Monday, October 15, 2012

The Choice of Krishna

As they gathered their armies and sought allies to their opposing causes, both Arjuna and Duryodhana hurried to Krishna to secure his allegiance and the many thousands of warriors he commanded.

Krishna was asleep when Duryodhana arrived. He entered first, sitting near Krishna’s head. When Arjuna entered, he took his place and sat at Krishna’s feet.

Krishna awoke, and his eyes fell first on his friend, Arjuna. He said, “Welcome to you Arjuna, and to you, Duryodhana. Why have come to see me?”

Laughing, Duryodhana said, “Krishna, you know that war is coming. Stand with me and my brothers. If you are tied by bonds of blood and marriage to Arjuna, so too are you bound to me. Since I have come first, and was the first to enter your presence, by tradition and justice you should ally yourself with the first who came and who supplicated, if indeed you abide by justice!”

Krishna answered, saying, “Duryodhana, though you entered first, when I awoke I saw Arjuna first. So abiding in justice, I will help you both, and will give you a choice. By tradition, in choosing between two gifts, the youngest receives the first choice. Arjuna will choose first.” Krishna turned to Arjuna and said, “To you I offer my army, warriors as strong as I am, veterans of battle, armed and ready to obey. On the field of battle they will live and die by your command. Or, instead, you may have me, alone, unarmed. I will not fight. Choose what is best, knowing that of these two choices I will give Duryodhana whichever choice you reject.”

Without hesitation, Arjuna said, “I choose you.”

In delight, Duryodhana won the countless warriors of Krishna’s kingdom. In delight, Duryodhana knew that Krishna would not fight. He said in himself, “I cannot lose this war.”

When Duryodhana left, Krishna said, “Why, Arjuna, did you choose me, when I offered my armies.”

Arjuna said, “By our choices, you have chosen, knowing how it will end. Whatever you offer, if I cannot choose both, I choose you alone. For you alone are the best of choices.”

Krishna said, “And if you die on the field of Kurukshetra, and if Duryodhana prevails, what will you have gained through my friendship? And if you are victorious, how will my friendship alone have availed you?”

Arjuna said, “If my brothers are victorious, we will have attained our kingdom both now and in eternity. In defeat, we have only lost a moment, for our eternal kingdom, through your friendship, is preserved. By our choices, we have already defeated Duryodhana, whatever the outcome of the battle. The true battle was here, in this room, in your presence. If in battle my brothers and I fall, Duryodhana attains only a moment of mastery over a kingdom which is less than a fist of dirt beside your eternal friendship. I choose to be the hawk on the arm of the huntsman, not a broken-winged lark in a snare.”

Krishna said, “All that you say is true. And this moment was the very reason I created you.”

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Washed in the Waters of Kawthar

When Rama, the King of Ayodhya, ascended to paradise, he performed his ablutions by the calm waters of Kawthar, washing away all wordly cares. As he arose, he beheld Krishna braiding Radha's hair in the shade of the Tree of Life. Rama greeted him, and said,

"O Krishna, who will you have for your enemies?" 

Krishna said, "To Duryodhana, I give him the aspect of envy and willful blindness, for he is the child of Gandhari. 

"To Karna, I give him the aspect of blazing fire, burning his heart without end, for he is the child of Surya." 

Rama said, "And who will have for your friends?" 

Krishna said, "To Yudishtira, I give him the perfection of righteous duty, for he is the child of Dharma. 

"To Bhima, I give him the strength of the wind, for he is the child of Vayu. 

"To Arjuna, I give him the mastery of commanding restraint, for he is the child of Indra. 

"To Nakula and Sahadeva, I give them the beauty of patient reflection, for they are the children of the Ashvins." 

Rama said, "O Krishna, and what will you give Draupadi, the wife of these five friends?" 

Krishna said, "To Draupadi, I give the gift of chastity each morning, as she washes in her bath. And I give her the service and devotion of Dharma, of Vayu, of Indra, of the Ashvins. And to these five husbands, I give the beauty and counsel of this fairest of wives." 

And in this moment, with the sound of these words still upon his lips, Krishna was born from Devaki's womb, the youngest son of Vasudeva, the manifestation of the Most High.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Three Krishnas

Who is Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita? 

