20120501-Krishna Radhakrishna.jpg
Krishna and Radha
Another widely known incarnation of Vishnu is Krishna. Krishna, the God of Mercy and Childhood, is a popular avatar of Vishnu. Associated with love and mischief, he is a cowherd and a divine charioteer who sometimes takes on the role of protecting the world from the forces of “adharma” . He is often depicted with blue skin, playing a flute. “ Krishna” means "Dark" or "Black" He is believed to have evolved from a god of an aboriginal tribe and may have been connected an ancient erotic herb.

Krishna is quite different from other religious figures such as Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha. He likes to cavort with milkmaids in the forest, eat clay, steal butter and play pranks. As a child, he slew ogresses and seduced cowherd wives and as an adult he made love to dozens of women at one time “amidst the merry tinkling of bracelets, armlets and anklets.” His consort is Rukmini. He pursued his great love, the married mortal beauty Radha, with the help of a “sakhi” , or go between.

Vinay Lal, professor of history at UCLA, writes: “Though one can speak of many Krishnas in the Indian context, it is most productive to think of Krishna as falling either within the ‘historical’ or ‘mythical’ traditions of Indian thought; within, in turn, each of these traditions, one can speak of multiple traditions. The historical Krishna is the Krishna who is encountered in the Mahabharata, and his stock rose considerably in the nineteenth century with the advent of the Indian nationalist movement. [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA ==]

Krishna is loved “as the "butter thief", the simultaneous lover of 16,000 gopis or nubile young women, the man-about-town who frolics on the village green, the toddler who eats mud but is recognized by his mother as the Supreme Being, and the initiator of the rasa lila, or cosmic dance — are recounted, celebrated, and interpreted with evident delight. It is this Krishna who has ever predominated in the Indian tradition, to whom paeans were sung by the bhakta or devotional poets, over whom the great Mirabai went mad, and who furnished Indian artists and musicians with the material from which they drew their sustenance.” ==

Krishna is fond of adulation. He once said: "Fix Thy Mind on Me; be devoted to Me; sacrifice unto Me; bow down to Me.” He is worshiped by many in many ways. At festivals priests shape cow dung into images of the god. At school, children are entertained with stories about his adventures. On Sunday morning, television programs depict episodes from his story. Hindu devotees claim that Krishna’s sensual "pastimes" are manifestations of "love of the individual soul for God" not desire.

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: Hinduism Today ; India Divine ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ; Hindu Website ; Hindu Gallery ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press

Krishna, Vishnu, Rama and the Bhagavad Gita

Krishna and Arjuna on the chariot Mahabharata

Krishna is perceived by most Hindus to be an avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu, who is regarded as the highest avatar. It is believed that all other deities are manifestations of him. Krishna is considered to be a warrior, hero, teacher and philosopher by Hindus. [Source: BBC]

Vinay Lal, professor of history at UCLA, writes: “ The god Vishnu is most commonly worshipped in his aspect as Rama and Krishna, two of his ten incarnations; indeed, it is no exaggeration to suggest that Rama and Krishna have, in a manner of speaking, superseded Vishnu himself. Where Rama is usually and preeminently associated with the Ramayana, Krishna has a rather more complex place in Indian narrative traditions.” [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA ==]

Vishnu “appears, of course, in the Mahabharata, as the wise, some might say cunning, counselor of the Pandavas, whose timely and much-debated interventions in the great war lead the Pandavas to victory; even more memorably, perhaps, he appears as the charioteer of the Pandava prince Arjuna, passing down those teachings that got enshrined in the part of the Mahabharata that came to be known as the Bhagavad Gita. However, for a great many Hindus, the preeminent text of Krishna worship is the Bhagavata Purana, and most particularly its Tenth Book, which recounts the childhood exploits of Krishna, his adolescence, and his life in Vrindavan and the Braj area amidst the villagers, gopis [cowherdesses], and his beloved, Radha. ==

