Amongst the many manifestations of the god Visnu, Krsna is one of the most celebrated and popular of them all. He is revered by his followers for being the eighth incarnation of Visnu, and is considered to be a part of him as well, making him a divine character. Despite his massive following and devotion in Hinduism, Krsna is considered to be a relatively new god figure when compared to the other deities. He is not mentioned in the Vedas, but is first heard of in the Chhandogya Upanisad when they reveal that he is the son of Devaki, who is also the daughter of the king, Ugrasena (Crooke 2). Kamsa, the second half of this topic, is known to be Krsna’s uncle (or sometimes his cousin, based on the interpretation found in one book), who overthrew his father, King Ugrasena (Crooke 7). He was later defeated and killed by Krsna in battle.
Kamsa, after securing the throne, heard of a prophecy about the one that would usurp and kill him. It was said that his killer would be born as the eighth son of Devaki, who happened to be Krsna’s biological mother, Kamsa’s sister, and Ugrasena’s niece. Narada, a sage that appears frequently in the Puranic texts, is the one to tell Kamsa about how Devaki’s child would be a child of the earth and a part of Visnu himself (Sheth 43). [A more detailed description of Narada can be found in Sheth (1984)]. Kamsa then summoned his sister Devaki and her husband, Vasudeva, to Mathura in order to keep an eye on them and their growing family.
Every time Devaki gave birth, Kamsa would kill the child soon after. However, with Devaki’s seventh pregnancy her baby was transferred to the womb of Vasudeva’s second wife, Rohini. Because of this, Krsna was considered to be Devaki’s seventh son instead of her eighth. When Krsna is born, his parents (in the Visnu Purana and Bhagavata Purana) seen him in his “divine form” (Sheth 44) but forbid him to display his divinity for fear of him being killed by Kamsa. In other versions, Krsna is sent down the Yamuna River, where he is rescued by a couple of cowherds, who swapped him with their baby girl in order to ward off Kamsa’s bloodthirsty pursuit of him (Rodrigues 313). It turned out that the girl was none other than the goddess Devi, who tells Kamsa that Krsna was still alive. Kamsa tried to annihilate Krsna by killing all of the young boys within the kingdom, but was about to get his intended target in the process.
Many ordeals and adventures unfolded as Krsna grew up. He defeated the demoness Putana by draining her of her life force, and revealed the entirety of the cosmos to his adoptive mother, Yasoda, in his mouth. When he was older, Krsna ventured into the forest called Vrndavana, where he defeated the snake Kaliya and stopped it from poisoning the water any further. When the thunder god Indra tried to flood the town that Krsna grew up in, Krsna used Mount Govardhana as a dry haven for his people by holding it up with a single finger while they hid underneath it (Rodrigues 314). At the same time, he stopped Indra from receiving any further sacrifices from the villagers (Crooke 16).
Later on in his life and after overcoming trials of his own, Krsna finally confronts Kamsa after returning to Mathura when he was invited to participate in a wrestling match. Using all of his divine powers and strength, he destroys Kamsa with the weight of the universe (Sheth 59). In this tale, Krsna is the hero, the destined child that slays his evil uncle and restores the throne to Ugrasena.
In the Bhagavata Purana, Krsna is also known as Hari, Visnu, and the Higher Self (Sheth 52). The title of Hari is also seen within the Visnu Purana (it tends to complement its information with the Bhagavata Purana quite a bit). In the Mahabharata he comes to Draupadi’s aid when she asks for his help by allowing her clothes to continuously cover her even as they are being stripped off by the Kauravas when they try to humiliate her (Rodrigues 231-232). Krsna was also a godly advisor to the epic’s hero, Arjuna (the son of the thunder god Indra), and soon became a family friend to both him and his brothers, the Pandavas. Technically, they became brother-in-laws as well, as Arjuna had a child with Krsna’s sister, Subhadra (Rodrigues 138, 232).
In the Harivamsa (a segment of the Mahabharata) the tradition of showing Krsna as a hero continues. He is considered to be more heroic than a divine being, because he possesses the qualities of a traditional hero. These qualifications include a unique birth and childhood, where the growing hero displays powers beyond what an ordinary person would possess. Child-heroes are also known to be exiled, only to return at a later date to prove their worth. They also compete in any contest in order to prove their worth, and relish in fighting and defending their honour. These qualities of proving themselves are further implied within the Visnu Purana and the Bhagavata Purana (Sheth 3-4). The nature of Krsna is also described within the Harivamsa, calling him a Brahman, self-born, eternal, the Ancient One, and many other words (Sheth 77). Several stories about Krsna appear in the Harivamsa, such as his battle with the demon called Fever and how he is affiliated with playing the flute (Sheth 102).
