Cambridge, MA. The semester is finally ending, and in a few days, my grades will be submitted, and “Introduction to Hindu Ritual Theory” safely behind me. I hope now to add a few blogs this coming week, in light of the quickly arriving of Christmas - a few somewhat random insights adn recommendations on the birth of Jesus in light of Hindu wisdom.
Pre-note: As always and as with any comparative theme, we can assume at the start that Christ is unique, the Incarnation is unique, his impact on the world is unique. Comparison is not about relativism. Good comparisons never mean that all religions are the same, or in this case, that avatara and incarnation are the same, or that Jesus is the same as Krishna, or those who believe in Krishna have nothing to gain from encounter with Jesus. But once our values and convictions are in place, then good comparative learning can begin to take place; nothing about uniqueness or difference suggests that Christians have nothing to learn from Hindus, or that we’d be better off thinking of Christ without ever thinking deeply about Krishna.
So here is a first suggestion, to take a look at Kristin Johnston Largen’s Baby Krishna, Infant Christ: A Comparative Theology of Salvation (Orbis, 2011). (She is an Associate Professor of Theology at the Lutheran School of Theology in Gettysburg, PA.) This very thoughtful and insightful book is also a fine introduction to Hinduism from a Christian perspective, Krishna for Christian reflection, and how best to do comparative study. If you know little about Hinduism, fear not, you can start here.
Part I focuses on the baby Krishna, Part II on the infant Jesus. Each part begins with an account of the scriptural sources on the baby, those around him, the dangers to which he was submitted in becoming human – evil kings and the like – and how this baby was also shown, sacramentally and dramatically, to be the savior, God in human, accessible form. If you’ve never read the Hindu stories of the birth of Krishna and his childhood, this is a fine place to start. We hear for instance the famous story of how Yashoda, mother of Krishna, wanted to scold her son for putting dirt in his mouth – only to find, upon making the child open it, that he, the lord, held all the world, and her too, within himself: God hidden in, as the child. But Largen’s chapters on Jesus are also instructive for the Christian reader, providing excellent insights into what we learn of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, carefully complemented by the famed InfancyGospels of James and Thomas. (Check the web on these.)
In each major part of the book, we find also a reflection on the grown-up divine figure, how the indications given in the stories of the divine infant remain pertinent and become all the more evident in the subsequent accounts of their lives and works thereafter. Key to her account of Krishna’s infancy, for instance, are insights into the charms and loveliness of the child, the playfulness that enchants his mother and the village women, the ways in which profound theological teachings on the sovereignty and freedom of God are at evidence in the whims and fancies of the child – and how, in all of this, the theme is affirmed over and again: here, in this child, God is accessible, the arduous journey to God made simple and direct. One need not climb to heaven; God is here. Similarly — in a way that cannot be summarized here — Largen also draws forth and summarizes how the canonical and extra-testamental accounts of the young Jesus are under-utilized resources for imagining love of God in the midst of our basic, human reality.
In Part Three, Largen draws together what her primarily Christian audience might learn from this extended reflection. Once we’ve excluded careless and overly general claims of similarity or difference, we are helped better to “think about salvation today… and to understand Jesus’ particular identity as savior.” The vivid accounts of the baby Krishna give a very human feel to the divine birth stories, and human responses to infants and children – noticed carefully in light of traditional Hindu materials – illumined as guides to how we can relate to God: the vivid and embodied nature of divine love; God’s love for us deeply engaged in the totality of who we are; the divine-human love as passionate and deeply enjoyed; opening up the mystery of God’s action among us with a more vivid sense of divine play and playfulness. Her headings on how we can learn anew from Jesus, infant and grown up, are illustrative: “expecting the unexpected;” “the life of Jesus is salvific;” “relationships matter for salvation;” “salvation happens ‘in the flesh;’” “salvation is in the mundane.”
It is hard to summarize what Largen does with the Hindu material, since she is not nearly so abstract and dry as I’ve been in the preceding paragraphs. A scholar of Hinduism with special attention to the literary traditions, she is doing more than simply summarizing in a loose fashion stories of Krishna. She is rather looking into some lovely, moving poetry of the baby Krishna, and drawing forth the themes she enunciates. Just one example must suffice, a lovely passage quoted from Barbara Powell’s anthology of Hinduism, Windows into the Infinite:
“Naughty Krishna, though exasperating, brings supreme joy to His elders. Their anger never lasts long. He bats His lotus-like eyes, pouts His pretty lips, sheds a few counterfeit tears and before you know it the adult is overcome with love and sweeps the child up in her arms. The naughtiness is also partly a guise designed to obscure His Godhead from them. Were His contemporaries aware of His true identity, they would be too over-awed to exchange the natural loving intimacies for which he incarnated Himself. They must mistake Him for an ordinary boy and so, like a regular boy, Krishna is sometimes a pest.” (Largen, p. 57; Powell, p. 307)
This passage will seem odd and out of place next to the simple and austere Gospel accounts so familiar to us, though the extra-canonical Gospels reach some of the same imaginative range. Again, there is room for just one example. In the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, after some of the boy Jesus’ more amazing and confounding exploits – he had not yet learned to discipline his divinity – Zacchaeus confesses: “Poor me, I’m utterly bewildered [at what turn out to be the wise deeds of the boy], wretch that I am. I’ve heaped shame upon myself because I took on this child… I can’t endure the severity of his look or his lucid speech. This child is no ordinary mortal; he can tame fire! Perhaps he was born before the creation of the world. What sort of womb bore him, what sort of mother nourished him? — I don’t know.” (Largen, p. 99; Ronald Hock tr.) I therefore recommend to you Baby Krishna, Infant Christ, and I am sure that if you order it right away, you could have it in hand before Christmas. But in the meantime, I suggest two simpler meditations. First, attend carefully to your own varied responses to babies and small children, and meditatively bring those into play in a contemplation of the new-born and baby Jesus. Second, find some way to shift your reflection on some other religion away from the large and difficult questions of doctrine – for a moment at least – to imagine, enjoy, learn from the stories and poetry and images of that religion. Trust your imagination. And, as Largen shows us, these ancient traditions of Krishna are a fine place to start.
(I hope to add several more suggestions before Christmas.)