Krishna (/ˈkrɪʃnə/, Sanskrit pronunciation: [ˈkɽɪʂɳɐ]; Sanskrit: कृष्ण, IAST: Kṛṣṇa) is a major deity in Hinduism. He is worshipped as the eighth avatar of the god Vishnu and also as the supreme God in his own right. He is the god of compassion, tenderness, and love in Hinduism, and is one of the most popular and widely revered among Indian divinities. Krishna’s birthday is celebrated every year by Hindus on Krishna Janmashtami according to the lunisolar Hindu calendar, which falls in late August or early September of the Gregorian calendar. Krishna is usually depicted with a flute in his hand.
The anecdotes and narratives of Krishna’s life are generally titled as Krishna Leela. He is a central character in the Mahabharata, the Bhagavata Purana and the Bhagavad Gita, and is mentioned in many Hindu philosophical, theological, and mythological texts. They portray him in various perspectives: a god-child, a prankster, a model lover, a divine hero, and as the universal supreme being. His iconography reflects these legends, and shows him in different stages of his life, such as an infant eating butter, a young boy playing a flute, a young boy with Radha or surrounded by women devotees, or a friendly charioteer giving counsel to Arjuna.
The synonyms of Krishna have been traced to 1st millennium BCE literature. In some sub-traditions, Krishna is worshipped as Svayam Bhagavan, and this is sometimes referred to as Krishnaism. These sub-traditions arose in the context of the medieval era Bhakti movement. Krishna-related literature has inspired numerous performance arts such as Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Odissi, and Manipuri dance. He is a pan-Hindu god, but is particularly revered in some locations such as Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh, the Jagannatha aspect in Odisha, Mayapur in West Bengal, Dwarka and Junagadh in Gujarat, in the form of Vithoba in Pandharpur, Maharashtra, Nathdwara in Rajasthan, Udupi Krishna in Karnataka and Guruvayur in Kerala. Since the 1960s, the worship of Krishna has also spread to the Western world and to Africa, largely due to the work of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).
Krishna is represented in the Indian traditions in many ways, but with some common features. His iconography typically depicts him with black, dark, or blue skin, like Vishnu. However, ancient and medieval reliefs and stone-based arts depict him in the natural color of the material out of which he is formed, both in India and in southeast Asia. In some texts, his skin is poetically described as the color of Jambul (Jamun, a purple-colored fruit).
Krishna is often depicted wearing a peacock-feather wreath or crown, and playing the bansuri (Indian flute). In this form, he is usually shown standing with one leg bent in front of the other in the Tribhanga posture. He is sometimes accompanied by cows or a calf, which symbolise the divine herdsman Govinda. Alternatively, he is shown as a romantic young boy with the gopis (milkmaids), often making music or playing pranks.
In other icons, he is a part of battlefield scenes of the epic Mahabharata. He is shown as a charioteer, notably when he is addressing the Pandava prince Arjuna character, symbolically reflecting the events that led to the Bhagavad Gita – a scripture of Hinduism. In these popular depictions, Krishna appears in the front as the charioteer, either as a counsel listening to Arjuna, or as the driver of the chariot while Arjuna aims his arrows in the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
Alternate icons of Krishna show him as a baby (Bala Krishna, the child Krishna), a toddler crawling on his hands and knees, a dancing child, or an innocent-looking child playfully stealing or consuming butter (Makkan Chor), holding Laddu in his hand (Laddu Gopal) or as a cosmic infant sucking his toe while floating on a banyan leaf during the Pralaya (the cosmic dissolution) observed by sage Markandeya.Regional variations in the iconography of Krishna are seen in his different forms, such as Jaganatha in Odisha, Vithoba in Maharashtra, Shrinathji in Rajasthan and Guruvayoorappan in Kerala.
Guidelines for the preparation of Krishna icons in design and architecture are described in medieval-era Sanskrit texts on Hindu temple arts such as Vaikhanasa agama, Vishnu dharmottara, Brihat samhita, and Agni Purana. Similarly, early medieval-era Tamil texts also contain guidelines for sculpting Krishna and Rukmini. Several statues made according to these guidelines are in the collections of the Government Museum, Chennai.
