Who Is Krishna?

If you know nothing else about Hinduism, you probably have at least heard of Krishna.

His name shows up in religious circles but also in pop culture. He’s one of the most recognizable figures in Hinduism with his blue skin and his flute.

Who is Krishna?

Stories

The life of Krishna is divided up into three distinct parts. There’s the stories of the baby Krishna and his mischievousness and miracles, then there are the stories of the teenage Krishna and his way with the cow herding girls (gopis), and then there is the middle aged Krishna who guides Arjuna on the path to self-realization in the Bhagavad Gita. He is said to have been born in  the summer of 3228 BCE (his birthday, Krishna Janmashtami is celebrated every summer by Hindus) and he died in 3102.

(When I was a kid I had a Krishna comic book that I LOVED. Now I can’t remember which one it was!)

The first story to know is the birth of Krishna.

The evil king Kamsa overthrew his own father for the kingdom of Mathura. Hearing a prophecy that the eighth child of his sister, Devaki, would kill him, he imprisoned his sister and her husband, Vasudeva. Each time they had a child, the evil Kamsa would murder it. Devaki and Vasudeva prayed and at last Lord Vishnu appeared to them and told them that he himself would save them. When the eighth child is born, it is Vishnu in human form. With divine help, Vasudeva transports the child out of the prison, passing through many dangers and even through a sea that parts just for him, and switches the baby boy for a baby girl in the village of Gokula. When Kamsa attempts to kill this infant, she transforms into a goddess and tells him that his days are numbered.

Krishna is raised by Nanda and Yoshoda in Gokula. Many stories are told about how he loved to sneak butter and got the nickname the butter thief (makkhan chor). In one story, Yoshoda sees baby Krishna eating sand and she rushes over to tell him to stop. She pries open his mouth to remove the dirt, but what she sees is the entire universe contained in his throat. In another story Yoshoda gets frustrated with Krishna’s mischief and tries to tie him to a tree, but every rope she tries is somehow not long enough. Krishna is the entire world and cannot be contained.

Kamsa continues to hunt for the eighth child of Devaki, but Krishna defeats any demon sent for him. Eventually he faces his uncle and defeats him, restoring his grandfather to the throne of Mathura.

Next are the stories of teenage Krishna.

As a young man, Krishna delighted all the local girls with his beautiful flute playing. While tending cattle, Krishna and his friends teased their female friends and played tricks on one another. Krishna was known for always being up for play.

Many poems and songs are written about Krishna in this time of his life. One of the gopis in particular was his beloved. Her name was Radha. Poets for centuries have put themselves in Radha’s shoes and imagined themselves as the lovers of Krishna, awaiting his coming to them. This symbolizes the union of God and devotee. In particular, Mirabai is a poetess (For Love of the Dark One: Songs of Mirabai) known for her enormous devotion to Krishna and the stories say that her devotion saved her from the murder attempts her in-laws made against her.

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The Bhagavad Gita.

The Gita is the “song of the Lord” and it is the conversation between Krishna and his friend Arjuna. By this time, Krishna is the king of Mathura and a powerful ally in a brewing war between the Pandavas and their cousins the Kaurava for the known world. From what I understand the system involved an overall king and then more minor kings under them who had smaller kingdoms. Krishna was a close family friend and he was part of the lives of all the cousins as they grew up.

In a lot of the story of the war it is not at all clear if anyone knows that Krishna is God. He lives much more like a regular person (regular king? Does that exist?) than in his earlier life. There aren’t the same miracles going on around him. He isn’t holding up mountains with his pinky finger anymore. Although, there are a few moments where it is clear that people do know. When Arjuna asks him to reveal his true form; when Draupadi calls on him to save her honor at the dice game; when the enemy tries to capture him and cannot contain him; when he gives the blind king sight for a few moments. So his friends know that he is God, yet he is also simply a friend.