History of Krishna Worship

Vinay Lal, professor of history at UCLA, writes: Among Indian deities, perhaps none is as widely worshipped, admired, and adored as Krishna [also Krsna]. The worship of Krishna takes many forms, and he is encountered in numerous distinct regional traditions. To understand the resonance that the historical Krishna began to have for educated, middle-class Indians, one can do no better than to turn to the writings of Bankimchandra Chatterji, the famous Bengali novelist and essayist who also penned the Krsnacaritra, or "The Life of Krishna".“Bankim asked himself the question that all educated Indians at this time were pondering over, namely how is it that India had, for innumerable centuries, been ‘enslaved’ by ‘foreigners’. According to Bankim, the excessive devotionalism of the Hindus had ill-prepared them to meet foreign invasions, or even take an interest in material life; the Hindus, he argued, had little or no appetite for governance, and for centuries they had neglected their social and political institutions, preferring instead to be regaled by stories of a god, Krishna, who appeared as a naughty boy, lover, cowherd, trickster, playful youngster, and even adulterer in Indian literature and art. In the Bhagavata Purana, and countless number of other Indian texts of medieval devotionalism and ‘secular’ literature alike, the exploits of Krishna. [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA ==]


“Bankim traced this devotionalism in Bengal to the piety of Sri Caitanya and other Vaishnavas, who had made a cult of Krishna worship, and it was a matter of acute embarrassment to him that as a candidate for a Hindu deity, Hindus could do no better than put forth a god who would have been considered intolerable in the Semitic religions. Hinduism had no place in the modern world, Bankim appeared to suggest, as it was a largely unregulated, polycentric, and ahistorical religion; it had no conception of a single book, or a single prophet, and its deities, such as Krishna, were scarcely the kind of models that Muhammad and Jesus were for Islam and Christianity, respectively. What kind of religion was it that humored its devotees by presenting them with a deity whose amusements consisted in stealing women’s clothes while they bathed in the river, dallying with women under the moonlight, or exchanging roles with his beloved, Radha? ==

“Yet Bankim was certain that, had Indians not been indifferent to their own history, they would have been aware of the other, historical Krishna who had once reigned supreme in the Indian tradition. This Krishna counseled Arjuna to fight and fulfill his duties as a warrior; this Krishna, though not taking up arms himself, led the Pandavas to victory, and so paved the way for the rejuvenation of Bharat [India]. Bankim, and other Indian nationalists of his ilk, thus took it as their mandate to resuscitate the historical Krishna, turn Krishna into a historical figure in the manner of Christ and Muhammad, and transform Hinduism into a world historical religion. Bankim’s near contemporary, the Maharashtrian political leader Bal Gangadar Tilak, similarly argued for a reading of the Gita that stressed not merely the contemporaneity of the text, but which evoked the image of a Krishna who could inspire nationalists to the fulfillment of their task of evicting the British from India.==

“Yes, as I have already suggested, the Krishna whose life and exploits fills the many pages of Indian literature is much less the Krishna of the Gita and the Mahabharata than the Krishna of the Bhagavatam, Mirabai, and Surdas, and the musicians and artists — exemplified by the master miniature painters — of India have drawn largely upon the playful lover and God for their inspiration. Krishna has, outside the realm of his devotees, most commonly been considered from the standpoint of religion and art history, the two academic disciplines which have been most concerned with representations of Krishna in Indian tradition, but he can also be viewed from the standpoint of history, politics, and cultural and social anthropology. The study of Krishna raises complex questions: how might one, for example, write the biography of an Indian deity? Some scholarly studies have attempted to view Krishna in relation to other Indian deities, as well as in relation to the prophets and saviors of other religions; others have attempted to draw a portrait of the historical and spiritual landscapes that inform Krishna’s biography: these include the towns of Vrindavan, Mathura, and other neighboring areas in the region of Braj, other pilgrimage towns associated with Krishna worship, such as Nathdwara, Dwarka, Puri, and Kurukshetra, and the eternal lands where Krishna partook of the rasa lila. Recent anthropological perspectives have focussed not only on divergent traditions of Krishna worship in India, but also on modern forms of Krishna devotionalism, such as those which are embodied in the Hare Krsna movement.” ==

