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Tuesday, February 14th 2012


Krishna and Christ, part 9

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: flexible

King of the Bungee CordNick and Meghan have moved into their new place.  June and I did what we could to help. We made numerous trips back and forth with the Dakota. To use a German expression, their house is located right about where the fox and the rabbit say "good night" to each other. To change metaphors, it's a lot like where Stanley met Livingston, except on a different continent. Or, to use a still different expression, it's where Little Turtle lost his moccasins.  I now consider myself the king of the bungee cord.


Steve H. asked about more precise dating for Hindu sources about Krishna.  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 web site claims 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 recognizes the theistic nature (and I don't mean "theistic elements") of the Gita.] 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. Actually, I don't see that, as I will show in the next post. 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. 

The frequent Hindu response to that objection is to claim the earlier Indus Valley civilization as their own, but that 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, 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 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.

The Gita is most likely a late supplement (an addition or elaboration perhaps) to the Mahabharata, which really stands apart 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 points of view, 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. 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, the Upanishads held the material that would eventually blossom under Shankara, Ramanuja, and Madhva, but during that time, Hinduism was not as creative as in other periods.

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.

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