The birth anniversary of Jesus of Nazareth, known all over the world by his Anglicized Greek moniker Christ (Christos, the Anointed One or Messiah), compares and contrasts interestingly with that of the Hindu god Krishna (literally the Dark One) in being both sacred festival and secular festivity. The comparison gains an added quantum of mystification in the phonetic affinity of their popular names: the Sanskrit word “Krishna” (or “Chrishna”) becomes “Kristo” or “Kesto” in colloquial Bengali. “Christ” in Bengali is pronounced as “Khrista” or “Khristo”. Krishna is also known as Yashu (or Jashu) after his adopted mother Yashoda (or Jashoda). Jesus is called Jishu in Bengali. Thus we have the parallel names in Bengali: Jishu Khrista and Jashu Krishna (or Kristo). In the US the nineteenth-century autodidact, skeptic, and popular writer Kersey Graves (1813-83) made some colorful and imaginary correlation between Krishna and Christ as he believed Christianity was created from pagan myths.
The story of the conception, birth, and early life of both men or Godmen and the theological and teleological explanations for their descent on earth as the divine incarnation has an uncanny parallel. First, let me try to explain the names for the Christian festival Christmas and the Hindu festival Janmastami—commemorating the birth of Christ and Krishna. My source for Christ is the New Testament Gospels of Matthew (1:18, 20, 21, 23, 24, 25, 27, 35; 2:1,2,4) and Luke (1:5,26-39; 2:4,11) and for Krishna, the Harivamsa, the Vishnu Purana, the Bhagavata (c. 100-1000 CE), accounts of the Greek travelers following Alexander’s invasion (327 BCE), various Greek travelers such as Strabo (1st century CE), Megasthenes (350-290 BCE), King Dionysios (r. 65-55 B CE), Kosmas Indikopleustes (fl. First half of 6th century CE), the Roman author Pliny the Elder’s (23-79 CE), and Claudius Aelianus (mid 2nd century CE). Pliny actually referred to Krishna (also called Hari Krishna, as he was considered an incarnation of Lord Vishnu or Hari) as the Hindu Herakles [Hercules] who some scholars reckon lived around 3100 BCE. As per the Hindu calendar, Krishna is supposed to have been born on the eighth day of the waning moon, Astami Tithi, during the second fortnight, or Krishna (or Dark) Paksha (fortnight), of the month Bhadrapada during the time the Rohini Nakshatra (Aldebaran) is ascendant. In the Gregorian Calendars (implemented by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582) Krishna Janmastami falls between mid-August and mid-September.
Jesus’s birth date December 25 was first identified in 221 CE by the Libyan historian Sextus Julius Africanus (160-240), who is considered as the father of Christian chronology. A modern Christologist Rev. Dr. Mark Roberts, in his article “The Birth of Jesus: Hype or History?” critically analyses the article “The Birth of Jesus” by Jon Meacham in the Newsweek and another article “Secrets of the Nativity” by David von Biema in the Time—both appearing in December 2004. It has been estimated that 246 million Americans claim to be Christians, 241 million view Jesus as God or Son of God, 232 million believe Jesus was born of a virgin, and 196 million Americans accept Christmas story as history. Rev. Roberts argues that many skeptics’ viewing the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke as imaginary notwithstanding, we need to recognize two things about the two apostles: they were fully inspired by God and at the same time fully engaged with their lived cultures. Thus “if Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth seems to use some of the images and terms that can be found in Roman biographies, this does not tell us anything about whether Luke was relating what really happened or not. But it does tell us about whether Luke was a careful writer and an effective communicator.”
There are some intriguing and some tenuous parallels between the story of the circumstances surrounding the birth of Krishna and Christ. According to legend, King Kamsa of Mathura, now a city of the Uttar Pradesh [Northern Provinces], India, was an evil ruler who had ascended the throne by murdering his father King Ugrasena. To put an end to his evil rule, Lord Vishnu, one of the Hindu Trinity (Brahma, Creator God, Vishnu, Sustainer/Maintainer God, and Maheshvara, the Great God of Destruction), decided to incarnate in the human form. As such, at the wedding ceremony of Kamsa’s sister Devaki and a regional nobleman Vasudeva, there was divine prophecy proclaiming that Vasudeva’s eighth son would kill Kamsa. To preempt this eventuality, Kamsa rushed to kill his sister but changed his mind upon receiving assurance from his brother-in-law Vasudeva that the latter will hand over all his children to him. Thereupon the king incarcerated his sister and brother-in-law in order to maintain a close watch over his sister’s pregnancy and child birth. He duly killed all the six newborns but the seventh child, named Balaram, was saved when he was transferred miraculously from Devaki’s womb to that of her husband’s second wife Rohini. As Devaki conceived the eighth child, Lord Krishna was born in the divine form at midnight (as I have mentioned earlier), Vasudeva was able to carry the infant to safety following a series of dramatic events that signified the divine nature of the child who would grow up to kill King Kamsa.
