Krishna Deity in Belfast

Krishna (Sanskrit: black or all-attractive one) is an important deity in the Hindu religion. In some Hindu traditions he is the eighth avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu, and in the others the ninth. The story of Krishna's life on Earth is told in the epic poem Mahabharata, which contains astronomical references dating it to the 15th century BC.

His place in Hinduism is complex. He appears under many names, in a multiplicity of stories, among different cultures, and in different traditions. Sometimes these contradict each other.

Table of contents
1 Major aspects
2 Religious texts, mythology and literature
3 Summary of the story of Krishna
4 The Bhakti traditions
5 The name

Major aspects

Among his aspects are;

  • Krishna the cowherd. He is the god of the pastoralists. He is contrasted in this to his brother Balarama of the cultivators, who is sometimes called Halayudha, the lord of the plow.

  • Krishna the focus of devotion (the lover, the seducer, the flute player). He is frequently shown playing the flute, bewitching the gopis (the cowgirls) of Vrindavan.

  • Krishna the child. Stories of his upbringing in the forest of Vrindavan are a staple of children's tales in India.

  • The incarnation of Vishnu and the divine teacher. He teaches Arjuna dharma and yoga in the Bhagavad Gita, and as such is known as the greatest Yogin. The Bhagavad Gita is the first true Yoga text in the Yoga tradition.

A number of local traditions and regional deities may have been subsumed into the stories and person of Krishna.

Religious texts, mythology and literature

Accounts of Krishna occur in a large number of religious, mythological and poetical works. These works include the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita, the Bhagavata Purana, and the Gita Govinda.

Among the most important areas of stories of Krishna, are those below;

  • Krishna the child. These stories lead on to those of him as a boy and a young man, playing with the girls and young women of Vrindavan.

  • Govinda Krishna, the cowherd, the focus of the majority of the bhakti traditions of devotional worship in Hinduism. Included in these traditions is the story of Radha. The original stories of Krishna as a boy included his adolescent play with the Gopis or cowgirls of the village. These were developed to form the basis of the Gita Govinda in the Bhakti traditions, and numerous other later works. Devotees of Krishna subscribe to the concept of lila, or divine play as the central principle of the universe. This is a counterpoint to another avatara of Vishnu: Rama, he of the straight and narrow path.

  • Krishna the prince, in the Mahabharata. He is ruler of the Yadavas at Mathura and later at Dwaraka, becames husband of Rukmini, and a friend and ally of the Pandavas.

  • Krishna the incarnation of god. He is the charioteer and advisor of Arjuna, who teaches and instructs him in dharma and yoga in the Bhagavad Gita. Before the great battle of Kurukshetra starts, Arjuna loses heart with the prospect of fighting his cousins and other relatives for the kingdom. Krishna reminds him that he has done everything he could possibly do to avoid the battle, and that his duty (dharma) is now to fight. Krishna goes on to show why the Gita is known as the first Yoga Scripture, and gives a lengthy exegesis on the means of fulfilling life's goals through the systems of yoga. In it, he describes in detail the philosophies of Bhakti (devotional), Karma (selfless action), Jnana (self-transcending knowledge) and Raja (meditational) Yoga, all in the ends a mean of reaching brahman, for whom Krishna acts as a supreme manifested personality. He shows Arjuna how to reconcile his misapprehension about the war with the eternal truths that underlie life through the Hindu doctrine of Yoga. These form the basis of the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita.

Summary of the story of Krishna

This summary is derived from the Mahabharata, and the Harivamsaparva, an addendum to it.

The birth of Krishna

Krishna was born in a prison cell at Mathura, in modern Haryana. His mother was Devaki and his father Vasudeva. Devaki was imprisoned because her brother Kamsa, the king, knew that a son of hers would overthrow him, and he intended to kill her children as they were born. Krishna was smuggled out to be raised in the village of Gokula, in the forest of Vrindavan.

Krishna at Vrindavan

Krishna the child, together with his brother Balarama and sister Subhadra, were raised by his foster mother Yasoda in a cow herding community within Vrindavan forest. A number of children's stories are derived from this source. He is known as Gopala, the cowherd, due to this upbringing. Stories of Krishna's childhood and youth depict him as mischievous and clever, stealing butter, and breaking pots for ghee, and playing transcendental pranks. As he grows, the stories come to include his play with the gopis of the village.

