JANMASHTAMI — the controversy over Krishna and Christ. 

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By Jawhar Sircar, IAS:  Krishna is definitely a fascinating subject for scholars, whether religious or analytical, but he troubles historians the most. Contrary to normal belief, Krishna is not mentioned in the Vedas, and with great difficulty, we find his first undisputed mention as a character only in the Chhandogya Upanishad of the seventh century BC. He is also cited in the later Taittirya Aranyaka, but there is no reference to the legend of his birth. This story enters our collective memory more than a thousand years later, in the Vishnu Purana and the Hari-Vamsa of the 3rd or 4th centuries of the Christian Era. In between, we do get some stray references in a few sacred narratives, but Krishna was certainly not portrayed as the ‘great god’ that he became in later tradition. Janmashtami is not mentioned as a popular celebration and Krishna himself is completely overshadowed for several centuries by Vasudeva and Balarama or Sankarsana. They were more powerful deities in the pre-Christian era and Krishna often appeared as a ‘junior partner’ of Vasudeva or Balarama — till the Gupta period, roughly the 3rd century AD.
The Mahabharata and the Gita came out in their final shape around this time and it was only then that Krishna emerged more prominently. This was also when the two major cults, Vaishnavism and Shivaism were contesting rivals and Krishna was presented as the supreme god of the Vaishnavas. At this point, he subsumed both the earlier deities of Vasudeva and Balarama into his own legend. We have a lot of evidence in Gupta and post-Gupta sculpture portraying the miraculous deeds of the divine child. They valorize him as the mascot of the new settled pastoral civilization that arose on the banks of the Yamuna. Eminent scholars like DD Kosambi and Jan Gonda (pronounced as Khonda) marvel at the various images and motifs of the child god. Among them, the sculpture of Krishna holding Govardhana Hill over his head to protect his people against torrential rains is a favorite. Historians of religion view this as representing the victory the newly settled civilizations and their agriculture-cum-pastoral economy over the wandering animal-grazing ‘Aryan’ tribes — through the symbolic win of Krishna over the omnipotent Indra.

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Even so, we do not have sufficient proof that Janmashtami was celebrated on such a grand scale during the Gupta period and most scholars feel that this fervour picked up another millennium later, during the Bhakti movement. Surdas, Meera and Bhakti poets played a great role in the15th-16th centuries to portray Balagopala as a playful loveable little god. The Shaivas had brought out the baby Ganesha, who found instant popularity, therefore Vaishnavas required their own cuddling infant god; Balakrishna. Radha, incidentally, was nowhere around the scene, she came in only after the Bhagavata Purana was composed many centuries later. She appeared in full form only when Jayadeva romanticized the divine couple. Later, Vidyapati, Chandidas, Chaitanya, Surdas, Sankardeva, and others popularised lyrical romantic poems of Radha-Krishna.
Let us return to the 4th-century texts that mention Bala-Gopala. We may note with interest that this is around the same time when several tribes from western and central Asia had started settling in India. They included the pastoral Abhiras, Gujjars and even Hunas, who took to India’s sacred traditions, but they also held on to their own stock of colorful tales and ancient legends. Some scholars like RG Bhandarkar and Sumanta Banerjee seriously felt that the Bala-Krishna legend came into India from the Abhiras in this ‘cultural exchange’. The fact that there were some shared features with the Middle Eastern legends, however, gave rise to a raging controversy in the colonial period. It was stoked in 1874 when Albrecht Weber published his book, “An Investigation into the Origin of the Festival of Krsna Janmashtami”. His logic was that, like Jesus Christ, Krishna was sent by God to save the world and that both divinities were born in dreadful circumstances. Jesus came to this world in a shabby stable that he shared with animals and Krishna was born in a cold jail room. Both were among people who also tended animals — Jesus was looked after by sheepherders and Krishna was with the keepers of cows. Christ was hounded by cruel king Herod who wanted to kill him instantly, just as Krishna was chased by the blood-thirsty tyrant Kamsa.

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Religious texts were quoted profusely, as happens on such occasions, and even later scholars like James Kennedy and Nicholas Macnicol were convinced that Janmashtami originated from Christian tales. In 1895, Edward Hopkins declared that the entire miraculous story of the birth of Krishna was taken from the Bible, while Steven Rosen claimed that the whole “Hindu system of avatars or divine incarnations was borrowed from the conception of Christ’s incarnation”. Lorinser stated emphatically that “the Bhagavad Gita was simply an expurgated New Testament”.
Poor Krishna! He had to tackle not only Putana, the demoness, and Kamsa his terrible uncle, but he now had also these foreign scholars, to deal with just because he happened to be born under such a star! Earlier, Vedic devas could afford heavenly or mysterious origins that are beyond our reach, but after Buddhism proved so popular with definite but divine tales of the birth of their heroes, the new attractive brand of Hindu deities also needed similar birth legends. Characters in the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Puranas were all born on this humble earth, but they were all accompanied by super-hit stories of astounding miracles. This may explain why a date had to be found, even if it is unsettled, as in the case of Gautama Buddha.
Even after two thousand years of research and argument, the year of the birth of Jesus Christ remains unresolved and the date varies among different groups of Christians between the nights of 24th of December and the 6th of January. Religion is a matter of faith and ritual as well as a lot of festivities, not an exercise in exact sciences. Besides, in the past, people were hardly bothered about birth certificates, as schools insist nowadays, or even about Aadhar cards.

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The Ashtami of the Krishna-paksha of Bhadra is normally too drenched for an open-air fun, but despite this, countless people brave the rains and visit temples. On Janmasthami, millions throng them all over India. Mathura, Vrindavan, Dwarka, Puri, Nabadwip, Guruvayoor, Udupi, Kanchipuram, Imphal and other Vaishnava strongholds like the Naam-ghars of Assam. Often, Raas Lilas depicting the dalliances of a mischievous youthful Krishna are considered the best way to welcome his birth, which is putting the cart before the horse. In many parts of India, devotees observe day-long fasts and recite from religious texts as they celebrate Krishna’s birth at midnight; with prasad and savories. Tamils draw figures of Balakrishna’s tiny steps walking into their dwellings, in the same way, that Bengalis draw Alpana designs on the floor showing steps for Lakshmi to come in.
On this Gokul-Ashtami day, Maharashtrians organize contests for youthful ‘Govindas’, to climb precariously on the shoulders of friends, who are balanced in three or even four or five tiers, with each group on the layer below, to form tall human pyramids. The successful contesting group that manages to reach its ‘Govinda’-boy to shatter the curd-filled earthen pots that are strung up really quite high. The whole of India is amazed to see the tenacity and the skill, as well as the risk-taking ability of these young men. Tamils also have a similar tradition called Uriadi and these highly skilled gymnastic displays give a lot of merriment but also considerable amounts of prize money. One only wishes that this sport be included in the next Olympic Games because Indian men could then manage to win at least one gold medal — with Lord Krishna’s infinite blessings — as they could win none in the last Olympics.

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Copy edited by Adam Rizvi 

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