Krishna (/ˈkrɪʃnə/; Sanskrit: कृष्ण, Kṛṣṇa in IAST, pronounced [ˈkr̩ʂɳə] ( listen)) is a Hindu deity, worshipped across many traditions of Hinduism in a variety of different perspectives. Krishna is recognized as the complete and eighth avatar of the God Vishnu or as the Supreme God in his own right. Krishna is one of the most widely revered and popular of all Hindu deities.
Krishna is known by many names such as Kishan, Makhanchor, and Kanha. Krishna is often described and portrayed as an infant eating butter, a young boy playing a flute as in the Bhagavata Purana, a young man along with Radha or as an elder giving direction and guidance as in the Bhagavad Gita. The stories of Krishna appear across a broad spectrum of Hindu philosophical and theological traditions. They portray him in various perspectives: a god-child, a prankster, a model lover, a divine hero, and the Supreme Being. The principal scriptures discussing Krishna’s story are the Mahabharata, the Harivamsa, the Bhagavata Purana, and the Vishnu Purana.
Worship of the deity Krishna, either in the form of deity Krishna or in the form of Vasudeva, Bala Krishna or Gopala can be traced to as early as the 4th century BC. Worship of Krishna as Svayam Bhagavan, or the supreme being, known as Krishnaism, arose in the Middle Ages in the context of the Bhakti movement. From the 10th century AD, Krishna became a favourite subject in performing arts and regional traditions of devotion developed for forms of Krishna such as Jagannatha in Odisha, Vithoba in Maharashtra and Shrinathji in Rajasthan. Since the 1960s the worship of Krishna has also spread in the Western world and in Africa largely due to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Gaudia Math is also a leading proponent of Krishna worship.
1Names and epithets
4.2Childhood and youth
4.4Kurukshetra War and Bhagavad Gita
5.4Spread of the Krishna-bhakti movement
5.5In the West
5.6In South India
6In the performing arts
7In other religions
8TV serial depictions
Names and epithets
14th-century fresco of Krishna on the interior wall of City Palace, Udaipur
Main article: List of titles and names of Krishna
The name originates from the Sanskrit word Kṛṣṇa, which is primarily an adjective meaning "black", "dark" or "dark blue". The waning moon is called Krishna Paksha, relating to the adjective meaning "darkening". Sometimes it is also translated as "all-attractive", according to members of the Hare Krishna movement.
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 murtis 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 Mohnish "Attractive God", Mohan "enchanter", Govinda, "Finder of ‘Go’ — Veda or the cows" or Gopala, "Protector of the ‘Go’ — Veda or the cows" as ‘Go’ means Veda or cow, which refer to Krishna’s childhood in Braj (in present-day Uttar Pradesh). Some of the distinct names may be regionally important; for instance, Jagannatha, a popular incarnation of Puri, Odisha in eastern India.
Krishna with cows, herdsmen and Gopis, Pahari painting [Himalayan] from Smithsonian Institution
Krishna is easily recognized by his representations. Though his skin color may be depicted as black or dark in some representations, particularly in murtis, in other images such as modern pictorial representations, Krishna is usually shown with a blue skin. He has been described as having skin the color of Jambul (Jamun a purple color fruit). He is also known to have four symbols of the jambu fruit on his right foot as mentioned in the Srimad Bhagavatam commentary (verse 10.30.25), "Sri Rupa Cintamani" and "Ananda Candrika" by Srila Visvanatha Chakravarti Thakura.
He is often shown wearing a silk golden yellow dhoti and a peacock feather crown. Common depictions show him as a little boy, or as a young man in a characteristically relaxed pose, playing the flute. In this form, he usually stands with one leg bent in front of the other with a flute raised to his lips, in the Tribhanga posture, accompanied by cows, emphasizing his position as the divine herdsman, Govinda, or with the gopis (milkmaids) i.e. Gopikrishna, stealing butter from neighbouring houses i.e. Navneet Chora or Gokulakrishna, defeating the vicious serpent i.e. Kaliya Damana Krishna, lifting the hill i.e. Giridhara Krishna ..so on and so forth from his childhood / youth events.
A steatite (soapstone) tablet unearthed from Mohenjo-daro, Larkana district, Sindh depicting a young boy uprooting two trees from which are emerging two human figures is an interesting archaeological find for fixing dates associated with Krishna. This image recalls the Yamalarjuna episode of Bhagavata and Harivamsa Purana. In this image, the young boy is Krishna, and the two human beings emerging from the trees are the two cursed gandharvas, identified as Nalakubara and Manigriva. Dr. E.J.H. Mackay, who did the excavation at Mohanjodaro, compares this image with the Yamalarjuna episode. Prof. V.S. Agrawal has also accepted this identification. Thus, it seems that the Indus valley people knew stories related to Krishna. This lone find may not establish Krishna as contemporary with Pre-Indus or Indus times, but, likewise, it cannot be ignored.
Bala Krishna dancing, 14th century CE Chola sculpture, Tamil Nadu.from Honolulu Academy of Arts.
