Krishna (or Krsna), in Hinduism, is the most popular of all the earthly incarnations of Vishnu. Most texts, including the Maisya Purana and the Varaha Purana, state that thus far nine avatars of Vishnu have appeared, Kriishnu being the eighth; The Bhagavata Purana places Krishna twentieth among twenty-four avatars.
Krishna has assumed many roles, the best known of which are as the chariot god of the Bhagavad Gita and the erotic cowherd god, the Dark One of medieval Indian bhakti, where he is the embodiment of love, the divine joy that destroys all pain. Since the medieval period Krishna has become the dominant and most erotic symbol in the Indian religion and culture, the object of engulfing, self-abnegating adoration. A huge amount of complex textural material, such as epics, Puranas, poetry, and songs, has developed around the figure of this god; some derived, probably from historical fact, bur fact mixed with legend and fable, much which is lecherous.
There are various derivatives of the name of Krishna. One comes from the Sanskrit, meaning “to drag, to give pain.” In this sense Krishna symbolizes the Kali-yuga, the Age of Suffering. The context of this meaning is the Krishna takes away and devours the suffering of his devotees in this descending yuga. Krishna also means “black” in the Vedas and later. One of his earliest roles was that he was the dark enemy that the white Aryan conquerors had to defeat.
Historically two dominant figures of Krishna emerged: one the warrior ksatriya, and the low-caste cowherd. In either case he was not of the brahmin, the priest, caste, but the brahmins employed the image of Krishna as the warrior god to enforce their domination over those below them. This evidence leaves little doubt that Krishna was a pre-Aryan god. At the same time, however, another image of Krishna lay submerged within the conscious of the populace for almost a millennium; this was the low-caste cowboy among a pastoral clan on the river Yamuna. Myths surrounding this figure of Krishna along with the many legends and beliefs concerning the pre-Aryan deities, such as Shiva and the various forms of the Great Mother, became a major part of the Hindu pantheon.
Krishna, the Dark One, was the last of the Yadavas, an old pastoral nation. Vishnu pulled out two of his hairs, one black and the other white, which he placed in the wombs of Devaki and Rohini respectively. The black was born as Krishna and the white became Balarama. Kansa, the usurper of Mathura, learned from a sage that Devaki’s son would destroy him, so the harassed mother had to exchange Krishna for the newborn daughter of the cowherd Nanda and his wife Yasoda. During his rural stay with them, the young Krishna undertook numerous adventures, which included his notable triumph over Kaliya; the abduction of the daughter of the Gandharva king; the overthrow of Saubha, the flying city of the Daityas; and he obtained the discus from Agni, such exploits must have encouraged the Greek settlers in northwest India, whose kingdom flourished in the second century BC, in their identification of Krishna with Hercules. Yasoda was the first to became aware on Krishna’s special powers when she chanced to look down his throat. She was stupefied to see the entire universe there. However, it is the love of Krishna for Radha, the milkmaid, which generates the focus of the modern worship, seen as the perfect deification of life.
When reaching manhood, Krishna left the cowherds to return to Mathura, where he killed Kansa. In the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, to both of whom he was related, Krishna played a decisive role, not least in overcoming the hesitations of Arjuna as a senseless massacre of friends and relatives. Krishna reminded him that as a kshatriya it is his duty to fight and declared that “the hero whose soul is unmoved by circumstance, who accepts pleasure and pain with equanimity, he alone is fit for immortality.” On the actual battlefield Arjuna was supported by Krishna, while the Karavas has the assistance of his army. Some time after the cessation of hostilities there was at Dwzraka, the city of gates, in Gujarat, a drunken brawl that left Balarama dead beneath a tree. Then Krishna was unwittingly killed with an arrow shot by the hunter Jaras, or of old age.
As described in the Bhagavad-Gita Krishna was the god of the people. He became the highest form of divinity: Krishna was God, and God was Krishna. In the tenth book, Krishna has not only became all the gods, but all the sages, too, the sacred sound OM, the Atman “conscious in the heart of all life,” the moon, intelligence, the ocean and the Himalayas, the banyan tree, the heavenly cow, sexual desire, the Ganga, the crocodile, the merciless death and the wealth of the wealthy, both the strengths and weaknesses of people, as well as the attributes of the mind and the objects of the earth. However, it is in the eleventh book the supreme divinity of Krishna is revealed. Krishna is the form “possessing numerous mouths and eyes, glittering with divine ornaments, displaying divine signs, divinely garlanded, divinely scented, all-shaped, all-powerful, transcendent, and limitless. Where a thousand suns to explode suddenly in the sky, their brilliance would approximate the glory of the sight.” Thus Krishna the All-Powerful.
It is in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, which devotedly describes the exploits of Krishna’s white-skinned elder brother Balarama, that one finds the religious thought and devotion of the masses. Both Krishna and Balarama, frequently known as Rama, display their attitude toward God, which was not knowledge and intimately perfect performance of ceremony as dictated in earlier Vedic scriptures, but that of spiritual freedom and individual personal devotion, in which people of all castes and walks of life, women as well as men, take part in divine worship and praise. A.G.H.
Rice, Edward, Eastern Definitions: A Short Encyclopedia of Religions of the Orient, Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1978, pp. 223-229
Cotterell, Arthur, A Dictionary of World Mythology, New York, G. P. Putman’s Sons, 1980, p. 88