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The Lives of Christ and Krishna

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

Last week, we shared with you some of Father Clooney’s reflections on the relevance of the Bhagavad Gita for Christians during the holy period of Lent. This week, following his example, we will compare Jesus Christ with Krishna, the deity whose spiritual teachings comprise the core of the Bhagavad Gita. Specifically, this week we will highlight some amazing commonalities in the lives of these two central religious figures, which harken back to several of the common themes across religions which have been the subjects of prior newsletters in our Weekly Wisdom series. 

In Christianity, Jesus is the central figure and the Son of God. He is believed to be the savior of humanity, and his life, death, and resurrection are at the core of Christian faith. In Hinduism, Krishna is considered a central deity and an avatar of Lord Vishnu, one of the most important Hindu gods. He is worshiped by millions of Hindus, and his life and teachings are the subject of various scriptures, including the Bhagavad Gita. One remarkable similarity that stands out already from just this simple background is that both figures are believed to be human incarnations of God that lived on Earth and interacted with other humans. 

Mysterious Birth of Prophets

One of the most conspicuous commonalities between Lord Krishna and Jesus Christ lies in their divine births and miraculous conceptions. In Hinduism, Krishna is believed to be the eighth avatar (incarnation) of Lord Vishnu, born in Mathura (I was born there too, and my middle name is Krishna!!) to Devaki and Vasudeva. Krishna was miraculously transported to safety moments after his birth, evading tyrant King Kamsa, who was determined to kill Krishna. King Kansa believed that a child would be born to kill him, based on a prophecy, which foretold that the eighth child of his sister Devaki and her husband Vasudeva would be the one to ultimately defeat and kill him. Similarly, in Christianity, Jesus Christ’s birth is celebrated as a miraculous event. According to the New Testament, Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary through the Holy Spirit’s intervention, an event known as the Immaculate Conception. Jesus also was targeted to be killed by King Herod, from whom he and his parents fled, warned in a dream by an angel from God. 

“This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.” 
—The New Testament (Matthew 1:18), Christian text

“I was born from the nectar of immortality as the primordial horse and as Indra’s noble elephant. Among human beings, I am the king.” 
—The Bhagavad Gita (10:27), Hindu text

Prophets as Shepherds

Both Krishna and Jesus are symbolically associated with shepherds. In Hinduism, Krishna is often depicted as a cowherd, playing his flute while tending to cows in the idyllic pastoral setting of Vrindavan. The flute symbolizes his ability to enchant and attract devotees, much like a shepherd caring for his flock. It also symbolizes the oneness and interconnectedness of all creation, as all life is attracted toward Krishna, representing harmony and a common longing. Krishna’s role as a shepherd also symbolizes simplicity and humility. Despite being a divine figure, he is often depicted in simple attire and engaged in everyday pastoral activities, teaching devotees the value of humility and leading a simple life.

In Christianity, Jesus is frequently referred to as the “Good Shepherd.” As with Krishna, this metaphor highlights his role as a caring and protective figure who guides and watches over his followers. Furthermore, Jesus’ message to his flock also emphasizes simplicity and humility, as with Krishna. Finally, Christ and Krishna both are often depicted with other animals–especially cows in the case of Krishna–emphasizing the importance of caring for all animals. 

“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture […] I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” 
—The New Testament (John 10:9-11), Christian text

“He is just a cowherd – but you cannot ignore him. His beauty, his wisdom, his strength, his valor could not be ignored, from day one. Even as a little baby, they could not ignore who he was. Many people tried to dismiss him. “He’s just a cowherd.” But that itself became a celebration for everyone else. ‘He’s a cowherd!’”
–Sadhguru, Hindu spiritual teacher

Sacrifice

Finally, both Krishna and Jesus embody the concept of sacrificial love in their lives. In Hinduism, Krishna’s willingness to stand up against injustice and evil, even at the cost of his own comfort and safety, reflects his sacrificial love for humanity. His role in the Mahabharata epic, where he serves as the charioteer and guide to Arjuna, showcases his dedication to the welfare of others. Similarly, Jesus Christ’s ultimate act of sacrificial love is central to Christian theology. His crucifixion and death on the cross are seen as the ultimate sacrifice for the redemption and salvation of humanity. Both Krishna and Christ died a sacrificial death and then rose from the dead. Krishna was killed by an arrow while defending his people from a demon army. After his death, Krishna’s body disappeared, and he ascended to heaven. And three days after his crucifixion, Christ rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples. Christ’s resurrection is the central event of Christianity, and it symbolizes his victory over sin and death.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
—The New Testament (John 3:16), Christian text

“Whatever I am offered in devotion with a pure heart—a leaf, a flower, fruit, or water—I accept with joy. Whatever you do, make it an offering to me—the food you eat, the sacrifices you make, the help you give, even your suffering. In this way you will be freed from the bondage of karma, and from its results both pleasant and painful. Then, firm in renunciation and yoga, with your heart free, you will come to me.”
—The Bhagavad Gita (9:26-28), Hindu text

On December 17, 2023, Father Clooney delivered a sermon at the Vedanta Society in Boston, MA, titled “Two Stories of Christmas.” He focused on the stories of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, but near the end he compares these stories to those of the birth and childhood of Krishna. We encourage you to watch the recording of this sermon and other lectures Father Clooney has given in the past by following this link:https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/francisclooney/videos

See All Commonalities Across Religions