The scene on the battlefield of the epic Mahabharata, notably where he addresses Pandava prince Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, is another common subject for representation. In these popular depictions, he is shown as the charioteer in the battle-field of Kurukshetra. In Visvaroopa Darshana to Arjuna, Lord Krishna resumes the role of the often with supreme God’s characteristics of Hindu religious art, such as multiple arms or heads, denoting power, and with attributes of Vishnu, such as the chakra or in his two-armed form as a charioteer. Cave paintings dated to 800 BCE in Mirzapur, Mirzapur district, Uttar Pradesh, show raiding horse-charioteers, one of whom is about to hurl a wheel, and who could potentially be identified as Krishna.
Representations in temples often show Krishna as a man standing in an upright, formal pose. He may be alone, or with associated figures: his brother Balarama and sister Subhadra, or his main queens Rukmini and Satyabhama.
Often, Krishna is pictured with his gopi-consort Radha. Manipuri Vaishnavas do not worship Krishna alone, but as Radha Krishna, a combined image of Krishna and Radha. This is also a characteristic of the schools Rudra and Nimbarka sampradaya, as well as that of Swaminarayan sect. The traditions celebrate Radha Ramana murti, who is viewed by Gaudiyas as a form of Radha Krishna.
Krishna is also depicted and worshipped as a small child (Bala Krishna, Bāla Kṛṣṇa the child Krishna), crawling on his hands and knees or dancing, often with butter or Laddu in his hand being Laddu Gopal. Regional variations in the iconography of Krishna are seen in his different forms, such as Jaganatha of Odisha, Vithoba of Maharashtra, Venkateswara (also Srinivasa or Balaji) in Andhra Pradesh, and Shrinathji in Rajasthan.
Krishna is also depicted as a new born floating on a leaf of a banyan tree during the Pralaya ( the great flood ) at the end of the Dvapara Yuga.
See also: Krishna in the Mahabharata
Yashoda bathing the child Krishna
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. 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 the warrior-hero Arjuna, on the battlefield. Krishna is already an adult in the epic, although there are allusions to his earlier exploits. The Harivamsa, a later appendix to this epic, contains the earliest detailed version of Krishna’s childhood and youth.
The Rig Veda 1.22.164 sukta 31 mentions a herdsman "who never stumbles". Some Vaishnavite scholars, such as Bhaktivinoda Thakura, claim that this herdsman refers to Krishna. Ramakrishna Gopal Bhandarkar also attempted to show that "the very same Krishna" made an appearance, e.g. as the drapsa … krishna "black drop" of RV 8.96.13. Some authors have also likened prehistoric depictions of deities to Krishna.
Chandogya Upanishad (3.17.6), dated between 8th and 6th century BCE, mentions Vasudeva Krishna as the son of Devaki and the disciple of Ghora Angirasa, the seer who preached his disciple the philosophy of ‘Chhandogya.’ Having been influenced by the philosophy of ‘Chhandogya’ Krishna in the Bhagavadgita while delivering the discourse to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra discussed about sacrifice, which can be compared to purusha or the individual.
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 well known Puranic story about Krishna. Shatapatha Brahmana and Aitareya-Aranyaka, associate Krishna with his Vrishni origins.
Pāṇini, the ancient grammarian and author of Asthadhyayi (probably belonged to 5th century or 6th century BC) mentions a character called Vāsudeva, son of Vasudeva, and also mentions Kaurava and Arjuna which testifies to Vasudeva Krishna, Arjuna and Kauravas being contemporaries.
Megasthenes (350 – 290 BC) a Greek ethnographer and an ambassador of Seleucus I to the court of Chandragupta Maurya made reference to Herakles in his famous work Indica. Many scholars have suggested that the deity identified as Herakles was Krishna. According to Arrian, Diodorus, and Strabo, Megasthenes described an Indian tribe called Sourasenoi, who especially worshipped Herakles in their land, and this land had two cities, Methora and Kleisobora, and a navigable river, the Jobares. As was common in the ancient period, the Greeks sometimes described foreign gods in terms of their own divinities, and there is a little doubt that the Sourasenoi refers to the Shurasenas, a branch of the Yadu dynasty to which Krishna belonged; Herakles to Krishna, or Hari-Krishna: Methora to Mathura, where Krishna was born; Kleisobora to Krishnapura, meaning "the city of Krishna"; and the Jobares to the Yamuna, the famous river in the Krishna story. Quintus Curtius also mentions that when Alexander the Great confronted Porus, Porus’s soldiers were carrying an image of Herakles in their vanguard.
The name Krishna occurs in Buddhist writings in the form Kānha, phonetically equivalent to Krishna.
The Ghata-Jâtaka (No. 454) gives an account of Krishna’s childhood and subsequent exploits which in many points corresponds with the Brahmanic legends of his life and contains several familiar incidents and names, such as Vâsudeva, Baladeva, Kaṃsa. Yet it presents many peculiarities and is either an independent version or a misrepresentation of a popular story that had wandered far from its home. Jain tradition also shows that these tales were popular and were worked up into different forms, for the Jains have an elaborate system of ancient patriarchs which includes Vâsudevas and Baladevas. Krishna is the ninth of the Black Vâsudevas and is connected with Dvâravatî or Dvârakâ. He will become the twelfth tîrthankara of the next world-period and a similar position will be attained by Devakî, Rohinî, Baladeva and Javakumâra, all members of his family. This is a striking proof of the popularity of the Krishna legend outside the Brahmanic religion.
