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“A SOURCE OF INSPIRATION”
Krishna Consciousness and the Judeo-Christian Tradition
A Guide to Interfaith Discussion
Dr. Harvey Cox
The following statement was made by Dr. Harvey Cox, a liberal Protestant theologian at the Harvard Divinity School. It was originally given at a symposium titled "Krishna Consciousness and Religious Freedom," at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University on November 22, 1976. Dr. Cox is the author of Secular City.
"I’ve asked myself in recent weeks, as there has been more and more controversy about the Hare Krishna movement (many devotees of which I’ve personally known and respected highly), ‘Why is it that suddenly this movement has come in for such attention, to the point that one might even begin to speak of harassment? Why is this?’
"And I have to confess now, as a theologian mainly committed to Christianity, that I think it indicates a feeling of guilt and a feeling of failure on the part of those who have tried to preserve something of the critical and creative spiritual possibilities that Christianity itself offers.
"Could it be that we have allowed Christianity itself and perhaps Judaism to be so identified with the values of accumulation, profit, performance, success, and material gain—which are, after all, the main values of our society—that it takes something as apparently esoteric and exotic as a movement coming from India to remind us that there is a way of life that is not built on accumulating profit, property, success, and degrees, but has at its core a certain kind of simplicity and plainness of living, if you will?...
"Why is it, I asked myself that we can’t hear the voices of prophets from our own tradition, and yet somehow people from as far away as India can bring a message which in some ways sounds so similar? Maybe this is a way that we are being called back to something more essential in our own tradition—a way that God has of reminding us of what we’ve left behind and forgotten and ignored.
"What is the meaning for us of this movement’s coming into our midst in this century? I would put it in a very theological sense: What is God saying to us? What does it mean?...Are we uncomfortable with this movement because at a certain level we’re very uncomfortable with ourselves, with the kind of materialistic society we’ve built?
"Maybe one of the results of this Hare Krishna movement will be to stimulate us to rediscover some things that we’ve ignored and suppressed in our own religious heritage. I think it may happen. And if it does, then I’m very grateful for the kind of gift that they bring."
Dr. Cox sees Krishna Consciousness as an alternative to the mass consumerism and crass materialism of the West:
"In American society, I believe we’re now in the late phase, the most deteriorated, decadent phase of consumer capitalism. When I say ‘consumer capitalism,’ I don’t mean simply the form of our economic life; I mean our whole culture. It’s not just a capitalist economic system. It’s a capitalistic culture, with personal lifestyles, values, morality, and meaning perceptions all in some measure shaped by this underlying ethos. And all this means that the value of the person is greatly underrated.
"People’s primal energies are fixated on commodities that are supposed to bring satisfaction of inner hungers. Through the suggestive and hypnotic powers of the advertising industry, a direct connection is made from very basic things which satisfy those needs; but of course they do not. Furthermore, the life pattern is pretty well set out through educational, occupational, and career structures which define for people the meaning of success in material terms, and in a way that people think that they’re making choices. But they’re actually being coerced and manipulated into a structure which really does not pay off in terms of genuine spiritual satisfaction.
"The result...is the creation of a lot of unsatisfied hungers and unresolved fears which turn into anger and violence. I think a lot of the violence in our society is a result of this...Ultimately, I become angry at the whole society that is the cause of my unfulfillment, and there’s a tendency to take that frustration out on other people. So I think the whole web of violence in our society is related to this in ways that are not explored thoroughly enough by psychologists.
"Now, from my point of view, what Christianity should be doing in this country is providing an alternative to this capitalist-consumer ethos, in terms of personal values and ultimate meaning. There are a few Christians who are doing it, but the vast majority of people who call themselves Christians are, in fact, completely caught up in this un-Christian value system."
According to Dr. Cox, Jesus taught renunciation:
"This is a point that must have been very difficult for the early followers of Jesus because he insisted, in every instance, that they put loyalty to him above loyalty to their families, and he put it in very strident terms: ‘Unless you leave behind your wife, your family, and come and follow me, you can’t be my disciple.’...Now, somehow or other, over the years we’ve made Jesus into a kind of blessing of the patriarchal bourgeois family. There’s not one single text anywhere in the teachings of Jesus that supports this. Jesus is a person who’s calling people to something that is more important than family."