Like the Hindu Krishna, the conception of Jesus was foretold. After Mary, a Jewish virgin of Galilee, Nazareth, was engaged to Joseph, a Jewish carpenter, she was visited by an angel who told her that she would conceive a son by the power of the Holy Spirit and that she should name the child Immanuel. Though initially alarmed at the prospect of being a mother before marriage she came later to rejoice in her prospect of becoming a mother to a divine child (Isaiah 7:14). When she told her fiancé Joseph that she was pregnant, he treated her with extreme kindness as Joseph was also visited by an angel in a dream who verified Mary’s story and reassured him that his marriage to her was God’s will. Upon waking up from his dream Joseph took Mary home to be his wife. At this time, Caesar Augustus (31 BCE-14 CE) of the Roman Empire decreed that a census be taken and one in the Roman world had to go to his own town to register. Joseph, being a descendant of the tribe of David (1040-970 BCE), was required to go to Bethlehem with Mary to register. While at Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to Jesus. Probably due to the census the only inn of the town was overcrowded and she thus delivered the baby in a crude stable. She wrapped the baby in cloths and placed him in a manger.
Out in the fields, an angel appeared at night to the shepherds who were tending their flocks of sheep and announced the birth of the Savior in the town of David. Suddenly a great host of heavenly beings appeared with the angels and began singing paeans to God. Thereafter the shepherds decided to travel to Bethlehem and behold the child Christ [Savior]. Following their meeting with Mary, Joseph, and the child, they began spreading the word about the amazing newborn. After Jesus’ birth, Herod (74-4 BCE), the king of Judea, learned from the visiting wise men (Magi) that they had seen a star signifying the birth of the King of the Jews. The Magi came to see the child and were told that he was to be found at Bethlehem (Micha 5:2). Planning to apprehend and kill his divinely mandated royal rival, Herod secretly met the Magi and persuaded them to report to him about the whereabouts of the divine child. But the Magi never reported back to Herod after having seen, worshipped, and offered treasures of gold, incense, myrrh to the divinely appointed King of the Jews. Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt with their child and stayed there for a while and then following the visitation of an angel in Joseph’s dream they returned to the district of Galilee in Nazareth, where Jesus passed his childhood and thus came to be known by his moniker Nazarene.
Both Christ and Krishna were born under hazardous and miraculous circumstances. Their life at birth and immediately afterwards was at peril. Jesus’ mother was impregnated by the Holy Spirit and Krishna’s mother gave birth to a divine incarnation. Child Jesus was born in Bethlehem but grew up at Nazareth and Krishna was born in Mathura but grew up at Gokul near Vrindavan. Krishna grew up to slay his tyrannous uncle Kamsa while Jesus was killed by the order of the Roman governor of Judea. Krishna was killed by an inadvertent arrow shot in the foot by a hunter while Jesus died of crucifixion. Even though some scholar see a parallel in the manner of Krishna’s death and that of Jesus with his palms and feet being nailed on the cross, more appropriately, Krishna’s death due to a mortal wound in the feet parallels the death of the Homeric hero Achilles, who died of a mortal wound in his heel.
In conclusion, let me say, a la the American Hindu guru Swami Kriyananda (J. Donald Walters, 1926-2013) both Krishna and Christ were divine warriors in defense of right and justice (Krishna’s role in the Kurukshetra battle, described in the epic Mahabharata and Jesus’ bold statement “I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). But both are also apostles of love. And, as A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of Krishna Consciousness (or the Hare-Krishna) Movement, concludes,
In the Christian religion, Jesus Christ claimed to be the son of God and to be coming from the Kingdom of God to reclaim conditioned souls. The followers of Bhagavad-gita admit this claim to be true. So basically there is no difference. In details there may be differences due to differences in culture, climate and people, but the basic principle remains the same—that is God or His representatives come to reclaim conditioned souls (Bhakta Handbook, 2003, ch, 7).
The birthdays of both divinities are marked by the usual religious rituals of the Hindus and Christians alike. The Janmastami is a day of worshipping Krishna and merrymaking, fun and frolic commemorating the child Krishna’s (Gopala) pranks, the most hilarious being his constant stealing of butter from the pantry of the neighboring shepherd women, socializing with relatives, friends and even strangers. It is India’s national holiday that is observed all over the world by the Indian embassies and consulates together with the diasporic Indians—Hindu and well as Muslim. Similarly, Christmas is not just a Christian holiday, it is also the same in India and celebrated with great panache, pomp, and splendor in which almost all religious sects participate with jest and in earnest. It is also called in Bengal the Long/Great Day (Baradin). In the city of Kolkata it is a thrill hear the Mass at midnight at the largest Cathedral, the St. Paul’s, in the center of the city.