According to Arthasastra of Kautilya (4th century BCE) Vāsudeva was worshiped as supreme Deity in a strongly monotheistic format.
Around 150 BC, Patanjali in his Mahabhashya quotes a verse: "May the might of Krishna accompanied by Samkarshana increase!" Other verses are mentioned. One verse speaks of "Janardhana 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 BC, 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 Rajuvula, probably the satrap Sodasa, and an image of Vrishni, "probably Vasudeva, and of the "Five Warriors". Brahmi inscription on the Mora stone slab, now in the Mathura Museum.
Many Puranas tell Krishna’s life-story or some highlights from it. 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 by the Vaishnava schools. Roughly one quarter of the Bhagavata Purana is spent extolling his life and philosophy.
This summary is based on details from the Mahābhārata, the Harivamsa, the Bhagavata Purana and the Vishnu Purana. The scenes from the narrative are set in north India mostly in the present states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Delhi and Gujarat.
Krishna’s great escape
Krishna’s foster mother Yashoda with the infant Krishna. Chola period, Early 12th century, Tamil Nadu, India.
Based on scriptural details and astrological calculations, the date of Krishna’s birth, known as Janmashtami, is 21 February 3228 BCE.[note 1] He was born to Devaki and her husband, Vasudeva. When Mother Earth became upset by the sin being committed on Earth, she thought of seeking help from Lord Vishnu. She went in the form of a cow to visit Lord Vishnu and ask for help. Lord Vishnu agreed to help her and promised her that he would be born on Earth. On Earth in the Yadava clan, he was yadav according to his birth, a prince named Kamsa sent his father Ugrasena (King of Mathura) to prison and became the King himself. One day a loud voice from the sky (Akasha Vani in Samskrutam prophesied that the 8th son of Kamsa’s sister (Devaki) would kill Kamsa. Out of affection for Devaki, Kamsa did not kill her outright. He did, however, send his sister and her husband (Vasudeva) to prison. Lord Vishnu himself later appeared to Devaki and Vasudeva and told them that he himself would be their eighth son and kill Kamsa and destroy sin in the world. In the story of Krishna the deity is the agent of conception and also the offspring. Because of his sympathy for the earth, the divine Vishnu himself descended into the womb of Devaki and was born as her son, Vaasudeva (i.e., Krishna). This is occasionally cited as evidence that "virgin birth" tales are fairly common in non-Christian religions around the world. However, there is nothing in Hindu scriptures to suggest that it was a "virgin" birth. By the time of conception and birth of Krishna, Devaki was married to Vasudeva and had already borne 7 children. Virgin birth in this case should be more accurately understood as divine conception. Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas referenced contemporaneously with the story of Krishna in the Mahabharata also has divine conception and virgin birth of Prince Karna.
The Hindu Vishnu Purana relates: "Devaki bore in her womb the lotus-eyed deity…before the birth of Krishna, no one could bear to gaze upon Devaki, from the light that invested her, and those who contemplated her radiance felt their minds disturbed." This reference to light is reminiscent of the Vedic hymn "To an Unknown Divine," which refers to a Golden Child. According to F. M. Müller, this term means "the golden gem of child" and is an attempt at naming the sun. According to the Vishnu Purana, Krishna is the total incarnation of Lord Vishnu. It clearly describes in the Vishnu Purana that Krishna was born on earth to destroy sin, especially Kamsa.
Krishna belonged to the Vrishni clan of Yadavas from Mathura, and was the eighth son born to the princess Devaki, and her husband Vasudeva.
Mathura (in present-day Mathura district, Uttar Pradesh) was the capital of the Yadavas, to which Krishna’s parents Vasudeva and Devaki belonged. King Kamsa, Devaki’s brother, had ascended the throne by imprisoning his father, King Ugrasena. Afraid of a prophecy from a divine voice from the heavens that predicted his death at the hands of Devaki’s eighth "garbha", Kamsa had the couple locked in a prison cell. After Kamsa killed the first six children, Devaki apparently had a miscarriage of the seventh. However, in reality, the womb was actually transferred to Rohini secretly. This was how Balarama, Krishna’s elder brother, was born. Once again Devaki became pregnant. Now due to the miscarriage, Kamsa was in a puzzle regarding ‘The Eighth One’, but his ministers advised that the divine voice from the heavens emphasised "the eight garbha" and so this is the one. That night Krishna was born in the Abhijit nakshatra and simultaneously Ekanamsha was born as Yogamaya in Gokulam to Nanda and Yashoda.
Since Vasudeva knew Krishna’s life was in danger, Krishna was secretly taken out of the prison cell to be raised by his foster parents, Yasoda and Nanda, in Gokula (in present-day Mathura district). Two of his other siblings also survived, Balarama (Devaki’s seventh child, transferred to the womb of Rohini, Vasudeva’s first wife) and Subhadra (daughter of Vasudeva and Rohini, born much later than Balarama and Krishna).
Childhood and youth
Krishna holding Govardhan hill as depicted in Pahari painting
Nanda was the head of a community of cow-herders, and he settled in Vrindavana. The stories of Krishna’s childhood and youth tell how he became a cow herder, his mischievous pranks as Makhan Chor (butter thief), his foiling of attempts to take his life, and his role as a protector of the people of Vrindavana.