Krishna saves Draupadi
The earliest text containing detailed descriptions of Krishna as a personality is the epic Mahabharata, which depicts Krishna as an incarnation of Vishnu. Krishna is central to many of the main stories of the epic. The eighteen chapters of the sixth book (Bhishma Parva) of the epic that constitute the Bhagavad Gita contain the advice of Krishna to Arjuna on the battlefield. The Harivamsa, a later appendix to the Mahabharata contains a detailed version of Krishna’s childhood and youth.
The Chandogya Upanishad, estimated to have been composed sometime between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE, has been another source of speculation regarding Krishna in ancient India. The verse (III.xvii.6) mentions Krishna in “Krishnaya Devakiputraya” (Sanskrit: कृष्णाय देवकीपुत्राय) as a student of the sage Ghora of the Angirasa family. This phrase, which means “To Krishna the son of Devaki“, has been mentioned by scholars such as Max Müller as a potential source of fables and Vedic lore about Krishna in the Mahabharata and other ancient literature – only potential, because this verse could have been interpolated into the text, or the Krishna Devakiputra, could be different from the deity Krishna. These doubts are supported by the fact that the much later age Sandilya Bhakti Sutras, a treatise on Krishna, cites later age compilations such as the Narayana Upanishad but never cites this verse of the Chandogya Upanishad. Other scholars disagree that the Krishna mentioned along with Devaki in the ancient Upanishad is unrelated to the later Hindu god of the Bhagavad Gita fame. For example, Archer states that the coincidence of the two names appearing together in the same Upanishad verse cannot be dismissed easily.
Yāska‘s Nirukta, an etymological dictionary published around the 6th century BCE, contains a reference to the Shyamantaka jewel in the possession of Akrura, a motif from the well-known Puranic story about Krishna. Shatapatha Brahmana and Aitareya-Aranyaka associate Krishna with his Vrishni origins.
In Ashṭādhyāyī, authored by the ancient grammarian Pāṇini (probably belonged to the 5th or 6th century BCE), Vāsudeva, son of Vasudeva, and Arjuna, as recipients of worship, are referred to together in the same sutra.
Megasthenes, a Greek ethnographer and an ambassador of Seleucus I to the court of Chandragupta Maurya towards the end of 4th century BCE, made reference to Herakles in his famous work Indica. This text is now lost to history, but was quoted in secondary literature by later Greeks such as Arrian, Diodorus, and Strabo.According to these texts, Megasthenes mentioned that the Sourasenoi tribe of India, who worshipped Herakles, had two major cities named Methora and Kleisobora, and a navigable river named the Jobares. According to Edwin Bryant, a professor of Indian religions known for his publications on Krishna, “there is little doubt that the Sourasenoi refers to the Shurasenas, a branch of the Yadu dynasty to which Krishna belonged”. The word Herakles, states Bryant, is likely a Greek phonetic equivalent of Hari-Krishna, as is Methora of Mathura, Kleisobora of Krishnapura, and the Jobares of Jamuna. Later, when Alexander the Great launched his campaign in the northwest Indian subcontinent, his associates recalled that the soldiers of Porus were carrying an image of Herakles.
The Buddhist Pali canon and the Ghata-Jâtaka (No. 454) polemically mention the devotees of Vâsudeva and Baladeva. These texts have many peculiarities and may be a garbled and confused version of the Krishna legends. The texts of Jainism mention these tales as well, also with many peculiarities and different versions, in their legends about Tirthankaras. This inclusion of Krishna-related legends in ancient Buddhist and Jaina literature suggests that Krishna theology was existent and important in the religious landscape observed by non-Hindu traditions of ancient India.
The ancient Sanskrit grammarian Patanjali in his Mahabhashya makes several references to Krishna and his associates found in later Indian texts. In his commentary on Pāṇini’s verse 3.1.26, he also uses the word Kamsavadha or the “killing of Kamsa”, an important part of the legends surrounding Krishna.
This summary is a mythological account, based on literary details from the Mahābhārata, the Harivamsa, the Bhagavata Purana, and the Vishnu Purana. The scenes from the narrative are set in ancient India, mostly in the present states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Haryana, Delhi, and Gujarat. The legends about Krishna’s life are called Krishna charitas (IAST: Kṛṣṇacaritas).
