Cambridge, MA. My reflections last week made clear my hope that in this Advent season we can engage in interreligious, intercultural learning, by considering, as an example, the teaching on the birth of Lord Krishna in the world, according to the Bhagavad Gita. I continue now with verses I cited in last week’s reflection:
“5 Many a birth have I passed through, and [many a birth] have you [Arjuna]: I know them all but you do not. 6 Unborn am I, changeless is my Self, of [all] contingent beings am I the Lord! Yet by my creative energy I consort with Nature — which is mine — and come to be [in time]. 7 For whenever the law of righteousness withers away and lawlessness arises, then do I generate myself [on earth]. 8 For the protection of the good, for the destruction of evildoers, for the setting up of the law of righteousness, I come into being age after age. 9 Who knows my godly birth and mode of operation thus as they really are, he, his body left behind, is never born again: he comes to Me.” (Zaehner translation) The verses are worthy of our reflection, and much is achieved just by reading them and thinking about them.
Yet we would be missing something if we simply read the verses by themselves, as if there were no readers before us — pious and learned Hindus who took the Gita to heart over many centuries. A willingness to listen to believers in other traditions, and learn from their theological reflection, is also part of the great intercultural exchange to which we are invited in the 21st century. To hear this wisdom, I turn today to Ramanuja (by tradition, 1017-1137, south India) and his reading of Gita 4.
Ramanuja, one of the great theologians of Indian history was, tradition tells us, a versatile figure — scholar, teacher, writer of philosophical and theological treatises and commentaries, reformer of temple ritual and daily order, and ardent proponent of love of God. One of the most intriguing and inviting stories about Ramanuja was that after long testing and delay, his teacher taught him the sacred Tiru Mantra, a brief prayer rich in meaning and efficacy — with the stipulation, imposed by his teacher, that he reveal it to no one else, under pain of hell. Ramanuja received the mantra humbly and with devotion — and then went to the temple veranda, and from there proclaimed it to the crowds in temple courtyard. When his stunned teacher asked him why, Ramanuja is said to have replied with words to this effect: “To share this great grace with my community, I would gladly risk damnation.”
In any case, Ramanuja wrote a commentary on the Gita, and in his reading of our verses from Chapter 4, among many points, he made four key ones.
First, Krishna is clearly insisting that he was born, as Arjuna was born, even if “my birth” and “your birth” are in some way distinguished. There is no talk h ere of illusory births, merely appearances of being-born.
Second, Ramanuja also insists that while humans are born over and again by the force of their bad karma, compelled as it were to re-enter the world, Krishna freely chooses to be born, whenever there is a need, but without any compulsion or imperfection.
Third, Ramanuja asks about the nature of Krishna’s body, and decides that Krishna had a real body — but one made of a perfect matter free from all the imperfections of other bodies: it was made not of prakriti (natural matter) but of a non-natural material (a-prakriti). While this clearly divides Krishna from others taking ordinary bodies, it is interesting to note that in Ramanuja’s tradition, that non-natural matter appears again: it is the bodies that all receive who reach liberation, clothed in new bodies upon entrance into Krishna’s heaven. What Krishna is at birth, all shall one day be.
These three points are all quite interesting, because they point to ways in which Krishna’s birth is like — and unlike — the birth of Jesus. It is not that Ramanuja believed in an illusory appearance of divine birth; rather, in a different religious and cultural context, he defended divine reality differently, on different grounds.
But a fourth and most interesting point deserves special mention. Why, Ramanuja asks, does Krishna bother taking on a human body at all, simply to “protect the good and destroy evildoers”? Could he not do this without bothering to take on a body, simply by the exercise of divine power? Here Ramanuja does not offer our Christian answer, that the omnipotent God chooses to empty himself and share our lives, deaths, and sufferings. But he does offer a striking answer of spiritual depth: namely, the omnipotent Krishna came to earth and was present during the great battle that Arjuna faced, took on the great project of insuring the victory of righteousness, and taught the Gita — in order that by such pretexts he might simply be present, accessible to human physical senses, nearby to those who would know and love him. A cosmic emergency occasions divine intervention, but it seems that to Ramanuja Krishna would have found some reason to come among us, anyway, so we could see him, hear him, be with him, touch him — and thus with our five, material yet spiritual senses, find God nearby and in our midst. This insight is not far from our Christian tradition’s felix culpa insight: by a happy fault, Adam’s sin was the cause for the great gift of God’s physical presence in the world.
A Christian need not change her or his view of the Incarnation in light of Ramanuja’s insights into the reality, uniqueness, and loveliness of Krishna’s divine birth. But our world is too small, and our well-being too fragile, for us to imagine that we cannot benefit from the wisdom of other believers in other traditions, particularly those who, like us, believe that God among us. The unique, irreplaceable truth of Christ cannot be damaged by genuine, vulnerable appreciation for the wisdom and insight of Ramanuja into Krishna’s birth. Next week, in the final installment in this series, I will step outside the Sanskrit tradition and draw on the wisdom of Tamil south India.