Krishna killed the demoness Putana, disguised as a wet nurse, and the tornado demon Trinavarta both sent by Kamsa for Krishna’s life. He tamed the serpent Kāliyā, who previously poisoned the waters of Yamuna river, thus leading to the death of the cowherds. In Hindu art, Krishna is often depicted dancing on the multi-hooded Kāliyā.
Krishna lifted the Govardhana hill and taught Indra, the king of the devas, a lesson to protect the native people of Vrindavana from persecution by Indra and prevent the devastation of the pasture land of Govardhan. Indra had too much pride and was angry when Krishna advised the people of Vrindavana to take care of their animals and their environment that provide them with all their necessities, instead of worshipping Indra annually by spending their resources. In the view of some, the spiritual movement started by Krishna had something in it which went against the orthodox forms of worship of the Vedic gods such as Indra. In Bhagavat Purana, Krishna says that the rain came from the nearby hill Govardhana, and advised that the people worshiped the hill instead of Indra. This made Indra furious, so he punished them by sending out a great storm. Krishna then lifted Govardhan and held it over the people like an umbrella.
The stories of his play with the gopis (milkmaids) of Vrindavana, especially Radha (daughter of Vrishbhanu, one of the original residents of Vrindavan) became 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.
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 a great example of this. 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. The story of Krishna’s battle with Kāliyā also supports this idea in the sense of him dancing on Kāliyā’s many hoods. Even though he is doing battle with the serpent, he is in no real danger and treats it like a game. He is a protector, but he only appears to be a young boy having fun. This idea of having a playful god is very important in Hinduism. The playfulness of Krishna has inspired many celebrations like the Rasa-lila and the Janmashtami : where they make human 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. This is meant to be a fun celebration and it gives the participants a sense of unity. Many believe that lila being connected with Krishna gives Hindus a deeper connection to him and thus a deeper connection to Vishnu also; seeing as Krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu. Theologists, like Kristin Johnston Largen, believe that Krishna’s childhood can even inspire other religions to look for lila in deities so that they have a chance to experience a part of their faith that they may not have previously seen.
Krishna with his consorts Rukmini, Satyabhama and his mount Garuda; Tamil Nadu, India, late 12th-13th century
On his return to Mathura as a young man, Krishna overthrew and killed his maternal uncle, Kamsa, after quelling several assassination attempts from Kamsa’s followers. He reinstated Kamsa’s father, Ugrasena, as the king of the Yadavas and became a leading prince at the court. During this period, he became a friend of Arjuna and the other Pandava princes of the Kuru kingdom, who were his cousins. Later, he took his Yadava subjects to the city of Dwaraka (in modern Gujarat) and established a new kingdom there. Krishna was the prince and commander of the Armies of Dwaraka, while Balarama was crown prince and de facto administrator as, King Ugrasena was still the emperor of Dwaraka, but reigned over mathura.
Krishna married Rukmini, the Vidarbha princess, by abducting her, at her request, from her proposed wedding with Shishupala. He married eight queens—collectively called the Ashtabharya—including Rukmini, Satyabhama, Jambavati, Kalindi, Mitravinda, Nagnajiti, Bhadra and Lakshmana. Krishna subsequently married 16,000 or 16,100 maidens who were held captive by the demon Narakasura, to save their honour. Krishna killed the demon and released them all. According to social custom of the time, all of the captive women were degraded, and would be unable to marry, as they had been under the Narakasura’s control. However Krishna married them to reinstate their status in the society. This symbolic wedding with 16,100 abandoned daughters was more of a mass rehabilitation. In Vaishnava traditions, Krishna’s wives are forms of the goddess Lakshmi — consort of Vishnu, or special souls who attained this qualification after many lifetimes of austerity, while his two queens, Rukmani and Satyabhama, are expansions of Lakshmi.
When Yudhishthira was assuming the title of emperor, he had invited all the great kings to the ceremony and while paying his respects to them, he started with Krishna because he considered Krishna to be the greatest of them all. While it was a unanimous feeling amongst most present at the ceremony that Krishna should get the first honours, his cousin Shishupala felt otherwise and started berating Krishna. Due to a vow given to Shishupal’s mother, Krishna forgave a hundred verbal abuses by Shishupal, and upon the one hundred and first, he assumed his Virat (universal) form and killed Shishupal with his Chakra. The blind king Dhritarashtra also obtained divine vision to be able to see this form of Krishna during the time when Duryodana tried to capture Krishna when he came as a peace bearer before the great Mahabharat War. Essentially, Shishupala and Dantavakra were both re-incarnations of Vishnu’s gate-keepers Jaya and Vijaya, who were cursed to be born on Earth, to be delivered by the Vishnu back to Vaikuntha.
Kurukshetra War and Bhagavad Gita
Main articles: Kurukshetra War and Bhagavad Gita
Krishna Mediating between the Pandavas and Kauravas
Once battle seemed inevitable, Krishna offered both sides the opportunity to choose between having either his army called Narayani Sena or himself alone, but on the condition that he personally would not raise any weapon. Arjuna, on behalf of the Pandavas, chose to have Krishna on their side, and Duryodhana, Kaurava prince, chose Krishna’s army. At the time of the great battle, Krishna acted as Arjuna’s charioteer, since this position did not require the wielding of weapons.