Nanda and Yashoda pushing baby Krishna on a swing
In Krishna Charitas, Krishna is born to Devaki and her husband, Vasudeva of the Yadava clan in Mathura. When Mother Earth was burdened by heinous activities of Kamsa and other demon Kings she went to Lord Brahma in form of a cow who along with other gods took her to the shore of the milky ocean. There they chanted the Purusha Sukta to summon Lord Vishnu. Lord Vishnu assured her and other gods that he would himself take birth along with his part Shesha in Yadu’s clan to end the tyranny. Devaki’s brother is a tyrant named Kamsa. At Devaki’s wedding, according to Puranic legends, Kamsa is told by fortune tellers that a child of Devaki would kill him. Kamsa arranges to kill all of Devaki’s children. When Krishna is born, Vasudeva secretly carries the infant Krishna away across the Yamuna and exchanges him. When Kamsa tries to kill the newborn, the exchanged baby appears as the Hindu goddess Durga, warning him that his death has arrived in his kingdom, and then disappears, according to the legends in the Puranas. Krishna grows up with Nanda Baba and his wife Yasoda near modern-day Mathura. Two of Krishna’s siblings also survive, namely Balarama and Subhadra, according to these legends. The day of birth of Krishna is celebrated as Krishna Janmashtami.
The legends of Krishna’s childhood and youth describe him as a cow herder, a mischievous boy whose pranks earns him the nickname a Makhan Chor (butter thief) and a protector who steals the hearts of the people in both Gokul and Vrindavana. The texts state, for example, that Krishna lifts the Govardhana hill to protect the inhabitants of Vrindavana from devastating rains and floods.
Other legends describe him as an enchanter and playful lover of the gopis (milkmaids) of Vrindavana, especially Radha. These metaphor-filled love stories are known as the Rasa lila and were romanticised in the poetry of Jayadeva, author of the Gita Govinda. They are also central to the development of the Krishna bhakti traditions worshiping Radha Krishna.
Krishna’s childhood illustrates the Hindu concept of lila, playing for fun and enjoyment and not for sport or gain. His interaction with the gopis at the rasa dance or Rasa-lila is an example. Krishna plays his flute and the gopis come immediately, from whatever they were doing, to the banks of the Yamuna River and join him in singing and dancing. Even those who could not physically be there join him through meditation. He is the spiritual essence and the love-eternal in existence, the gopis metaphorically represent the prakṛti matter and the impermanent body.
This lila is a constant theme in the legends of Krishna’s childhood and youth. Even when he is battling with a serpent to protect others, he is described in Hindu texts as if he were playing a game.This quality of playfulness in Krishna is celebrated during festivals as Rasa-lila and Janmashtami, where Hindus in some regions such as Maharashtra playfully mimic his legends, such as by making human gymnastic pyramids to break open handis (clay pots) hung high in the air to “steal” butter or buttermilk, spilling it all over the group.
- Krishna with his consorts Rukmini and Satyabhama and his mount Garuda, Tamil Nadu, India, late 12th–13th century
- Rukmini and Krishna.
Krishna legends then describe his return to Mathura. He overthrows and kills the tyrant king, his uncle Kamsa/Kansa after quelling several assassination attempts by Kamsa. He reinstates Kamsa’s father, Ugrasena as the king of the Yadavas and becomes a leading prince at the court. In one version of the Krishna story, as narrated by Shanta Rao, Krishna after Kamsa’s death leads the Yadavas to the newly built city of Dwaraka. Thereafter Pandavas rise. Krishna befriends Arjuna and the other Pandava princes of the Kuru kingdom. Krishna plays a key role in the Mahabharata.
The Bhagavata Purana describes eight wives of Krishna that appear in sequence as (Rukmini, Satyabhama, Jambavati, Kalindi, Mitravinda, Nagnajiti (also called Satya), Bhadra and Lakshmana (also called Madra). According to Dennis Hudson, this is a metaphor where each of the eight wives signifies a different aspect of him. According to George Williams, Vaishnava texts mention all Gopis as wives of Krishna, but this is spiritual symbolism of devotional relationship and Krishna’s complete loving devotion to each and everyone devoted to him. His wife is sometimes called Rohini, Radha, Rukmini, Svaminiji or others. In Krishna-related Hindu traditions, he is most commonly seen with Radha. All of his wives and his lover Radha are considered in the Hindu tradition to be the avatars of the goddess Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu. Gopis are considered as Radha’s many forms and manifestations.