Krishna the prince

Krishna as a young man returned to Mathura, overthrew his uncle Kamsa, and became ruler of the Yadavas at Mathura. With his elder brother Balarama, he ruled there. In this period he became a friend of Arjuna and the other Pandava princes of the Kuru kingdom 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 (a region of central India).

The Kurukshetra War

In the Mahabharata, Krishna is cousin to both sides in the war between the Pandavas and Kauravas. But he effectively takes the Pandava side. He counsels and guides the Pandavas, in contrast to his brother Balarama who is more inclined to be neutral or to favour the Kauravas. He protects Draupadi when Dushasana tries to strip her in the court. He agrees to be the chariot driver for Arjuna in the great battle.

The last days

Krishna rules the Yadavas at Dwaraka with his wife Rukmini. In the end, the Yadavas kill themselves in infighting, and Krishna is killed by accident by a hunter.

The Bhakti traditions

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. Those bhakti movements devoted to Krishna developed in southern and eastern India from the late first millennium AD, and spread to the rest of India by the middle of the second millennium. Earlier works included those of the Alvar saints of the Tamil country.

Gita Govinda - the song of the cowherd

Certain literary works were important to later development of the bhakti traditions, including the Gita Govinda. This work was composed by Jayadeva Goswami in eastern India, in the 12th century AD. It elaborated part of the story of Krishna, and of one particular Gopi, called Radha who had been a minor character in the Mahabharata. According to one interpretation of this work, Radha represented humanity, and Krishna represented divinity. The desire of Radha for Krishna can be seen as allegory of the desire of humanity for union with the godhead. In the Vaishnava bhakti traditions, Radha has acquired aspects of divinity herself, in some instances being seen as a primary aspect of the great goddess, or Devi.

Recent Krishna bhakti movements

The bhakti traditions include those promoted by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (16th century in Bengal), who has sometimes been raised to the status of an avatara of Vishnu. A number of modern movements belong in this tradition.

ISKCON, sometimes called the Hare Krishna movement, is a modern derivation of the movements started by Chaitanya, targeted at a western audience.

The name

The name and word in the original Sanskrit is written Kṛṣṇa in scholarly phonetic script. The original pronunciation included a vowalic 'r' in the middle. This resembles the pronunciation of the vowels in the first syllable of 'crystal' or 'Christmas' in some English dialects. In some modern Indian languages, the vowel 'i' has been introduced; in some other languages it may be replaced with a 'u' sound (Krushna).

Krishna the Dark One

The term Krishna means black in Sanskrit; it is related to similar words in other Indo-European languages meaning black. The name is often translated as 'the black one'.

Many murtis [statues] of him are of a black or dark skinned figure. For instance, this can be seen in modern idols and other 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. However, by the ninenteenth century, he is almost always shown as blue skinned. This is understood as having come into existence from scriptural allusions to his deep hue. Indeed, he is divine, and being dark-skinned, it deepens so much that it takes on a rich blue tone.

The philosophical backdrop for Krishna's dark blue skin is that Vishnu, who is ultimately incarnated as Krishna, is also known as Narayana. Narayana means "born of water." This is because water, seen as the base principle for life as we know it on earth, the nourisher of plants and animals alike, the very substance of cyclic existence, is essential to preservation. Vishnu, who in avatara form comes down to earth to help preserve dharma, is epitomised by the principle of water, being himself the God of Preservation. As water is commonly seen as being blue, and Vishnu is said to sleep in Yoga Nidra, floating on cosmic waters on Shesha (a snake-god), it is only natural that Vishnu's representations are all blue. By syllogism, it transferred to his great avataara, Krishna.

Sometimes the term Krishna has been explained as meaning 'attractive'. This is eminently understandable with his mythic allure to women of all kinds (ie gopis). Moreover, he is viewed by his devotees, from ancient times till the present day, as reflecting the intense beauty of God in his physical aspect.

Other names of Krishna

He is known by numerous other names or titles. These include;

Other uses of the name

Certain other mythological characters are also sometimes called Krishna. These include (with added phonetic spellings);
  • Vyasa - Kṛṣṇa Dvaipāyana (the dark one born on an island)
  • Draupadi - Kṛṣṇā Pānchali (the dark one the princess of Panchala, feminine form)
  • Arjuna - he is called Kṛṣṇa in one instance toward the end of his life
  • Durga - she is called Kṛṣṇā in the Virataparva (feminine form).

The name is also applied to;