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Krishna

Krishna (कृष्ण in Devanagari, IAST kṛṣṇa) is according to common Hindu tradition the eighth avatar of Vishnu. In Gaudiya Vaishnavism, he is seen as the Supreme Person (God), and thus also the fountain head of all other avatars. The literal Sanskrit translation of 'Krishna' means 'dark coloured' or 'black' refering to Krishna's dark black/blueish complexion. There are also a number of other meanings to the name referring to Krishna's divine nature, the primary one being He who is 'All-Attractive'.

Krishna and the legends associated with him appear across the spectrum of Hindu philosophical and theological traditions. Though they sometimes differ in details or even contradict each other reflecting the concerns of a particular tradition, some core features are shared by all – divine incarnation, a pastoral childhood and youth and life as a heroic warrior and teacher. The immense popularity of Krishna in India also meant that various non-Hindu religions that originated in India had their own versions of him.

Lord Krishna playing his flute.

Lord Krishna playing his flute.

Contents

The name

Icon of Lord Krishna in Udupi.

Icon of Lord Krishna in Udupi.

The Sanskrit name and word is written kṛṣṇa in IAST transliteration (the equivalent of Devanagari कृष्ण; see Sanskrit for pronunciation.)

The term Krishna in Sanskrit has the literal meaning of "black" or "dark". It is related to similar words in other Indo-European languages meaning black. The name is often translated as 'the dark one' or as 'the black one'.

In depictions, Krishna often appears as a black or dark-skinned figure, for instance in the modern murtis (statues) and pictorial representations of Lord Jaganatha at Puri (Krishna as Lord of the World). In the same representations, his brother and sister are shown with a distinctly lighter complexion. Early pictorial representations also generally show him as dark or black-skinned. Rajasthani miniature paintings of the 16th century are often of a brown or black-skinned figure. The name is sometimes said to mean dark blue, rather than black, in many devotional writings His exact complexion is described to be like 'that of a black/blueish storm cloud'.

The Mahabharata(Udyogaparva 71.4), gives this analysis of the word 'Krishna':

krishir bhu-vacakah sabdo nas ca nirvriti-vacakah
tayor aikyam param brahma krishna ity abhidhiyate

(Translation) - The word 'krish' is the attractive feature of the Lord's existence, and 'na' means 'spiritual pleasure.' When the verb krish is added to na, it becomes krishna, which indicates the Absolute Truth.

In the Vishnu sahasranama, Krishna is the 57th name of Vishnu, and means the "Existence of Knowledge and Bliss".

Krishna playing his flute as Gopala, the protector of  cows.(Contemporary painting)

Krishna playing his flute as Gopala, the protector of cows.(Contemporary painting)

He is known by numerous other names or titles and the Gaudiya tradition has a list of 108 names. The most commonly used of these include:

Literary sources

The earliest text that records the deeds of Krishna is the Mahabharata. He is described as the incarnation of Vishnu and is one of the most important characters of the epic. The 18 chapters of the 6th book (Bhishma Parva) that constitute the Bhagavad Gita contain the advice of Krishna to the Pandava, Arjuna, on the battlefield. These chapters are the most well known of the Hindu texts and its importance in Hindu religious thought cannot be overestimated. Every religious school of Hinduism was expected to produce a commentary on it if it had to make claims to original thought. But Krishna is already an adult in the epic, even though there are allusions to his earlier exploits. The Harivamsa, an appendix to this epic that was added to it later contains the earliest detailed version of Krishna's childhood and youth.

Virtually every one of the later Puranas tells the full life-story or some highlights from it. While the Mahabharata and the Harivamsa are considered sacred by the Hindus, the two Puranas (the Bhagavata Purana and the Vishnu Purana) that contain the most elaborate telling of Krishna’s story and teachings are the most theologically venerated.Roughly one quarter of the Bhagavata Purana (mostly in the 10th book) is spent extolling his life and philosophy.

A vast body of literature, mostly religious, was created in Medieval India that dwelt on the whole story or episodes from it.A number of local traditions and regional deities may have been subsumed into the stories and person of Krishna.