So anyway, at one point both sets of cousins are gathering allies and representatives from both the Pandava (the good guys) and the Kauravas (the bad guys) show up at the house of Krishna looking for his support. Because he saw Arjuna first (common mistaken information: Arjuna is not the eldest of the Pandava nor is he in line to be the king. That would be his brother Yudishtira. But Arjuna is better known simply because of his presence in the Gita), Krishna gives him the choice of either Krishna’s own army, armed and loyal or Krishna himself, unarmed and not taking part in the battles at all.

Arjuna makes the right choice. He picks Krishna alone and asks him to steer his chariot during the war (which, actually, driving chariots is a lowly profession, something that has haunted Arjuna’s nemesis, Karna). The Kauravas think Arjuna has made a very stupid choice and are delighted to get Krishna’s army.

But when the two sides are lined up and ready to fight, it is Arjuna who must blow the conch shell to begin the war and looking across to the enemy he sees his uncle, his teachers, his friends, and his family on both sides and he falters. In that moment, Krishna teaches him the divine Truth and helps open his eyes to what he must do. Krishna tells him that it is his duty to fight. This war must be fought. But death is actually only an illusion, so he should not feel upset at having to kill his friends and relatives. At one point Arjuna asks to see Krishna’s true form, his divine form. Krishna eventually gives him and the description of him is awe-inducing and terrifying!

The Gita is not a long text, but it is dense with meaning and deserves its own post (or fifty)!

There is an important moment that is too often forgotten. Before the war begins, Krishna asks Arjuna to make sure that everything possible has been done to prevent the war. He also makes reference to the idea that the real war isn’t in the physical world at all, but within Arjuna’s soul.

Death

The war of The Mahabharata took a big toll on all its participants. It is said to have ushered in the dark age of the Kali Yuga (which we are currently in). Honorable practices were abandoned, rules were broken that had never been broken before. Though Krishna came to the war with the promise that he would not take part, he did manipulate a lot behind the scenes. He had the insight to know how things had to go and so he sometimes used whatever means necessary to get that outcome. (Analyzing Krishna’s actions during the war is another post I’d love to do sometime).

The mother of the Kaurava, Gandhari, felt that Krishna had cheated and in her grief, she cursed him. One of the interesting things about The Mahabharata is that every curse always comes true. When something is spoken, it has to happen. Gandhari says that Krishna will die alone and in rags. He says that he already knows this to be true. After some time Krishna retires to the forest to meditate (this was a standard practice for the end of one’s life and is still given as the part of the proper progression of life). His foot is mistaken for an animal and a hunter shoots and kills him, though Krishna forgives the hunter and tells him that it was fated to happen and it is all right. (Another interesting thing in The Mahabharata is how every action that happens has multiple sources and explanations. Anytime someone does something it is because of not only their present circumstances, but actions from past lives, and other forms of fate).

So Krishna dies alone in the forest.

God

Is Krishna a God in Hinduism? Yes, sort of. He is God in the form of a man, which is what the word avatar originally meant. He is actually a form of the God Vishnu, part of the Hindu trinity. Yet this form of Vishnu is so beloved that he is often worshiped directly as a God himself. There are people who focus their worship on each of the main three stages of Krishna. Some focus more on the baby Krishna and others on the teenager and others on the Krishna of the Gita.

There are some sects who see Krishna as God himself and not an avatar. They worship him as the supreme Lord. It is much more common that Krishna is worshiped as the most beloved of Vishnu’s avatars (well, perhaps on equal footing with Rama).

Symbolism

In images of Krishna you will often notice a flute, blue skin, peacock feathers, and in the case of baby Krishna, pots of butter (which don’t look like modern American butter!) There are various explanations for what these symbols mean. Blue skin has long been a way for artists to show a divine presence. Both Krishna and Shiva are nearly always shown with blue skin. Sometimes other Gods are as well.

The peacock feather, it seems, is just beautiful. It has become strongly attached to Krishna and is therefore seen as lucky (though some stories say it was unlucky in Krishna’s time and he changed that). In general peacock feathers are associated with nobility.

