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Sunday, February 5th 2012


Krishna and Christ, part 6 with bibliography

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: headache
I promised a couple of entries ago, that 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 during the early 1970, when "peace and love" were bandied about as the slogans for anything and everything outside of the "establishment." Krishna-devotion definitely fell outside of suburbs, so it's only natural that people many 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. I mentioned the other day that I was reading Owen Chadwick's book on the Reformation. After a while, learning that so-and-so was burned over what seem to me to be legitimate doctrinal differences, followed by such-and-such being beheaded by the other side for holding the opposite view, it gets to be downright nauseating. And I'm talking here about various Protestant and Reformed entities executing their dissidents, not the Roman Catholic inquisition. It's almost as bad as in other religions.  Still, regardless of how much or how little Christians have implemented Christ's teachings, there can be no question that the official sources concerning his life portray him as someone who 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 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," (gaeivNd), somewhat engimatic term in its Sanskrit etymology. Gopas ( gaeps!  ) are "cowherds," and gopis  (gaeips!), are "cowgirls," better known as "milk maids," Krishna's close and enthusiastic girlfriends. So, it appears that Govinda is composed of go ( gae ) (refering to "cows" in some way and vinda,  (ivNd), which seems to be based on the root ivd!"to see", or "to find." Thus, literally, the term could mean "Finder of the Cows," but it is usually translated as "Chief Cowherd." But 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 Keshinisūdhana , 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.  Wherever you may find 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, as I said last time, 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 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, and the Kauravas. The Pandavars 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.

PandavarsArjuna has Krishna lead his 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 wrong?  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.

Krishna's response: "Arjuna, you're a coward and a disgrace!"

Le 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 below some comments on translations). 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 he just has "Arjuna," Prabhupada gives us the more literal "daughter of Pritha" and "chastiser of the enemies." Both translators tap dance a little 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," which, even if it had no direct ethnic meaning any longer,  would at least have meant, "This is not appropriate for a member of the nobility," or maybe "someone of noble disposition."

But that's neither here nor there for our purposes. For our point, what is clear is that, whatever else Krishna teaches here, it is neither love nor peace. He insists that, due to his caste affiliation as a Kshatriya, Arjuna has the duty to fight and kill. Anything else is cowardice and a disgrace. This issue constitutes the basic framework of the Bhagavad Gita and, and throughout this discourse there, at the front of the army and moments away from the battle, Krishna never changes his mind or qualifies what he is saying so as to give Arjuna an "out." Arjuna must fight.

Krishna does not simply leave it with vituperating Arjuna. He immediately follows up his first comments on how it 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 tell him that he devised the caste system of four castes.  (B.G. 4:13) Thus, Arjuna's fighting will be an act of devotion to Krishna, in fact, the highest such act that is possible for a member of the Kshatriya caste. So, peace is not really on Krishan's agenda.

As we have seen, in one sense, love is a very important part of Krishna's life. Of course, what we see in the mythology is kāma ( kam ), 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 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.  I will not be surprised if someone will tell me that this is so because I'm ignorant of something or other important, in which case I will be glad to be informed as long as you're polite about it. Just don't leave me hanging by telling me I'm wrong and uneducated and not tell me where I can learn more, as has happened recently. We're all supposed to care for peace and love, but merely saying that this is true of Krishna doesn't make it so.

Next time: Their deaths.

Digression about translations of the Gita into English. In case you're interested.  Translations of the Gita into English 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, particularly when they don't provide all the helps that some of the older ones provide. Be careful in passing judgment too quickly; 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 ( Év>  root: bhū ÉU ), can be translated legitimately as either "being," "enduring," or "becoming"--that leaves a lot of room. Some of the translations come with commentaries, others practically are commentaries insofar as their translations abound in paraphrases so as to shoehorn them into a particular school of Hinduism into the Gita 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 be aware of the idioms, the correct meanings of grammatical forms, and the rules for euphonic combinations.

  • Among the better works is Prabhupadas 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 already 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. It helps to recognize such points if you have some idea of the teachings of ISKCON.
  • For some basic information on A. C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupāda and ISKCON, you might wish to start with the following:

    1. Satsavrūpa Dāsa Goswami, Prabhupāda: He Built a House in Which the Whole World Can Live (Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1983). The biography (some would say, "hagiography") of Prabhupāda.
    2. A. C. Bhaktivedanta Prabupāda, 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 Prabupāda'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. I have asked one such person for help because of a mistake on my part, but he has not responded yet.
  • Another translation that provides a lot of help, the one that I tend to favor, comes from Winthrop Sargent [The Bhagavad Gita (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1994)]. For each line of each verse Sargent 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, repeated each time as it occurs in a verse, 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 is really warranted by the text. But again, he's playing fair, giving us all of the apparatus. so we can check what is there, and what is not.
  • Two translations that I would not recommend if you don't know your way around this material are S. K. Gupta, trans. Madhusudhana Sarasvati on the Bhagavad Gita (Delhi: Motilal Bernasiddas, 1977). This version supplies the translation patterned after the thought of M. D., a sixteenth-century Hindu saint and his commentary on the Gita, which is severely strained to fit into the monistic patterns of Advaita Vedanta, which is simply not the correct understanding of the book. Also the translation made available freely by the International Gita Society, which is handily available on the web, is not trustworthy.  The introduction contains the usual lie: "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." The translation freely paraphrases in order to make the Gita seem more appealing to a non-Hindu Western reader without giving us a clue that it is doing so.
  • If you're totally unacquainted with Sanskrit, the helps provided by Prabupāda 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 somewhat gimmicky  Graham Schweig, Bhagavad Gita: The Beloved Lord's Secret Love Song (New York: HarperOne, 2007).


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