The story of Krishna

In the absence of any historical biography, this summary is based on the Mahabharata, the Harivamsa, the Bhagavata Purana and the Vishnu Purana. The scenes from the tale are set in north India, mostly in the present states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Delhi and Gujrat. The quotations at the start and end of the summary set the theological framework in which the story is viewed.

Krishna and his mother Yasoda Artwork © courtesy of The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust

Krishna and his mother Yasoda Artwork © courtesy of The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust

The incarnation

These texts explain the reason for the incarnation. In the words of the Mahabharata(Adi Parva, Adivansavatarana section):

The Asuras...began to be born in kingly lines...repeatedly defeated in war by Devas...and deprived also of sovereignty and heaven, they began to be incarnated on the earth...by their strength they began to oppress...all creatures...Terrifying and killing all creatures, they traversed the earth in bands of hundreds and thousands. Devoid of truth and virtue,proud of their strength, and intoxicated with (the wine of) insolence, they even insulted the great Rishis ... And then the earth, oppressed with weight and afflicted with fear, sought the protection of Brahma...He then commanded all the gods saying - To ease the Earth of her burden, go ye and have your births in her according to your respective parts and seek ye strife (with the Asuras already born there)...And all the gods with Indra, on hearing these words accepted them. And they all having resolved to come down on earth in their respected parts, then went to Narayana(Vishnu), the slayer of all foes, at Vaikunth...,the sovereign of all the gods... Him, Indra the most exalted of persons, addressed, saying - Be incarnate. And Hari(Vishnu) replied - Let it be.

The Puranas give a similar account.

Birth and childhood

Krishna was of the royal family of Mathura, and was the eighth son born to the princess Devaki, and her husband Vasudeva, a noble of the court. Mathura was the capital of the closely linked clans of Vrishni, Andhaka and Bhoja. They are generally known as Yadavas after their eponymous ancestor Yadu, and sometimes as Surasenas after another famed ancestor.Vasudeva and Devaki belonged to these clans. The king Kamsa,Devaki's cousin, had ascended the throne father imprisoning his father, the King Ugrasena. Afraid of a prophecy that predicted his death at the hands of Devaki's son, he had the couple cast into prison and it is here that Krishns was born.The place of his birth is now known as Krishnajanmabhoomi, where a temple is raised in his honour. As his life was in danger he was smuggled out to be raised by his foster parents Yashoda and Nanda in Gokula. Two of his siblings also survived, Balarama and Subhadra.

Krishna (left) with  RadhaBhaktivedanta Manor, Watford, England

Krishna (left) with Radha
Bhaktivedanta Manor, Watford, England

Boyhood and youth

Nanda was the head of a community of cow-herds and soon shifted to Vrindavana. The stories of his childhood and youth here include that of his life with, and his protection of, the local people. Kamsa learnt about the child's escape and kept sending various demons to put an end to him. Needless to say, all these met with a bad end. Some of the most popular exploits of Krishna centre around these adventures and his play with the gopis of the village, including Radha, which later became known as the Rasa lila.

Ravi Varma's painting depicting Rasa leela

Ravi Varma's painting depicting Rasa leela

Krishna the prince

Krishna as a young man returned to Mathura, overthrew his uncle Kamsa, and installed Ugrasena, Kamsa's father who had been imprisoned by Kamsa, as the king of the Yadavas. He himself became a leading prince at the court.In this period he became a friend of Arjuna and the other Pandava princes of the Kuru kingdom, who were his cousins, on the other side of the Yamuna. Later, he takes his Yadava subjects to Dwaraka (in modern Gujarat). He married Rukmini, daughter of King Bhishmaka of Vidarbha. He also had seven other wives including Satyabhama and Jambavati.

Lord Krishna revealing his universal form to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita Artwork © courtesy of The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust

Lord Krishna revealing his universal form to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita Artwork © courtesy of The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust

The Kurukshetra war

Krishna was cousin to both sides in the war between the Pandavas and Kauravas. He asked the sides to choose between his army and himself. The Kauravas picked the army and he sided with the Pandavas. He agreed to be the charioteer for Arjuna in the great battle. The Bhagavad Gita is the advice given to Arjuna by Krishna before the start of the battle.

