Krishna, Christ, and Parallelomania
[Editor’s Note: A.P. auxiliary staff writer Dr. Bryant holds degrees from Lipscomb University (B.A. in History, M.A. in Bible), Reformed Theological Seminary (M.A.), and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies with an emphasis in Old Testament from Amridge University. He has done additional coursework in Biblical and Near Eastern Archaeology and Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and participated in archaeological excavations at Tel El-Borg in Egypt. He holds professional memberships in the American Schools of Oriental Research, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Archaeological Institute of America, and the International Society of Christian Apologetics.]
Charges of plagiarism are quite common among critics of Christianity. Christians may hear claims that their faith rests on a religion entirely borrowed from older faiths and mythologies. Often described as a relative late-comer to the religious scene, Christianity is alleged to have borrowed from a wide array of mythological traditions. Upon closer examination of the facts, claims of this nature are often baseless and sometimes even fraudulent.
One of the so-called “savior gods” of the ancient world is the Hindu deity Krishna. Mythicists (those who believe Jesus is nothing more than a mythical figure like Zeus, Thor, Ba’al, etc.) claim the existence of unmistakable parallels between Krishna and Jesus in the original sources. These parallels are so strong, they argue, that the only rational conclusion is that the Gospel writers recorded a tradition about Jesus that was deeply influenced by, or even plagiarized, Hindu beliefs.1
Although the description of similarities between the two persons sounds as if some connection exists, problems quickly begin to mount once readers consult the original texts. How well do these alleged parallels stand under closer scrutiny? Very poorly. Let us consider some of the most common claims found in sources from published books and articles to information on the Internet.
“Christ is a form of the name Krishna.” No etymological connection between “Krishna” and “Christ” actually exists. Christ (christos) is the Greek equivalent of messiah (Hebrew mashiach). Both mean, “anointed one.” Krishna is an unrelated personal name, which derives from a Sanskrit term meaning “black, dark, dark-blue.”2
“Krishna was born of a virgin.” This is a popular claim, sometimes made by atheists,3 but also by those who profess to be Christian.4 Hindu texts make it clear that his mother Devaki had already conceived seven other sons, the first six of whom were executed by the evil prince Kamsa after their births.5 Matthew states that the chaste Mary fulfills an ancient prediction of the prophet Isaiah (Matthew 1:23; cf. Isaiah 7:14).
“Both men were born in a manger.” Contrary to songs sung at Christmastime, Jesus was not born in a manger, but rather was laid there after His birth (Luke 2:7). The Hindu text indicates that Krishna was born in a prison cell where Kamsa had imprisoned his sister Devaki and her husband Vasudeva when he learned that the couple’s eighth child (Krishna) was destined to kill him.6
“Krishna was born on December 25, like Jesus.” Sources differ on the exact day of Krishna’s birth, which is often recognized as having occurred in the month of July. Hindus celebrate the birth of Krishna in the month of Bhadrapada (August/September). The Bible does not give a date for the birth of Jesus, which does not appear to have occurred at any time during the winter. Historian Andrew McGowan points out that the second-century author Clement of Alexandria identified several possible dates for the birth of Christ debated during his day, but December 25 is nowhere among his suggestions.7 None of the earliest estimates indicates Christ was born in December.
“Krishna died at age thirty.” Although Jesus died in his early thirties, Krishna lived a much longer life. Common estimates place Krishna’s age at death somewhere around 100 years. A 2004 article in the Times of India reported Hindu scholars calculated that Krishna died at the age of 125.8
“Krishna died by crucifixion.” Crucifixion appears nowhere in the Hindu texts. Krishna died after a hunter named Jara shot him in the sole of his foot with a poisoned arrow after mistaking him for a deer.9 Kersey Graves infamously claimed Krishna was crucified between two thieves, that darkness attended the event, and that he gives up the ghost and descends into hell,10 details he—or a source he used—invented out of whole cloth.
“Krishna resurrected after three days.” After his death, Krishna’s spirit appears almost immediately.11 Being liberated from his physical body—or abandoning it—his spirit returns to the realm of the divine. Hindu pilgrims today still visit Dehotsarga (literally, where Krishna “gave up his body”),12 where they believe Krishna died. Jesus was buried in a newly cut rock tomb and later experienced a bodily resurrection that serves as a prototype for believers (1 Corinthians 15:20, 42-44). The Hindu view of Krishna’s death is much closer to Neo-Platonic philosophy than it is to Christianity.
A popular author who made similar claims to those above is the late Dorothy M. Murdock (also known by her pseudonym “Acharya S”). Her book Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled includes a litany of supposed parallels between Christian and Hindu beliefs. Although her work is hailed by her uncritical supporters and other non-specialists as a work of unparalleled scholarship, scholars dismiss her work as the stuff of crass invention. When asked about the supposed crucifixion of Krishna, Dr. Edwin Bryant, professor of Hinduism at Rutgers University, stated, “That is absolute and complete non-sense. There is absolutely no mention anywhere which alludes to a crucifixion.”13 Murdock also claims that a number of other Hindu gods were depicted as crucified. Bryant again responded, “There are absolutely no Indian gods portrayed as crucified…. If someone is going to go on the air and make statements about religious tradition, they should at least read a religion 101 course.”14
A common problem found in the work of militant critics is the failure to adequately understand the beliefs of the religions they oppose. Critics can be inexcusably careless in their descriptions, making ancient religions appear more similar than they really are. This is often done by describing non-Christian elements of other religions using Christian vocabulary, and then marveling at the similarities between the two. In some cases (especially authors from the 19th and early 20th centuries), these parallels were made using vague interpretations, supported by evidence which was poorly understood and likely fabricated.
Despite claims to the contrary, the story of Christ in no way plagiarizes the story of Krishna. To argue otherwise is to twist and distort the teachings of both Christianity and Hinduism.
1 See Dorothy Murdock (2004), Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled (Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press), pp. 160-165.
3 Christopher Hitchens (2007), God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve), p. 23.
4 See John Shelby Spong (1992), Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Virgin Birth and Treatment of Women by a Male-Dominated Church (San Francisco, CA: Harper), p. 56.
9 Mahabharata, 16:4; Vishnu Purana, 5.37.
10 Kersey Graves (1976), The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors; or, Christianity Before Christ (Boston, MA: Colby and Rich), pp. 229-230.
12 Diana Eck (2012), India: A Sacred Geography (New York: Harmony Books), p. 381.