Monday, 27 August 2012

The Bhagavad-Gita and the Bible

[I first wrote this article for the theology blog What You Think Matters, here:]
I like studying other religions. In the past I have found that I have grown in my understanding of the grace of Christ and the relevance of Biblical ethics when comparing them to other religions. I also find it is a great way of learning to love your neighbour, especially when your neighbour might not be a part of the mainstream British culture.
It’s also very interesting to discover the points of tension between other religions and our own. The tensions are often very different to the ones we are used to arguing with our secular humanist friends.

Last year I was invited to a Hare Krishna (Hindu) meeting by a friend. I decided to go, explaining to the leader of the temple that I was a Christian, and would he be happy if I just observed? Over the months I met with the leader of the temple to dialogue about our respective faiths. I bought a Bhagavad-Gita and read it in order to facilitate discussion. As the leader of the temple said he had formerly been a Christian missionary, he didn’t need to acquaint himself with the Bible!

I thought I would share some of my thoughts. Here is an extract of the Bhagavad-Gita. The context: Arjuna is a mighty warrior who is travelling in a chariot with Krishna. On both sides of the battle Arjuna can recognise friends and family. Arjuna turns to Krishna in turmoil that friends and family are lining up to fight to the death.

1: Seeing Arjuna full of compassion, his mind depressed, his eyes full of tears, Krishna spoke the following words. 2: Krishna said: My dear Arjuna, how have these impurities come upon you? They are not at all befitting a man who knows the value of life. They lead not to higher planets but to infamy. 3: O son of Pritha, do not yield to this degrading impotence. It does not become you. Give up such petty weakness of heart and arise, O chastiser of the enemy 4:; Arjuna said: O killer of enemies, O killer of Madhu, how can I counterattack with arrows in battle men like Bhishma and Drona, who are worthy of my worship? 8: I can find no means to drive away this grief which is drying up my senses. I will not be able to dispel it even if I win a prosperous, unrivaled kingdom on earth with sovereignty like the demigods in heaven. 7: Having spoken thus, Arjuna, chastiser of enemies, told Krishna, “Govinda, I shall not fight,” and fell silent 11/12: Krishna said: While speaking learned words, you are mourning for what is not worthy of grief. Those who are wise lament neither for the living nor for the dead. Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be. 33: (Krishna cont …) If, however, you do not perform your religious duty of fighting, then you will certainly incur sins for neglecting your duties and thus lose your reputation as a fighter. 37: O son of Kunti, either you will be killed on the battlefield and attain the heavenly planets, or you will conquer and enjoy the earthly kingdom. Therefore get up and fight with determination. 38: Do thou fight for the sake of fighting, without considering happiness or distress, loss or gain, victory or defeat—and by so doing you shall never incur sin.

I think the advice of Krishna can be quite shocking to Westerners, both Christian and non-Christians, as we highly value physical life. But, logically, if one believes in reincarnation, what Krishna says does make sense. Therefore, it seems, not all religions can neatly fit into the traditional ethical codes of the West.

Here are some of the points I discussed with the leader of the temple, which you might find interesting:

1. The last verse quoted above, 38, alludes to an important doctrine for the Krishna Consciousness: detachment. Detachment from the material world, the consequences of your actions and ego. We discussed the concept of God, because for the Temple leader detachment drew him closer to God. I explained that the Bible did not cause us to see the material world as evil, and therefore attachment to it was in fact healthy as ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’. This discussion also could be applied to the value, or non-value, of physical life. Jesus cried when Lazarus died. Very different to what Krishna is suggesting.

2. Personality. Was the Hindu God personal or impersonal? If Hare Krishna worshipers are asked to detach from the physical world and from ‘happiness or distress, loss or gain, victory or defeat’ then does this also include human relationships? Or even relationship with God? The Temple Leader confirmed that relationship with God was very important to the followers of Krishna, but this was not true of a great many Hindus. On the other hand, Jesus is very personal. He came to earth once as one man, a personality that can be known and relied upon.

3. Morality. What effect do these forms of detachment have on morality? Does it mean that it is ok to kill? That is what the Bhagavad-Gita seems to say; or at least that there is no room for sentimentality. However, the Temple leader assured me that they would never teach that such a crime was permissible. This is also confirmed in Ranchor Prime’s commentary: ‘Killing brings its reaction for the perpetrator’1. However, I still have questions about whether these conclusions can be drawn from the text. Admittedly they are from a time of war. But to ‘fight for the sake of fighting’ cannot be reconciled with any form of Just War theory, in my opinion. This would be in stark contradiction to Jesus’ command “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matt 26:52)

I’m sure that Krishna worshipers have other answers to these questions than those I have recorded here. The above is only the result of a few conversations with one man. But isn’t it interesting!? The tensions between Christianity and Krishna Consciousness are vastly different to the ones we face in the main stream British culture. It helps me see Christ’s teaching from another angle, and makes me appreciate it even more.


  1. As I may have said on Facebook I think the title of this piece is misleading. The Gita is a wonderful book which should be read by all Christians and most who have done would agree that we have much common ground with the message expressed therein. The Hare Krishna's interpretation of the book, however, is rather fringe and extreme and consequentially if we were to generalise from them to all Hindus it would be like generalising from Jehova's Wittnesses to all followers of Jesus.