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 he would rather prefer to renounce the kingdom and put down his Gandiv (Arjuna’s bow). Krishna then advises him about the battle, with the conversation soon extending into a discourse which was later compiled as the Bhagavad Gita.
Krishna displays his Vishvarupa (universal form) to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
Krishna asked Arjuna, "Have you within no time, forgotten the Kauravas’ evil deeds such as not accepting the eldest brother Yudhishtira as King, usurping the entire Kingdom without yielding any portion to the Pandavas, meting out insults and difficulties to Pandavas, attempt to murder the Pandavas in the Barnava lac guest house, publicly attempting to disrobe and disgracing Draupadi. Krishna further exhorted in his famous Bhagavad Gita, "Arjuna, do not engage in philosophical analyses at this point of time like a Pundit. You are aware that Duryodhana and Karna particularly have long harboured jealousy and hatred for you Pandavas and badly want to prove their hegemony. You are aware that Bhishmacharya and your Teachers are tied down to their dharma of protecting the unitarian power of the Kuru throne. Moreover, you Arjuna, are only a mortal appointee to carry out my divine will, since the Kauravas are destined to die either way, due to their heap of sins. Open your eyes O Bhaarata and know that I encompass the Karta, Karma and Kriya, all in myself. There is no scope for contemplation now or remorse later, it is indeed time for war and the world will remember your might and immense powers for time to come. So rise O Arjuna!, tighten up your Gandiva and let all directions shiver till their farthest horizons, by the reverberation of its string."
Krishna in Balinese Wayang form
Festival in honour of Chrishna (October 1853, X, p.114)
Krishna had a profound effect on the Mahabharata war and its consequences. He had considered the Kurukshetra war to be a last resort after voluntarily acting as a messenger in order to establish peace between the Pandavas and Kauravas. But, once these peace negotiations failed and was embarked into the war, then he became a clever strategist. During the war, upon becoming angry with Arjuna for not fighting in true spirit against his ancestors, Krishna once picked up a carriage wheel in order to use it as a weapon to challenge Bhishma. Upon seeing this, Bhishma dropped his weapons and asked Krishna to kill him. However, Arjuna apologized to Krishna, promising that he would fight with full dedication here/after, and the battle continued. Krishna had directed Yudhishthira and Arjuna to return to Bhishma the boon of "victory" which he had given to Yudhishthira before the war commenced, since he himself was standing in their way to victory. Bhishma understood the message and told them the means through which he would drop his weapons—which was if a woman entered the battlefield. Next day, upon Krishna’s directions, Shikhandi (Amba reborn) accompanied Arjuna to the battlefield and thus, Bhishma laid down his arms. This was a decisive moment in the war because Bhishma was the chief commander of the Kaurava army and the most formidable warrior on the battlefield. Krishna aided Arjuna in killing Jayadratha, who had held the other four Pandava brothers at bay while Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu entered Drona’s Chakravyuha formation—an effort in which he was killed by the simultaneous attack of eight Kaurava warriors. Krishna also caused the downfall of Drona, when he signalled Bhima to kill an elephant called Ashwatthama, the namesake of Drona’s son. Pandavas started shouting that Ashwatthama was dead but Drona refused to believe them saying he would believe it only if he heard it from Yudhishthira. Krishna knew that Yudhishthira would never tell a lie, so he devised a clever ploy so that Yudhishthira wouldn’t lie and at the same time Drona would be convinced of his son’s death. On asked by Drona, Yudhishthira proclaimed
Ashwathama Hatahath, naro va Kunjaro va
i.e. Ashwathama had died but he was nor sure whether it was a Drona’s son or an elephant. But as soon as Yudhishthira had uttered the first line, Pandava army on Krishna’s direction broke into celebration with drums and conchs, in the din of which Drona could not hear the second part of the Yudhishthira’s declaration and assumed that his son indeed was dead. Overcome with grief he laid down his arms, and on Krishna’s instruction Dhrishtadyumna beheaded Drona.
When Arjuna was fighting Karna, the latter’s chariot’s wheels sank into the ground. While Karna was trying to take out the chariot from the grip of the Earth, Krishna reminded Arjuna how Karna and the other Kauravas had broken all rules of battle while simultaneously attacking and killing Abhimanyu, and he convinced Arjuna to do the same in revenge in order to kill Karna. During the final stage of the war, when Duryodhana was going to meet his mother Gandhari for taking her blessings which would convert all parts of his body on which her sight falls to diamond, Krishna tricks him to wearing banana leaves to hide his groin. When Duryodhana meets Gandhari, her vision and blessings fall on his entire body except his groin and thighs, and she becomes unhappy about it because she was not able to convert his entire body to diamond. When Duryodhana was in a mace-fight with Bhima, Bhima’s blows had no effect on Duryodhana. Upon this, Krishna reminded Bhima of his vow to kill Duryodhana by hitting him on the thigh, and Bhima did the same to win the war despite it being against the rules of mace-fight (since Duryodhana had himself broken Dharma in all his past acts). Thus, Krishna’s unparalleled strategy helped the Pandavas win the Mahabharata war by bringing the downfall of all the chief Kaurava warriors, without lifting any weapon. He also brought back to life Arjuna’s grandson Parikshit, who had been attacked by a Brahmastra weapon from Ashwatthama while he was in his mother’s womb. Parikshit became the Pandavas’ successor.
