The Bhagavad Gita and Christian Lent

Prof. Francis X Clooney, Harvard Divinity School
Photo source: Harvard Divinity School faculty webpage

This year, the holy Christian period of Lent goes from February 14 through March 28. Lent is a 40-day period in which Christians are asked to commit themselves to varying degrees of fasting, temporarily giving up certain luxuries, and intensifying their devotional practices of things like prayer, almsgiving, and confessing and repenting of sins. 

Lent is a commemoration of the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting in the desert while being tempted by Satan, a period which immediately preceded his career of ministry and service. In the New Testament, we are told that, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:12-14). 

This formative event in the life of Jesus is often interpreted as a kind of test he had to undergo so as to get fully in touch with the experience of human temptation. Understanding the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of humanity from firsthand experiences made him better equipped to fulfill his mission of serving the sick, poor, and downtrodden, and bringing forgiveness and salvation to the sinful. 

Father Francis Clooney, SJ, the Parkman Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, wrote an article drawing a connection between this pivotal moment in the life of Jesus with the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita recounts the story of the hero warrior Arjuna, who is overcome with doubt on the battlefield when he is about to lead his army against another army of family and friends in the midst of a civil war. Arjuna shares his feelings with his charioteer, who reveals himself to be Krishna, an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu. 

The bulk of the Bhagavad Gita is a dialogue between these two characters, in which Krishna imparts spiritual wisdom on Arjuna, with the goal of galvanizing Arjuna into taking on the role that he is duty-bound to fulfill. Like Jesus, Arjuna was tasked with an important mission of carrying out the will of a deity. As Krishna tells Arjuna, “rise up, gain glory; having conquered the enemy, enjoy a prosperous rule. These have already been slain by me; be simply my instrument, skilled with your left hand” (11.33). Krishna also elaborates on the eternal and cyclical nature of life, revealing death to be an illusion: “Never indeed did I not exist, nor you, nor these rulers of humans; nor will any of us ever hereafter cease to be” (2.11-12). And, as Father Clooney notes, “like the leper, like Jesus himself coming in from the desert, Arjuna does get up, returns to his duty, as the terrible war ensues.” 

At first glance, it may seem as though the Bhagavad Gita is a text that promotes violence and war. But for its most devoted adherents, like Mahatma Gandhi, the Gita is exactly the opposite: it is, in fact, a text that promotes peace through an understanding of the interconnectedness and inherent value of all life. As Father Clooney points out, “most commentators on the Gita see it as a teaching so powerful and transformative that Arjuna would not return to battle.” 

As with Arjuna’s encounter with Krishna, and Jesus’ experience in the desert, Lent is meant to be a transformative experience for Christians, leading up to the more joyous occasion of Easter, which celebrates rebirth: the resurrection of Jesus, but also the start of Spring and the spiritual rebirth of Christians who take Lent seriously. Lent is, therefore, supposed to be an opportunity to become spiritually rejuvenated in a way that refocuses people on what truly matters in life, encouraging them to take actions that further their missions in life. Truly, there is a lesson in this for all of us, Christian or not. 

You can read one of Father Clooney’s articles on Krishna in Lent here: https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/francisclooney/blog/gita-lent-i 

He also has written a series of articles on Lent and yoga. Here is one of them:https://www.christianspracticingyoga.com/christianity-and-yoga-blog/tag/Francis+Clooney

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