Baby Krishna Infant Christ Book ReviewLast modified: April 2, 2012
Review: Baby Krishna, Infant Christ: A Comparative Theology of Salvation, by Kristin Johnston Largen
Christopher Conway, Boston College
In Baby Krishna, Infant Christ: A Comparative Theology of Salvation, Kristin Johnston Largen offers a new theological lens to view afresh a classic point of comparison in Hindu and Christian interreligious reflection. Krishna and Jesus, the former’s divine embodiment as an avatara of Vishnu and the latter’s Incarnation as the Son of God, and the traditions’ respective understandings of the theological implications of these divine descents have enjoyed comment and analysis for centuries. Theologians, scholars of religions, missionaries, and the faithful of both traditions have celebrated or scrutinized the similarities and have juxtaposed or sublimated the differences between the two. For a great many, however, the points of consonance and dissonance among Krishna’s and Jesus’ lives, teachings, and missions have gone unheard, unnoticed, or unexplored. In focusing on the Krishna and Jesus infancy narratives, Largen invites those familiar with this particular chorus of Hindu-Christian comparative theology to hear anew the theological insights rising from her project. And for those for whom this may be a first seating, Largen provides an accessible introduction to the method, content, and fruits of learning interreligiously and doing theology comparatively.
Largen’s focus on the Krishna and Jesus infancy narratives and their soteriological import may seem like an odd jumping off point for a comparative endeavor. Certainly, the accounts of Krishna’s infancy and youth are a beloved and theologically rich narrative tradition at the center of many Vaishnava devotional and ritual practices. These stories are neither secondary considerations nor are they eclipsed by the narratives that concentrate on Krishna’s adult life. In one example, at the beginning of the great South Indian poet-saint Nammalvar’s composition of the Tiruvaymoli, Nammalvar seemingly breaks verse, amazed at the vulnerability the Lord demonstrates in allowing his mother to tie him to a mortar. Young Krishna’s permitting of the punishment that Yashoda places upon him for his continued mischief—a punishment he playful prevents prior to lovingly acquiescing to his mother’s plans—becomes an important story for theological reflection upon the Lord’s love for his devotees and his willingness to be accessible to his devotees in such an open and vulnerable way. For the Vaisnava community, such accounts are indispensable for understanding who and how God is.
The infancy narratives of Jesus while receiving their liturgical due during the advent and Christmastide season do not always enjoy an equal theological place among the accounts of Jesus’ adult life, ministry, death, and resurrection. They are not insignificant to the Christian tradition, but they rather often function theologically as preparatory or signposts to the work that Jesus will accomplish as an adult. In part this is due to their limited presence in the canonical Gospels. Stories of Jesus’ birth are recounted in only two of the four gospels, and his early childhood and adolescence account for only one pericope in the entire New Testament. The infancy narratives have been understood traditionally as being dependent upon the adult narratives for their theological import. Largen, building upon the work of New Testament scholar Raymond Brown, explains this dependence by noting that while ‘Matthew and Luke trace the life of Jesus chronologically, from birth to death to resurrection, the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ—his saving, redeeming work for the whole of creation—began with his resurrection’ (114). The theological insights gained in reflecting upon the former are born from the theology that underpins the latter. Whereas Krishna’s early childhood narratives can stand theologically independent from his adult narratives, traditional treatments of Jesus’ infancy narratives necessitate his adult life.
The paucity of Jesus’ accounts and the abundance of Krishna’s prove to be an initial impetus for Largen’s comparative project. Rather than stopping at the presumption that ‘at least to some degree [it is] an unfair or weak comparison,’ (75) Largen returns to the Christian tradition with a set of observations and questions born from a cursory comparison: ‘why isn’t there more information about the young Jesus? Why is his role in the infancy narratives overwhelming passive, especially when compared to that of Krishna’s? And, finally, what do both the limited presence of stories of Jesus’ youth say about Jesus and who he saves?’ (75). From these beginning questions, Largen enters into a deeper theological reflection that examines the upshot of rethinking soteriology in light of these narratives.
