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Bayesian evaluation for the likelihood of Christ's resurrection (Part 22)

August 15, 2016

We now come to Hinduism's Krishna, who's another god that's sometimes compared with Jesus. He's said to be have been the incarnation of Vishnu, who is either the supreme god, or one of three or five most important gods, depending on the specific tradition in Hinduism.

Krishna has perhaps a greater claim to a real, historical substance compared to the other gods we've covered. For starters, he is at least said to have been born as a human. He is said to have gotten married and ruled kingdoms and fought battles. There is a great deal that is said about Krishna - but we are, of course, primarily interested in the story of his death and "resurrection".

The main literary sources we have on this part of Krishna's life are the Mahabharata and the Srimad Bhagavatam. They tell the story of how Krishna, at the end of a long and eventful life, intended to leave the world. He was then shot by a hunter named Jara, with an arrow through the foot. This marked the end of Krishna's life, for thereafter he immediately ascended to go to his own abode, leaving earth.

So, what are we to make of this "resurrection" story? What kind of evidence is there for it? Let us first try to establish the setting. These stories take place in ancient India, and Krishna is proposed to have lived some time between 3200 and 3100 BC, although there are some wildly differing estimates. These are quite large uncertainties, from a very long time ago - right at the edge of pre-history. These issues, by themselves, might not cause too much concern -  until we attempt to date the writing of the Mahabharata, which contains these stories.

Dating the Mahabharata is tricky - it is a massive work, composed of multiple layers. Current scholarship estimates that the oldest layers are from around 400 BC, and the origin of the stories within it can perhaps be extended back to 1000 BC. In other words, the stories of Krishna were, at best, already thousands of years old at the time that they were recorded. Therefore, no personal, firsthand testimony to Krishna's death and ascension are possible in this work.

Okay - but what if we ignore the scholarship, and and go with the Hindu tradition which says that the Mahabharata was authored by the legendary sage Vyasa? Unfortunately, this doesn't help things at all. We know little about a historical Vyasa. When did he live? When did he write? We can no more anchor him in history than we can Krishna.

Complicating matters further is the story structure of the Mahabharata. You see, the death and ascension of Krishna is not just told as a story; it is framed as a story being told by Vaisampayana (a student of Vyasa) to the king Janamejaya (supposedly a great-grandson of a character in the Mahabharata), many years after the fact. But that's not the end of it - this story is further framed as a story being told by Ugrasrava Sauti, even more years later. So, the story of Krishna's ascension is a story (about Krishna), within a story (being told by Vaisampayana), within a story (being told by Ugrasrava Sauti), within a work (the Mahabharata itself, which was presumably written down some time afterwards). All this "story-within-a-story" structure sounds like a device for saying "once upon a time...", and makes the story sound like something told about "a friend of a friend". But let us ignore that for now. Even if we were to take the Mahabharata entirely at face value - an outlandishly generous acquiescence - we would still be forced to conclude that this story was already incredibly old at the time of the recording, and its content disqualifies itself from being considered a primary account, due to its story-within-a-story structure. Again, no personal testimonies are possible.

But - what if the dates for Krishna's life are mistaken? What if he lived more recently than in the 4rd millennium BC, and the portion of the Mahabharata which contains his ascension were written closer to the actual event, and the rest of the Mahabharata, including the story-within-story structure, was built up later? Well, that's a lot of "what-if's" - and while that does get the text closer to the event, it's still of no help in solidly placing Krishna in history, or producing personal testimonies from any witnesses to his ascension.

Going to the Srimad Bhagavatam instead of the Mahabharata doesn't help here - for the Srimad Bhagavatam was written even more recently than the Mahabharata. Modern scholarship places its composition as some time between 500 to 1000 AD, and it references parts of the Mahabharata. In fact, its other name - Bhagavata Purana - means "Ancient Tales of Followers of the Lord". The work itself acknowledges that these are "ancient tales", right there in the title. It cannot possibly produce the kind of testimonies we're looking for.

Let's compare all this to the evidence for Jesus's resurrection. Even if we only consider those modern scholars that are skeptical and unbelieving, the New Testament was mostly completed within decades of Christ's death and resurrection. 1 Corinthians, from which we got the summary of the evidence for Christ's resurrection, was written a mere 20 years after the event. The creed within it comes within several years of the event itself. Furthermore, we have numerous records within the New Testament of people claiming to have personally seen the risen Christ. Multiple such claims are in fact made in the first person within the New Testament text itself.

These are stark differences compared to the ascension of Krishna. We have time gaps of years compared to millennia, and personal, firsthand testimonies instead of a story about a story about a story about an ascension. It may be that Krishna was a real person who once lived a remarkable life. It may be that the Kurukshetra War actually took place. But in judging the amount of evidence for Krishna's ascension, there can be no real comparison to the evidence for Christ's resurrection.

But in the end, we still need a numerical value for the level of evidence for Krishna's ascension. Well, we can certainly say that some people say that Krishna "rose from the dead". But we cannot historically locate any group of people who first personally testified to this fact, like we can with the 500 witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15. Nor can we find any group of witnesses corresponding to the apostles, or to the specific named witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15. In the end, we just seem to have the story in the Mahabharata, with the version of the story in Srimad Bhagavatam being a later telling of the same story. Previously, I've assigned such "some people say" stories 1/10th of the level of evidence of the 500 witnesses. But given the sheer size of the works about Krishna, I'll increase this to 1/4th of the level of evidence of the 500 witnesses. That means that the evidence for Krishna's ascension amounts to 1/4 * 1/6 = 1/24th of the evidence for Jesus's resurrection.

There's more cases to consider in the next post.


You may next want to read:
The biblical timeline of the universe
Key principles in interpreting the Bible
Another post, from the table of contents

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