- The god Krishna is understood to be an incarna-tion of VISHNU. None of the other incarnations of Vishnu has attracted as passionate and widespread a devotion in India as Krishna. There is some evi-dence that Krishna was originally a historical fig-ure. Krishna is technically the black god, since the Sanskrit word krishna means “black.” However, he is generally depicted with blue skin.Krishna appears in the MAHABHARATA epic as a friend to the PANDAVA brothers. In that epic Krishna is rarely referred to with divine epithet, or as a divinity. It is only in the BHAGAVAD GITA, the famous text that recounts the teaching of Krishna to ARJUNA just before the battle, that the divinity of Krishna is clearly detailed. Some have suggested that the worship of Krishna in this con-text may constitute a form of euhemerism, or the deification of a famous warrior.A second role of Krishna is as the divine lover, dancing at midnight with the cowherd maidens (GOPIS), who are drawn to his beauty, his beauti-ful music, and the magic of his divine presence. According to tradition he eventually favors Radha among the gopis; the passionate love of Radha for her furtive, often unavailable lover becomes the paradigm for Krishna devotionalism. Finally, Krishna appears as a child and youth, mischie-vous, naughty, and beloved of every mother who lays eyes upon him.The god was born in Mathura, where his father, VASUDEVA, was minister to the evil king Kamsa. Kamsa discovered that Vasudeva’s wife, DEVAKI, was to give birth to a son who would eventually kill him. Therefore, he kept Vasudeva and Devaki under guard and killed their first six children. The seventh child, BALARAMA, was miraculously transferred to the womb of Vasudeva’s other wife, Rohini. When the eighth child, Krishna, was born, a profound slumber fell upon Vasudeva’s guards and the father was able secretly to take the child across the YAMUNA River to BRINDAVAN and consign him to the cowherd Nanda and his wife, YASHODA, who became Krishna’s foster mother.As a child, Krishna was extremely mischie-vous, stealing milk and butter (one of his epithets is “butter thief”), overturning wagons, and felling trees with strength far beyond that of an ordinary child. Once Yashoda tied him to a huge mortar used for grinding things. Krishna, even though a baby, dragged it out of the house and used it to fell two trees.Once when Yashoda caught him eating mud, she forced him to open his mouth; within, she saw the entire universe. Krishna’s magic made her for-get this incident, lest she not be able to treat him as an ordinary child.In two stories of his childhood he outwits evil forces. Putana, a witch, was sent by the evil king Kamsa to kill the infant by suckling him with poi-sonous milk. Krishna was completely unharmed, but he sucked so ferociously at her breast that the demon’s innards were sucked out and she died. In a later incident the snake demon Kaliya poisoned the drinking water in the Yamuna River, threat-ening the lives of the cowherds and the cows. Krishna found the pool where Kaliya was hiding and danced a furious dance upon him until he was killed.In another tale the young Krishna asked peo-ple to worship the mountain Govardhana, rather than the great king of the gods Indra. Indra, learn-ing this, sent terrible rain storms to wash away the cowherds who had defied him. Krishna with his Lord Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, with consort Radha (Institute for the Study of American Religion, Santa Barbara, California) divine strength lifted up the mountain, Govard-hana, to use as an umbrella to protect the people and thus defeated Indra himself.As a young man, Krishna began to attract the interest of the cowherd women as he played his magical flute day and night. He would flirt with them and play tricks on them. Once when the cowherd girls were bathing he took all their clothes and put them up into a big tree. When the women left the water and begged him for their garments, he bent the tree down and let them retrieve their clothes.Particularly at night Krishna would work his divine magic. The women would yearn to see him and could not find him. They would begin to think of all his magical deeds and praise him. When they finally found him, they began to dance with him; he became many Krishnas, pairing with each woman as though she were the only one. This is referred to as the Rasalila dance and is the metaphor for the way that god is intimate with each soul while it is only one. Finally, in the sto-ries of later times (c. 10th century) one cowherd woman alone, named RADHA, becomes Krishna’s favorite. Her passionate love for him, her yearn-ing when he does not appear at their assigned spot, and their loveplay are all celebrated in the passionate liturgy of Krishna worship, where the devotee sees himself or herself as Radha seeking passionate union with god.After the death of Kamsa, Krishna becomes an ally of the Pandavas. He assists them in every way fair and foul and helps them triumph; the BHAGA-VA D GITA makes clear that this was divine aid.We are left here with the mystery of Krishna, a divinity who is mischievous and naughty as a child, naughty as a young man—playing games with the hearts of many women—and who in war does not hesitate to use stratagems that the SHASTRAS the authoritative texts, might find inap-propriate for a warrior. Krishna effects his LILA, his divine game, in ways that humans cannot grasp, except through complete devotion. Krishna must eventually die, as must all the other AVATARS of Vishnu. While in the forest doing YOGA then, he is accidentally pierced in the foot with a spear by a hunter who mistook his foot for a deer’s foot. He blesses the man who threw the spear that will take him to heaven.Many devotional Vaishnavite movements in India focus on worship of Krishna only. Most famous of these are the followers of Saint CHAI-TANYA of Bengal, whose Goswamis, or followers of Chaitanya’s tradition, moved to Brindavan to be closer to the place where Krishna lived. The followers of Chaitanya include Sri Swami Prabhu-pada BHAKTIVEDANTA, who traveled to the United States to found the Hare Krishna movement. As do many Krishnaites, they worship in ecstatic devotion, while chanting MANTRAS to their god.Further reading: W. G. Archer, The Loves of Krishna in Indian Painting and Poetry (London: Allen & Unwin, 1957); Cornelia Dimmitt and J. A. B. van Buitenen, eds. and trans., Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978); David Haberman, Journey through the Twelve Forests: An Encounter with Krishna (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); John S. Hawley, Krsna the Butter Thief (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983); Alf Hiltebeitel, “Krsna and the Mahab-harata,” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 60 (1979): 65–107.
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.