Krishna’s Stories

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Krishna and the gopis
Krishna is one of the central figures of the “Bhagavad Gita” and “Mahabharata” (See “Bhagavad Gita” and “Mahabharata” ). A number of additional legends and stories have developed about him over the centuries, with the most popular ones often revolving around the cute but naughty pranks he performed as a child and the way he entranced women with his flute playing. Some of his activities have been the subject of erotic verses and painting. According to Hindu lore Lord Krishna was born and raised in Vrindavan and Mathurare thousands of years ago. At a young age he was taken to the forest to live with cow herders so he could escape the evil plans that his evil uncle had for him. While he was in the forest his powers and appetite for women emerged. He was especially loved by the local women and “gropis” (cow maidens). He is often depicted surrounded by gropis. His favorite gropi was Radha.

Krishna ruled a kingdom on earth until he was mistaken for a deer and killed by a hunter who shot Krishna with an arrow in the heal, his one vulnerable spot. Krishna’s divine attributes were evident from an early age. Once was when Krishna’s foster mother punished him for his pranks she looked into his mouth and saw the universe.

In the Mahabharata (Great Battle of the Descendants of Bharata), the gigantic, multivolume epic of ancient North Indian kingdoms, Krishna appears as the ruler of one of the many states allied either with the heroic Pandava brothers or with their treacherous cousins, the Kauravas. Bharata was an ancient king whose achievements are celebrated in the Mahabharata and from whose name derives one of the names for modern India, that is Bharat. During the final battle, Krishna serves as charioteer for the hero Arjuna, and before the fighting starts he bolsters Arjuna's faltering will to fight against his kin. Krishna reveals himself as Vishnu, the supreme godhead, who has set up the entire conflict to cleanse the earth of evildoers according to his inscrutable will. This section of the epic, the Bhagavad Gita , or Song of the Lord, is one of the great jewels of world religious literature and of central importance in modern Hinduism. One of its main themes is karma-yoga , or selfless discipline in offering all of one's allotted tasks in life as a devotion to God and without attachment to consequences. The true reality is the soul that neither slays nor is slain and that can rejoin God through selfless dedication and through Krishna's saving grace. *

Krishna and the Gopis

A completely different cycle of stories portrays Krishna as a young cowherd, growing up in the country after he was saved from an evil uncle who coveted his kingdom. In this incarnation, Krishna often appears as a happy, roly-poly infant, well known for his pranks and thefts of butter. Although his enemies send evil agents to destroy him, the baby miraculously survives their attacks and kills his demonic assailants. Later, as he grows into an adolescent, he continues to perform miracles such as saving the cowherds and their flocks from a dangerous storm by holding up a mountain over their heads until the weather clears. His most striking exploits, however, are his affairs as a young adult with the gopis (cowherding maidens), all of whom are in love with him because of his good looks and talent with the flute. *

These explicitly sexual activities, including stealing the clothes of the maidens while they are bathing, are the basis for a wide range of poetry and songs to Krishna as a lover; the devotee of the god takes on a female role and directs toward the beloved lord the heartfelt longing for union with the divine. Krishna's relationship with Radha, his favorite among the gopis , has served as a model for male and female love in a variety of art forms, and since the sixteenth century appears prominently as a motif in North Indian paintings. Unlike many other deities, who are depicted as very fair in color, Krishna appears in all these adventures as a dark lord, either black or blue in color. In this sense, he is a figure who constantly overturns accepted conventions of order, hierarchy, and propriety, and introduces a playful and mischievous aspect of a god who hides from his worshipers but saves them in the end. The festival of Holi at the spring equinox, in which people of all backgrounds play in the streets and squirt each other with colored water, is associated with Krishna. *

Krishna and Gopis

Krishna’s Diwali Story

Legends associated with Diwali — India’s Festival of Lights — vary in different parts of India. One tradition links this festival to Lord Krishna’s defeat of the demon king Narakasur (Naraka, Narkasura), who was ruler of Pragjyotishpur, a province to the South of Nepal. Krishna was the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Narakasur was the dirt-covered demon of filth who enjoyed snatching away beautiful women and forcing them to live with him. Narakasur imprisoned 16,000 daughters of Gods and saints in his harem.

