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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 the Indian Philosophy Blog.