Tag Archives: bhagavad gita

The Pentateuch, Part 3: A Passage to India

I’m about to expose a hole in my textual migration model of the Torah.  Not that I think this disproves or diminishes what I’ve already established, but rather it’s an aberration I can’t seem to explain.

When Moses approaches the burning bush, God commands him to take off his sandals (Ex. 3:5) because he is standing on holy ground.  There’s no similar act elsewhere in the Bible except for when Joshua encounters the commander of the Lord’s army (Joshua 5:15) in the conquest of Canaan, which is clearly written to parallel the Mosaic cycle.  Removing shoes in reverence seems to be a rather irregular custom for Judaism in general, depending more on surrounding culture and circumstances.  From my own experience touring Hindu temples in India, it seems more characteristic of the far east than the near east.

While that’s possibly an unprovable hypothesis, I think there’s a very clear comparison to Hinduism in the book of Exodus.  Coincidentally after the episode with the golden calf that corresponds to the Hindu sacred cow, Moses and YHWH have a near face-to-face conversation with striking parallels to the most popular and important sacred text of India, the Bhagavad Gita.

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”

And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.  But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

Exodus 33:18-23

In the Bhagavad Gita, prince Arjuna consults his chariot driver on the battlefield, who he then discovers is really the supreme deity Krishna in disguise.  From the text according to Gandhi:

[Arjuna said] “Thou art indeed just as Thou hast described Thyself, Parameshvara.  I do crave to behold now that form of Thine as Ishvara.  If Lord, Thou thinkest it possible for me to bear the sight, reveal to me, O Yogeshvara, Thy imperishable form.”

The Lord said:  “Behold, O Partha, my forms divine in their hundreds and thousands, infinitely diverse, infinitely various in color and aspect.  Behold the Adityas, the Vasus, the Rudras, the two Ashwins, and the Maruts.  Behold, O Bharata, numerous marvels never revealed before.  Behold today, O Gudakesha, in my body, the whole universe moving and unmoving, all in one, and whatever else thou cravest to see.  But thou canst not see Me with these thine own eyes.  I give thee the eye divine.  Behold My sovereign power!”

Bhagavad Gita 11:4-8

For civilizations so far removed from each other, these are incredibly close in form if not in context or content.  Both address the problem of God’s invisibility, while they interpret it differently and present widely different solutions.  Frankly, I’m at a loss to explain it with any certainty, but I will offer some suggestions.  First, while not assuming the priority of either narrative, it seems likely one is a polemic of the other.  The incident of Moses seeing God’s back seems to interrupt the narrative, and theologically has frustrated apologists ever since, almost suggesting it’s a later interpolation.  Still, it’s difficult to explain a possible detour to India in the migration path.  At some point these two cultures must have come into contact with each other, or with an intermediary such as Egypt.  It’s almost unthinkable, not just from a literalist perspective, to assume Hebrew culture made it as far as India and incorporated that influence into their national epic, so it seems more plausible that the Bhagavad Gita was the traveling text in this instance.  Unfortunately, I’m hardly an Egyptologist, so I wouldn’t be able to  determine the relationship between those two cultures as easily.

Such is textual analysis.  While many times it provides insight, at times like this it raises more questions than it answers.  If anybody more knowledgable in these subjects (or not) has any input, it would be welcome.

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Mormonism: The Other Brand X

In 1981, the Book of Mormon was printed in the edition currently in circulation today.  Under the radar of most non-Mormons, even its title was revised, to the now familiar “Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ.”  This edition was to usher in a new public relations-driven mission which would effectively change the Latter-day Saint image and double the church’s size outside the U.S. in the next few decades.

I’ll be honest, I’ve never been fond of the LDS church’s version of the Book of Mormon.  Although it has a plethora of useful cross-references and footnotes (usually, but I could write another entry on some of the references that are deliberately and suspiciously left uncited), its double-column format and tiny margins don’t leave enough space for my hands-on method of analysis.  That’s not surprising, really, most other religions I’ve encountered aren’t as accommodating with their sacred texts as I’m accustomed to with the Bible.  I just may have outgrown my wide margin NIV, but it looks like Zondervan discontinued that model anyway, in favor of an edition with a full blank page for note taking.  On the other end of the spectrum, Muslims discourage writing anything in the Qur’an, which I believe is a major impediment to Islamic scholarship.  Baha’i publications are serviceable but limited to a single edition of each, many times just a cherry-picked anthology.  The ISKCON edition of the Bhavagad Gita is useful in that it has Hindi, English, and Swami Prabhupada’s commentary for each verse, but it doesn’t leave much room  for anything but his concentrated focus.  The Bible has been subject to much more extensive critical analysis than any other sacred text on earth, yet even when other religions seem to promote study, their publications have confined parameters outside of which the faithful do not venture.