After defeating Lord Indra in a war, Narakasur stole the magnificent earrings of the Mother Goddess Aditi, who was the ruler of Suraloka and a relative of Lord Krishna's wife — Satyabhama. Hearing the cries of the imprisoned women, Vishnu decided to do something and took the form of Krishna. Krishna’s first challenge was destroying the five-headed monster that guarded the demon’s home. With the support of Lord Krishna, Satyabhama defeated Narakasur, released all the women and restored the magnificent earrings of Mother Goddess Aditi.

This story is another fable on how good can win out over evil. The inner meaning of the destruction of Narakasura is that man, within his body, shuns the Atma-jyoti (spiritual light) within him. The demon’s demise represents victory of over the six enemies of man — desire, anger, greed, attachment, lust and jealousy. The light lamps both dispel darkness and commemorate Krishna’s victory over it. Each person has to fight and destroy the demonic forces within him or her through “sathya (truth) and “sathyameva jayate” (truth alone triumphs).“Speak the truth” is a Vedic injunction, which is the national motto of India.

Krishna's Dilemma

In the famous passage below Krishna comes to the aid of Arjuna as he debates the moral contradiction involved in killing, not merely human beings, but his relatives, in order to achieve a worthy end. In the end Arjuna realizes that in some instances the end justifies the means. Soem questions to think about as you read it: 1) What is the difference between action and inaction? 2) How does action delude the mind? 3) How does Krishna's dilemma fit in with the concept of dharma? 4) Does the way one goes about getting something good allow you to do anything to get it?

Arjuna chooses Krishna

The Bhagavadgita reads: “The Blessed Lord said: Just as the unwise act, being attached to their action, even so should the wise act, O Bharata, but without attachment, and only with a view to promoting the solidarity of society. One should not create any conflict in the minds of the ignorant who are attached to action. On the contrary the wise man, himself acting in accordance with the technique of the yoga of action, should induce them willingly to undertake all [prescribed] actions. [Source: Stephan Hay ed., “Sources of Indian Tradition” (Columbia UP, 1988). 281-282, Internet Archive, from CCNY]

“Actions of every kind are actually done by the dispositions of matter and, still, a person whose mind is deluded by the ego thinks: "I am the doer [of those actions]." But he, O Mighty-Armed One, who knows the truth of the distinctness of the soul from the dispositions of matter and from the actions [resulting therefrom], does not become attached [the results of actions], realizing that the dispositions operate upon the dispositions.

“Those who are deluded by the dispositions of matter become attached to the disposition and the actions [resulting from them]. One who knows the whole truth should not make such dullards, who do not know the who truth, falter [by himself renouncing all action]. Renouncing into Me all actions, with your mind fixed on the Self, and becoming free from desire and all sense of 'my-ness, " do you fight, freed from your spiritual fever. What is action? What is inaction?-as to this even the wise sages are confounded. I will expound action to you, knowing which you will be liberated from evil.

One has to realize what is action, similarly, one has to realize what is wrong action; and one has also to realize what is inaction. Inscrutable, indeed, is the way of action. He who sees inaction in action and action in inaction, he is discerning among men, expert in the technique of karmayoga, the doer of the entire action [enjoined by his dharmal. He whose undertakings are all devoid of motivating desires and purposes and whose actions are consumed by the fire of knowledge - him the wise call a man of learning. Renouncing all attachment to the fruits of actions, ever content, independent-such a person even if engaged in action does not do anything whatever.

