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God of Compassion, Tenderness, Love and Beauty[1][2]
Krishna statue at the Sri Mariamman temple, Singapore
Devanagari कृष्ण
Sanskrit transliteration Kṛṣṇa
Affiliation Svayam Bhagavan, Paramatman, Brahman[3][4]
Abode Goloka Vrindavana, Gokula, Dwarka
Weapon Sudarshana Chakra
Consort Radha, Rukmini, varies[5][note 1]
Parents Devaki and Vasudeva, Yashoda (foster mother) and Nanda Baba (foster father)
Siblings Balarama, Subhadra
Texts Bhagavata Purana, Harivamsa, Vishnu Purana, Bhagavad Gita
Festivals Krishna Janmashtami, Holi

Krishna (/ˈkrɪʃnə/; Sanskrit: कृष्ण, Kṛṣṇa in IAST, pronounced [ˈkr̩ʂɳə]) is the god of compassion, tenderness and love in Hinduism.[1][2] He is one of the most widely revered and popular Indian divinities, worshipped as the eighth incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu and as Svayam Bhagavan (supreme god) in his own right.[7][8] Krishna's birthday is celebrated every year by Hindus on Janmashtami according to the lunisolar Hindu calendar, which falls in late August or early September of the Gregorian calendar.[9]

Krishna is also known by numerous names, such as Govinda, Mukunda, Madhusudhana, Vasudeva and Makhan chor in affection. His iconography shows him in different stages of his life, such as an infant eating butter; a young boy playing a flute; a young man with Radha or surrounded by women devotees; or as a friendly charioteer giving counsel to Arjuna.[10] The anecdotes and narratives of Krishna's life are generally titled as Krishna Leela. He is a central character in the Bhagavata Purana, the Bhagavad Gita, and is mentioned in many Hindu philosophical, theological and mythological texts.[11] They portray him in various perspectives: a god-child, a prankster, a model lover, a divine hero, and as the Supreme Power.[12]

The synonyms of Krishna have been traced to 1st millennium BC literature.[13] Worship of Krishna as Svayam Bhagavan, sometimes referred to as Krishnaism, arose in the Middle Ages in the context of the Bhakti movement.[14] Krishna-related literature has inspired numerous performance arts such as Bharatnatyam, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Odissi, and Manipuri dance.[15][16][17] He is a pan-Hindu god, but particularly revered in some locations such as Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh, Jagannatha in Odisha, Mayapur in West Bengal,[18] Dwarka and Junagadh in Gujarat, Pandharpur in Maharashtra, Udupi in Karnataka, and Nathdwara in Rajasthan.[19] Since the 1960s, the worship of Krishna has also spread to the Western world and to Africa largely due to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).[20]

Names and epithets

The name originates from the Sanskrit word Kṛṣṇa, which is primarily an adjective meaning "black", "dark" or "dark blue".[21] The waning moon is called Krishna Paksha, relating to the adjective meaning "darkening".[21] The name is also interpreted sometimes as "all attractive."[22]

As a name of Vishnu, Krishna is listed as the 57th name in the Vishnu Sahasranama. Based on his name, Krishna is often depicted in idols as black or blue-skinned. Krishna is also known by various other names, epithets and titles, which reflect his many associations and attributes. Among the most common names are Mohan "enchanter", Govinda meaning "chief herdsman",[23] Gopala, "Protector of the 'Go' — "Soul" or the cows".[24][25] Some of the distinct names may be regionally important—for instance, Jagannatha, a popular incarnation of Puri, Odisha in eastern India.[26] [27]


Krishna with cows, herdsmen and Gopis.

Krishna is represented in the Indian traditions in many ways, with some common features. His iconography typically depicts him as black or dark reflecting his name, or with blue skin like Vishnu.[28] However ancient and medieval reliefs and stone-based arts depict him in the natural color of the material he is made from, both in India and in southeast Asia.[29][30] In some texts, his skin is poetically described as the color of Jambul (Jamun, a purple-colored fruit).[31]

Krishna is often depicted wearing a peacock feather wreath or crown, and in a pose playing the bansuri (Indian flute).[32][33] In this form, he usually stands with one leg bent in front of the other in the Tribhanga posture. He is sometimes accompanied by cows or a calf, symbolism for the divine herdsman Govinda. Alternatively, he is shown as an amorous man with the gopis (milkmaids), often making music or playing pranks.[34]

Krishna lifting Govardhana at Bharat Kala Bhavan, recovered from a Muslim graveyard in Varanasi. It is dated to be from the Gupta Empire era (4th/6th-century AD).[35]