Largen opens her text with a welcoming introduction to and apologia for comparative theology. For those unfamiliar with the field and its methodology, she situates comparative theology, following James Fredericks, as the middle ground between the liberalism exemplified by Frederick Schleiermacher and the postliberal alternative articulated by George Lindbeck. She also draws upon the work of Francis X. Clooney to further flesh out the purpose and need for comparative theology. A professor at a Lutheran seminary, Largen presents an ecumenical apologia for the discipline. Citing both Vatican pronouncements and statements from the World Council of Churches, she demonstrates that interreligious dialogue and learning are not only supported by Catholicism and mainline Protestantism, but are also encouraged if not mandated—here she calls upon the work of John Thatamanil and his use of the biblical imperatives prohibiting false witness against our neighbors and the command to love them. Comparative theology, like all theology, serves both God and the community of the faithful. For some, the interreligious nature of the discipline strikes an immediate chord with their faith experiences and their experiences with persons of other faith. For others, this openness to learning from and with other faith traditions seems redundant at best and dangerous at worst. Ultimately, the worth of an endeavor is known by its fruits. Largen’s introduction at the very least ensures that those new to comparative theology will have a taste, and that is not an insignificant accomplishment.
Largen’s methodology is more implicit than it is explicit. Very much influenced by Clooney’s approach to comparative theology as a process of reading texts side by side, Largen places the childhood narratives of Krishna from the Bhagavata Purana (Edwin Bryant’s translation) next to the infancy narratives of Jesus found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. In an interesting move, she also incorporates the infancy narratives found in the non-canonical texts The Infancy Gospel of James and The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The inclusion of these non-canonical works heightens the comparative project. While a comparison of either the Hindu texts and the canonical texts or the canonical and non-canonical texts would be sufficient for a standalone project, bringing them together in a singular study encourages theologians to take seriously the possible theological insights the non-canonical texts may have for orthodox Christian theology. As Largen demonstrates, one can apply the methodology of comparative theology to the grey area between interreligious and intra-religious learning.
Such an application is both an important contribution to comparative theology and a fruit of comparative theology—the dearth of canonical sources realized in the comparative abundance of Hindu sources leads Largen to explore Christian sources outside the gospel narratives. This move necessitates a reevaluation of the status of non-canonical texts not necessarily as canonical, but certainly as contributive. The familial and historical relationship between orthodox and heterodox theology perhaps initially makes the comparison more difficult—as the orthodox tradition has already ruled out the possible contribution that non-orthodox theology can make with its stamping of ‘heterodox.’ However, an examination of our presuppositions about the theological import of non-Christian texts for Christian theology ought to carry over into an examination of our prejudices against non-canonical Christian texts. Largen does well in demonstrating the possible benefits in such a move.
Largen begins her comparative project with the traditions surrounding Krishna. Here, as throughout her work, she is mindful of the newcomer to comparative theology. Situating Hinduism amongst the world religions and Vaisnavism amongst the Hindu theological and philosophical schools, she provides a brief survey that helps a person unfamiliar with Hinduism gain his or her bearings. This introduction helps ensure that neither she nor reader abstract the Krishna narratives from the tradition and the lived faith of the Vaisnava community.
Largen’s reflection is centered on the soteriological significance of the Krishna narratives, i.e., how these stories reveal the means through which Krishna saves. She raises three themes from these accounts that demonstrate the particular character of Krishna’s salvific actions: 1) Krishna’s lila, ‘the playfulness that characterizes so much of his childhood,’ 2) Krishna’s relationship with his devotees, and 3) Krishna’s providing ‘insight into the true nature of reality’ (49-50). These three themes build upon one another and together show how Krishna, even as young child, is capable of leading his devotees to salvation.