Krsna is infamous for having a sensual reputation for enticing cowgirls (gopis) with his flute, bringing them out to the forest where he bides his time. His musical instrument of choice is known to have a seductive trait, which is further seen in the Vrndavana (Kinsley 41). Here the young deity and the gopis engage in blissful passions, such as singing, dancing, and the art of lovemaking. His relationship with the gopis and the cowherds of Mathura are considered an “important theme” in the eyes of bhakti with the keywords being “union” and “separation” (Hardy 52).
There are several times where Krsna is separated from the gopis, either due to him having to leave or getting into a fight with one of them. The final time that the “separation” theme is seen with Krsna in relation with the gopis is when he leaves them all in order to go to Mathura (Hardy 53). In Hindu mythology, the gopis are either seen as a collective group in one myth or having one represented in the limelight of Krsna’s adoration, such as Radha. With her and the rest of the gopis, Krsna shows the possibly of relationships between the gods and the humans (Kinsley 41). Since he is a young god, he is notorious for being a prankster as well (Kinsley 9). He is the “eternal child” of Hindu faith, and acts in every way that a child would behave, hence the spontaneous activities and pranks (Kinsley 12-13).
Krsna’s physical appearance is also famous for having a blue pigmentation in his skin and an incredibly youthful body. His image is usually accompanied by his infamous flute, but there are times where the flute is absent, and instead Krsna would pantomime that the flute is always in his hands, and would instead be called Gopalakrsna during this state. [More is said about Gopalakrsna in Chary & Smith (1991)]. Despite all this, the flute remains pivotal to his image and connection as the Divine One (Chary & Smith 97). In other versions, Krsna can be viewed with a multitude of extra arms holding a variety of objects, such a padma, an iksu, and other similar items. Sometimes he is accompanied by his wives.
In some academic circles there are scholars that attempt to understand Krsna in a historical sense, because he displays many human characteristics as opposed to his divine ones. They try to understand and discover Krsna as an actual person that lived within Earth’s historical timeline. Scholars use evidence toward their theory of him being a human, such as his appearance in the Mahabharata (Hardy 18-19). Krsna is also the most well-known Hindu god outside of India, because of his prominent role in the Bhagavad Gita, which has been translated a great deal into other languages (Chary & Smith 99). [A full explanation of the Bhagavad Gita is shown in Fowler (2012].
Also, Krsna is one of the few gods that has gone through the stages of life: infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood (Chary & Smith 100), which would make people unfamiliar with his life story believe that he might have been a real-life figure in Indian history. In the Indian epics (i.e. the Ramayana and the Mahabharata) the heroes grow up and go on episodic adventures, but do not see the gods participate in a familiar, humanistic way. Krsna gets a full explanation of his life compared to the other gods and goddesses. To scholars, it is also known that Krsna married at some point in his adult life to his two wives, Rukmini and Satyabhama, and was equally affectionate and attentive to each of them (Chary & Smith 103). [To learn more about Rukmini and Satyabhama and their significance as Krsna’s wives, see Chary & Smith (1991)].
Krsna is a fascinating god within Hindu mythology and its respective religion. His role in battling and defeating Kamsa (the original “evil uncle,” long before Claudius from Hamlet) dictates him as a famous protagonist that takes on many of the qualities seen within a traditional hero. His unusual birth and journey through childhood and adulthood is what makes him memorable and compelling as a heroic character, even outside of Indian culture. The ability to view Krsna both as a godly figure and as a man with human qualities adds another layer of depth to his persona. Seeing a god indulge himself with sensual and romantic needs make him appealing as a character study, and also to scholars who want to discover if he qualifies to be a historical man of India as well.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Chary, M. Narasimha & Smith, H. Daniel (1991) Handbook of Hindu Gods, Goddesses, and Saints. Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan.
Couture, Andre & Schmid, Charlotte (2001) “The Harivamsa, the Goddess Ekanamsa, and the Icongraphy of the Vrsni Triads.” Journal of the American Oriental Society; Apr-Jun2001, Vol. 121 Issue 2, p173, 20p, 1
Crooke, W. (1900) “The Legends of Krishna.” Folklore Vol. 11, No. 1 (Mar., 1900) (pp. 1-42)
Fowler, Jeaneane D. (2012) The Bhagavad Gita: A text and Commentary for Students. Brighton; Portland: Sussex Academic Press.
Hardy, Friedhelm (1983) Viraha-Bhakti: The Early History of Kṛṣṇa Devotion in South India. Delhi: Oxford.
Keith, A. Berriedale (1908) “The Child Krsna.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. (Jan., 1908), pp.169-175
Kinsley, David R. (1975) The Sword and the Flute: Kālī and Kṛṣṇa, Dark Visions of the Terrible and the Sublime in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism—the Ebook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.
Sheth, Noel (1984) The Divinity of Krishna. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.
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Article written by Melissa Wall (March-April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.