A god for the real world

I don’t believe in God. But if I did, that God might need to be Krishna.

I have come to believe that the problem of suffering is effectively insurmountable. That is, the vast suffering in the world clearly implies that there cannot be an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God, as the God of the Abrahamic traditions is generally supposed to be.

But what about a god who isn’t omnipotent or omnibenevolent?

If we deny one of those two attributes, then the problem of suffering goes away. It is really only a problem for those who believe in an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God, which is why Indians spent so little time asking the question “Why do good people suffer?”, even though they had an answer to it.

So when Elisa Freschi asked me about later Vaiṣṇava Mīmāṃsakas who believed in a god attained through worship, irrespective of qualities of omnipotence or omnibenevolence, I said sure, such a god could exist, in a way that the Abrahamic God could not. I just didn’t have particular reason to believe in one.

As I grapple a bit more with nondualism, though, the possibility of a God comes up again. The ultimate One of nondualism can look a lot like many conceptions of god. And that leads me to start thinking about concepts of God that I could accept.

Here I see a lot of power in the figure of Krishna, for a simple reason: not only is Krishna not omnibenevolent, it’s not even clear that Krishna is good. Krishna just is. In all the main stories told about him, he is at least morally questionable – whether he’s stealing butter as a kid or being an adulterous adult. (I greatly appreciated stories of Krishna when I was a child myself; he seemed far more “relatable”, as the kids say now, than did “little Lord Jesus / No crying he makes”.) The Bhagavad Gītā portrays Krishna as a font of ethical wisdom – but it is embedded in the larger Mahābhārata in which Krishna later quite flagrantly urges the violation of that same advice.

A watercolour depicting Krishna’s universal form.

What the Gītā also depicts, though, is Krishna’s awesomeness – in the older sense of “awesome”, not the one popularized by my generation in which it simply means “really good”. Krishna is not omnibenevolent, but he does seem omnipotent or something close to it; he may not be good, but he still inspires awe. Possibly the most famous part of that text is its eleventh chapter, in which Krishna reveals his true form to Arjuna: a terrifying yet beautiful vision in which he is covered in dazzling adornments but devours everyone in his “blazing deathlike faces and awful teeth”. And this, it seems to me, is a good representation of the true nature of the world: terrifyingly indifferent to the aspirations and sufferings of human subjects, yet amazing and beautiful and awe-inspiring all the same. A cruel, crazy, beautiful world.

Crucially, such a god does not seem to merit our trust. It is not clear that what he does is all for the best. Krishna is the divine agent who brings about the events of the Mahābhārata – a famously apocalyptic war, pitting family against family and often involving brutal, wholesale, vengeful slaughter. The most notorious such slaughter, Aśvatthāma’s massacre of his foes in their sleep, comes out of Aśvatthāma’s rage at his father being slain through deception: a deception recommended by none other than Krishna. And what is it all for? Krishna needs to makes the great destruction of the Mahābhārata happen in order to clear away the old historical age and bring about a new one. But the new age is the kaliyuga, an era even worse than the one before. Congratulations?

A next question might be: does Krishna merit worship? That, perhaps, depends on what we mean by “worship”. Krishna, as far as I can tell, is a being who merits awe but not trust. This should not be an unfamiliar combination of feelings – we can feel it before the music of Wagner, or the Egyptian pyramids built on the backs of slaves. That absence of trust does seem like it could get in the way of saksit; it’s harder for a feeling of awe and reverence to motivate you to be a better person, when it is directed at an object that is itself morally questionable. Still, I think there is something valuable to the experience of awe even when it is directed at such a questionable object. At the very least the experience can teach us some humility, reminding us of something out there greater than ourselves. Burke and Kant would call such an object sublime. Perhaps “sublime” is the best word for us to think about Krishna. If so, then perhaps even more importantly, it is a way to think about nature and the universe themselves: the grand, majestic, awesome, even delightful infinity to which we human beings are an afterthought.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

11 Replies to “A god for the real world”

  1. Amod, this is a good post. Being an Advaitin, for me, the triad of Jiva, Jagat and Isvara are all part of Maya so Advaitins do not have a problem of dealing with an omnibenevolent God. Though as Saguna Brahman (Brahman with attributes), Isvara can still be omnipotent and omniscient. Nonetheless, this same God does not violate the law of Karma.

  2. Egyptian Pyramids weren’t built on the back of slaves. While not central to your argument, it would be advisable to avoid such historically false examples.

