Krishna and Me

26 01 2009

Part II: The Baby Butter Thief and the Quest for a Western Bhakti

A few days after my visit to the Hare Krishna temple here in Berkeley, I received in the mail the first installment of an Indian miniseries on the “life” of the deity Krishna. This is religion Bollywood style. To say that the the movie is, well, unique, is a bit of an understatement. Like many Indian movies, the acting is exceptionally bad. If you are looking for cheesy renditions of scenes from ancient Hindu mythology, this is the film for you. Not only that, but I think you will have your hands full; there are about twenty discs in the series, so knock yourself out. The eighth incarnation of Vishnu led a long and exciting life, don’t you know?

The first episode is actually the most informative and sort of an overview of the rest of the series. It reveals how important Krishna is to the Hindu religion; he occupies almost the same place as Jesus in ours. The stories of his birth and life are equally miraculous: he was the eighth child of his parents, and destined from birth to smash the power of the evil demon king who was holding his parents and the world hostage. Meditation on his life and deeds, according to many of the sages portrayed in the movie, is the secret of bhakti yoga. People in India during the feasts of Krishna reenact scenes from his life in dramatic plays. As the Hare Krishna leader said during the Bhagavad Gita class, all things must be done for Krishna: the incarnation of God on earth.

One of the more compelling stories from Krishna’s life is one that is alludedto in the video posted above: Krishna the butter thief. Great reverence is shown to the image of Krishna as an infant and small boy, and like the Jesus of the apocryphal gospels, he could also get himself into quite a bit of mischief. This time, Krishna is caught by his stepmother going into the kitchen and raiding the butter supply. When the woman thinks she has caught the young god red-handed, she demands that the boy open his mouth to show her the damning evidence. According to one narrator, what she finds instead in the mouth of the toddler is the entire cosmos, sun, moon, and stars, enclosed between his cheeks. Clearly this was no ordinary boy.

In spite of the base idolatry and false religion that is at the heart of this film, it reminded me again of the poverty of modern Western religion when considering the genius of cultural imagination. Most American Catholics could never have a devotion to the baby Jesus, or at least it seems counter-intuitive to most of us. Jesus Christ, after all, died and resurrected as a man of 33 years, and it is supposed that He stopped aging then. So how can we have a devotion to baby Jesus? Sure, many of us meditate on the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary, and maybe this would count as something close to the same phenomenon as the butter thief story. But most modern people, and even devout believing ones, have the temptation of reducing devotion to Jesus primarily to an issue of historical memory; a first century carpenter’s son who happens to be God.  Even if people do have a devotion to the Holy Infant, there is no theory behind it; only a vague sentiment and a sense of the peripheral nature of such a devotion when compared to more “important” things.

In the traditional Catholic imagination, away from the distinctions of theologians, even the Word Incarnate is split into various avatars and manifestations, all of which at bottom would represent the historical Jesus, but also reflect the presence of the Divine within history and culture. There are of course the Infants (Atocha, Prague, Niñopa, etc.)  There are the various figures of Christ in agony, the Holy Face, scourged at the pillar, the Pietà, etc. There is Our Lord of Chalma, of the Miracles, the black Nazarene, etc. In the “well-catechized” mind, all of these are merely manifestations of the same thing. In the concrete, however, they are not the same: each image, each individual manifestation of the mystery of Jesus Christ has its own story, its own logic to it. It is not merely an issue of edification or of catechesis in images, but the direct intervention of God into the lives of people.

I have written previously that we cannot ignore our own heightened sense of historical consciousness even when approaching religion. On the other hand, we must not overestimate the ability of the human mind to encompass the mystery of God. Many have said that the way we forge a middle road between the two is to realize the importance of myth in the human psyche. Myth in this sense is not merely a spinning of fanciful tales, but a series of stories and symbols that evoke a reality higher than the realm of daily human experinence. While I am not comfortable with the term “mythos”, I do feel that we must save our idea of the sacred story from the realm of pure moral edification to return it to an integrated cosmos “haunted” by the supernatural. This will entail both the reflections of the erudite theologian and the kitsch of the old woman dressing her statue of the baby Jesus, just as Krishna in the Hindu religion encompasses both the metaphysical exhortations on the Kuru battle field and an infant eating stolen butter off of his small fingers.

Also involved in this is a need for a real sense of bhakti  in the Western mind, apart from the subjectivist contemplations of Catholic devotio moderna and Protestant evangelical pop devotion. It must be manifested in culture, in song, in drama, and in celebration. It is not just internal, but communal; not just emotional, but historical and cosmic in its scope. Truth and devotion must be joined together, not just in a stark, monastic “kneeling theology”, but in a theology of a drunken crowd at a saint’s feast in a Maya highland village, for example. It is only there where the ideal will emerge from the real, only there we will no longer feel that the truth comes from our own ideas of the world, but rather it is passed down as tradition, just as the Triune God Himself is tradition.


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6 responses

30 07 2012
abey

Krisna who is the christ of the manicheans, biblically identified as the False Christ & Vishnu who transforms himself into a female , which purpose is to tempt, called the Tempter has no Biblical relation to God, for the bible says that at no time has God ever tempted any man.

8 03 2010
The Infant of Prague and bricolage « Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity

[…] is not unique to Catholicism. The pagan equivalent that immediately comes to mind is the image of Krishna as the baby butter thief. When I think about devotion to the child Jesus, I think of my grandmother’s images of the Holy […]

6 02 2009
Leyla Jagiella

The Hindu deities are actually not all blue. Some have no particular darker skincolour at all e.g. Parvati is almost always depicted with a bright skin, as is Ganesha (appart from his elephant head).

There are slight differences in shade amongst those deities who actually have a blueish-dark skincolour and there are different stories explaining the skin colour of each of them.

Krishna is generally called Shyaam (the dark blue one) or Kaanha (the dark one) and in poetry these names are often connected to the dark colour of the monsoon raincloud that promises favours and fertility, and relief from the summer heat, to the yearning peasants of Northern India.
There are also poetical allusions to the numinous, the dark one that seems full of mysteries but fascinates at the same time.

4 02 2009
R

Why are the Hindu gods blue?

26 01 2009
Steve

Although it would be cool to see the Universe in the Baby Jesus’s mouth.

Why are all the Hindu gods blue?

26 01 2009
Steve

There is a lot of devotion to the Baby Jesus.
Infant of Prague
Santo Nino de Atocha
other paintings, images etc

Especially at Christmas (but not just)
with nativity scenes creches
especially Italian, Mexican (and other South American)
Baby Jesus being kissed, on roofs, on altars–all sorts of places

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