He is Arjuna’s friend, his unarmed ally and charioteer; Balarama’s younger brother, the son of Vasudeva, cousin of the Pandavas, and a prince of the Yadavas. He is a great man, but still a man. 

He is something more; he reveals himself as the manifestation in human form of the supreme deity, Vishnu, and a messenger of God. 

And he is something extraordinary; he speaks of himself not merely as God’s emissary, but as God Himself. 

It is a riddle to ask the distinction of the arrow, the hand on the bow, the eye of the archer. It is a riddle to ask the source of the page, the ink, the hand on the pen, the mind of the author; and a riddle to ask the difference between the mirror, the sun in its reflection, and the sun it reflects. 

The counsel of a friend, a manifestation of God, and God Himself—how are these three fundamentally different Krishnas reconciled to one another? One of several major branches of Hinduism rooted in Vedic Brahmanism, Vaishnavism views Krishna as an avatar of Vishnu, or as Vishnu himself, or as a deity himself higher than Vishnu. 

Vaishnavites are typically monotheists. The many devas of Hindu mythology are considered either aspects of God Supreme, or are celestial creatures subordinate to God. The Vaishnavas also consider the Bhagavad Gita a key scripture, a revealed text. And within the context of the Bhagavad Gita, they assume that Krishna is all that he says he is. If taken literally, Krishna’s multiple self-revelations are impossible to reconcile. Figuratively, however, all three Krishnas may be the same. 

In Vaishnavism, as an avatar of Vishnu, Krishna is but one of several manifestations of God, which before Krishna include Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narsimha, Vamana, Parashurama, and Rama, who is the hero of that other great Indian epic, the Ramayana. According to some scholars, Buddhism itself, with its tales of past and promises of future Buddhas, may have influenced the concept of avatars—the idea that Vishnu appears in human form from time to time. Here, belief in literal reincarnation is irrelevant. Vishnu appears in human form by choice, not because of the bonds of action and desire. Karma does not attach to Vishnu, nor to any incarnation of Vishnu. Krishna explains in the Gita: “From age to age I manifest myself in the worlds of My creation. I arise among men when they have lost their way….” This explanation shares much in common with Buddhism, but not just with Buddhism. The appearance and reappearance of messengers of God is common to both Indo-Aryan and Semitic religious traditions, and to Zoroastrianism, which spans both. The Jews acknowledge Abraham and Moses, and the Christians add Jesus, and the Muslims further add Muhammad to their list of prophets who receive revelation from God. They are heroes, saviors, and redeemers, they are prophets to their people, messengers to the world, each speaking with God’s authority. The Quran makes explicit mention of past messengers. “God has sent messengers before you, some of them He has mentioned to you and some He did not mention to you.” (Quran 40:78). On this basis alone, Krishna’s station as a messenger of God can be asserted given that the appearance and reappearance of prophets and messengers is nearly a universal doctrine. 

However, in view of manifestation and incarnation, within Vaishnavism, there are divisions between those who view Krishna as a creation of Vishnu, and as subordinate to Vishnu, and those who view Krishna as God Himself. These differences are reflected above, and cannot easily be rectified if one views these hierarchical arrangements as literal. On a figurative level, however, these two views of Krishna are relatively easy to reconcile, and the Bhagavad Gita itself implies that reconciliation. It is the difference of speaking for God or as God. 

There is a way out of the labyrinth of these false choices: whether Krishna speaks for God or as God is a distinction without true difference. He does both. In the Quran, for example, God speaks in the first person. Muhammad does not claim to be God, but this revelation is the voice of God and as Muhammad reveals it, he acts as God with His complete authority. 

Whether one looks at the tip of the arrow, or the bow, or the hand on the bow, one is closest to understanding who sees the eye of the archer. Whether one looks at the page, or the ink, or the pen, or the hand on the pen, one is closest to understanding who sees the mind of the author. If the pen should write, “I am the author,” who would deny this evident truth? Whether in the heavens or in the mirror, there is the sun. 

Krishna is a man. He is a messenger of God. And when he speaks for God, he is God.