Last Christmas season I posted in a slightly Grinch-like way about catholic Incarnation theories, and about some Christians’ lack of critical thinking about them.
There’s an interesting human impulse observable here. The best analogy I can think of right now is posters like the one to the left. The ladies love them.
Why? There’s the sex appeal of the dude. And the cute baby. Everyone likes a cute baby.
But there’s something else, something affecting about a big, strong, tough manly man, stooping to gently cradle a teeny, vulnerable baby. He’s made himself so vulnerable. Of course, that adds to the “sexy” part. My point is, the affecting nature of the man’s condescension is a distinct element of the appeal.
Now imagine that God, big strong God, becomes an ignorant, weak, dependent little baby. There’s a similar, recognisable emotional tug there. What an amazing idea! Of course, it may be amazing in part because it’s contradictory. But I’ll not argue that here.
Instead, a bit of cross-cultural comparison. Christians aren’t the only ones who go in for the idea of a god who comes down from his mighty position, to be a cute, puny little baby.
The Ramayana is an epic poem, and a sort of scripture in Hinduism. Parts of it go back perhaps to the 400s BCE, though it comes in many versions, some of which are from the high middle ages. The clip below is from a wildly popular Indian television series from 1986 called Ramayan. If you’re interested in Hinduism, I recommend it, but it’s a real time commitment to watch the whole thing. I’ve edited some bits of it, to include the more theological parts, and to get it down to youtube length. It’s here, Ram or Rama, is supposed to be an avatar of the god Vishnu.
My point is not that Christians copied the idea of incarnation from Hindu avatar theories. I don’t think that is true, nor can I rule out some amount of Christian influence is some latter day avatar theorizing. My main point is the common human reaction to the image of a baby god. Also like Christians, the characters wonder whether or not this is contradictory. See how they dismiss the worry, or rather, how a major Hindu god does.
For the record, I do not claim, but I do deny that the Trimurti has anything to do with Christian Trinity theories. I’m aware of no evidence of causal influence either way. Perhaps in a future post I’ll explore what these facts about Hinduism may have to do with Christian theology.
Below is a play-by-play commentary, so you know who is who, and what is going on. Enjoy!
- The scene starts in Vishnu’s heaven; he’s the blue guy relaxing on the couch. He’s called the Preserver, and is a god of grace and compassion.
- :16 – On behalf of many, Brahma the Creator god beseeches Vishnu to come to earth, which is oppressed by the demon King Ravan. Others join in.
- 1:37 – that’s Ravan, rocking that mustache and literally treading the earth under foot. He has a good bad guy laugh.
- 2:08 – Shiva (“the Destroyer” – though he’s not a bad or purely negative deity) appears, in leopard skin, to urge Vishnu to descend and take birth as a human avatar. (Aside: he’s the third of the so-called “Hindu Trinity” (Triumurti) along with Vishnu and Brahma.) Vishnu greets him as “God of gods;” I’m not sure if that’s flattery, or if the source here assumes him to be the one high god. One might assume that Vishnu, not Shiva would be in that position in the Ramayana… In some Vishnu-centered texts, Shiva is actually a manifestation of Vishnu, but that’s not going on here.
- 2:24 – The “Trinity” (it’s not really a Trinity, but that’s another post) is now on the left of the screen, together with Vishnu’s wife, the popular goddess Lakshmi.
- 3:03 – A very hairy guru takes up the argument. Shiva says he’s the guru of the gods.
- 3:57 – That circular saw blade on Vishnu’s finger is a “divine weapon.” His other hand holds a conch shell to blow like a horn. Why is he blue? It’s the color of the sky, is the common explanation.
- 4:24 – Vishnu, sympathising with oppressed humanity, decides to be born as a man to conquer Ravan, restoring balance to the earth. He’ll be born as a prince to King Dasarath.
- 4:52 – Here he is in human form, the baby Ram (Rama). It seems that Lord Vishnu / Ram needs a diaper! He cutes it up, to the delight of the king, his queens, and Shiva, viewing from his holy mountain. The god, possibly the high God, is a cute toddler. Is this patently contradictory nonsense, or a wonderful, almost unthinkable truth?
- 9:00 – Shiva and his wife or consort Parvati delve into this question. They observe little Ram having a temper tantrum, and she wonders how a/the god could do this. It is “The deepest of mysteries, my Lady.” Yes, Shiva here is a mysterian! He adds that God must become a man to show man the true path, by example. The view here seems to be that Vishnu has really become a human being, with all the limitations thereof, and not that he merely appears to be a human. In other words, this is not a docetist avatar theory being presupposed. There is only the briefest flash of worry here about whether this story is self-consistent or self-contradictory.
- 10:52 – WWRD – “What Would Ram Do?” Ram is presented throughout the Ramayana as an ideal human, a paragon of virtue.
- 11:19 – Shiva decides he wants in on this salvific action; he’ll descend as an avatar too (for the 11th time), as Hanuman, to help Ram in his quest to defeat Ravan.