Cambridge, MA. I return today for a third time to the theme of Krishna in Advent. In my first and second reflections on this theme, I highlighted famous verses from Chapter 4 of the Bhagavad Gita, and from the commentary on the verses by the medieval theologian Ramanuja. There is a lot going on in both the verses and in Ramanuja’s comments on them, and much of it can be welcomed as insightful and wise by the Christian reader, helping us to think anew about the how and why of Christ’s birth.
Thinking about Krishna in Advent marks a way of practicing what we preach: interreligious learning is not merely a matter of ideas, or confessions of faith aimed at one another, but it is a true intercultural exchange. By attentive study, we learn the literature of another religious tradition, we learn from it, and consider in respectful detail what is said, and how it is said. While this kind of study does not lead to answers to life’s enduring questions, it changes us little by little, and we find ourselves to be Christians who have genuinely learned from another religious tradition. While it may not be possible for a Christian simply to believe in Krishna, for instance, there is no reason why a Christian, pondering the meaning of Christ’s coming this Advent season, cannot learn greatly from how Hindus have interpreted the coming of Krishna into the world.
For this final meditation on Krishna in Advent, I go back a few centuries before Ramanuja, drawing not on a Sanskrit text, but a verse from the Tiruvaymoli of Shatakopan, a 9th century Hindu poet saint. Tiruvaymoli is a set of 100 songs, 1102 verses in the Tamil language, a vernacular south Indian language that is the first language of over 75 million Indians even today. In the 13th and 14th centuries, disciples of Ramanuja wrote commentaries on the v erses of Tiruvaymoli, and I have for many years enjoyed reading those commentaries, by Pillan, Nanjiyar, Periyav acchan Pillai, and Nampillai, and other great medieval scholars. (Unfortunately, almost nothing by these commentators is translated; but for a sampling of verses by Shatakopan, see if you can find a copy of AK Ramanujan’s Hymns for the Drowning, a lovely selection of verses from Tiruvaymoli - or, I dare to add, my 1996 book, Seeing through Texts.)
In the third book of his songs, Shatakopan reflects on Krishna this way:
Griefless bright light, he is fire, abiding ever the same;
grief abounds in human birth, but into it he came, so our eyes could see him;
he causes griefs, this lord who made his divine state enter this world,
griefless excellent marvelous Krishna — I praise him, and I sorrow no more.
The verse — lovelier in Tamil than in English, of course — makes a series of basic points about Krishna’s births: In his heavenly form, he is all light, radiant and fiery, and in him there is no darkness; though perfect, he does not hesitate to come into our world, by a human birth (as in Gita 4); he does this (as Ramanuja says) for the supreme value of making himself accessible to human eyes; he does not abandon his divine nature, but “brings it with him” when he enters the world; he is excellent, amazing, even in human form, as heaven comes to earth. All of this marks insights and values that should be familiar to Christian readers, and we should not be jealous to learn that a Hindu poet had such insights too.
The verse makes two additional points. First, we notice that “grief” appears in each of the four lines. Krishna is “griefless” in his heavenly form (line 1), but he is also (in line 4) still “griefless” in his earthly form, after birth; he does not lose his transcendent equanimity in this world, despite all that happens. Though griefless, he did not hesitate to come into a world where grief abounds, where being-born is to begin experiencing grief (line 2); the implication is that his becoming visible is a remedy for the grief we otherwise experience in this world. And finally, the commentators make a point of the fact that (in line 3) Krishna is said, surprisingly, to be causing “griefs” — in the plural. The commentators surely puzzled over this line, and they suggest that Krishna’s coming into the world caused two kinds of grief: grief for evil-doers, who are overcome, but also grief for those devoted to Krishna, devoted souls who cannot bear to see him only briefly, on rare occasions, and so grieve out of love.
The second additional point is that right at the end of line 4, the poet reaches a state beyond sorrow — by meditating on Krishna portrayed in four ways in the four lines, his own state is changed, as he voices words of praise and achieves his own journey beyond sorrow, here on earth. Is it not true that by contemplation of what God has done for us we discover our lasting joy?
What to make of this verse then, as a Christian reader in Advent? I suggest again that we not allow ourselves to be distracted by the great theological questions, but rather more simply embrace the option for a cultural dialogue that is rooted in study of this verse by Shatakopan, the Hindu poet, and a willingness to reflect on the verse, and even bring it with us to prayer on Christmas Eve. It may help to hear Shatakopan’s words along with words such as those of Evening Prayer at Christmas:
Blessed are you, Sovereign God,
our light and our salvation,
to you be glory and praise for ever.
To dispel the darkness of our night
you sent forth your Son, the firstborn of all creation,
to be the Christ, the light of the world.
Rejoicing in the mystery of the Word made flesh,
we acclaim him Emmanuel, as all creation sings to you:
Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
When peaceful silence lay over all,
and night was in the midst of her swift course:
from your royal throne, O God, down from the heavens,
leapt your almighty Word.
It is clear that these words are not the same as what Shatakopan sang, and we are probably the better off for the difference. What we can do, however, is pray with the words of the Church, after listening to Shatakopan and taking his insights to heart. We need not be afraid.