Krishna’s lila exemplified in his mischievous merry-making helps break down the formalness and rigidity that might accompany being in the presence of the Lord. The young Krishna desires the love of his devotees arising not from an experience of the awe-inspiring Supreme Lord that he is, but instead in his form as a playful youth. Whereas the adult Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita reveals his terrifying cosmic form to Arjuna so as to reveal his true nature, the young Krishna of the Bhagavata Purana instead prefers to be known and loved as a son, playmate, and lover. Using his illusory power of yogamaya, Krishna obscures his divine nature so as to make possible these kinds of loving relationships. His lila is a participatory play that allows devotees direct and immediate access to himself.
In this intimate association, the strictures of formal worship break down as Yashoda cares for the baby Krishna, as he and his village playmates find trouble as young boys are so apt to do, and as he teases and dances with the gopis, the cowherd girls. These kinds of relationships in turn help Krishna reveal what really matters in the world: devotion. Devotion is not a practice entered into out of reverential fear, but rather out of pure love. Young Krishna does not desire for his devotees to approach him in trepidation, but to approach him as one would approach a friend, a son, or a lover. Narada, the author of the Bhakti Sutras (aphorisms on loving devotion) outlines eleven forms of this love for the Lord in ascending order of intensity: attachment to the Lord’s glorious qualities, to his beauty, to worshiping him, and to remembering him, then loving him as a friend, a parent, and a lover, and finally surrendering one’s whole self to him, being absorbed in thought of him, and experiencing separation from him (Narada Bhakti Sutras 82). According to Narada, those aspects we typically ascribe to devotion are preliminary in comparison to the other kinds of relationships one ought to attain. Through lila, Krishna saves by permitting a deep, personal bond to be formed between himself and his devotee. In this play, the devotees lose themselves in their love for the Lord. Worldly pursuits are pushed aside as one becomes supremely focused upon Krishna by joining in and enjoying his lila.
Following her examination of Krishna’s role in Vaisnava soteriology, Largen turns her focus to Jesus’ infancy narratives. Here the comparative project begins to take shape. Rather than focusing simply on the similarities between the two traditions, Largen uses the differences to help put into relief the soteriological significance of the Jesus’ birth and childhood. A key distinction, and one Largen reiterates several times throughout her text, is the different understandings Hinduism and Christianity have about divine embodiment and incarnation. Krishna remains fully divine in his earthly form. Though he makes use of his illusory power to obscure this fact from his devotees, he nevertheless is always the supreme Lord. This identity is revealed several times throughout the narratives beginning with his auspicious birth and in the miraculous feats he performs in service to and for the protection of the villagers of Viraj. Jesus’ incarnation as presented in the gospels and developed in the Christological councils of the 4th c. affirms both Jesus’ full divinity and full humanity. For Christianity, this is the soteriological key for making sense of Christ’s salvific work. While Christian theology has traditionally understood soteriology through Christ’s resurrection and passion, Largen argues for examining the infancy narratives on their own soteriological merit. Ultimately, the birth of Jesus cannot be separated from his cross and empty tomb, but it can be explored apart from these in order to uncover its unique insights into God and God’s saving action.
Largen notes that in the canonical infancy narratives ‘we can learn something important from them not easily found in the rest of the gospel stories, something that might not be accessible at all’ (115). First, the infancy narratives provide an unequivocal affirmation of Jesus’ humanity. Second, they tell us something about what it means to be human. The emphasis on humanity’s rationality has been central in understanding who humans are and how they are created in God’s image. That God became human in the form of a baby lacking linguistic competence and fully developed reason reminds us that humanness cannot be reduced to these qualities. She states, ‘every single human being, regardless of age, mental capabilities, race, or gender, bears equally the image of God, and is equally and fully united to the Divine by virtue of the common humanity we share with Jesus’ (115). Third, while the gospel narratives affirm the full humanity of Jesus, they also maintain his full divinity; this is a rejection of adoptionism, which understands Jesus attaining divinity through the Holy Spirit at the moment of his baptism. These affirmations lead to the final insight: that God comes into creation in the form of baby completely vulnerable and totally dependent upon his family for his wellbeing and survival. These initial propositions begin with a comparison between the two traditions that is less dynamic and interactive than what Largen will develop in the final chapter. This fact does not mean to suggest that they are any less comparative or significant, but instead demonstrates that even the most basic comparison—the quantitative difference in source-material—creates numerous possibilities for new and renewed theological understanding.