Later life

Following the war Krishna dwelt at Dwaraka for 36 years. Then at a festival, a fight broke out between the Yadavas who exterminated each other. The clan now mostly destroyed, his elder brother Balarama too gave up his body using Yoga. Krishna retired into the forest and sat under a tree in meditation. A hunter mistook his partly visible foot for a deer and shot an arrow wounding him mortally. The Mahabharata (Mausala Parva) says:

(The hunter) ...Regarding himself an offender, and filled with fear, he touched the feet of Keshava. The high-souled one comforted him and then ascended upwards, filling the entire sky with splendour. ...the illustrious Narayana of fierce energy, the Creator and Destroyer of all, that preceptor of Yoga, filling Heaven with his splendour, reached his own inconceivable region.

The worship of Krishna

Early references

The first possible recorded instance of a Krishna who may be identified with the deity can be found in the Chandogya Upanishad (circa 900 BCE). The teacher Ghora Angirasa discusses the nature of soul with Krishna, the son of Devaki. However, this teacher is never mentioned in connection with Krishna in later works nor does any ancient or medieval author quote this instance of Krishna, the deity. The exact words that Ghora speaks are treated by some as praise of Krishna and most others as a praise of the Atman, whose knowledge being imparted to Krishna. The doctrine taught by Ghora matches with the Bhagavad gita and the name of the mother is same as in later Krishna traditions.

Panini, circa 5th century BCE, in his Ashtadhyayi explains the word "Vāsudevaka" as a Bhakta (devotee) of Vāsudeva. This, along with the mention of Arjuna in the same context, indicates that the Vāsudeva here is Krishna.

In the 4th century BCE, Megasthenes the Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya says that the Sourasenoi (Surasenas), who lived in the region of Mathura worshipped Herakles. This Herakles is usually identified with Krishna due to the regions mentioned by Megasthenes as well as similarities between some of the herioc acts of the two. Megasthenes also menations that his daughter Pandaia to have ruled in south India. The south indeed had the kingdom of the Pandyas with the capital at Madhura(Madurai), the name similar to if not same as Krishna's Mathura.

In 180-165 BC, the Greek ruler Agathocles issued coins with images of Vasudeva holding a chakra.

Indian-standard silver drachm of the Greco-Bactrian king Agathocles (190 BC-180 BC) Obv: Indian god Balarama-Samkarshana, wearing an ornate headress, earrings, sword in sheath, holding a mace in his right hand and a plow-symbol in the left. Greek legend: BASILEOS AGATOKLEOUS "King Agathocles". Rev: Indian god Vasudeva-Krishna, with ornate headdress, earrings, sword in sheath, holding sankha (pear-shaped vase) and chakra (wheel). Brahmi legend: RAJANE AGATHUKLAYASA "King Agathocles".

Indian-standard silver drachm of the Greco-Bactrian king Agathocles (190 BC-180 BC)
Obv: Indian god Balarama-Samkarshana, wearing an ornate headress, earrings, sword in sheath, holding a mace in his right hand and a plow-symbol in the left. Greek legend: BASILEOS AGATOKLEOUS "King Agathocles".
Rev: Indian god Vasudeva-Krishna, with ornate headdress, earrings, sword in sheath, holding sankha (pear-shaped vase) and chakra (wheel). Brahmi legend: RAJANE AGATHUKLAYASA "King Agathocles".

At Ghosundi near Udaipur, engraved about 150 B. C, is an inscription of a certain Bhagavata named Gajayana, son of Para-sari, stating that he erected in the Narayana-vata, or park of Narayana, a stone chapel for the worship of the Lords Sankarshana and Vasudeva.

In the 1st century BCE, the Greek Heliodorus erected at Besnagar near Bhilsa a column with the inscription : This Garuda-column of Vasudeva the god of gods was erected here by Heliodorus, a worshipper of the Lord [Bagavata], the son of Diya [Greek Dion] and an inhabitant of Taxila, who came as ambassador of the Greeks from the Great King Amtalikita [Greek Antialcidas] to King Kasiputra Bhagabhadra the saviour, who was flourishing in the fourteenth year of his reign ....(missing text)... three immortal steps . ....(missing text)...when practised, lead to heaven—self-control, charity, and diligence.

A 1st century BCE, inscription from Mathura records the building of a part of a sanctuary to the Lord Vasudeva by the great Satrap Sodasa.