Dr. Cox observes, "...there aren’t many examples around of people who choose a path of religious asceticism, and devotion...The people who understand the Hare Krishna movement better than many others are people who have a relative who’s become a Benedictine monk or a nun. They know somebody who has chosen to do something which appears to be crazy: giving up television, giving up family life, leaving professional careers and going off to live in a monastery. But that’s legitimated in the Catholic system. I’ve talked with people about the Hare Krishna movement in this way and they can easily make the connection."
Dr. Cox notes the familiar use of rituals and iconography in Krishna temples around the world. "I’ve heard Catholics say how comforting it is to walk into a Mass anywhere in the world and see the same gestures and hear the same words, especially during the old days of the Latin Mass. You can walk into any temple in Vrindavana, or in ISKCON, and pretty much the same thing is going on."
Dr. Cox favorably compares Krishna Consciousness with Christianity:
"You can see the obvious similarities. Here you have the idea of a personal God who becomes incarnate...revealing what God is about and eliciting a form of participation in the life of God.
"I think a Christian will have some natural sensitivity to Krishna devotion... devotion of the heart, that is, pietistic Christianity...We noted several surprising similarities between what you might call Appalachian folk religion and Krishna Consciousness. Both religions put a big emphasis on joy, the spiritual joy of praising God...
"...both traditions emphasize puritanical values and practice certain forms of asceticism such as no drinking, no smoking, no non-marital sex and no gambling...Both seem to put more emphasis on a future life or another world."
According to Dr. Cox, "You have to remember that if you had been there at the early Methodist frontier revivals here in America...you would have seen some very ecstatic behavior...jumping up and down and singing. This sort of ecstatic religious behavior is, of course, associated with religious devotion from time immemorial in virtually every culture. We happen to be living in a culture which is very restricted, unimaginative, and narrow in this regard."
Dr. Cox says there are elements within the theology of Krishna Consciousness which might nourish Christianity theologically. Specifically, he says "that the relationship between Krishna and Radha adds a dimension of human relationality which is not developed in Christian theology."
He says further that texts emphasizing the feminine aspect of God and the conjugal imagery as a metaphor for the human relationship with the Divine can be found in the Song of Songs, the Apocrypha, and the gnostic gospels, but these are lacking in the New Testament. "We have some of that imagery in some of the Carmelite mystics and other Catholic devotional writings, but still it’s not very developed. Therefore, the whole realm of male-female relationality has been almost totally excluded..."
On an abstract, theological level, Dr. Cox sees many similarities between Krishna Consciousness and Christianity. According to Dr. Cox, "It’s especially intriguing for Christian theologians, maybe even deceptively intriguing, because of the obvious structural analogies to a lot of Christianity in the devotional Hindu tradition. I find Vaishnavaism, and ISKCON itself, a fascinating and challenging spiritual and theological movement. My interest in it probably stems, in part, from the fact that it touches certain aspects of my own spiritual tradition, my own spiritual trajectory, in a way that other movements do not."
Other Christians have acknowledged the similarities, as well as the differences, between the two faiths.
One early 20th century Christian theologian, Rudolf Otto, called Vaishnavaism "India’s religion of grace," (see Back to Godhead: "Can Religions Compete?", by Garuda dasa, 1980).
In the December 1982 issue of Back to Godhead, Timothy A. James of Mt. Sterling, Kentucky wrote in and concluded: "I have met many Krishna devotees who claim to be Christians...Please be aware that you are leading many astray with your careless definition of Christ and Christianity. It is simply a vain attempt to maintain your so-called claim of nonsectarianism.
"I have studied Krishna Conscious philosophy and the Vaishnava bhakti writings. There are some rather striking similarities to Christianity, but...Vaishnavaism is Hindu, so you embrace Hinduism—at least admit that much. Then if you can stop deceiving yourself, you may be inclined to stop deceiving others."
Vaishnavas, of course, cannot claim to be Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. Nonetheless, for the sake of preaching, evangelization, and interfaith discussion, it is perfectly fair and reasonable to bring up points of similarities with other faiths.
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