    If we delve deep into the Mahabharata, it is only a story of a war between two families. It remained a story for several centuries. During the Hindu kingdoms of Gupta, Vijayanagar and Mahratta the story aspect of the Mahabharata alone was etched in the minds of the people. There were no philosophical discourses in temples. Devotees worshiped the idols of gods and goddesses. All Hindu scriptures remained mnemonic and there were no manuscripts, for it was considered sacreligious to produce manuscripts or to print books of the sacred scriptures. A prayer like the Gayatri mantra could be recited only by Brahmins. If a non-Brahmin had accidentally heard the recital by a Brahmin, molten led would be poured into his ears. The Asiatic Society was founded in 1784 by William Jones. While still on board of the frigate Crococlile carrying him from England to India, he prepared a memorandum detailing his plan of study. This included “the laws of the Hindus and Mahomedans; the history of the ancient world; modern politics and geography of Hindusthan; Arithmatic and Geometry and mixed sciences of Asiaticks; Medicine, Chemistry, Surgery and Anatomy of the Indians etc.,” So even before landing in India, Jones was bent upon establishing the fact that ancient Indians were well versed in philosophy, mathematicas, science and medicine. But there were no manuscripts of Hindu scriptures and no original sources about Indian knowledge of science and medicine. The preferred method of Jones and other British scholars was to sit in the company of Sankrit-knowing Brahmins's and other Hindus, and to ask them to recite from memory Hindu scriptures. Scientists say that memory loss begins at the age of 40. How could the old Brahmins recite by heart century-old Scriptures? Recital by Brahmins contained many contemporary ideas to make the scriptures quite presentable. William Jones and other Orientalists syncretised Sanskrit with Classical and Biblical narratives, to establish transcultural correspondences by means of often crude conjectural etymologies. There were Brahmins such as Pundit Ramlochan, Balachandra Siromani, Rajendralala Misra, Bala Sastri of Benares, Radhakanta Sarman who were allowed to produce their own versions of Hindu scriptures. Brahmin scholars could get easy access to Christian scriptures and western literature from Fort William College and Sanskrit College in Calcutta established by the British. Another scholar, Francis Wilford, claimed that he had discovered the relationship among Hindu traditions, the Bible and the ancient British antiquities. Jones and other scholars, in collaboration with Brahmins, produced Sanskrit manuscripts with these fake claims. Krishna’s narration of creation in the Bhagavad Gita and the creation account in the Manu smriti produced by Jones are modified reproduction of the creation account in the Bible. Krishna’s instructions in the Gita are patterned on the book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in the Bible. As the modern translation of the Bhagavad Gita indicates, the work is in poetic form and in many places it is metrically exact parallel to Biblical literature. Sir Charles Wilkins translated the Bhagavad Gita into English in 1785, and he had used the Sanskrit manuscript produced by Asiatic Society scholars with so many interpolations and deletions. It was the English translation that gave worldwide publicity for the Bhagavad Gita. Deception and forgeries can be detected in the manuscripts produced by them. In 1788, Wilford, claimed to have found innumerable references to ancient Egypt, its Kings and holy places in Puranas by publishing a long text of baroque complexity in Asiatic Researches. However, Wilford was forced to admit with a humiliating note in the same journal that he had been systematically duped by his head Brahmin Pandit between 1793 and 1805. Probably the modernized version of the Bhagavad Gita was interpolated during this period.

  3. The story you have quoted is symbolic of the internal battle one must undergo to overcome his own sins.

  4. yesuratnam ,who has not learned the Bhagawathgita from a hindu scholar.
    He simply talking about the period and circumstances where the Gita was told.He had no idea about Lord Krishna, his motive for incarnation and the inner meaning of Original Gita.peoples like yesuratnam who left their own religion and converted into other for the mean of living ,better not to comment on the subject which they have no idea.

  5. Kedar Joshi says in his book on Bhagvad Gita says: "51. Krishna—the preacher of yoga—is himself not a yogi. In the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna, who is not in the least a yogi himself,1 demands Arjuna, and in fact every other mortal, to be a yogi,2 while contradictorily enticing him with material prospects and benefits.3 Krishna is not said to be a yogi basically because he claims to create the (painful)4 manifested world (Vyakta Prakriti),5 when, as a yogi, he, as Paramatman (or Supreme Soul or Supersoul),6
    would quite simply be expected to be content within himself, and not to have any desire,7 including the desire for creation. Krishna is not the God of yoga but the "God of desire and hypocrisy"!7

    2. Krishna alone is satanic (or evil)
    Interestingly, it can be inferred from the Gita, as well as from the rest of the Mahabharata, that Arjuna—the primary audience of the Gita—never really became a yogi. The way he fought the war, perhaps the way he lived afterwards, and the way his earthly life ended seem to show with sufficient clarity that disunion with non-atman and union with Paramatman —“yoga” in short, which appears to be the central message of the Gita—is not what he ultimately, or perhaps ever, strived for. 6According to the Gita, it is Krishna who does everything, it is he who is responsible for every good as well as evil that exists in the world,8 and yet he proclaims to make it— the prospects of yoga—worse for evil people,9 asserts to annihilate miscreants,10 while contradictorily11 claiming to be the friend of every being.12 Divinity—i.e. Krishna— alone could be said to possess free-will. Krishna alone creates delusion (or ignorance) and causes (unfathomable) suffering. Krishna—and Krishna alone—is evil..


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