhist mythology, the Buddha's mother, Mahamaya,  had a dream that an elephant entered her womb, a symbol that she was about to give birth to a Buddha. Shortly thereafter, he was born in a garden grove in Lumbini. As soon as he was born, he took seven steps, pointed upward and declared his own grandeur. I'm not sure whether King Suddhodana, Mahamaya's husband had anything to do with the conception; if not, we might actually be looking at another instance of a virgin birth in mythology.
  • The story of the birth of Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, resembles Krishna's birth narrative in certain aspects. According to the Jain Kalpa Sutra, his original parents were of the Brahmin caste. However, the god Indra (here called Vajra or Chakra), considered the status of the Brahmins to be too low for someone as exalted as Mahavira. So,  Indra ordered subordinate gods to switch his embryo to a pregnant woman of the Kshatriya caste, and give her embryo to the original Brahmin woman--a nice piece of Kshatriya polemics. My point is that embryo-switching, as it comes up in Krishna's story, is not unique.

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 at truth for the moment, but the content of the respective narratives.

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?

  • I do not believe that "Son of God" is a common appellation for Krishna. I'm stating this carefully because in Hinduism you never know what someone may say. Krishna has many titles, both as God and as avatar of God, but I cannot recall any place where he is called "Son of God."
  • In what sense were Jesus and Krishna "divinely conceived"? One thing that both of them have in common is that they existed as God prior to their coming to earth. That would be true for all of Vishnu's avatars.
  • The conception of Jesus was entirely miraculous. By his divine power, God brought it about that Mary carried a human embryo apart from any sexual intercourse. Contrary to some misconceptions, the Holy Spirit did not impregnate Mary.  She was a virgin as much after the conception as before. Jesus did not have a biological father, neither a human being nor a god.
  • There is no question that Devaki, Krishna's mother was no virgin, having given birth to six previous children plus the embryo transferred to Rohini. There does not seem to be any reason to assume that Vasudeva did not play the usual role of a man in the process of conception, regardless of Krishna being an avatar. (And, by the way, is anyone else bothered by the rather cavalier way in which the myth portrays Vasudeva and Devaki handing the first six babies over to Kamsa?)
  • According to some traditions, Devaki was a divine figure in her own right. If so, she was an avatar of Aditi, an important goddess in the Vedas, where she is said to have given birth to the devas. In that case, Krishna was definitely conceived divinely. It would then also get us a little closer to having a reason to call Krishna "Son of God," or at least "Son of the Goddess," but that doesn't happen. "Son of Devaki"--yes; "Son of God"--no.
  • In short, as befits the stories of founders of religions, both had highly unusual births, but they were very different. The stories are not very similar, and, if we're looking for logical incompatibilities, among other points, the mother either was a virgin or she was not. (As I said, the question of truth is not in focus at the moment, but, just to reassure anyone, I believe that Christ's virgin birth was a historical fact. For the classic defense of this position, see J. Gresham Machen's The Virgin Birth of Christ.)

Baby KrishnaThe 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.

Point three refers to the fact that both Krishna and Christ were born in unusual places, Jesus in a stable in a 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 was unusual as well. And let's not forget about Moses' birth in hiding, to be followed up by a short boat ride.

The fourth point: Both were divinely saved from death pronouncements. I assume that Mr. Das is referring to Kamsa and King Herod both killing innocent children because they did not know which baby was the one they needed to fear. 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.

Next time we'll go on with the story of Krishna. Be prepared for some surprises along the way.

Let me close with an important observation. A problem is that for a lot of nominal Christians or devotees of Krishna, generalities such as the ones that Mr. Das puts forward are the extent of their knowledge of their own religion, let alone of the other faith. If so, they can be easily misled by any number of claims. I'm assuming that my readership pretty much consists of people who are familiar with the gospel accounts of Jesus, and it will be helpful to them to know some data about Krishna to reinforce the difference. However, please recognize that making assumptions (as I am doing) is not very safe. Christians are less knowledgeable in the Scriptures or the basics of their faith than some of us are probably thinking. 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.

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