Cambridge, MA. I have been teaching a seminar on the Bhagavad Gita, reading it with two classical commentaries (by Ramanuja [11th century] and by Madhusudana Sarasvati [16th century]) and two modern commentaries (by Mahatma Gandhi and by Bede Griffiths, the Catholic monk who lived for many years in an ashram in south India). The Gita itself is a rather short work – just over 700 verses – that is perhaps a bit more than 2000 years old. It is part of the very large epic Mahabharata, which tells of a great war between two sides of a princely family; the Gita occurs just as the terrible final battle is about to occur. At the final moment, the leading warrior Arjuna hesitates in the face of the terrible slaughter that will surely follow, and is overcome by grief as he considers the various awful possible outcomes. His charioteer is Krsna, a leading prince who does not personally fight in the war — but has agreed to help Arjuna and his brothers in their battle; as the Gita tells us little by little, he is also the Lord of the universe, divine savior come down to earth. His teaching constitutes the verses of the Gita, which lead Arjuna on an intellectual and spiritual journey that unfolds the meaning of self, duty, detachment and detached action, service, and love of God — so that he can recover himself, and get up and fight, as is his duty.
     While the entire Gita is a fascinating topic for study, I am thinking about it right now — because today is the first day of Advent, when we begin to think in a prolonged, deeper way about the meaning of the birth of the Son of God in our midst. Advent, like other important times in the Church year, is an occasion for learning from other religions, bringing our Christian expectations and intuitions to bear on their texts, images, and practices - and thereafter bringing what we learn from some particular religious tradition back into our reflection on Christian truths, values and practices. This is the richer intelligent cultural exchange and learning, rooted in actual study and conversation. In his recently published letter Pope Benedict has once again reminded us that careful, contextual study - in culture - is superior to an unprepared effort to share on a neutral or purely religious level. We have minds, we must use them, even in the religious sphere, and so we must study.
   Hence the “Krsna in Advent,” focused on five verses near the beginning of chapter 4, where Krsna explains his coming into the world:
   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 evil-doers, 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.”
         (as translated by RC Zaehner, Oxford University Press, 1969).
     These verses, even more than most of the verses of the Gita, have occupied Hindu commentators and modern Western scholars, including Christian theologians. Many books have been written to compare and contrast Krsna and Christ, and to ponder the differences between their births and activities in the world. (See for instance Stephen Tsoukalas’ recent Krsna and Christ, and Jesuit Fr Ishanand’s older book by the same title). Often, such reflection has had a win/lose edge to it: if there are too many similarities, the uniqueness of the Christ-event gets lost from sight; and so distinctions must be made to show how the Christ-event is more unique, more important, and more true. Our faith tells us it IS more true, but we need not read witha competitive, must-win spirit. While such concerns are quite understandable and important in the larger realm of Christian faith and theology, I suggest that we have much to learn by a more refined, narrower inquiry that is really simple: what is Krsna saying in these verses, what did Hindu theologians find in his words, and what do they mean for us? And so, this and two more entries to In All Things before Christmas: Today, 1. What is Krsna saying? and then, in two segments, 2. What did the great Hindu commentator Ramanuja think Krsna was saying? and 3. What therefore do we learn from the Gita, in this Advent meditation, about the coming of Christ? (As usual: I beg my readers’ forbearance in advance, since I am writing a brief and speedy blog, not a treatise; nothing written here is my final word on the subject!)
     So, for today, what is Krsna saying? In brief: Verse 5 Krsna identifies himself with the human condition — that we all are born into human bodies many times over. It is not that the fact that Krsna is born multiple times that distinguishes him from Arjuna, but that Krsna understands the cycle of births, and remembers his previous births. Verse 6 Krsna describes himself in paradoxical language: he is transcendent and perfect, unchanging and unborn — and yet he comes into union with material nature, for the sake of birth, without losing his transcendent perfection. Verse 7 Krsna repeatedly responds to the situation on earth, the waning of that right order which is dharma and the arising of chaos and violence (in a-dharma). Verse 8 Krsna’s interventions in the world are for the sake of good people, and to destroy evil-doers, and thus to restore the right order of things. This is a repeated activity, since in every age good and evil are in tension and conflict in our world. Verse 9 The key human response to this divine activity is to know what Krsna has done, in truth, since it is this knowing that leads to union with Krsna.
     I hope my very brief comments state at least part of what Krsna is saying to Arjuna — and thus give us something to think about: how in Jesus God identifies himself with our human condition, yet without losing divine perfection; how he enters our world in order to side with those in need, against oppressors; how meditating on how Krsna does all this enables us to come into union with Jesus, born among us.
     Read the verses for yourself of course, and read more of the Gita if you can. (There are innumerable translations, including excellent new ones by Laurie Patton, Graham Schweig, and George Thompson; RC Zaehner’s edition has most helpful notes; and you can find useful resources at the Gita Supersite ). To know this about how God is and how God acts — is the task we have in Advent, for the sake of a loving knowledge by which we approach him again. You may, of course, wish also to list difference: one birth vs. many births, for instance — but I hope you will not allow even important differences to make impossible the reflection to which the Gita invites us in Advent.
     Next week, more on how the Hindu theologian Ramanuja found the deeper meaning of these verses. For we cannot read alone, we must read with those who have studied the Gita long before us.

Comments

Anonymous | 12/2/2008 - 1:42pm
Apologies for typos: Krishnasya (genitive) and web site http://ashramdiary.gaia.com/
Anonymous | 12/2/2008 - 12:38pm
Check Abhinavagupta's commentary (10th-cent. Kashmir Shaiva, Italian transl) & Yogananda's (20th-cent. Hollywood). Real question: does BG 18:64-66 reveal supernatural ultimate end (salvation by grace thru faith) before the Incarnation? IMHO yes, & what does this say about unique rev. in Iesu? Key word: srnu! (hear!) BG 7:1; 10:1; 13:3; 18:64 - Fides ex auditu. My fave: "He who offers with devotion only a leaf..." 9:26-30 - IMHO this is ipsissima vox Christi per verba Krishnaya (why not?). Raises old patristic question of semina verbi & vestigia Trinitatis in Law, Prophets, and Sages (in 14th cent. identified w/ Corpus Hermeticum, believed contemp w/ Moses); how to answer today? Tell me what u think, & thanks!
Anonymous | 12/1/2008 - 12:25pm
Thank you for describing and commenting upon this interesting aspect of Hindu belief. Considering all, does this indicate that it might theoretically be possible to discern the revelation of Christian faith from from looking at the cosmos? That is, can one potentially deduce the mind of G_d from the things of the world (and subsequent imagination)?
Anonymous | 12/1/2008 - 10:49am
What an odd coincidence. Just this last Saturday, I read Juan Mascaró's introduction to his translation of the Bhagavad Gita. I am curious about the Gita. I had not read this introduction in years. Also yesterday at Sunday Mass, a few lines from the Upanishads were quoted during the homily. The presider has lived in India several times and was a friend of Bede Griffiths. Krsna knows many things that Aranja does not know. Krsna teaches us that Krsna is all in all. Krsna comes among us to encourage and to teach us. Krsna points to how human beings repeatedly become wicked. Krsna repeatedly encourages human beings and Krsna repeatedly teaches human beings how to be good. Hearing that Krsna consorts with Nature is delightful to listen to. It reminds me of how St. John of the Cross tells us about the woods and thickets planted by the hands of the Beloved. Perhaps with moral progress human beings will acquire the peace and honesty needed to delight in nature and to delight in Krsna. I think we are being told that this can happen if our negative qualities are tamed.