In other icons, he is a part of the scene on the battlefield of the epic Mahabharata. He is shown as a charioteer, notably where he addresses Pandava prince Arjuna character of the Mahabharata, symbolically reflecting the events that led to the Bhagavad Gita – a scripture of Hinduism. In these popular depictions, Krishna is in the front as the charioteer, either as a counsel listening to Arjuna, or as driving the chariot while Arjuna aims his archery in the battle-field of Kurukshetra.[36][37]

Alternate icons of Krishna show him as a baby (Bala Krishna, Bāla Kṛṣṇa the child Krishna), a toddler crawling on his hands and knees, or dancing child, or one with innocent looks playfully stealing or consuming butter (Makkan Chor)[38] or Laddu in his hand (Laddu Gopal).[39][40] Regional variations in the iconography of Krishna are seen in his different forms, such as Jaganatha of Odisha, Vithoba of Maharashtra,[41] Venkateswara (also Srinivasa or Balaji) in Andhra Pradesh,[42] and Shrinathji in Rajasthan.[43]

The design and architecture guidelines to prepare Krishna icons are described in medieval era Sanskrit texts on Hindu temple arts such as Vaikhanasa agama, Vishnu dharmottara, Brihat samhita and Agni Purana.[44] Similarly, early medieval era Tamil texts also describe the guidelines for sculpting Krishan and Rukmini Devi (she is sometimes referred to as Sauriraja-pperumal in Tamil). Example statues made according to these guidelines are now held at the Government Museum, Chennai.[45]

Historical and literary sources

Krishna is celebrated in the Vaishnava tradition in various stages of his life, such as Makkan chor (butter thief).[38]

The earliest text to explicitly provide detailed descriptions of Krishna as a personality is the epic Mahabharata which depicts Krishna as an incarnation of Vishnu.[46] 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 added appendix to the Mahabharata contains the detailed version of Krishna's childhood and youth.[47]

The Chandogya Upanishad, dated to have been composed sometime between the 8th and 6th century BC, has been another source of speculation regarding Krishna in ancient India. Its verse 3.17.6 mentions Krishna Devakiputra (Sanskrit: कृष्णाय देवकीपुत्रा) as a student of the sage Ghora Angirasa. This phrase, which means "Krishna the son of Devaki", has been mentioned by scholars such as Max Muller[48] as a potential source of fables and Vedic lore about Krishna in the Mahabharata and other ancient literature. This is not certain because this verse could have been interpolated into the text,[48] or it could be just a different Krishna Devikaputra than the deity Krishna.[49] These doubts are supported by the fact that the much later age Sandilya Bhakti Sutras, a treatise on Krishna,[50] cites later age compilations such as the Narayana Upanishad, but never cites this verse of Chandogya Upanishad. Others such as Archer state that the coincidence that both names, of Krishna and Devika, in the same verse cannot be dismissed easily and this Krishna may be the same as one found later, such as in the Bhagavad Gita.[51]

Yāska's Nirukta, an etymological dictionary around 6th century BC, contains a reference to the Shyamantaka jewel in the possession of Akrura, a motif from the well known Puranic story about Krishna.[52] Shatapatha Brahmana and Aitareya-Aranyaka associate Krishna with his Vrishni origins.[53]

Pāṇini, the ancient grammarian and author of Asthadhyayi (probably belonged to the 5th or 6th century BC), mentions a character called Vāsudeva, son of Vasudeva.[54][55]

Bala Krishna dancing, 14th century AD Chola sculpture, Tamil Nadu.from Honolulu Academy of Arts.

Megasthenes, a Greek ethnographer and an ambassador of Seleucus I to the court of Chandragupta Maurya towards the end of 4th-century BC, made reference to Herakles in his famous work Indica. This text is now lost to history, but has been quoted in secondary literature by later Greeks.[56] According to these secondary texts by Arrian, Diodorus, and Strabo, Megasthenes mentioned 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".[56] The word Herakles, states Bryant, likely is a Greek phonetic equivalent of Hari-Krishna, 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.[56]

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.[57] The texts of Jainism mention these tales as well, but with many peculiarities and different versions, in their legends about Tirthankaras. This inclusion of Krishna-related legends in Buddhist and Jaina ancient literature suggest that Krishna theology was existent and important in the religious landscape observed by non-Hindu traditions of ancient India.[58][59]

Indo-Greek coinage

Krishna as Vasudeva on a coin of Agathocles of Bactria, circa 180 BC.[60]