  3. As per hindu thought :
    1. Krishna is only incarnation of God;but not God.Omni potency & omni benevolancy are attributes to God( not to incarnations ).
    2. Incarnations happen for a purpose ( establishment of dharma where evil is present in intolerable proportions ),but not caused due to past karma.The birth of ordinary people happen due to karma.
    3. Establishment of dharma is same as display of omni benevolancy which deserves reverance.
    4. Krishna is also honored as a GURU ( spiritual teacher ).

    • 1.) Krishna never refuted the law of karma. Even God is nothing but the macrocosmic Causal Body which contains the vasanas of all beings.

      2.) With an omnibenevilent God, how can evil even exist? Dharma is part of Maya, not Brahman which is formless and actionless.

      3.) Was Duryodhana not Brahman?

      4.) Can you please explain the difference between incarnation of God and God himself? In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna addresses himself as God himself.

      5.) Talking about reverence – the triad of Jiva-Jagat-Isvara does not exist in Brahman. In the sleep state itself this triad vanishes. You do not revere anyone in sleep.

      • As per my understanding :
        1. Yes,krishna endorses the law of karma. Macrocosmic Causal Body is maya.Maya superimposed on brahman is God, Easwara.
        2. Evil is viewed as having instrumental value in prompting people towards dharma–An omnibenevolent provision of God.
        3. Individual Duryodhana is in bondage to his karma as per his delusions,where as Brahman is free from all bonds.
        4.God and His incarnations differ in their powers and attributes.
        5. Brahman is undifferenciated existence and every thing else is superimposition on it,as per Advaitha.
        He is ultimate reality.Reverence is a phenomena of ordinary reality.

        • 1. Agreed on point 1
          2. The world of duality is always going to have good and evil.

          Krishna is asking Arjuna to engage in a war to kill his cousins and teachers. He talks of going beyond good and evil here.

          “Verse 2.50: One who is endowed with the sameness of mind, gives up both punya (virtue) and papa (vice) here, in this world”

          3. Duryodhana is also Brahman conditioned by impure sattva.

          4. In Bhagavad Gita, Krishna never mentions any such difference. He refers to himself as the supreme.

          Verse 18.66 says:

          sarva-dharman parityajya
          mam ekam saranam vraja
          aham tvam sarva-papebhyo
          moksayisyami ma sucah

          TRANSLATION
          Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.

          5. Agreed on point 5

          Lastly, everything is Brahman. Here is Chandogya Upanishad, Verse 3.14.1

          sarvaṃ khalvidaṃ brahma tajjalāniti śānta upāsīta | atha khalu kratumayaḥ puruṣo yathākraturasmim̐lloke puruṣo bhavati tathetaḥ pretya bhavati sa kratuṃ kurvīta || 3.14.1 ||

          “All this is Brahman. Everything comes from Brahman, everything goes back to Brahman, and everything is sustained by Brahman.”

          All Jivas, the entire Jagat and Iswara are Brahman only in essence. Therefore a knower of Brahman does not bother about the apparent distinctions between them caused by the superimpositions of Maya. A knower of Brahman is beyond both virtue and vice.

          “Wise people are indeed those who see the same (Brahman) in a brahmana, who is endowed with knowledge and humility, in a cow, in an elephant, in a dog, and even in a dog eater.”

          Bhagavad Gita, Verse 5.18

          • I notice a substantial difference between us in point4.only. Incarnations are to be understood as lesser God.

  4. Well, I am happy that there is no substantial disagreement on other points. They are more fundamental to the topic of the post.

    For point 4 I would say that for a Jnani, everything from Brahma down to a clump of grass is Maya.

    As Shankara says in Upadeshasahasri, Verse 3

    “Even powerful beings including Brahma and Indra are objects to that knower who has no fear about the next world nor fear of death”

  5. I don’t want to turn this into a discussion of Abrahamic theology, but I was seriously distracted by paragraphs 2-4, which in my limited understanding of Abrahamic theologies may misrepresent at least some of those theologies. For example, from what I know of Christian theology, the argument around theodicy is usually based on the Christian god being omnipotent, omnibenevolent, *and* omniscient; and my recollection of process theologian Charles Hartshorne is that he argued that if you can remove one of those three attributes, you can effectively address the question of theodicy (at least in a process theology context). As for Jewish thought, the little I know of the diversity of opinions represented in the Talmud leads me to wonder whether this question has been addressed in multiple ways from multiple perspectives. Again, I don’t want to distract from your really interesting suggestions about Krishna, I just want to suggest that the mention of the Abrahamic traditions was distracting for me.

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