I was in Bangalore on Krishna’s birthday last year.
Called Krishnashtami, it’s a variable holiday. It fell on August 21 in 2010.
By then, I’d been in town four months and had established sweet friendships.
A student invited me to her parent’s home for the holiday, and it felt like Christmas.
The house was festively decorated. The family sang songs and feasted. “Krishna’s footsteps” (reminding me of Santa’s footsteps) were laid out in black silhouettes from their plain front door to their god-festooned altar.
In sheer numbers, probably no religion can compete with Hinduism’s vast assortment of gods, spiritual festivals and holy days. I regularly lost my Bangalore students for weeks at at time as they prepped for these godly events.
Americans have fewer ritual moments on the calendar, but rituals and Savior figures around the world have similarities, and it’s easy to note the overlap of Christ and Krishna–and of Krishnashtami and Christmas.
Christ and Krishna were both born at midnight and both raised by shepherds. Christ is called “The Good Shepherd” and Krishna’s two prime epithets are shepherd ones: Gopala means “cowherd” and Govinda is the “protector of cows.”
Christ was born when there was snow all around. Krishna was born during monsoon—when rain was all around! Christ is often equated with God. Formally, he is the son of God, but Christians casually refer to him as God all the time.
Krishna is both God and human too.
Many of Krishna’s epithets reflect his singularity and omnipotence. He is called Parameshvara, “The One Lord,” and Jagannatha, “The Lord of the World.” He’s called these names most conspicuosly in both the Bhagavad Gita—where his narration is the primary voice–and within the sect that worships him, the Bhagavatas. You know one of these–the “Hare Krishnas.” Fomally known as The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, they have been in America since 1965 and the Gita is their main scripture.
This brings us to Bibles and sacred texts.
Krishna is the star of the Gita. ISKON focusses on it uniquely, but its appeal is vast. It is called “India’s Bible.”
The New Testament, which stars Christ, is the most recent book in the key texts of the Christians.
The New Testament’s four sections–the Gospels, Acts, Epistles (letters) and Revelation–build on the four collections of History, Law, Wisdom and Prophets in the Old Testament.
Like the New Testament, where Christ finds play, the Gita is the latest book (c. 200 CE) within a canon of philosophical texts called the Prasthanatrayi, which is primary for India’s main philosophy called Advaita Vedanta–a non-dualist tradition.
What does Christmas mean to us?
So many things!
These rituals looked to a time when the God, Saturn, reigned, before humans had work–when bounty arose for everyone spontaneously. In the Saturnalia celebrations in ancient Rome, candles were lit and gifts were given.
In our mammalian bio-rhythms, it is a time of hibernation.
For these reasons and others, it is kind of dream time, a time when we are more attuned to different worlds—both psychically and physically.
This is a good time to settle down, rejuvenate, check-in, re-assess and plan. The next year is coming. The next cycle is dawning. Nature is giving us a time to prepare. Give gifts during this time—as they did in the Saturnalia—to establish the rhythm of wealth in your life.
Jesus went down for 3 days after his death, and then “ascended to heaven.” After his resurrection, “he sat at the right hand of god.”
This is a metaphor for retreating, then gaining wisdom that participates in the righteous power of God’s action. God’s left hand is the receptive one. God’s right hand is active. It serves action and justice—it speaks of correct power in the world.
This is what these dark days of Krishnashtami and Christmas offer to us: a chance to go down, a chance for stillness, a chance to be reborn to greater action and knowing. “Christ mass” is the mass of Christ, the great ritual of Christ’s big trick: he died, then lived again. He undertook a conscious reincarnation to achieve greater potency in his mission. His embodied self brought light to Israel; his spiritual self became the Light of the World. The “Christ Mass” uses lots of light symbolism. It is the energetic ritual that commemorates the first time Christ pulled off a magic birth.
Of course, it is a rich time for connection in the social world. We’ve got yin. We’re receptive and we can meet people more deeply. And there is the Saturnalia element. There is an opportunity for fun, and connection, and giving.
For a number of years, I did a 10-day silent retreat over these holidays.
Nowadays, I try to set aside three days just to meditate, do yoga, and write visions. It is a useful practice for moving your life forward—and healthy for anchoring sanity!
These are the holidays (the “holy days” or days that are holy.). “Holy” etymologically means “whole” in the sense of being complete or healthy. In the sensitivity of these days, we know our inner self more readily, our completeness or wholenss in the eyes of God.
These days participate in the vast openness of the deity. They are an interstice, an empty space between. We are between ending and beginning. We are at the Janus point (the two-faced god that gives us the name, January). December-January is a “liminic” space. We are in our personal liminic space, as well as society’s. The progress of time stops and reverses direction now. The days retreat to a nadir of length, then expand. People die. A new year begins.