Around 180 BC, the Indo-Greek king Agathocles issued some coinage bearing images of deities, now interpreted to be related to Vaisnava imagery in India.[61][62] The divinities displayed on the coins are interpreted to be related to Vishnu's avatars Balarama-Sankarshana with attributes consisting of the Gada mace and the plow, and Vasudeva-Krishna with attributes of the Shankha (conch) and the Sudarshana Chakra wheel.[63][61] According to Bopearachchi, the headdress on top of the deity is actually a misrepresentation of a shaft with a half-moon parasol on top (chattra).[61]

Heliodorus Pillar in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Installed about 120 BC, the pillar's inscription states that Heliodorus is a Bhagvatena. A couplet in it closely paraphrases a Sanskrit verse from the Mahabharata.[64][65]

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 Panini's verse 3.1.26, he also uses the word Kamsavadha or the "killing of Kamsa", an important part of the legends around Krishna.[66][67]

Heliodorus pillar and other inscriptions

A pillar with Brahmi script inscription was discovered by colonial era archeologists in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. It has been dated by modern techniques to between 125 and 100 BC, traced to an Indo-Greek, who then served as an ambassador of Greek king Antialcidas to a regional Indian king.[61][64] Named after the Indo-Greek, it is now known as the Heliodorus pillar. Its inscription is a dedication to "Vasudeva", another name for Krishna in the Indian tradition. Scholars consider the "Vasudeva" to be referring to a deity, because the inscription states that it was constructed by "the Bhagavata Heliodorus" and that it is a "Garuda pillar" (both are Vishnu-Krishna-related terms). Additionally, the inscription includes a verse from chapter 11.7 of the Mahabharata (Krishna-related), which states that the path to immortality and heaven is to correctly live a life of three virtues: self-temperance (damah), generosity (cagah or tyaga), and vigilance (apramadah).[64][68][69]

The three Hathibada inscriptions and one Ghosundi inscription, dated by modern methodology to 1st-century BC, mention Samkarsana and Vasudeva, as well as mention that the structure constructed was for their worship. These four inscriptions are notable for being some of the oldest known Sanskrit inscriptions.[70]

A Mora stone slab found at the Mathura-Vrindavan archeological site, held now in the Mathura Museum, has a Brahmi inscription. It is dated to the 1st-century AD and lists five Vrishni heroes (Balarama, Krishna, Pradyumna, Aniruddha and Samba).[71][72][73] Another terracotta plaque from the same site shows an infant being carried by an adult over his head, similar to the legend around Krishna's birth.[71]

Many Puranas tell Krishna's life-story or some highlights from it. Two Puranas, the Bhagavata Purana and the Vishnu Purana, contain the most elaborate telling of Krishna's story.[74] However, the life stories of Krishna in these and other texts vary, and contain significant inconsistencies.[75][76] The Bhagavata Purana consists of twelve books subdivided into 332 chapters, with a cumulative total of between 16,000 and 18,000 verses depending on the revision.[77][78] The tenth book of the text, with about 4,000 verses (~25%), is dedicated to legends about Krishna. It has been the most popular and widely studied part of this text.[79][80]


Vasudeva carrying the newborn Krishna to Nand's house in Gokul via river Yamuna.

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).[81]


Krishna was born to Devaki and her husband, Vasudeva of the Chandravanshi clan.[82] Devaki's brother was a tyrant named Kamsa. At Devaki's wedding, according to Puranic legends, Kamsa was told by fortune tellers that a child of Devaki would kill him. Kamsa arranged to kill all of Devaki's children. When Krishna was born, Vasudeva secretly carried the infant Krishna away across Yamuna and exchanged him. When Kamsa appeared to kill the new born, the exchanged baby appeared as Durga, warning him that his death had arrived in his kingdom and then disappeared, according to the legends in the Puranas. Krishna grew up with Nanda and his wife Yasoda near modern-day Mathura.[83][84][85] Two of Krishna's siblings also survived, namely Balarama and Subhadra, according to these legends.[86]

Childhood and youth

Krishna holding Govardhan hill as depicted in Pahari painting

The legends of Krishna's childhood and youth describe him as a cow herder, his mischievous pranks such as a Makhan Chor (butter thief), and his role as a protector who stole the hearts of the people in both Gokul and Vrindavana. Krishna, for example, lifted the Govardhana hill to protect the native people of Vrindavana from devastating rains and floods.[87]