Krishna and ladies in a garden: 18th century Indian painting
Main articles: Ashtabharya and Junior wives of Krishna
Krishna had eight principal wives, also known as Ashtabharya: Rukmini, Satyabhama, Jambavati, Nagnajiti, Kalindi, Mitravinda, Bhadra and Lakshmana. Besides them Krishna married 16,100 more women (number varies in scriptures), whom he had rescued from Narakasura’s palace after killing Narakasura. He married them all to save them from destruction and notoriety. He gave them shelter in his new palace and a respectful place in society.
The Bhagavata Purana, Vishnu Purana, and Harivamsa list the children of Krishna from the Ashtabharya with some variation, while Rohini’s sons are interpreted to represent the unnumbered children of his junior wives. Most well-known among his sons are Pradyumna, the eldest son of Krishna (and Rukmini). Pradyumna is one in 24 Keshava Namas (names), praised in all pujas. and Samba, the son of Jambavati, whose actions led to the destruction of Krishna’s clan.
Main article: Mausala Parva
An hunter named Jara aiming an arrow to sleeping Krishna
According to Mahabharata, the Kurukshetra war resulted in 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 cursed that Krishna, along with everyone else from the Yadu dynasty, would perish after 36 years. Krishna himself knew and wanted this to happen as he felt that the Yadavas had become very haughty and arrogant (adharmi), so he ended Gandhari’s speech by saying "tathastu" (so be it). According to Srimad Bhagavatham, Rishi Vyas cursed yadavas (due to a tactful play by Yadavas with Rishi Vyas) saying, your entire community will die.
Thirty-six years later, a fight broke out between the Yadavas at a festival, who killed each other. Krishna’s elder brother, Balarama, then gave up his body using Yoga. Krishna retired into the forest and started meditating under a tree. The Mahabharata also narrates the story of a hunter who becomes an instrument for Krishna’s departure from the world. The hunter Jara, mistook Krishna’s partly visible left foot for that of a deer, and shot an arrow, wounding him mortally. Krishna told Jara, "O Jara, you were Bali in your previous birth, killed by myself as Rama in Tretayuga. Here you had a chance to even it and since all acts in this world are done as desired by me, you need not worry for this". Then Krishna, with his physical body ascended back to his eternal abode, Goloka vrindavan and this event marks departure of Krishna from the earth. The news was conveyed to Hastinapur and Dwaraka by eyewitnesses to this event. The place of this incident is believed to be Bhalka, near Somnath temple.
According to Puranic sources, Krishna’s departure marks the end of Dvapara Yuga and the start of Kali Yuga, which is dated to 17/18 February 3102 BCE. Vaishnava teachers such as Ramanujacharya and Gaudiya Vaishnavas held the view that the body of Krishna is completely spiritual and never decays (Achyuta) as this appears to be the perspective of the Bhagavata Purana. Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (an incarnation of Lord Sri Krishna according to the Bhavishya Purana) exhorted, "Krishna Naama Sankirtan" i.e. the constant chanting of the Krishna’s name is the supreme healer in Kali Yuga. It destroys sins and purifies the hearts through Bhakti and ensures universal peace.
Krishna never appears to grow old or age at all in the historical depictions of the Puranas despite passing of several decades, but there are grounds for a debate whether this indicates that he has no material body, since battles and other descriptions of the Mahabhārata epic show clear indications that he seems to be subject to the limitations of nature. While battles apparently seem to indicate limitations, Mahabharata also shows in many places where Krishna is not subject to any limitations through episodes Duryodhana trying to arrest Krishna where his body burst into fire showing all creation within him. Krishna is also explicitly described as without deterioration elsewhere.
Main article: Vaishnavism
Rasa Lila in Manipuri dance style.
The worship of Krishna is part of Vaishnavism, which regards Vishnu as the supreme God and venerates his associated avatars, their consorts, and related saints and teachers. Krishna is especially looked upon as a full manifestation of Vishnu, and as one with Vishnu himself. However the exact relationship between Krishna and Vishnu is complex and diverse, where Krishna is sometimes considered an independent deity, supreme in his own right. Out of many deities, Krishna is particularly important, and traditions of Vaishnava lines are generally centered either on Vishnu or on Krishna, as supreme. The term Krishnaism has been used to describe the sects of Krishna, reserving the term "Vaishnavism" for sects focusing on Vishnu in which Krishna is an avatar, rather than as a transcendent Supreme Being.
All Vaishnava traditions recognise Krishna as an avatar of Vishnu; others identify Krishna with Vishnu; while traditions, such as Gaudiya Vaishnavism, Vallabha Sampradaya and the Nimbarka Sampradaya, regard Krishna as the Svayam Bhagavan, original form of God. 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 late Vedic period. Today the faith has a significant following outside of India as well.