Largen concludes with a rethinking of ‘the soteriological efficacy of Jesus’ life’ developed from a more engaged encounter with the Krishna narratives (191). Her focus shifts from the insights born from an engaged reading of the gospel and non-canonical Christian accounts to the wisdom offered by a deep reading of the Hindu sources alongside these. Here she seeks to explore the ways in which Hinduism’s understanding of how Krishna loves can inform how Christians understand God’s love for us and how we ought to love another. Largen offers three proposals: God loves humanity holistically, God is passionate, and human erotic love reflects divine love.
Her first proposal expands Christian notions of God’s love for humanity from a love understood in the general to a love realized in the particular. God loves all persons specifically and concretely not only in their essence, but also in their accidents. The second reconceives of God’s love for humanity and for creation as being neither dispassionate nor abstract, but full of desire and delight. She states, ‘Krishna’s passionate attachment to the world—particularly in his relationship to his mother and the young gopis—helps Christians see an image of a God who loves creation and humanity with a great desire, personal investment, and emotional attachment’ (197). The third recovers erotic love properly experienced by humans as reflecting and participating in divine love. The intimacy and longing inherent in erotic love, a love in relationship with another, reflects the desire God has for humanity and creation. When properly ordered, erotic love can lead to a losing of one’s self in another for the sake of that other. This kind of love is not disengaged nor disembodied, but passionate and physical. In expanding the horizon of how we conceive of God’s love we are reminded that the authentic love expressed in God’s relationship with humanity and creation and our relationships with one another and with creation are dynamic and incapable of being reduced to a singular phenomenal type of love. To know God’s love and to speak about God’s love is to experience love in its multiple manifestations. Only in this way can we begin to grasp what love truly means and entails.
In arriving at the soteriological significance of Jesus’ infancy narratives, Largen has already demonstrated the potential interreligious learning possesses for theology. We are prepared to expect the unexpected and to be open to new ways of knowing God’s work in the world. This disposition is both the means and the end of comparative theology. Our presuppositions and prejudices are broken open, and we can see our tradition with new eyes. For soteriology, this necessitates reflecting on salvation in new ways. For Largen, this means understanding the salvific import of the infancy narratives, the incarnation, and the life of Jesus. She states, ‘salvation does not come with a trumpet blast, but with a newborn’s cry…Salvation doesn’t come how and when we look for it. It comes on its own terms and it demands that we recognize our way of thinking and accept it for what it is, just like the baby Jesus’ (205). Salvation occurs not just on the cross, but also in the full expanse of Jesus’ life. It is relational, not only vertically between God and the individual, but also horizontally between individuals. Finally, it is ‘in the flesh’ incorporating our entire self: soul, mind, and body.
A common critique of comparative theology has been that what it supposedly offers has always been present in the tradition. Conversely, another common critique is that what comparative theology offers is completely foreign to the tradition. In and of themselves, the soteriological considerations that Largen offers here are neither novel nor foreign. What Largen demonstrates so well is the subtlety and nuance that accompanies comparative theology. Tradition is not stood on its head, but it is reimagined and enlivened. Comparative theology is an invitation to expand our understanding of God beyond the limitations of our tradition’s God talk and it is an invitation to turn deeply within our tradition to hear things once talked about again. Certainly, the theological insights Largen presents here contribute to an important rethinking of Christ’s salvific work. Perhaps her more important contribution to theology—and I do not think Largen would disagree—is the accessible introduction to comparative theology her work represents. Its theme, its content, and its conclusions undoubtedly will encourage those inside and outside the academy to discover for themselves the possible joys and merits of interreligious learning. This is good for comparative theology, and this is good for all theology.