Krishna with Radha

Other legends describe him as an enchanter and playful lover of the gopis (milkmaids) of Vrindavana, especially Radha. These stories are known as the Rasa lila and were romanticised in the poetry of Jayadeva, author of the Gita Govinda. These became important as part of the development of the Krishna bhakti traditions worshiping Radha Krishna.[88]

Krishna's childhood reinforces 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 played his flute and the gopis came immediately from whatever they were doing, to the banks of the Yamuna River, and joined him in singing and dancing. Even those who could not physically be there joined him through meditation.[89]

This lila is a constant theme in the legends of Krishna's youth. Even when he is battling with a serpent to protect others, he is described in Hindu texts as if he is playing a game.[90] This playfulness of Krishna is celebrated as Rasa-lila and Janmashtami, where Hindus in some regions such as Maharashtra make human gymnastic pyramids to break open handis (clay pots) hung high in the air that spill buttermilk all over the group after being broken by the person at the top.[91]


Krishna with his consorts Rukmini, Satyabhama and his mount Garuda; Tamil Nadu, India, late 12th-13th century[92]

Krishna legends then describe his return to Mathura. He overthrows and kills the tyrant king and uncle Kamsa, after quelling several assassination attempts from Kamsa. He reinstated Kamsa's father, Ugrasena, as the king of the Yadavas and becomes a leading prince at the court.[93] During this period, he becomes a friend of Arjuna and the other Pandava princes of the Kuru kingdom. Krishna plays a key role in the Mahabharata. After the war is over, he leads his Yadava subjects to the city of Dwaraka (in modern Gujarat).[94]

In Hindu traditions, Krishna is considered the eighth avatar of Vishnu. Krishna marries and his wife is considered in the Hindu tradition to be an avatar of the goddess Lakshmi.[95][6] Gopis are considered as Radha's many forms and manifestations.[6]

Kurukshetra War and Bhagavad Gita

Iconographic representation in an Andhra Pradesh temple of Krishna and Arjuna at the Kurukshetra war.

According to the epic Mahabharata, Krishna became the charioteer of Arjuna for the Kurukshetra war, but on the condition that he personally would not raise any weapon. Upon arrival at the battlefield, and seeing that the enemies are his family, his grandfather, his cousins and loved ones, Arjuna is moved and says his heart does not allow him to fight and kill others. He would rather prefer to renounce the kingdom and put down his Gandiv (Arjuna's bow). Krishna then advises him about the nature of life, ethics and moralities when one is faced with a war between good and evil, impermanence of matter, permanence of the soul and the good, duties and responsibilities, the nature of true peace and bliss, 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.[96][97][98]


The legendary Kurukshetra war is stated in the Indian texts to have led to the death of all the hundred sons of Gandhari. On the night before Duryodhana's death, Krishna visited Gandhari to offer his condolences. Gandhari felt that Krishna knowingly did not put an end to the war, and in a fit of rage and sorrow, Gandhari placed a curse on Krishna that he, along with everyone else from his Yadu dynasty, would perish. According to the Mahabharata, an internecine fight broke out between the Yadavas at a festival, who killed each other. A hunter named Jara mistakes sleeping Krishna for a deer and shoots an arrow which fatally injures him. Krishna forgives Jara and dies.[99][100][101] The pilgrimage (tirtha) site of Bhalka in Gujarat marks this location where Krishna is believed to have died. It is also known as Dehotsarga, states Diana L. Eck, a term that literally means where Krishna "gave up his body".[100]


There are numerous versions of Krishna's life stories, of which three sources are most studied: the Harivamsa, the Bhagavata Purana and the Vishnu Purana.[102] These share the basic storyline, but vary significantly in their specifics, details, and styles.[103] The Harivamsa is the most original composition, set 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 the death of Krishna.[104] The fifth book of the Vishnu Purana moves away from Harivamsa realism, differs in details and embeds Krishna in mystical terms and eulogies.[105] The Vishnu Purana manuscripts exist in many versions.[106]

The tenth and eleventh book of the Bhagavata Purana are 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.[107] Krishna's life is closer to that of a human being in Harivamsa, but it is a symbolic universe in the Bhagavata Purana where Krishna is within the universe and beyond it, as well as the universe itself, always.[108] The Bhagavata Purana manuscripts also exist in many versions, in numerous Indian languages.[109][79]

Proposed datings

14th-century fresco of Krishna in Udaipur, Rajasthan.