“Action alone is your concern, never at all its fruits. Let not the fruits of action be your motive, nor let yourself be attached to inaction. Steadfast in Yoga, engage yourself in actions, Dhananjaya abandoning attachment and becoming evenminded in success and failure. Such evenmindedness is called yoga. Far inferior is mere action to action done according to the technique of karmayoga. O Dhananjaya. Seek refuge in the [right] mental attitude. Wretched are those who are motivated by the fruits of action. One who acts according to the technique of karmayoga casts off, in this world, the consequences of both his good acts and his bad acts. Therefore take to this yoga. Yoga is skill in actions.”

Krishna offering support to the Pandavas

Krishna's Ephipany

“Krishna's Epiphany” in the Bhagavad-Gita, XI reads:
3. Thus it is, as Thou declarest
Thyself, 0 Supreme Lord.
I desire to see Thy form.
As God, 0 Supreme Spirit!
4. If Thou thinkest that it can
Be seen by me, 0 Lord,
Prince of mystic power, then do Thou to me
Reveal Thine immortal Self.

The Blessed One said:
5. Behold My forms, son of Prtha,
By hundreds and by thousands,
Of various sorts, marvelous,
Of various colours and shapes. . . .
8) But thou canst not see Me
With this same eye of thine own;
I give thee a supernatural eye:
Behold My mystic power as God!

Samjaya said:
9) Thus speaking then, 0 king,
Hari (Visnu), the great Lord of Mystic Power,
Showed unto the son of Prtha
His supernal form as God: . . .
12. Of a thousand suns in the sky
If suddenly should burst forth
The light, it would be like
Unto the light of that exalted one. . . .
14. Then filled with amazement,
His hair standing upright, Dhanamjaya
Bowed with his head to the God,
And said with a gesture of reverence:

Arjuna said:
15. 1 see the gods in Thy body, 0 God,
All of them, and the hosts of various kinds of beings too,
Lord Brahma sitting on the lotus-seat,
And the seers all, and the divine serpents.
16) With many arms, bellies, mouths, and eyes,
I see Thee, inftnite in form on all sides;
No end nor middle nor yet beginning of Thee
Do I see, 0 All-God, All-formed l

Krishna and the Pandava Princes battle demons

17) With diadem, club, and disc,
A mass of radiance, glowing on all sides,
I see Thee, hard to look at, on every side
With the glory of flaming fire and sun, immeasurable.
18) Thou art the Imperishable, the supreme Object of Knowledge
Thou art the ultimate resting-place of this universe;
Thou are the immortal guardian of the eternal right.
Thou art the everlasting Spirit, I hold.

19) Without beginning, middle, or end, of inftnite power,
Of infinite arms, whose eyes are the moon and sun,
I see Thee, whose face is flaming fire,
Burning this whole universe with thy radiance.
20) For this region between heaven and earth
Is pervaded by Thee alone, and all the directions;
Seeing this Thy wondrous, terrible form,
The triple world trembles, 0 exalted one!

  1. For into Thee are entering yonder throngs of gods;
    Some, afffighted, praise Thee with reverent gestures;
    Crying 'Hail!' the throngs of the great seers and perfected ones
    Praise Thee with abundant laudations. . . .
    24. Touching the sky, aflame, of many colours,
    With yawning mouths and flaming enormous eyes,
    Verity seeing Thee (so), my inmost soul is shaken,
    And I find no steadiness nor peace, O Visnu!

  2. And Thy mouths, terrible with great tusks,
    No sooner do I see them, like the fire of dissolution (of the world),
    Than I know not the directions of the sky, and I find no refuge.
    Have mercy, Lord of Gods, Thou in whom the world dwells!. . . .
    31. Tell rne, who art Thou, of awful form?
    Homage be to Thee: Best of Gods, be mercifull!
    I desire to understand Thee, the primal one;
    For I do not comprehend what Thou hast set out to do.