The grammarian Patanjali, who wrote his commentary the Mahabhashya upon Panin's grammar about 150 B. c., quotes a verse to the following effect: May the might of Krishna accompanied by Samkarshana increase ! One verse speaks of Janardana with himself as fourth(Krishna with three companions, the three possibly being Samkarshana, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha). Another verse mentions musical instruments being played at meetings in the temples of Rama(Balarama) and Kesava(Krishna). Patanjali also describes dramatic and mimetic performances( Krishna-Kamsopacharam)representing the killing of Kamsa by Vasudeva.

In the 1st century BCE, there seems to be evidence for a worship of five Vrishni heroes(Balarama, Krishna, Pradyumna, Aniruddha and Samba) for an inscription has been found at Mora near Mathura, which apparently mentions a son of the great Satrap Raj Uvula, probably the Satrap Sodasa, and an image of the Lord Vrishni, " probably Vasudeva, and of the '-"Five Warriors "

From the early centuries of the common era, the inscriptions and references to worship of Krishna become very numerous.

The Bhakti tradition

Bhakti, meaning devotion, is not confined to any one deity of Hinduism. However Krishna has become the most important and popular focus of the devotional and ecstatic aspects of Hindu religion.

Devotees of Krishna subscribe to the concept of lila, or divine play as the central principle of the universe. This is counterpoint to another avatar of Vishnu: Rama, "He of the straight and narrow path of maryada, or rules and regulations."

Those bhakti movements devoted to Krishna first became prominent in southern India in the late 1st millennium. Earliest works included those of the Alvar saints of the Tamil country. A major collection of their works is the Divya Prabandham.The Alvar, Andal's popular collection of songs-Tiruppavai, in which she imagines herself as a Gopi is perhaps the oldest work of this genre. Kulashekhara's Mukundamala was another another notable offering of this early stage.

"Celebration of Spring by Krishna and Radha," 18th Century miniature; in the Guimet Museum, Paris

"Celebration of Spring by Krishna and Radha," 18th Century miniature; in the Guimet Museum, Paris

Spread of Krishna-Bhakti movement

The movement spread rapidly from the south and the Gita Govinda of Jayadeva(12th century CE) in eastern India, became a landmark in the movement's literature . It elaborated a part of the story of Krishna, that of his love for one particular Gopi, called Radha,a minor character in the Bhagavata Purana but a major one in some others like the Bramhavaivarta-Purana. In some philosophical interpretations of this work the desire of Radha for Krishna is seen as allegory of the desire of humanity for union with the godhead. The poem is in Sanskrit and soon became famous all across India. Radha henceforth became inseparable from the devotion to Krishna.

While the learned sections of the society, well-versed in sanskrit, could enjoy works like Gita Govinda or Bilvamangala's Krishna-Karnamritam, the masses sang the songs of the Bhakti devotee-poets who composed in the regional languages of India. These songs expressing intense personal devotion were written by the devotees from all walks of like. The songs of Mirabai and Surdas became the epitomes of Krishna-devotion in north India.

These devotee-poets, like the Alvars before them, were only loosely alligned to any specific theological schools, if at all. But by 11th century CE, Vaishnavite Bhakti schools with elaborate theological frameworks around the worship of Krishna were established in north India. Nimbarka(11th century CE), Vallabhacharya(15th century CE) and especially Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (16th century CE) were the founders of the most influential of these schools. Chaitanya's tradition, called Gaudiya Vaishnavism, sees Krishna as the supreme God, rather than as an Avatara of Vishnu.Followers of Chaitanya maintain that he is an incarnation of Krishna.

Recent Krishna Bhakti movements

A number of modern movements belong to the Chaitanya tradition, including ISKCON, which is sometimes called the Hare Krishna movement. ISKCON has recently been participating in bringing the academic study of Krishna into western academia in the theological discourse on Krishnology.

Krishna in Jainism

The most exalted figures in Jainism are the 24 Tirthankaras. Krishna when he was incorpoarted into the Jain list of heroic figures presented a problem with his activities which are not pacifist or non-violent. The concept of Baladeva, Vasudeva and Prati-Vasedeva was used to solve it. The Jain list of 63 Shalakapurshas or notable figures includes amongst others, the 24 Tirthankaras and 9 sets of this triad. One of these traids is Krishna as the Vasudeva, Balarama as the Baladeva and Jarasandha as the Prati-Vasudeva. He was a cousin of the 22nd Tirthankara, Neminatha. The stories of these triads can be found in Harivamsha of Jinasena (not be confused with its namesake, the addendum to Mahabharata) and the Trishashti-shalakapurusha-charita of Hemachandra.

