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franciscan - January 2001

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2000

Hinduism and Jesus

How does a Hindu view Jesus and the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation? Dr Petà Dunstan, Companion SSF, put this question to His Holiness Tamal Krishna Goswami.
PD: Many in the West are under the impression that all Hindus view God and Incarnation in the same way. Is that true?

TKG: What you might hear from the representative of one branch of Hinduism could be entirely different from what you might hear from another.

A follower of Shankara’s school, for example, would ultimately say that all manifestations of any sort are ultimately illusion, and that the highest truth, Brahman, is a Truth without differentiation of any sort. They might say that at any given moment there may be an expression of God’s presence in this world, but that it would be temporary, a product of illusion.
On the other hand, a member of one of the schools of Vaishnavaism would never speak this way. A Vaishnava would hold that the creation is real, but that it is not permanent. It has to be taken seriously because it emanates from God.
Within Vaishnavism there are many different schools. I belong to the school called Chaitanya Vaishnavism, founded by the ecstatic saint Chaitanya (1486-1534). A follower of Chaitanya would make a distinction between different expressions or appearances of God.
In the case of Christianity, Jesus’ Incarnation is particular in the sense in which God comes in human form. ‘Incarnation’ (from the Latin verb incarnatus, to invest with flesh) indicates that his body is indeed flesh. In contrast, the Vaishnavas hold that many of the Incarnations they worship are not of flesh. Here we run into the problem with the word ‘Incarnation’. Many scholars feel it inappropriate to use this term for anyone other than Jesus, because of its etymological and theological meaning. God entered at a particular time in history as a real human being.
The Sanskrit word avatara can have a similar meaning, though it is not used in the exclusive sense of Incarnation. Among the avataras, some are human beings specially empowered for a specific purpose. They are considered individual souls with a specific shakti or energy of God. That means they do not represent the Godhead in its entirety, but only one aspect of the Godhead.
Now my guru, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, heard from his guru that Jesus was a saktyavesha-avatara: a particular living being, in this case a human being, empowered for a specific purpose, but not the Godhead in full. Therefore I doubt a Christian would ever be satisfied with a definition saying that Jesus is one aspect or one quality of God (which is not the same as saying, in a Trinitarian sense, that Jesus is the Son). We also believe that God descends in his fullness, and that is as Krishna. We worship Krishna as the Supreme Deity; my guru used the nomenclature ‘Supreme Personality of Godhead’. There may be many avataras but Krishna is the supreme among all of them and he is the Godhead in full. And all the other avataras are within him.

PD: So in that sense, Krishna would be for you as Jesus is for Christians?

TKG: Not exactly. Krishna is God the Father, the original creator. Jesus is the Son of God. We believe that God the Father can also appear in the world. Apart from this ontological difference, there are other dissimilarities, because Jesus has his own personality, activities, and his own specific history. We also place Krishna within history, approximately five thousand years ago. He came in this world. The descriptions of Krishna are said to be what he did while in this world, which resembles some of his pastimes performed in the spiritual world.
However, according to our theology, Krishna’s body is never made of matter, so the word ‘Incarnation’ is misleading. He is not an Incarnation of God: he is God. So what we are talking about is not God coming in a different form, but God coming in his original form. He is the Godhead and has descended with a spiritual body.
My spiritual master spoke of Jesus as the representative of God and he called him guru. But in our own tradition, guru is the servant of God, so Jesus is the servant of his Father. He is the son of God. Again the son of God has a slightly different meaning for us, because we may all be called children of God. Jesus may be the best among the children of God; I suspect in our tradition, they would say ‘one of the best’. So traditionally we would view Jesus as a perfect teacher, an exemplar, a manifestation of God within this world.
Now from my side, I tend to see Jesus more as a Christian believer or worshipper sees him and I have no problem with that, personally. I don’t see how Jesus draws any less love from his worshipper. The nature of the devotion to Jesus is probably what is particular. But I do not think that a person who is worshipping Jesus as the Incarnation of God is worshipping a different God than I am.

PD: So you would see a lot of ground on which there could be dialogue between Christians and Hindus?

TKG: Yes. I think that, more than on the theoretical platform, the greatest amount of benefit would come on the experiential level. The theory is there to evoke emotion. By emotion, I mean genuine religious experience. Without that, there is no meaning to religion. It is on that level that there is greatest opportunity for dialogue. It is very easy to show the very clear differences theologically. But when we come down to practice, to rituals, and the purpose behind the rituals, and, finally, their results, that is where I see there is a lot to exchange.
What I find particularly striking about Jesus is his suffering. This is totally different, and yet extremely meaningful to me, from what we have in the personality of Krishna, because Krishna does not suffer. His form is made of bliss. He revels in pastimes of love. He is always surrounded by his eternal associates and engaged in loving exchanges with them.
Prabhupada, my spiritual master, did say that the extreme limit of willingness to sacrifice in the name of God has been shown by Jesus. No one gives his life as Jesus gave his life. The fact that God himself is giving his life makes the sacrifice even more striking. But again, from our vantage point, we would say that the servant of God has given his life to his Father. And of course, Prabhupada would distinguish Jesus as the son, and that there is a Father. We take it that God the Father is Krishna.
I personally am deeply moved by the sacrifice, the Christian view of God’s sacrifice – that he has so much compassion for the fallen souls that he sacrifices himself on the cross. Could there be a greater act of compassion? It moves Christians so deeply to think of this and I think it is very profound. We have saints in our tradition who make similar sacrifices, but that God himself makes such sacrifices is a very astonishing matter for me.
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