Krishna rescues Arjuna

The Blessed One said:
32. 1 am Time (Death), cause of destruction of the worlds, matured
And set out to gather in the worlds here.
Even without thee (thy action), all shall cease to exist,
The warriors that are drawn up in the opposing ranks.
33. Therefore arise thou, win glory,
Conquer thine enemies and enjoy prospered kingship;
By Me Myself they have already been slain long ago;
Be thou the mere instrument, left-handed archer!
34. Drona and Bhisma and Jayadratha,
Karna too, and the other warrior-heroes as well,
Do thou slay, (since) they are already slain by Me; do not hesitate!
Fight! Thou shalt conquer thy rivals in battle. . . .

Arjuna said:
36) It is in place, Hrsikesa, that at Thy praise
The world rejoices and is exceeding glad;
Ogres fly in terror in all directions,
And all the hosts of perfected ones pay homage.
37) And why should they not pay homage to Thee, Exalted One?
Thou art greater even than Brahman; Thou art the First Creator;
infinite Lord of Gods, in whom the world dwells,
Thou the imperishable, existent, non-existent, and beyond both!

38) Thou art the Primal God, the Ancient Spirit,
Thou art the supreme resting-place of this universe;
Thou art the knower, the object of knowledge, and the highest station,
By Thee the universe is pervaded, Thou of infinite form! . . .
42. And if I treated thee disrespectfully to make sport of Thee,
In the course of amusement, resting, sitting, or eating,
Either since, 0 unshaken one, or in the presence of those (others),
For that I beg forgiveness of Thee, the immeasurable one.

  1. Thou art the father of the world of things that move and move not,
    And thou art its revered, most venerable Guru;
    There is no other like Thee, how then a greater?
    Even in the three worlds, 0 Thou of matchless greatness!
    44. Therefore, bowing and prostrating my body,
    I beg grace of Thee, the Lord to be revered:
    As a father to his son, as a friend to his friend,
    As a lover to his beloved, be pleased to show mercy, 0 God!
    45. Having seen what was never seen before, I am thrilled,
    And (at the same time) my heart is shaken with fear;
    Show me, O God, that same form of Thine (as before)!
    Be merciful, Lord of Gods, Abode of the World!

Krishna saga

Translation by Franklin Edgerton, in Edgerton Bhagavad-Gita, Vol I. Harvard Oriental Series, Vol. 38 (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1944, Eliade Page website]


Vrindavan (60 kilometers north of Agra), according to Hindu legend, is where Lord Krishna was born and raised thousands of years ago. This Hindu god and charioteer was nothing like Jesus or Buddha. He liked to cavort with milkmaids in the forest, eat clay, steal butter and play pranks. Hindu devotees claim that Krishnas "pastimes" were manifestations of his "love of the individual soul for God not desire." Sunday morning television programs for children recount episodes from Krishnas life as if is where Mighty Power Morph or a Teenage Ninja Turtle.

Vrindavan is also the home of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, more commonly known as the Hare Krishnas. The movement was founded by Acyuta Dasa Bkaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, a holy man who arrived in the U.S. in 1965 with some scriptures and 40 rupees in his pocket after he was told by his guru to spread the spiritual love of Krishna to the West. The Hare Krishna movement started when he began chanting "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare Rama..." at a Lower East Side park in New York." Later the swami and his disciples returned to Vrindavan where the constructed a grand temple. According to one Hare Krishna from New York: "It has some of the most intricate carving this side of the Taj. It's all marble , all done by hand with hammer and chisel." Among the other impressive temples devoted to Krishna. are Dwarkadish temple (in nearby Mathura) and the Govindo Deo temple (built in 1590). The Jugal Kishore, Radha Vallabh and Madan Mohan temples also date back to the 16th century.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Indian History Sourcebook “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “The Creators” by Daniel Boorstin; “A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples” by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated December 2023

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