Q: : I have found a claim that Vaishnavism predates Christianity & that some of the Christian thoughts might have been borrowed from it. As I read, it seems to assert that Vaishnavism existed before Christianity came to India & that it wasn''t an off-shoot of Christianity as it was previously thought by some. The Heliodorus Column [or pillar], dated some 113 BC, is said to have two inscriptions referring to the existence of Vaishnavism before Christianity came to India.
I''m detailing below what I read: -
The 1st column reads:
"This Garuda-column of Vasudeva (Visnu), the god of gods, was erected here by Heliodorus, a worshipper of Vishnu, the son of Dion, and an inhabitant of Taxila, who came as Greek ambassador from the Great King Antialkidas to King Kasiputra Bhagabhadra, the Savior, then reigning prosperously in the fourteenth year of his kingship"
The 2nd column reads:
"Three immortal precepts (footsteps)..when practiced lead to heaven-self restraint, charity, conscientiousness."
From the inscriptions it is seems clear Heliodorus was influenced by Vedic principles that he could be considered to be a Vaisnava, a follower or worshipper of Visnu. Professor Kunja Govinda Goswami of Calcutta University concludes that Heliodorus " was well acquainted with the texts dealing with the Bhagavat [Vaisnava] religion." (6)
It is also interesting to note that the Heliodorus column has other historical merits. Around the turn of the century, a number of Indologists (Weber, Macnicol, and others) had noted " points of similarity'' between the Vaisnava philosophy of unalloyed devotion and Christian doctrine. They had argued that Vaishnavism (worship of Visnu and Krsna) must have been an offshoot of Christianity, and cited the similarity between stories about Krsna and about Christ to further support their claim.(9) But the discovery of the inscription on the Heliodorus column laid their speculations to rest. Here was conclusive archaeological proof that the Vaisnava tradition antedated Christianity by at least two hundred years. Therefore, it could be said in other words that the similar doctrines in Christianity might have very well been borrowed from Vaishnavism.
While it might be true that Vaishnavism existed before Christian era, does the Heliodorus pillar in anyway debunk the claim that Vaishnavism borrowed from Christianity & strengthen the claim that Christians might have borrowed [or at least that Christians weren''t the first ones to preach about a Personal God who sacrificed for humanity]?
A: There are several assumptions that seem to be a part of this question which are simply unsustainable.
The first is the assumption that there are “points of similarity” in philosophy between Vaishnavite and Christian teaching. In the question the suggestion is that strong devotion is the basis of this. However, if devotion is the basis for similarity, then we would have to say that most religions of the world have this point of similarity. Does anyone have a suggestion for a world religion that does not include devotion? Perhaps they meant a very strong devotion. Well…, we are still at most religions of the world. This is hardly the basis for posting a similarity between religions and philosophy.
I would liken this to a person trying to determine of the car they are driving is the same as the one their friend is driving. You do not ask questions like “Does it have tires?”
Really!? Wow, we must both be driving the same car!”
“OK—Does it have an engine?”
“Really! Now it is certain that we are both driving the same type of car!”
My point is that devotion is part of every religious viewpoint, even strong devotion. To cite this as a point of similarity is really quite silly.
The question continues and cites similarities between Krishna and Jesus. Actually it doesn’t cite any parallels. It just says they exist. It seems like they are making an assertion without allowing anyone to examine this claim or giving any details. Hmmm.
However, the greater problem of these paragraphs is that there is an assumption that if a religion predates another religion, the second religion must have borrowed from the first. Now we cannot rule out the possibility of borrowing. However, to assume that ideas are borrowed without showing they are borrowed is a perfect example of presumption.
There are some schools of the history of religion that assume that religion is unnatural to men, and that certain form of religion are innovations—that ideas themselves cannot be coincidental to man. These ideologies do not necessarily examine the evidence, but based upon ideology make assumptions. Some assume that religion itself is an idea and concept that was suddenly arrived at and then passed from one culture to another, as men could not come up with religions concepts on their own. This is however, clearly against all the historical and anthropological evidence. Every civilization, every people group has been shown to have a religion ingenuity. It seems that the concept of God or gods is endemic to man and that religious concepts are not hard to come by, but actually natural for mankind. So this assumption is contrary to the entire corpus of information on the religious nature of man. However, for some ideology still trumps evidence.
For those who do not think that mankind has any theological ingenuity, the assumption is that ideas about God have to be borrowed from one people group to the next, rather than people from their own minds having their own thought processes. Yet, if man is naturally inclined to think about God and to wonder about spiritual life, then ideas about God would flow coincidentally within multiple cultures , places and times that would have significant overlap and similarity. The need to discover the root of religion in some primordial or early tradition would vanish.
Additionally, this question also has another weakness: it does not allow for change within a world view. If a religion is started in one century, we have actually found that it tends to make adjustments or development through time. The rituals of the Vedas gave way to the philosophizing of the Upanishads which gave way to the bhakti of the Vaishnavites and Shivaites. This general type of change and development is also shown to be part and parcel of humanity and religion. We need not, and actually should not assume that a development is from borrowing, even if what we are considering has some similarity with another religious world view somewhere else in the world.
Here is how we know if there is borrowing: when we find borrowing. This is not hard. When we have the evidence of one religion adopting the views or methods of another world view, when we have clear evidence of cross-pollination of ideas, when historical records demonstrate that the source of ideas is from borrowing…then we have borrowing. Other than this, I would suspect people of trying to one-up everyone else by making their own view older and the original one. This is often an exercise in self-adulation and unwarranted boasting.
There is also one common error in this assumption of predating concepts. Other than trying to gain boasting rights, it clearly overlooks the obvious and openly stated connection of Christianity with the Old Testament. Christianity is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Christ claimed to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies and predictions. So in this sense, Christianity is not uniquely arriving on the scene unannounced and sudden. It definitively claims to be in connection with the Old Testament and the nation of Israel. The New Testament and the actual fulfillment certainly gives clarity and strength to the ideas and shows forth the uniqueness of ideas. But the claim of the New Testament is that there is a link to the Old Testament. This somewhat renders the claim that something is older than Christianity when it is marking only the appearance of Jesus as the sudden start of ideas and teachings.
As for the content on the column suggesting a link to the idea of a personal God who sacrificed Himself for humanity, I just don’t see this in the words of the column.