On a recent visit to the local temple’s visitor’s center to ask some questions, I brought my own copy of the Book of Mormon that I use for research.  I had found a reader-friendly edition online which is exactly the same text, just in single-column paragraph form; it still doesn’t meet my needs, but the version that would doesn’t exist in print (I hope to change that someday).  Despite my having been flipping through this edition to read passages, and even using its fore edge to demonstrate my Biblical analog theory, after we’d been discussing for a half hour the sister interrupted me to inquire what book I was using.  She was noticeably surprised when I told her it was the Book of Mormon.

At that moment, I was suddenly aware of how foreign this was to them, and how much of an outsider it made me.  Go to most churches and (aside from pew Bibles) you’ll see people carrying diverse translations of the Bible in a wide range of editions from various publishers; it’s unusual for two people to have the exact same Bible by coincidence.  You couldn’t tell people in your church to turn to 1 Chronicles 1 and expect any of them to be on the same page number.  At the temple, however, one is surrounded by translations of the Book of Mormon in dozens of languages, yet they still

the Book of Mormon's trademark look is instantly recognizable in any language

look uniform.  The text is different for each language, but the fonts and formats are all the same.  In fact, the primary differences in the versions carried by the missionaries and visiting Mormons seem to be symbols of status.  Only prospective converts ever use the cheap, free copies.  Initiated members have at the very least the hardcover edition, but more likely a “triple” combination (Book of Mormon+Doctrines & Coventants+Pearl of Great Price), and others a “quad” (the triple with the Bible).  The most well-to-do, of course, have the deluxe leather bound quad with their name engraved.  Even though the shape and size may vary, their configurations are homogenous, with identical typeset and printing common to all of them.  Every page is alike in every one of them, so that Ether chapter 8 is always on page 500.  Every English Book of Mormon was the same, except mine of course.

When the title was changed in the 80’s, the LDS church began a campaign to re-brand themselves and their sacred texts, so that Mormons now have a cultic loyalty to their brand that borders on fetishism.   The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is now a corporate logo with worldwide recognition, displayed prominently on employee elder name tags, publications, and buildings.  The Book of Mormon is no longer a book in the traditional sense: words transmitted through a physical medium, that could exist hypothetically in print, in speech, or even in memory.  Instead, the Book of Mormon is a household name product, and its loyal customers refuse any generic facsimile, no matter that all the contents inside are the same.

Mormons certainly aren’t the only ones who do this, of course.  Jehovah’s Witnesses are as fanatically loyal to their Awake! and Watchtower magazines, not to mention their own branded translation of the Bible.  Hare Krishnas visibly recoil if I mention the Gandhi or Vivekananda translations of the Bhagavad Gita.  Baha’i scriptures are published with a uniform trade dress in ersatz King James English, and even though none of the Bab’s major works have been translated or printed in full in any language (not even the original Arabic or Farsi), Baha’is I’ve encountered are hesitant if not reluctant to read unofficial, provisional or modernized translations available online because they are lacking the Universal House of Justice “stamp” of approval.  And while translations of the Qur’an are abundant in English, every self-respecting Muslim knows that the only real version is the standardized Arabic text.

They all seem to feel a sense of comfort and familiarity from their preferred brand, the same way I can flip through a bargain box of comic books and stop every time I see the DC comics logo while paying little attention to Marvel or other companies.  DC knew the power of their brand recognition, which is why they retained the DC “bullet” logo for nearly 30 years, only changing it for a major event; and why they’ve almost never altered the Superman logo, except for minor tweaks.  As a comic collector, I can completely understand the psychological propensity to want to accumulate a line of books of uniform design, which is essentially a cult, or religious following.  But preferring a religion isn’t like buying DC over Marvel or Coke over Pepsi; loyalty of this extent not only prevents the consumer from examining any alternatives, it also prevents them from any serious inquiry into their own faith.  Like a faithful customer who eats a certain food brand because that company tells them it’s good for them, but never independently researches a consumer report or outside nutritional information, these fetishists don’t approach their sacred books with the same critical questions that have long been standard to Biblical scholarship.