Kurukshetra War and Bhagavad Gita
- Krishna tells the Gita to Arjuna.
- Bronze Chariot with Lord Krishna and Arjuna during the Kurukshetra war.
According to the epic poem Mahabharata, Krishna becomes Arjuna’s charioteer for the Kurukshetra War, but on the condition that he personally will not raise any weapon. Upon arrival at the battlefield and seeing that the enemies are his family, his grandfather and his cousins and loved ones, Arjuna is moved and says his heart will not allow him to fight and kill others. He would rather renounce the kingdom and put down his Gandiv (Arjuna’s bow). Krishna then advises him about the nature of life, ethics and morality when one is faced with a war between good and evil, the impermanence of matter, the permanence of the soul and the good, duties and responsibilities, the nature of true peace and bliss and the different types of yoga to reach this state of bliss and inner liberation. This conversation between Krishna and Arjuna is presented as a discourse called the Bhagavad Gita.
Death and ascension
The hunter Jara about to shoot arrow towards Krishna Main article: Mausala Parva
It is stated in the Indian texts that the legendary Kurukshetra War leads to the death of all the hundred sons of Gandhari. After Duryodhana’s death, Krishna visits Gandhari to offer his condolences when Gandhari and Dhritarashtra visited Kurukshtra, as stated in Stree Parva. Feeling that Krishna deliberately did not put an end to the war, in a fit of rage and sorrow Gandhari said, ‘Thou were indifferent to the Kurus and the Pandavas whilst they slew each other, therefore, O Govinda, thou shalt be the slayer of thy own kinsmen !’ According to the Mahabharata, a fight breaks out at a festival among the Yadavas, who end up killing each other. Mistaking the sleeping Krishna for a deer, a hunter named Jara shoots an arrow that fatally injures him. Krishna forgives Jara and dies. The pilgrimage (tirtha) site of Bhalka in Gujarat marks the location where Krishna is believed to have died. It is also known as Dehotsarga, states Diana L. Eck, a term that literally means the place where Krishna “gave up his body”. The Bhagavata Purana in Book 11, chapter 31 states that after his death, Krishna returned to his transcendent abode directly because of his yogic concentration. Waiting gods such as Brahma and Indra were unable to trace the path Krishna took to leave his human incarnation and return to his abode.
Versions and interpretations
After the Pandavas complete their exile, they ask Kuru brothers to let them return to their kingdom according to the terms of exile. The Kurus refuse. As war discussion begins on both sides, Sanjaya meets with Pandavas and Krishna (pictured above) in an effort to avoid war. This meeting is covered in Sanjaya-yana book of Udyoga Parva.
There are numerous versions of Krishna’s life story, of which three are most studied: the Harivamsa, the Bhagavata Purana, and the Vishnu Purana. They share the basic storyline but vary significantly in their specifics, details, and styles. The most original composition, the Harivamsa is told in a realistic style that describes Krishna’s life as a poor herder but weaves in poetic and allusive fantasy. It ends on a triumphal note, not with the death of Krishna. Differing in some details, the fifth book of the Vishnu Purana moves away from Harivamsa realism and embeds Krishna in mystical terms and eulogies. The Vishnu Purana manuscripts exist in many versions.
The tenth and eleventh books of the Bhagavata Purana are widely considered to be a poetic masterpiece, full of imagination and metaphors, with no relation to the realism of pastoral life found in the Harivamsa. Krishna’s life is presented as a cosmic play (lila), where his youth is set as a princely life with his foster father Nanda portrayed as a king. Krishna’s life is closer to that of a human being in Harivamsa, but is a symbolic universe in the Bhagavata Purana, where Krishna is within the universe and beyond it, as well as the universe itself, always. The Bhagavata Purana manuscripts also exist in many versions, in numerous Indian languages.
14th-century fresco of Krishna in Udaipur, Rajasthan
The date of Krishna’s birth is celebrated every year as Janmashtami.