Some say the flute plays the sound of OM. Others say the flute represents the human heart, which should be emptied out to make room for Krishna to fill it with his breath.

The name “Krishna” means “dark one.”

The word “Govinda” is another name for Krishna.

The Original Jesus?

There are some interesting similarities in the stories told about Krishna and those told about Jesus. Krishna really originated this idea of a man who is both human and divine at the same time, one with a special and unusual connection to God. He also had a miraculous birth with a divine conception. He descended from heaven to save people and correct for evil in the world. He is a personal representation of God that we can become close to and have a personal relationship with. He performs miracles.

The similarities, however, are not as direct as some would like to believe they are. Most articles I found comparing the life of Krishna with the life of Jesus made some big stretches or had inaccurate information about Krishna.

I think it quite likely that some of the stories about Krishna filtered their way into legends about Jesus. There were thousands of years for them to spread and become part of the cultural backdrop of many civilizations, considering that Krishna was born more than 3 thousand years prior to Jesus.

They aren’t huge ah-ha! things, but little things. When I used to talk to Christian friends about it there would be these moments of, “Oh. They say that about Krishna too!” (The conversation would likely continue to something like, “Well, Hindus must have stolen ideas about Jesus.” “But Krishna lived thousands of years before Jesus.” “Hrmph. He didn’t rise from the dead, did he? That’s so much more impressive. That’s how we know Jesus is special.” “Hindus believe we can all come back from the dead. The stories of resurrection in the Bible sound an awful lot like just regular reincarnation to me. After all, his friends didn’t even recognize him!”

Worship of Krishna Is Best For

  • Those who feel more comfortable with a personal God that they relate closely to
  • Those who are drawn to devotional practices
  • Those who appreciate humor and joy
  • Those who find an infant God more approachable

About Ambaa

Ambaa is an American woman of European ancestry who is also a practicing Hindu. She is fascinated with questions of philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life. Join her in the journey to explore how a non-Indian convert to Hinduism experiences her religion.

  • 5w_haul

    some of your facts are wrong

    1. in geeta krishna referred as all encompassing Brahman not avatar or god.

    All of the descents and incarnations are either plenary portions or portions of the plenary portions of the Lord, but Lord Śrī Kṛṣṇa is the original Personality of Godhead {1.3.28}
    “O Arjuna, even those devotees who worship other lesser deities (e.g., devas, for example) with faith, they also worship Me, but in an improper way because I am the Supreme Being. I alone am the enjoyer of all sacrificial services (Seva, Yajna) and Lord of the universe.” (Gita 9:23)
    “Whatever deity or form a devotee worships, I make his or her faith steady. However, their wishes are only granted by Me alone.” (Gita 7:21-22)

    2. there were several objectives to filled by krishna’s death
    curse of gandhari.
    curse of narda and sage vishwamitra or dhruvasha to whole Yaduvansh.
    commitment by lord rama to bali to the reverse story (hunter was bali in his last incarnation).

    3.Bhagwan Krishna’s departure marks the beginning of the current debauched age, also known as Kaliyug.

    4. he didn’t manipulate anything he simply was in side of dharma protecting it. he did broke his pratigya not to bear arms but never used them.

    • Ambaa

      Brahman is God. The supreme being. And Krishna was a manifestation of that supreme being. I don’t see anything in those quotes contradicting what I’ve said. Now, just because Krishna is God doesn’t mean that only He is God. He is one name and one manifestation for a God that fills the entire universe.

      As I said, in the Mahabharata, there are multiple reasons for everything that happens. I find that one of the most interesting things about it. Every action has at least two and often many more reasons stretching back through time.

      I feel that Krishna did manipulate. He may have had a good reason, but he encouraged lying, which is really surprising. I didn’t want this post to go on for fifty pages, but I would like to do a post at some point examining Krishna’s actions during the war because he did some very surprising and counter-intuitive things. That’s not to say he wasn’t correct; I just want to take some space to really look closely at his choices.