The date of Krishna's birth is celebrated every year as Janmashtami.[110] According to mythologies in the Jain tradition, Krishna was a cousin of Neminatha, the 22nd Tirthankara of the Jains.[111] Neminatha is believed in the Jain tradition to have been born 84,000 years before the 9th-century BC Parshvanatha.[112] Several Indian sources place Krishna as an actual historic person and to a much later period, about 3100 BC, and this is based on interpreting the events and circumstances described in the Puranas.[113]

Other scholars state that the Puranas are not a reliable source for dating Krishna or of Indian history, because the content therein about kings, history of various people, sages and kingdoms are highly inconsistent across the manuscripts, likely based in part on real events, in part hagiography, and in part expansive imagination or fabrication.[114][115] A high degree of inconsistency and manuscript corruption occurred particularly from the 12th century onwards, evidenced by cross referencing across the texts; Matsya Purana, for example, stated that Kurma Purana has 18,000 verses, while Agni Purana asserts the same text has 8,000 verses, and Naradiya attests that Kurma manuscript has 17,000 verses.[116][117] The Puranic literature has gone through slow redaction and text corruption over time, as well as sudden deletion of numerous chapters and its replacement with new content to an extent that the currently circulating Puranas are entirely different than those that existed before 11th century, or 16th century.[118] For example, a newly discovered palm-leaf manuscript in Nepal has been dated to be from 810 AD, but is entirely different than versions of the same Purana text that has been circulating in South Asia since the colonial era.[118][119]

Philosophy and theology

A wide range of theology and philosophy are presented through Krishna in Hindu texts. Ramanuja presented him in terms of qualified monism (Vishishtadvaita).[120] Madhvacharya presented Krishna in a dualism philosophy framework (Dvaita).[121] Jiva Goswami described Krishna theology in terms of Bhakti yoga and Achintya Bheda Abheda.[122] Krishna has been presented in a pure advaita (shuddhadvaita) foundations by Vallabha Acharya.[123] Krishna philosophy has also been presented in nondualism-monism (Advaita Vedanta) principles by Madhusudana Sarasvati, while Adi Shankara mentioned Krishna in his discussions on Panchayatana puja in early 8th century.[124]

The Bhagavata Purana, a popular text on Krishna and 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.[125][126][127] 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[3]

Sheridan as well as Pintchman affirm Bryant's view, with the added remark that the Vedantic view emphasized in the Bhagavata is non-dualist described within a reality of plural forms.[128][129]

Across the various theologies and philosophies, the common theme is to present Krishna as the essence and symbol of divine love, to present 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,[130] as well as his later dialogues with other characters, are philosophically treated as a metaphor for human longing for the divine, for meaning, and the play between the universals and the human soul.[131][132][133] 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.[134]

Other texts that include Krishna, such as the Bhagavad Gita, have attracted numerous bhasya (commentaries) in the Hindu traditions.[135] Though 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 the ideological questions on human freedoms, choices and responsibilities towards self and towards others.[135][136] 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.[135][137][136]



The worship of Krishna is part of Vaishnavism, a major tradition within Hinduism. Krishna is considered as a full avatar of Vishnu, or as one with Vishnu himself.[138] However the exact relationship between Krishna and Vishnu is complex and diverse,[139] where Krishna is sometimes considered an independent deity, supreme in his own right.[140] Vaishnavas accept many incarnations of Vishnu, but Krishna is particularly important. Their theologies are generally centered either on Vishnu or on 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.[141]

All Vaishnava traditions recognise Krishna as eighth avatar of Vishnu; others identify Krishna with Vishnu; while traditions, such as Gaudiya Vaishnavism,[142][143] Vallabha Sampradaya and the Nimbarka Sampradaya, regard Krishna as the Svayam Bhagavan, original form of Lord or same as the concept of Brahman in Hinduism.[4][144][145][146][147] Gitagovinda of Jayadeva considers Krishna as 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.[148] Today the faith has a significant following outside of India as well.[149]

Early traditions

The deity Krishna-Vasudeva (kṛṣṇa vāsudeva "Krishna, the son of Vasudeva") is historically one of the earliest forms of worship in Krishnaism and Vaishnavism.[13][52] It is believed to be a significant tradition of the early history of Krishna religion in antiquity.[150] 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).[151][152] According to Andre Couture, the Harivamsa contributed to the synthesis of various characters as aspects of Krishna.[153]

Bhakti tradition

Krishna has been a major part of the Bhakti movement.

