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Krishna Consciousness and the Judeo-Christian Tradition
A Guide to Interfaith Discussion

Dr. Klaus Klostermaier

John Plott has done elaborate studies comparing Christianity and Vaishnavaism, particularly the teachings and theology of Ramanuja to St. Bonaventura. Geoffrey Parrinder wrote The Significance of the Bhagavad-gita for Christian Theology and William Blanchard entitled his Ph.D dissertation: "An Examination of the Relation of the New Testament to the Bhagavad-gita."

And perhaps it was Dr. Klaus Klostermaier, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Manitoba , who wrote that the Hare Krishna movement in the West more closely resembles Christianity than it does modern Hinduism, while its "neo-Vedic art" resembles 19th century Nazarene art.

Dr. Klostermaier has published numerous academic articles and books, including his own personal story, Hindu and Christian in Vrindaban. He points out "that Vaishnavaism, like Christianity, is a living religion with millions of adherents. It is numerically the largest segment of modern Hinduism, with a history going back thousands of years. So we are not talking about some small sect but, rather, mainstream Hinduism.

"The first point to understand," says Dr. Klostermaier, "is that Vaishnavaism is as pervasive in India as Christianity is in the Western countries. It represents traditional Hinduism and claims to contain all that is genuinely Hindu. So Vishnu worship, or later, the worship of Krishna, is something very much akin to the worship of God or, later, Jesus, in the Judaeo-Christian tradition."

According to Dr. Klostermaier, Vaishnavas, like their Christian brethren, view Jesus Christ differently. "Some Vaishnavas consider him an avatara or some kind of divine incarnation. Others see him as a great teacher of moral codes and ethical principles, a saint whose selfless spirit of sacrifice is a great inspiration to mankind. Then there are those who see him as a miracle worker, a sort of yogi...There are quite diverse conceptions of Christ both in the minds of Vaishnavas and in the minds of Christians.

"Peter’s confession to Jesus, saying, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God’...Now, this becomes a difficult passage to explain to Hindus...Isvar ke putr—‘the son of God’—is a very common expression in Hindu India. In the epics and Puranas there are countless stories of ‘sons of gods’---Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva beget sons from princesses and queens. Hindus will say: ‘What is so special about Jesus? We are all sons of God.’ So the idea does not convey the notion of uniqueness as it does in the West."

Sudhindra Chandra Chakravarti, in his 1969 book, Philosophical Foundation of Bengal Vaishnavaism, noted the similarities between Vaishnavaism and Christianity in terms of loving relationships with a personal God.

"Like the advocates of Bengal Vaishnavaism, Christianity has availed itself of the rich imagery of human relationships to represent the five stages of religious feeling. The quietistic type of Christian devotion familiar in all periods of Christian history corresponds to the shantabhakti of Bengal Vaishnavaism. The figure of Mary, sister of Martha, at the feet of Jesus is an apt illustration of this type of religious experience.

"The second stage called dasya, which is characterized by the feeling of being a slave or a servant, has its counterpart in the devotion of Paul, the bondslave of Christ. An unbroken line of devout spirits following Paul is known to have expressed the utter devotion of heart in terms of slavery and servitude. Once, while washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus said, ‘I am among you as he that serveth.’ This fact reveals Jesus’ attitude towards the dasya, aspect of devotion.

"The sakhya stage has its counterpart in the relationship between Jesus and his disciples, indicated by his own words, ‘No longer do I call you servants...but now I call you friends.’ The devotion in terms of the parent and child relation is quite fundamental to Christianity. According to the Christian faith, God is the eternal Father, and all are His children.

"The vatsalya stage of Bengal Vaishnavaism, however, is concerned only with the parental feeling toward the Lord. It has its parallels in the New Testament picture of the wise men and the Christ child...The madhurya stage of bhakti finds its parallel in the mystical practices of medieval monasticism. The Roman Catholic nun is taught to regard her soul as the bride of Christ. In Protestant teaching, the church is regarded as the bride of Christ."

Dr. Klostermaier acknowledges these and other parallels between Christianity and Vaishnavaism—religious traditions which emphasize worshipping a personal God. "In Christianity, too, you have highly personalistic ideas, like those of the medieval Beghines—female devotees of medieval Germany. They envisioned the playfulness of God in highly personalistic terms, according to private revelations, and there were other, similar schools of thought. The Puranas—like the Bible—deal with creation, history of dynasties, biographies of saints moral laws, human wisdom, the first created being, a Noah-type personality, the birth of the saviour, miracles of all sorts. These things are there and they can be elaborated upon with volumes of commentary."

Dr. Klostermaier compares the devotion to God found in the Song of Songs, conveyed through the religious imagery of a conjugal relationship, to Jayadeva’s Gita-Govinda. He speaks of The Imitation of Christ as a classic of devotional literature. He observes that St. John’s Dark Night of the Soul could be seen as a Christian version of viraha-bhakti—love of God in the mood of separation.

The temporary loss of the vision of God, viraha-bhakti, was spoken of by St. Teresa as "the great dereliction," and Madame Guyon called it "mystic death." This makes one mad with anticipation, and increases one’s sense of devotion. Christian mystics experienced this level of devotion to God, and exhibited the bodily symptoms which accompany it.

"But I think you are looking for parallels in Christian and Vaishnava traditions," says Dr. Klostermaier, "and this can be found quite readily. In fact, if you look long and hard enough, you can find points of similarity all the way through; and you can even reconcile many of the obvious differences that the two religions have come to engender.

"You can see it in the basic practices of these religions. Certain key practices of Gaudiya Vaishnavaism are found in Christian mysticism as well, and through this you can find many parallels. But again, it is quite difficult to generalize. You see, Jiva Goswami does not represent all Gaudiya Vaishnavas; and Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas do not represent the mass of Christian believers.

"Still, if you speak in general terms, there are certain generic spiritual practices and ideals that the two traditions share, especially if you look into the monastic communities.

"There is the sense of worshipping God in a regulated way; liturgical ceremonies; temple worship; subduing the senses; self-control; loving one’s neighbor; communal worship; meditation; prayer. You can see these things, for example, in certain early Franciscan orders—a religion of song and dance. It is currently seeing some revival. Here is a good parallel for what one might see in a Gaudiya Vaishnava community. It, too, is an exuberant sort of piety. Bonaventure was a Franciscan. So I do see a similarity there. You know the Franciscans were even vegetarians—for a large part, they still are. I think there are certain things you can look for in all genuinely spiritual traditions. The sense of love, compassion, commitment."

Dr. Klostermaier compares the worship of God in plural form as Radha and Krishna in the Vaishnava tradition to the Christian Trinitarian concept of God. "The inner, divine relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost is fundamentally a relationship of love—profound, unending spiritual communication...The Western theological context in which the love of Radha and Krishna could perhaps be best understood is precisely that of Trinitarian theology.

"For the Christian, the Trinity represents the deepest mystery of faith...Similarly, the Radha-Krishna relationship cannot be fathomed by paralleling it with romantic love poetry or late medieval Marian devotion, as some writers have tried to do. The mystery of these things goes very deep, and there is no earthly symbolism that can accurately convey its truth."


Go on to:  07 - The Holy Name

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