According to Guy Beck, “most scholars of Hinduism and Indian history accept the historicity of Krishna—that he was a real male person, whether human or divine, who lived on Indian soil by at least 1000 BCE and interacted with many other historical persons within the cycles of the epic and puranic histories.” Yet, Beck also notes that there is an “enormous number of contradictions and discrepancies surrounding the chronology of Krishna’s life as depicted in the Sanskrit canon.”
Krishna as Shrinath Ji
Lanvanya Vemsani states that Krishna can be inferred to have lived between 3227 BCE – 3102 BCE from the Puranas. A number of scholars, such as A. K. Bansal, B. V. Raman places Krishna’s birth year as 3228 BCE. A paper presented in a conference in 2004 by a group of archaeologists, religious scholars and astronomers from Somnath Trust of Gujarat, which was organised at Prabhas Patan, the supposed location of the where Krishna spent his last moments, fixes the death of Sri Krishna on 18 February 3102 BC at the age of 125 years and 7 months.
In contrast, according to mythologies in the Jain tradition, Krishna was a cousin of Neminatha, the 22nd Tirthankara of the Jains. Neminatha is believed in the Jain tradition to have been born 84,000 years before the 9th-century BCE Parshvanatha.
Philosophy and theology
As told in the Krishna Story; out of 16,108 wives, the Ashtabharya (eight brides) [of Krishna] appear in the story in this sequence: 1) Rukmini, 2) Satyabhama, 3) Jambavati, 4) Kalindi, 5) Mitravinda, 6) Satya or Nagnajiti, 7) Bhadra, and 8) Lakshmana…. – D. Dennis Hudson.
A wide range of theological and philosophical ideas are presented through Krishna in Hindu texts. Ramanuja, a Hindu theologian whose works were influential in Bhakti movement, presented him in terms of qualified monism (Vishishtadvaita).[ Madhvacharya, a Hindu philosopher whose works led to the founding of Haridasa sect of Vaishnavism, presented Krishna in the framework of dualism (Dvaita). Jiva Goswami, a saint from Gaudiya Vaishnava school, described Krishna theology in terms of Bhakti yoga and Achintya Bheda Abheda. Krishna theology is presented in a pure monism (advaita, called shuddhadvaita) framework by Vallabha Acharya, who was the founder of Pushti sect of vaishnavism.Madhusudana Sarasvati, an India philosopher,presented Krishna theology in nondualism-monism framework (Advaita Vedanta), while Adi Shankara, who is credited for unifying and establishing the main currents of thought in Hinduism, mentioned Krishna in his early eighth-century discussions on Panchayatana puja.
The Bhagavata Purana, a popular text on Krishna considered to be like a scripture in Assam, synthesizes an Advaita, Samkhya, and Yoga framework for Krishna but one that proceeds through loving devotion to Krishna. Bryant describes the synthesis of ideas in Bhagavata Purana as,
The philosophy of the Bhagavata is a mixture of Vedanta terminology, Samkhyan metaphysics and devotionalized Yoga praxis. (…) The tenth book promotes Krishna as the highest absolute personal aspect of godhead – the personality behind the term Ishvara and the ultimate aspect of Brahman.— Edwin Bryant, Krishna: A Sourcebook
While Sheridan and Pintchman both affirm Bryant’s view, the latter adds that the Vedantic view emphasized in the Bhagavata is non-dualist with a difference. In conventional nondual Vedanta all reality is an interconnected and one, the Bhagavata posits that the reality is interconnected and plural.
Across the various theologies and philosophies, the common theme presents Krishna as the essence and symbol of divine love, with human life and love as a reflection of the divine. The longing and love-filled legends of Krishna and the gopis, his playful pranks as a baby, as well as his later dialogues with other characters, are philosophically treated as metaphors for the human longing for the divine and for meaning, and the play between the universals and the human soul. Krishna’s lila is a theology of love-play. According to John Koller, “love is presented not simply as a means to salvation, it is the highest life”. Human love is God’s love.