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.[142][154] 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.[143][155][156]

Indian subcontinent

The bhakti movements devoted to Krishna became prominent in southern India in the 7th to 9th centuries AD. The earliest works included those of the Alvar saints of the Tamil country.[157] 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.[158][159][160]

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

The movement originated in South India during the seventh-century AD, spreading northwards from Tamil Nadu through Karnataka and Maharashtra; by the fifteenth century, it was established in Bengal and northern India.[161] Early Bhakti pioneers include Nimbarka (12th or 13th century AD),[162] but most emerged later such as Vallabhacharya (15th century AD) 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,[41] a local form of Krishna, from the beginning of the 13th century until the late 18th century.[12] 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 named Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu.[154]

In South India, the acharyas of the Sri Sampradaya have written reverentially about Krishna in most of their works like the Thiruppavai by Andal[163] and Gopala Vimshati by Vedanta Desika.[164]

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.[citation needed]

Outside Asia

An ISKCON temple in Luçay-le-Mâle, France.

In 1965, the Krishna-bhakti movement had spread outside India when Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (as instructed by his guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura) traveled from his homeland in West Bengal to New York City. A year later in 1966, after gaining many followers, he was able to form the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), popularly known as the Hare Krishna movement. The purpose of this movement was to write about Krishna in English and to share the Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy with people in the Western world by spreading the teachings of the saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. In the biographies of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the mantra he received when he was given diksha or initiation in Gaya was the six word verse of the Kali-Santarana Upanishad, namely "Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare; Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare". In Gaudiya tradition, it is the maha-mantra, or great mantra about Krishna bhakti.[165][166] Its chanting was known as hari-nama sankirtana.[167]

The maha-mantra gained the attention of George Harrison and John Lennon of the Beatles fame,[168] and Harrison produced a 1969 recording of the mantra by devotees from the London Radha Krishna Temple.[169] Titled "Hare Krishna Mantra", the song reached the top twenty on the UK music charts, and was also successful in West Germany and Czechoslovakia.[168][170] The mantra of the Upanishad thus helped bring Bhaktivedanta and ISKCON ideas about Krishna into the West.[168] ISCKON has built many Krishna temples in the West, as well as other locations such as South Africa.[171]

Southeast Asia

Krishna lifts "Govardhan" mountain, a 7th-century artwork from Da Nang archeological site, Vietnam.[172][173]

Krishna is found in southeast Asian history and arts, but to a far less extent than Shiva, Durga, Nandi, Agastya and Buddha. In temples (candi) of the archeological sites in hilly volcanic Java Indonesia, temple reliefs do not represent his pastoral life or as the erotic lover, nor do the historic Javanese Hindu texts.[174] Rather, either his childhood or the life as a king and Arjuna's companion have been more favored. The most elaborate temple arts of Krishna are found in a series of Krsnayana reliefs in the Prambanan Hindu temple complex near Yogyakarta. These are dated to the 9th-century AD.[174][175][176] Krishna remained a part of the Javanese cultural and theological fabric through the 14th century, as evidenced by the 14th-century Penataran reliefs along with those of the Hindu god Rama in east Java, before Islam replaced Buddhism and Hinduism from the island.[177]

The medieval era arts of Vietnam and Cambodia feature Krishna. The earliest surviving sculptures and reliefs are from the 6th and 7th-century, and these include Vaishnavism iconography.[172] According to John Guy, the curator and director of southeast Asian arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Krishna Govardhana art from 6th/7th century Vietnam at Danang, and 7th century Cambodia at Phnom Da cave in Angkor Borei, are some of the most sophisticated of this era.[172]

Krishna iconography have also been found in Thailand, along with those of Surya and Vishnu. For example, a large number of sculptures and icons have been found in Si Thep and Klangnai sites in Phetchabun region of northern Thailand. These are dated to about the 7th and 8th century, from both the Funan and Zhenla period archeological sites.[178]

Performance arts

The Krishna legends in the Bhagavata Purana have inspired many performance arts repertoire, such as Kathakali (left), Kuchipudi (middle) and Odissi (right).[179][17][180]

Indian dance and music theatre traces its origins and techniques to the ancient Sama Veda and Natyasastra texts.[181][182] The stories enacted and the numerous choreographic themes are inspired by the mythologies and legends in Hindu texts such as Krishna-related literature such as Harivamsa and Bhagavata Purana.[183]

Krishna's stories have played a key role in the history of Indian theatre, music and dance, particularly through the tradition of Ras and Leela. These are dramatic enactments about Krishna's childhood, teenage and adult life. The themes range from his innocent frolics as a child, to his expressing his confusion and doubts about approaching girls, to him wooing and romancing gopis (girls in the cow herding community) who meet him secretly thus getting in trouble with their parents, to his intimacy with beloved Radha, to his playing flute while saving the world from all sorts of troubles and thus preserving the dharma.[17] Some of the text's legends have inspired secondary theatre literature such as the eroticism in Gita Govinda.[184]

A Kathak performance.