Something ends. Something is done. Something is complete. It is a powerful season.
The world will speed off again in new directions and we want to be able to hop on that bus with as little baggage as possible when it does—we want to get settled so we’re ready to go.
Hence, we settle with our past—either through formal processes like journaling, meditating or having a sacred moment in church and/or by gift-giving and/or meeting with our past through family.
In family we revisit our first relationships, our emotional baseline, and can calibrate our growth.
In this going down, what the Greeks called Katabasis, some people experience depression.
That’s natural. We might attribute depression to failures to keep up with the Christmas push, and that certainly can play its hand, but our Earthly cosmos is “going down” and we can either push against that or surrender to it. A depression (“going down”) calls to us either way.
If we surrender to quiet, we gain wisdom and have more to offer to others.
But “keeping up” is a fine option, too. In pushing against the quiet, we generate more energy and have energy to offer to others.
Christ went down at his death, preparing for his spiritual ministry, but he also “went down” early in his career when he fasted in the desert 40 days.
And Krishna? Krishna led an active life. Jesus was a spiritual “King of the Jews,” but Krishna was a worldly king with worldly responsibilities, and he taught that duty, action (karma) was key. In the Bhagavad Gita, he teaches us karma yoga combined with devotion (bhakti yoga).
Most meaningfully, Krishna asks that all the karma of all deeds be surrendered to him, and this is a main tenet of Christian theology, too–Jesus took our sins when he died on the cross. Both are strategies for freeing us from the confusion and pain of our ever-active egos.
In Romans 3:21-6 we read:
“For all alike have sinned, and are deprived of the divine splendor, and all are justified by God’s free grace alone, through his act of liberation in the person of Christ Jesus. For God designed him to the means of expiating sin by his sacrificial death, effective through faith. This justifies any one who puts their faith in Jesus.”
Echoing this, in Bhagavad Gita, 12:11, Krishna puts the idea simply,
“Take shelter in me.
Do not hanker after the fruits of Karma”
The doctrines of both Christ and Krishna challenge the human attachment to ego. They help us let go.
Paul, the author of this passage from the letter to the Romans, is not talking to your ego when he calls you a sinner.
Some of us read this through our ego and say, “Hey! I’m no sinner! Why does Christianity want to make me a bad person?”
But Paul is talking about your psyche, your conscious and subconscious. This business of “Original Sin” is a very subtle technology. We all feel bad about ourselves—every one of us. We feel good, as well—Exuberant! Happy! Triumphal!—But each of us will have a dark night of the soul, some day–or lots of days. Christianity tells us to surrender this to God. Admit the bad part exists! And let Jesus handle it. Open your heart. Let crappy stuff go!
Krishna says the same.
“Fruits” of karma can only serve your ego.
The ego “hankers” after the gratifications that worldly fruits (that is, worldly outcomes or rewards) offer and this causes us pain.
“Take shelter in me,” Krishna says, just as Paul says “put your faith in Jesus.” Paul uses the word “justify”—which means to be substantiated, to be whole. Take shelter in the divinity of the avatar: Christ or Krishna. The avatar is your deepest self.
Admit the “beyond-ego” divinity of the avatar so that you can admit your own.
Both Krishna and Christ wanted to free us from a routine of dry ritual. Jesus insulted the Jew’s orthodox traditions by working on the Sabbath, consorting with pariahs, and saying he was God’s son.
Krishna’s cult of devotion up-ended the orthodox order built around sacrificial ritual. This is represented in legend by the tale of Krishna insulting the ancient God Indra by telling the people of Vrindavan to stop sacrificing to him. Angered, Indra attacked, throwing lightning and rain down from heaven.
Krishna grabbed the hill of Govardhan and held it over the people to protect them. He grabbed a piece of the Earth.
We take refuge in the Earth.
We are of the Earth. Its cycles are greater than any social rituals. Christmas demands many rituals that have social meaning, which we know well, but the Earth’s wisdom is ever-fresh and greater even than tradition. The Earth, in its groundedness and darkness, will shelter you.
Its wisdom will lead you.
This message naturally emerges from the teaching of the Christ and Krishna during these holidays. Surrender this holiday season. Surrender to your deep, holy rhythm that affords opportunities for Katabasis—for going down, for abiding by the Earth’s rooted wisdom. Go outside of anything you’ve done for Christmas previously. Sacrifice your small self for something greater.
Go down, this holiday season. Look at yourself. Meditate, journal, do yoga re-evaluate your life plan. Figure out again how love works, how relationships work. Learn in the cave of the soul.
I recommend the salve of silence this Christmas season. Go down into yourself fomr 10 minutes each day in Advent–just as an experiment. Or do it all day for 3 of those days, or for 10!
Re-connect with your individual journey, with your genius, and prep its legs for fresh sprints starting January first.
Go down, and be born again.