  • http://sanatandharma.ind.in/ Sanatan Dharma

    Hare Krishna
    May Krishna Bless you

  • Doug

    Just a bit about the Jesus part… I too have heard the similarities of Jesus and Krishna and I find them to be pretty vague and insignificant. And FYI Christians believe that we will all, everyone who ever lived, will be resurrected on the last day. With a glorified body. Unlike Hinduism, we believe the soul and the body are distinct but also connected. Your soul is not complete without your body. This “glorified body” is what Jesus had when He rose from the dead, which is why the apostles didn’t recognize Him at first. But he wasn’t “reincarnated” notice He still had His wounds. And that idea doesn’t seem to even make sense in the context of Hindu reincarnation, how could Jesus be reincarnated as a grown man? And how do you explain His ascension into Heaven, to which there were hundreds of witnesses? What would have happened to the “reincarnated” Jesus, did He just disappear? Lastly, not to be demeaning but is there any actual proof (or purported proof) that Krishna actually existed, as in he lived and walked on Earth? Just wondering…

    • Sagrav

      “Lastly, not to be demeaning but is there any actual proof (or purported proof) that Krishna actually existed, as in he lived and walked on Earth?”

      There is about as much proof for the existence of Krishna as there is for the resurrection of Jesus. The gospels claim that hundreds of witnesses saw him do so, but the gospels are not histories. They were all written decades after Jesus’s death and they are full of fanciful embellishments designed to support the notion of Jesus’s divinity. The Romans kept records of important events of the time; it is strange to think that they’d fail to mention that one of their crucifixions failed so spectacularly.

      If another ancient book claimed that a thousand people witnessed Jesus turning into a centaur and jumping to the moon, would you just accept that statement at face value? Of course not. That’s how outsiders to your religion feel when Christians make these kinds of assertions.

      • Ambaa

        Well said!

      • J_Bob

        Current views are the gospels were completed before the fall of Jerusalem.

        It was common practice for scribes to record teachings of the Elders. Matthew being a tax collector, would probably be well versed in recording things. Hence he would be a prime candidate for recording what Jesus said at the time or shortly thereafter.

        Hence it is felt the NT was pretty much completed by the mid 60′s AD.

    • Ambaa

      I have heard about this resurrection of the body concept before.

      I tend to see all these stories as more myth than historical, to be honest.

      I really don’t care whether Jesus “really” walked the earth or whether Krishna “really” walked the earth. That is entirely irrelevant to me and the experience of my religion.

      I’m actually working on a post about that now!

  • http://lightenskinnaturally.org/ Subasana Goswami

    You should be appreciated for written this article being an American Women who has converted into Hinduism.Nice article Ambaa. Thanks.
    Subasana

    • Ambaa

      Thank you :)

  • Daniel Miller

    I do think its interesting how the manifestation of a god died instead of having a glorious ascent back into Swarga. Did Krishna reincarnate after his death?

    • Ambaa

      I don’t believe so, since Krishna was just an earthly body for Vishnu. Vishnu incarnated again as a different avatar.

      • Rob Knaapen

        “… since Krishna was just an earthly body for Vishnu.”

        Dream on mataji, first perhaps get clear what is matter and what is spirit before making such big statements. If you think you can state whatever you think you run the risk of making big offenses. That you don’t want being a sattvic Hindu is it? Or do you just like Bollywood, the materialistic jolly lifestyle and philosophy and actual knowledge are just something casual for you? The anything goes, the whatever one thinks is oke mentality?

        • Ambaa

          You want to come on my blog and speak to me, do it nicely. I’ve studied Hindu philosophy my entire life. Don’t you dare say it is something casual to me. I have no materialistic jolly Bollywood lifestyle.