The Krishna-related literature, such as the Bhagavata Purana, accords a metaphysical significance to the performances and treats them as religious ritual, fusing the daily life with spiritual meaning, thus representing a good honest happy life or Krishna-inspired drama depicting the same as a form of cleansing the hearts of faithful actors and listeners. Singing, dancing and performance of any part of Krishna Lila is an act of remembering the dharma in the text, as a form of para bhakti (supreme devotion). To remember Krishna at any time and in any art, asserts the text, is to worship the good and the divine.[185]

Classical dance styles such as Kathak, Odissi, Manipuri, Kuchipudi and Bharatnatyam in particular are known for their Krishna-related performances.[186] Krisnattam (Krishnattam) traces its origins to Krishna legends, and is linked to another major classical Indian dance form called Kathakali.[187] Bryant summarizes the influence of Krishna stories in the Bhagavata Purana as, "[it] has inspired more derivative literature, poetry, drama, dance, theatre and art than any other text in the history of Sanskrit literature, with the possible exception of the Ramayana.[15]

Other religions


The Jainism tradition lists 63 Śalākāpuruṣa or notable figures which, amongst others, includes the twenty-four Tirthankaras and nine sets of triad. One of these triads is Krishna as the Vasudeva, Balarama as the Baladeva and Jarasandha as the Prati-Vasudeva. In each age of the Jain cyclic time is born a Vasudeva with an elder brother termed the Baladeva. Between the triad, Baladeva upholds the principle of non-violence, a central idea of Jainism. The villain is the Prati-vasudeva who attempts to destroy the world. To save the world, Vasudeva-Krishna has to forsake the non-violence principle and kill the Prati-Vasudeva.[188] The stories of these triads can be found in the Harivamsa Purana (8th century AD) of Jinasena (not be confused with its namesake, the addendum to Mahābhārata) and the Trishashti-shalakapurusha-charita of Hemachandra.[189][190]

The story of Krishna's life in the Puranas of Jainism follows the same general outline as those in the Hindu texts, but in details they are very different, they include Jain Tirthankaras as characters in the story, and generally are polemically critical of Krishna, unlike the versions found in the Mahabharata, the Bhagavata Purana and the Vishnu Purana.[191] For example, Krishna loses battles in the Jain versions, his gopis and his clan of Yadavas die in a fire created by an ascetic named Dvaipayana. Similarly, after dying from the hunter Jara's arrow, the Jaina texts state Krishna went to the third hell in Jain cosmology, while his brother is stated to have gone to the sixth heaven.[192]

Vimalasuri is attributed to be the author of the Jain version of the Harivamsa Purana, but no manuscripts have been found that confirm this. It is likely that later Jain scholars, probably Jinasena of the 8th-century, wrote a complete version of Krishna legends in the Jain tradition and credited it to the ancient Vimalasuri.[193] Partial and older versions of the Krishna story are available in Jainism literature, such as in the Antagata Dasao of the Svetambara Agama tradition.[193]

In other Jain texts, Krishna is stated to be a cousin of the twenty-second Tirthankara, Neminatha. The Jain texts state that Naminatha taught Krishna all the wisdom that he later gave to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. According to Jeffery D. Long, a professor of Religion known for his publications on Jainism, this connection between Krishna and Neminatha has been a historic reason for Jains to accept, read and cite the Bhagavad Gita as a spiritually important text, celebrate Krishna related festivals and intermingle with Hindus as spiritual cousins.[194]


Depiction of Krishna playing flute in the temple constructed in AD 752 on the order of Emperor Shomu; Todai-ji Temple, Great Buddha Hall in Nara, Japan

The story of Krishna occurs in the Jataka tales in Buddhism.[195] The Vidhurapandita Jataka mentions Madhura (Sanskrit: Mathura), the Ghata Jataka mentions Kamsa, Devagabbha (Sk: Devaki), Upasagara or Vasudeva, Govaddhana (Sk: Govardhana), Baladeva (Balarama), and Kanha or Kesava (Sk: Krishna, Keshava).[196][197]

Like the Jaina versions of the Krishna legends, the Buddhist versions such as one in Ghata Jataka follow the general outline of the story,[198] but are different from the Hindu versions as well.[196][58] For example, the Buddhist legend describes Devagabbha (Devaki) to have been isolated in a palace built upon a pole, after she is born, so no future husband could reach her. Krishna's father similarly is described as a powerful king, but who meets up with Devagabbha any way, and to whom Kamsa gives away his sister Devagabbha in marriage. The siblings of Krishna are not killed by Kamsa, though he tries. All of Krishna's siblings grow up in the Buddhist version of the legend.[199]