An image of Bala Krishna displayed during Janmashtami celebrations at a Swaminarayan Temple in London
The deity Krishna-Vasudeva (kṛṣṇa vāsudeva "Krishna, the son of Vasudeva") is historically one of the earliest forms of worship in Krishnaism and Vaishnavism. It is believed to be a significant tradition of the early history of the worship of Krishna in antiquity. This tradition is considered as earliest to other traditions that led to amalgamation at a later stage of the historical development. Other traditions are Bhagavatism and the cult of Gopala, that along with the cult of Bala Krishna form the basis of current tradition of monotheistic religion of Krishna. Some early scholars would equate it with Bhagavatism, and the founder of this religious tradition is believed to be Krishna, who is the son of Vasudeva, thus his name is Vāsudeva; he is said to be historically part of the Satvata tribe, and according to them his followers called themselves Bhagavatas and this religion had formed by the 2nd century BC (the time of Patanjali), or as early as the 4th century BC according to evidence in Megasthenes and in the Arthasastra of Kautilya, when Vāsudeva was worshiped as supreme deity in a strongly monotheistic format, where the supreme being was perfect, eternal and full of grace. In many sources outside of the cult, the devotee or bhakta is defined as Vāsudevaka. The Harivamsa describes intricate relationships between Krishna Vasudeva, Sankarsana, Pradyumna and Aniruddha that would later form a Vaishnava concept of primary quadrupled expansion, or avatar."
Main article: Bhakti yoga
Bhakti, meaning devotion, is not confined to any one deity. However Krishna is an important and popular focus of the devotional and ecstatic aspects of Hindu religion, particularly among the Vaishnava sects. Devotees of Krishna subscribe to the concept of lila, meaning ‘divine play’, as the central principle of the Universe. The lilas of Krishna, with their expressions of personal love that transcend the boundaries of formal reverence, serve as a counterpoint to the actions of another avatar of Vishnu: Rama, "He of the straight and narrow path of maryada, or rules and regulations."
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. 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.  Kulasekaraazhvaar’s Mukundamala was another notable work of this early stage.
Spread of the Krishna-bhakti movement
The movement, which started in the 6th-7th century A.D. in the Tamil-speaking region of South India, with twelve Alvar (one immersed in God) saint-poets, who wrote devotional songs. The religion of Alvar poets, which included a woman poet, Andal, was devotion to God through love (bhakti), and in the ecstasy of such devotions they sang hundreds of songs which embodied both depth of feeling and felicity of expressions. The movement originated in South India during the seventh-century CE, spreading northwards from Tamil Nadu through Karnataka and Maharashtra; by the fifteenth century, it was established in Bengal and northern India
Gita Govinda by Jayadeva.
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 devotee-poets, who composed in the regional languages of India. These songs expressing intense personal devotion were written by devotees from all walks of life. The songs of Meera and Surdas became epitomes of Krishna-devotion in north India.
Krishna (left) with the flute with gopi-consort Radha, Bhaktivedanta Manor, Watford, England
These devotee-poets, like the Alvars before them, were aligned to specific theological schools only loosely, if at all. But by the 11th century AD, Vaishnava Bhakti schools with elaborate theological frameworks around the worship of Krishna were established in north India. Nimbarka (11th century AD), Vallabhacharya (15th century AD) and (Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu an incarnation of Lord Sri Krishna according to the Bhavishya Purana) (16th century AD) all inspired by the teachings of Madhvacharya (11th century AD) were the founders of the most influential schools. These schools, namely Nimbarka Sampradaya, Vallabha Sampradaya and Gaudiya Vaishnavism respectively, see 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, a local form of Krishna, from the beginning of the 13th century until the late 18th century. 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.
In the West
In 1965, the Krishna-bhakti movement had spread outside India when its founder, Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, (who was 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 an effort to gain attention, followers chanted the names of God in public locations. This chanting was known as hari-nama sankirtana and helped spread the teaching. Additionally, the practice of distributing prasad or "sanctified food" worked as a catalyst in the dissemination of his works. In the Hare Krishna movement, Prasad was a vegetarian dish that would be first offered to Krishna. The food’s proximity to Krishna added a "spiritual effect," and was seen to "counteract material contamination affecting the soul." Sharing this sanctified food with the public, in turn, enabled the movement to gain new recruits and further spread these teachings.
In South India
In South India, Vaishnavas usually belong to the Sri Sampradaya. The acharyas of the Sri Sampradaya have written reverentially about Krishna in most of their works like the Thiruppavai by Andal and Gopala Vimshati by Vedanta Desika. In South India, devotion to Krishna, as an avatar of Vishnu, spread in the face of opposition to Buddhism, Shaktism, and Shaivism and ritualistic Vedic sacrifices. The acharyas of the Sri Sampradaya like Manavala Mamunigal, Vedanta Desika strongly advocated surrender to Vishnu as the aim of the Vedas. Out of 108 Divya Desams there are 97 Divya Desams in South India.
Due to strong vaishnava influence in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, these states have many major Krishna temples and Janmashtami is one of the widely celebrated festivals in South India.
In the performing arts
A Kerala Kathakali performer as Krishna
While discussing the origin of Indian theatre, Horwitz talks about the mention of the Krishna story in Patanjali’s Mahabhashya (c. 150 BC), where the episodes of slaying of Kamsa (Kamsa Vadha) and "Binding of the heaven storming titan" (Bali Bandha) are described. Bhasa’s Balacharitam and Dutavakyam (c. 400 BC) are the only Sanskrit plays centered on Krishna written by a major classical dramatist. The former dwells only on his childhood exploits and the latter is a one-act play based on a single episode from the Mahābhārata when Krishna tries to make peace between the warring cousins.