Other texts that include Krishna such as the Bhagavad Gita have attracted numerous bhasya (commentaries) in the Hindu traditions. Though only a part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, it has functioned as an independent spiritual guide. It allegorically raises through Krishna and Arjuna the ethical and moral dilemmas of human life, then presents a spectrum of answers, weighing in on the ideological questions on human freedoms, choices, and responsibilities towards self and towards others. This Krishna dialogue has attracted numerous interpretations, from being a metaphor of inner human struggle teaching non-violence, to being a metaphor of outer human struggle teaching a rejection of quietism to persecution.
Main article: Vaishnavism
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The worship of Krishna is part of Vaishnavism, a major tradition within Hinduism. Krishna is considered a full avatar of Vishnu, or one with Vishnu himself.However, the exact relationship between Krishna and Vishnu is complex and diverse, with Krishna sometimes considered an independent deity and supreme. Vaishnavas accept many incarnations of Vishnu, but Krishna is particularly important. Their theologies are generally centered either on Vishnu or an avatar such as Krishna as supreme. The terms Krishnaism and Vishnuism have sometimes been used to distinguish the two, the former implying that Krishna is the transcendent Supreme Being.
All Vaishnava traditions recognise Krishna as the eighth avatar of Vishnu; others identify Krishna with Vishnu, while traditions such as Gaudiya Vaishnavism,Vallabha Sampradaya and the Nimbarka Sampradaya regard Krishna as the Svayam Bhagavan, the original form of Lord or the same as the concept of Brahman in Hinduism. Gitagovinda of Jayadeva considers Krishna to be the supreme lord while the ten incarnations are his forms. Swaminarayan, the founder of the Swaminarayan Sampraday, also worshipped Krishna as God himself. “Greater Krishnaism” corresponds to the second and dominant phase of Vaishnavism, revolving around the cults of the Vasudeva, Krishna, and Gopala of the late Vedic period. Today the faith has a significant following outside of India as well.
Krishna kills Kansa
The deity Krishna-Vasudeva (kṛṣṇa vāsudeva “Krishna, the son of Vasudeva“) is historically one of the earliest forms of worship in Krishnaism and Vaishnavism. It is believed to be a significant tradition of the early history of Krishna religion in antiquity.Thereafter, there was an amalgamation of various similar traditions. These include ancient Bhagavatism, the cult of Gopala, of “Krishna Govinda” (cow-finding Krishna), of Balakrishna (baby Krishna) and of “Krishna Gopivallabha” (Krishna the lover). According to Andre Couture, the Harivamsa contributed to the synthesis of various characters as aspects of Krishna.
Krishna has been a major part of the Bhakti movement.
The use of the term bhakti, meaning devotion, is not confined to any one deity. However, Krishna is an important and popular focus of the devotionalism tradition within Hinduism, particularly among the Vaishnava sects. Devotees of Krishna subscribe to the concept of lila, meaning ‘divine play’, as the central principle of the universe. It is a form of bhakti yoga, one of three types of yoga discussed by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita.
The bhakti movements devoted to Krishna became prominent in southern India in the 7th to 9th centuries CE. The earliest works included those of the Alvar saints of the Tamil Nadu. A major collection of their works is the Divya Prabandham. The Alvar Andal‘s popular collection of songs Tiruppavai, in which she conceives of herself as a gopi, is the most famous of the oldest works in this genre.
The movement originated in South India during the 7th CE, spreading northwards from Tamil Nadu through Karnataka and Maharashtra; by the 15th century, it was established in Bengal and northern India.Early Bhakti pioneers include Nimbarka (12th or 13th century CE), but most emerged later, including Vallabhacharya (15th century CE) and (Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. They started their own schools, namely Nimbarka Sampradaya, Vallabha Sampradaya, and Gaudiya Vaishnavism, with Krishna as the supreme god.
In the Deccan, particularly in Maharashtra, saint poets of the Varkari sect such as Dnyaneshwar, Namdev, Janabai, Eknath, and Tukaram promoted the worship of Vithoba, a local form of Krishna, from the beginning of the 13th century until the late 18th century. In southern India, Purandara Dasa and Kanakadasa of Karnataka composed songs devoted to the Krishna image of Udupi. Rupa Goswami of Gaudiya Vaishnavism has compiled a comprehensive summary of bhakti called Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu.
Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala states have many major Krishna temples, and Janmashtami is one of the widely celebrated festivals in South India.