Krishna and his siblings' capital becomes Dvaravati. The Arjuna and Krishna interaction is missing in the Jataka version. A new legend is included, wherein Krishna laments in uncontrollable sorrow when his son dies, a Ghatapandita feigns madness to teach Krishna a lesson.[200] The Jataka tale also includes an internecine destruction among his siblings after they all get drunk. Krishna too dies in the Buddhist legend by a hunter named Jara, but while he is traveling to a frontier city. Jara mistakes him for a pig, throws a spear which fatally pierces his feet giving Krishna great pains and then death.[199]

At the end of this Ghata-Jataka discourse, the Buddhist text declares that Sariputta, one of the revered disciples of the Buddha in the Buddhist tradition, was incarnated as Krishna in his previous life to learn lessons on grief from the Buddha in his prior rebirth:

Then he [Master] declared the Truths, and identified the Birth: 'At that time, Ananda was Rohineyya, Sariputta was Vasudeva [Krishna], the followers of the Buddha were the other persons, and I myself was Ghatapandita."

— Jataka Tale No. 454, Translator: W.H.D. Rouse[201]

While the Buddhist Jataka texts co-opt Krishna-Vasudeva and make him a student of the Buddha in his previous life,[201] the Hindu texts co-opt the Buddha and make him an avatar of Vishnu.[202][203] The 'divine boy' Krishna as an embodiment of wisdom and endearing prankster forms a part of the pantheon of gods in Japanese Buddhism.[204]

Bahá'í Faith

Bahá'ís believe that Krishna was a "Manifestation of God", or one in a line of prophets who have revealed the Word of God progressively for a gradually maturing humanity. In this way, Krishna shares an exalted station with Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Muhammad, Jesus, the Báb, and the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, Bahá'u'lláh.[205][206]


Ahmadiyyas, a modern era movement, consider Krishna as another prophet. Ahmadiyyas consider themselves to be Muslims, but they are rejected as apostates of Islam by mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims, because Ahmadis consider Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, founder of Ahmadiyya, as a modern-day Prophet.[207][208][209]

Ghulam Ahmad stated that he was himself a prophet in the likeness of prophets such as Krishna, Jesus and Muhammad, who had come to earth as a latter day reviver of religion and morality .[210]


Krishna worship or reverence has been adopted by several new religious movements since the 19th century and he is sometimes a member of an eclectic pantheon in occult texts, along with Greek, Buddhist, biblical and even historical figures.[211] For instance, Édouard Schuré, an influential figure in perennial philosophy and occult movements, considered Krishna a Great Initiate; while Theosophists regard Krishna as an incarnation of Maitreya (one of the Masters of the Ancient Wisdom), the most important spiritual teacher for humanity along with Buddha.[212][213]

Krishna was canonised by Aleister Crowley and is recognised as a saint of Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica in the Gnostic Mass of Ordo Templi Orientis.[214][215]

See also


  1. The regional texts vary in the identity of Krishna's wife (consort), some presenting it as Rukmini, some as Radha, some as Svaminiji, some adding all gopis, and some identifying all to be different aspects or manifestation of one Devi Lakshmi.[5][6]


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  2. 2.0 2.1 Edwin Bryant & Maria Ekstrand 2004, pp. 21-24.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Bryant 2007, p. 114.
  4. 4.0 4.1 K. Klostermaier (1997). The Charles Strong Trust Lectures, 1972-1984. Crotty, Robert B. Brill Academic Pub. p. 109. ISBN 90-04-07863-0. "(...) After attaining to fame eternal, he again took up his real nature as Brahman. The most important among Visnu's avataras is undoubtedly Krsna, the black one, also called Syama. For his worshippers he is not an avatara in the usual sense, but Svayam Bhagavan, the Lord himself.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  214. Crowley associated Krishna with Roman god Dionysus and Magickal formulae IAO, AUM and INRI. See Crowley, Aleister (1991). Liber Aleph. Weiser Books. p. 71. ISBN 0-87728-729-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> and Crowley, Aleister (1980). The Book of Lies. Red Wheels. pp. 24–25. ISBN 0-87728-516-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  215. Apiryon, Tau; Apiryon (1995). Mystery of Mystery: A Primer of Thelemic Ecclesiastical Gnosticism. Berkeley: Red Flame. ISBN 0-9712376-1-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


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