In each age of the Jain cyclic time is born a Vasudeva with an elder brother termed the Baladeva. The villain is the Prati-vasudeva. Baladeva is the upholder of the Jain principle of non-violence. However Vasudeva has to forsake this principle to kill the Prati-Vasudeva and save the world. The Vasudeva then has to descend to hell as punishment for this violent act. Having undergone the punishment he is then reborn as a Tirthankara.

Krishna in Buddhism

Krishna figure as a very minor figure in Buddhism. He appears in the Ghata Jataka as a prince who along with his other brothers captures Dwaraka. Many of the important names found in Hindu versions of the tale are found in conflated forms or with slight variations. The incidents have a touch more of folk-tales than epic or mythical ones.

Krishna in the performing arts

The earliest mention of any performance based on the Krishna story is mentioned in Patanjali's Mahabhashya. But it is not clear what kind of dance/drama it was, nor the occasion it was performed on.

The fact that all the incidents related to the Krishna story are presented as a playful activities in which he is fully aware of his divine nature made him a difficult subject for the classical Sanskrit playwrights. These play usually had scenes where the hero is deep in sorrow before the customary happy ending. While Vishnu's other major incarnation Rama could be made into the protagonist of the plays, it was virtually impossible to make such plays about Krishna. Perhaps Bhasa's Balacharita is the only play by a major classical dramatist. This incidentally, dwells only on his childhood exploits.

The problem faced by classical play did not crop up in other arts like music, dance and narrative enactments of the Krishna legend. From the 10th century BCE, with the growing Bhakti movement, Krishna became a favourite. The songs of Gita Govinda became favoured across India and had many imitations. The songs composed by the Bhakti poets added to the repository of both folk and classical singing.

The classical dances of India, especially Odissi and Manipuri, draw heavily on them. The 'Ras-Lila' dances performed in Vrindavana shares elements with Kathak and the Krisnattam performed now exclusively at the Guruvayoor temple was the precursor of Kathakali.

Medieval Maharashtra gave birth to Hari-Katha that told Vaishnavite tales through music, dance and narrative sequences and Krishna’s story became a rich source. This tradition then spread to Tamil Nadu and other southern states.

Narayana Thirtha(17the century CE)'s Krishna-Lila-Tharangini provided material for the musical plays of the Bhagavata-Mela by telling the tale of Krishna till his marriage to Rukmini. Thyagaraja(18the century CE) wrote a similar piece called Nauka-Charitam.

Innumerable movies in all Indian languages have been made based on these tales. These are of varying quality and usually take much liberty with the story to add songs, melodrama and special effects.

Chronology

A paper presented recently[citation needed] at a convention in Prabhas Patan near Somnath, speculates that Krishna "died" at the age of 125 on February 18, 3102 BC at 14:27:30 hours on the banks of river Hiran in Prabhas Patan. As the report goes, he was 125 years, 7 months and 6 days old when he left the earth for his divine abode Goloka.

The finding was based on clues in the Vedic literatures. Certain dates were fed into special software which was used to prepare a kundli (astrological horoscope charts). The Bhagavata Purana and Bhagavad Gita say that Krishna "left" Dwarka 36 years after the Battle of the Mahabharata. The Matsya Purana says that Krishna was 89 years old when the battle was fought. There after Pandavas ruled for a period of 36 years, their rule was in the beginning of Kali yuga. It further says that the Kali Yuga began on the day Duryodhana was felled to ground by Bhima. Some Hindus believe that the year 2005 is the year 5106 of the Kali Yuga (which began with a year 0).

References

  • The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli,published between 1883 and 1896
  • The Vishnu-Purana, translated by H. H. Wilson, 1840
  • The Srimad Bhagavatam, translated by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, 1988 copyright Bhaktivedanta Book Trust
  • The Jataka or Stories of the Buddha's Former Births, edited by E. B. Cowell, 1895

See also