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How can God be both ‘intimate’ and a ‘stranger’?

Meet your lecturer

Dr Ankur Barua is University Senior Lecturer in Hindu Studies. He researches and gives lectures on some of the Hindu and the Buddhist worldviews that developed in South Asia during the premodern centuries and then migrated to western locations in more recent times. His academic career is a good example of how life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans. Setting out to become a theoretical physicist, he was yet haunted by the agonisingly painful death of his religiously Hindu mother. As a child he lived with his Muslim aunt and later he was raised by his Roman Catholic aunt, and he continues to be even more deeply haunted by their divergent – though not always opposed – viewpoints on the religious significance of suffering. In moments of youthful hubris, he used to think that he would settle such momentous questions with the clarity of a differential equation. Today, multiply chastised by life, he instead believes that one way to say the greatest possible number of things with the least possible number of words is the music of the poet-thinker Rabindranath Tagore.


Explore further

This carving of Krishna with a wooden flute, from the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in Cambridge, presents Krishna as one of the embodiments of the supreme God. As you will have seen in the film, the tale of Krishna and the milkmaid Gopis reminds us that God is our intimate stranger, more ineffable and mysterious than any human lover. The pride of the Gopis causes them to become separated from Krishna, and experience unbearable pain, before they are reunited in a circular dance. This is an allegory for the existential dance between the human lover and God, reminding us that God remains our innermost lover even in our dark moments of despair.

The Brihad-Aranyaka (“Great Forest”) Upanishad is one of the 50 Religious Treasures of Cambridge. The Upanishads are a collection of religious and philosophical texts, which were composed in India  between c.800 BCE and c.500 BCE, during a time when some individuals were starting to question certain aspects of the traditional Vedic socio-religious order. They deal with, amongst other topics, the relationship between the human individual and the divine reality. They are one of the scriptural foundations of the multiple Hindu ways of answering the fundamental question: “Who am I”?.

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has a fascinating collection of images of Krishna, including several miniatures. In this one you can see Krishna and Radha, the principal Gopi, in regal splendour, while in this one, God is portrayed as anydrogynous, in the form of Hindu devotion show in the 'God, Intimate stranger' video.


Consider some questions

What does the story of this video say about a Hindu understanding of the divine reality?

If God is – by definition – omnipresent, why does God not become more clearly visible to us?

Are human beings mere playthings of God?

Is it easier to find God by watching a circular dance than by reading the Upanishads?

Is darkness the opposite of light, or is darkness an unbearably intense form of light?

Does suffering make us or does suffering break us?

Do you think you need a temple to worship God?


Guidance for teachers