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Sunday, Hare Sunday

It’s been interruption after interruption in trying to get through my blog entry on the first paragraph of the Book of Mormon.  That should (hopefully) be coming soon, although at this rate it looks like I’ll have my complete study on the book finished by 2050.

This Sunday I had a chance to interact with two distinctly American cults: Mormons and Hare Krishnas.  Neither is really so much a surprise, just walking the Venice boardwalk from my apartment to my car any day I could meet either of these missionaries.  The Mormons weren’t as expected this weekend, however, since Sunday was the annual Festival of the Chariots, a millennia-old Hindu celebration that brings all of Krishna’s devotees to Venice, particularly the Hare Krishna movement, ISKCON.  Once a year, the faithful push three gigantic, brighly colored carts (from which the English word “juggernaut” is derived) down the boardwalk and offer free food, literature, and music at the end of the parade.  Of course, tacky evangelical protesters with professionally printed protest signs precede the parade (accompanied by some hilarious counter-protesters with make-shift banners like “God hates signs”), and other sects like the Mormons try to take advantage of the opportunity as well, albeit a bit more subtly.

At first glance the LDS and ISKCON may seem worlds apart, but they’re closer than you’d think.  ISKCON is essentially Hinduism repackaged for the West.  Like Mormonism, it was founded in New York, but eventually moved Westward where it found a following.   Ironically, Mormonism is a polytheistic offshoot of monotheistic Christianity, whereas ISKCON jumps through hoops to make Hinduism appear monotheistic.  Both have unmistakeable missionaries who could never be confused for each other, each trying to get anyone off guard to take a free book.  While their messages are completely different, their methods are distinctly cultic.

The annoying thing about trying to learn about Mormonism is that eventually you may need to consult a Mormon if you have questions.  Mormons are seemingly programmed to treat all inquirers as outsiders, so no matter how much you know about their religion, to them you’re a beginner.  This is particularly frustrating when you’ve clearly outclassed the missionary in scholarly knowledge, and if you’re just trying to get information, all they want to talk about is their faith (not to be confused with their religion as a learnable theology) and converting to Mormonism.  You will never be more than a prospective convert (unless, of course, you convert).  In their minds, it’s unimaginable that anybody could really understand their religion unless they believe it.

My encounters with the Hare Krishnas was eerily similar.  Despite approaching the book table with an advanced level question, inquiring whether ISKCON had an English translation of the impossible-to-find Bhavishya Purana, I could never seem to get them to respond to me as anything other than a novice.  I told them politely that I already owned their edition of the Bhagavad Gita, as well as Gandhi’s translation (to which they visibly recoiled), but that wasn’t enough.  I couldn’t truly understand their scriptures unless I engaged in their practice of bhakti yoga with a guru.  Like the Mormons, they seemed to be reading off of a script, and I walked away wondering if I had actually talked to a real, live person at all.  In the course of the conversation, the missionary even pointed me to the “prophecy” about the coming of Buddha in the first canto of the Srimad Bhavatam (aka the Bhagavata Purana) as proof that their scriptures were God’s truth.  To me, that’s an obvious interpolation attempting to bring Buddhists back to the Hindu fold; after all, it appears in a list of Krishna’s supposed incarnations that changes to the future tense the moment it reaches Lord Buddha.  The missionary wasn’t even open to this logical possibility;  remember, I couldn’t possibly understand their scriptures anyway since I didn’t even chant Hare Krishna like he did.

While a part of me would love to get the rest of their 30-volume set of the Srimad Bhavatam translated by ISKCON’s founder, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the interaction with his adherents is enough of a deterrent (not to mention there just isn’t time in the world to read every single holy book in print).  Obviously, I don’t subscribe to the cultic pressure of believing in a book or teaching before being able to understand it; a distinctive trademark of cults are its members who are unable to approach their book on the realistic, human level of literature.  It’s a shame too, because I actually do wish I knew more about Krishna folklore, but but I have no desire to be a Hare Krishna.

At least I didn’t come away empty handed.  Although Swami Prabhupada’s books can be tedious (Sanskrit, English translation, and then mostly his commentary), who am I to pass up free religious literature?  There will definitely be ammunition for a future blog entry, although it’s also yet another distraction from the blog’s main focus on the Book of Mormon.

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