          • Rob Knaapen

            I am sorry mataji, but you don’t refer to a guru parampara and you apparently don’t accept what Sri Krsna states in the Bhagavad Gita.
            In Goloka Vrndavana where Krsna enjoyes his pastimes with the gopis there is no four armed Vishnu. The four armed Vishnu is there for material sustenance.
            Krsna, apart from Him being Vishnu, is also Brahma and Siva. (BG chapter 10) He is the Supreme Absolute Truth and all living entities are His eternal fragmental parts as is stated in BG 15.7.
            In giving you this information I am just doing my humble duty.

          • Ambaa

            See, now you’re explaining! That is better than just accusing me of knowing nothing and not explaining why! :)

            My guru is Sri Bharati Tirtha and I’m an Advaitan, i.e., Smartha branch, not Vaishnava.

          • Rob Knaapen

            Thanks for your answer mataji. Sometimes some little challenging can be handy to get somewhere. ;)

            So … is the goal of your spiritual practice impersonal liberation, merging into the brahmajyoti?

          • Ambaa

            Yes, I would say that it is.

          • Rob Knaapen

            Oke, then I understand. Tough journey mataji since we are persons, eternally. Being Vaishnava’s, lovers of the eternal loving relationship with Govinda the jyoti is automatically included in our proces.
            Nevertheless, good luck to you! If you quote BG correctly, of course :)

  • Rob Knaapen

    “Is Krishna a God in Hinduism? Yes, sort of. He is God in the form of a man, which is what the word avatar originally meant. He is actually a form of the God Vishnu, part of the Hindu trinity. Yet this form of Vishnu is so beloved that he is often worshiped directly as a God himself. There are people who focus their worship on each of the main three stages of Krishna. Some focus more on the baby Krishna and others on the teenager and others on the Krishna of the Gita.

    There are some sects who see Krishna as God himself and not an avatar. They worship him as the supreme Lord. It is much more common that Krishna is worshiped as the most beloved of Vishnu’s avatars (well, perhaps on equal footing with Rama).”

    Dear mataji,

    I beg to disagree with you.

    Krsna says in Bhagavad Gita in many places, eg 10.8, that He is the Supreme Absolute Truth. In eg 15.15 He says that He is situated in everyones heart as paramatma, the four armed Visnu.
    Visnu is an avatar from Krsna. In Goloka Vrndavana there is no four armed form. The three Vishnu’s, Maha Visnu, Garbhodakasayi Visnu and Ksirodakasayi Visnu are there for the material creation.
    The four armed form is there for meditation for the mystic yogis, not for the gopis and the cowherd boys. They are the eternal lovers of the naughty lord Krsna, who is also known as Govinda. Of course He never died, He just wound up His pastimes. Also, when He was 125 He still looked like 17 years of age. Not really remarkable since He is the ever fresh.

    Madhurya rasa mataji, that’s what is the highest in transcendental life. Available for all of us when cleansed of all our material desires and activities.

    Kind regards, Rob Knaapen, the Netherlands

    • Ambaa

      To me, it doesn’t matter which name you call God. When Krishna says he is the Absolute, I think he does mean that He is God, but that doesn’t mean that Shiva is not also God in exactly the same way. They are ONE.

      • Rob Knaapen

        God has many names indeed. And all living entities are one in Brahman. In quality, not In quantity. Shiva gets bewildered by the mohini murti of the Lord, Brahma finds a dark universe. Krsna doesn’t have these problems.
        Krsna is never under the influence of maya. Instead he supplies the necessities for all other living beings. Also for Brahma and Siva, Katha Upanishad 2.2.13

        • Ambaa

          I love the Katha upanishad. I think we’ll be reading that one next after the Kena!

  • joules

    Nice article Ambaa.Krishna reciprocates with everyone…….
    Krishna is magnanimous. We just need to surrender to His will, and try hard to learn from our mistakes and avoid making the same mistakes again and again.Thank you for sharing…many people do say Americans dont know much of krishna.I believe As this material world is temporary we should not be worried about a house and its comfort here rather we should think about how to reach our original abode.. the spiritual world..

    http://devotionalnectar.com