From the 10th century AD, with the growing bhakti movement, Krishna became a favorite subject of the arts. The songs of the Gita Govinda became popular 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 Indian dances, especially Odissi and Manipuri, draw heavily on the story. The ‘Rasa lila’ dances performed in Vrindavan shares elements with Kathak, and the Krisnattam, with some cycles, such as Krishnattam, traditionally restricted to the Guruvayur temple, the precursor of Kathakali.
The Sattriya dance, founded by the Assamese Vaishnava saint Sankardeva, extols the virtues of Krishna. Medieval Maharashtra gave birth to a form of storytelling known as the Hari-Katha, that told Vaishnava tales and teachings through music, dance, and narrative sequences, and the story of Krishna one of them. This tradition spread to Tamil Nadu and other southern states, and is now popular in many places throughout India.
Narayana Tirtha’s (17th century AD) Krishna-Lila-Tarangini provided material for the musical plays of the Bhagavata-Mela by telling the tale of Krishna from birth until his marriage to Rukmini. Tyagaraja (18th century AD) wrote a similar piece about Krishna called Nauka-Charitam. The narratives of Krishna from the Puranas are performed in Yakshagana, a performance style native to Karnataka’s coastal districts. Many movies in all Indian languages have been made based on these stories. These are of varying quality and usually add various songs, melodrama, and special effects.
In other religions
Further information: Śalākāpuruṣa
The most exalted figures in Jainism are the twenty-four Tirthankaras. Krishna, when he was incorporated into the Jain list of heroic figures, presented a problem with his activities which are not pacifist. The concept of Baladeva, Vasudeva and Prati-Vasudeva was used to solve it.[neutrality is disputed] The Jain list of sixty-three Śalākāpuruṣa or notable figures includes, amongst others, the twenty-four Tirthankaras and nine sets of this triad. One of these triads is Krishna as the Vasudeva, Balarama as the Baladeva and Jarasandha as the Prati-Vasudeva. He was a cousin of the twenty-second Tirthankara, Neminatha. The stories of these triads can be found in the Harivamsa of Jinasena (not be confused with its namesake, the addendum to Mahābhārata) 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.
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, in the Vaibhav Jataka as a prince and legendary conqueror and king of India. In the Buddhist version, Krishna is called Vasudeva, Kanha and Keshava, and Balarama is his older brother, Baladeva. These details resemble that of the story given in the Bhagavata Purana. Vasudeva, along with his nine other brothers (each son a powerful wrestler) and one elder sister (Anjana) capture all of Jambudvipa (many consider this to be India) after beheading their evil uncle, King Kamsa, and later all other kings of Jambudvipa with his Sudarshana Chakra. Much of the story involving the defeat of Kamsa follows the story given in the Bhagavata Purana.
As depicted in the Mahābhārata, all of the sons are eventually killed due to a curse of sage Kanhadipayana (Veda Vyasa, also known as Krishna Dwaipayana). Krishna himself is eventually speared by a hunter in the foot by mistake, leaving the sole survivor of their family being their sister, Anjanadevi of whom no further mention is made.
Since Jataka tales are given from the perspective of Buddha’s previous lives (as well as the previous lives of many of Buddha’s followers), Krishna appears as the "Dhammasenapati" or "Chief General of the Dharma" and is usually shown being Buddha’s "right-hand man" in Buddhist art and iconography. The Bodhisattva, is born in this tale as one of his youngest brothers named Ghatapandita, and saves Krishna from the grief of losing his son. The ‘divine boy’ Krishna as an embodiment of wisdom and endearing prankster forms a part of the pantheon of gods in Japanese Buddhism .
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.
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Members of the Ahmadiyya Community believe Krishna to be a great prophet of God as described by their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. This belief is maintained by the Qur’anic principle that God has sent prophets and messengers to every nation of the world leaving no region without divine guidance (see for instance Quran 10:47 and Quran 16:36).
Ghulam Ahmad also claimed to be the likeness of Krishna as a latter day reviver of religion and morality whose mission was to reconcile man with God. Ahmadis maintain that the Sanskrit term Avatar is synonymous with the term ‘prophet’ of the Middle Eastern religious tradition as God’s intervention with man; as God appoints a man as his vicegerent upon earth. In Lecture Sialkot, Ghulam Ahmed wrote:
Let it be clear that Raja Krishna, according to what has been revealed to me, was such a truly great man that it is hard to find his like among the Rishis and Avatars of the Hindus. He was an Avatar—i.e., Prophet—of his time upon whom the Holy Spirit would descend from God. He was from God, victorious and prosperous. He cleansed the land of the Aryas from sin and was in fact the Prophet of his age whose teaching was later corrupted in numerous ways. He was full of love for God, a friend of virtue and an enemy of evil.
Krishna is also called Murli Dhar. The flute of Krishna means the flute of revelation and not the physical flute. According to Ahmadis, Krishna lived like humans and was a prophet.
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. 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.
Krishna was canonized by Aleister Crowley and is recognized as a saint in the Gnostic Mass of Ordo Templi Orientis.[14
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