Krishna is a popular Hindu deity who is worshiped as the 8th avatar of the god Vishnu. The date of his birth is estimated to be in the range of 3227 BC to 3102 BC (1).
Krishna is conveyed via numerous legends in written sources. These sources place him in ancient India, and he boasts a diverse repertoire of personalities including that of a hero, a supreme being, and a prankster. These legends vary quite considerably as Professor of Indian Studies Benjamín Preciado-Solís explains,
“Within a period of four or five centuries [around the start of the common era], we encounter our major sources of information, all in different versions. The Mahabharata, the Harivamsa, the Visnu Purana, the Ghata Jataka, and the Bala Carita all appear between the first and the fifth century AD, and each of them represents a tradition of a Krsna cycle different from the others” (2).
In this respect, the Mahabharata is our earliest historical text. It is an epic poem from ancient India of particular importance for historians wishing to learn about Hinduism between the years 400 BC and 200 AD (3). It depicts Krishna as an incarnation of Vishnu, one of the principle deities in Hindu belief. The Bhagavad Gita (or “Gita”) is the 6th book of the Mahabharata epic in which the archer warrior and prince Arjuna and Krishna, who takes the role of Arjuna’s charioteer, dialogue on significant philosophical, spiritual, and ethical topics prior to the beginning of the Kurukshetra war (4). Krishna’s childhood and youth years are described in the Harivamsa (an appendix text to the Mahabharata) and is an important source of information on Krishna as the god Vishnu’s incarnation (5). It is thought to portray a more realistic style and historical narrative pertaining to Krishna as a human being despite its inclusion of poetry and fantasy forms (6). The Vishnu Purana (date of authorship estimated between 1000 BC and early 1000s AD) is a text that ventures from a sense of realism into a mystical narrative and terminology, and it centers on the god Vishnu and Krishna as his avatar (7). Bhagavata Purana tells of Krishna’s eight wives, which are taken to be spiritual symbolism (8), as well as his post death ascension into a transcendent abode (9). Some parts of this work are poetic and evidence a substantial use of imagination, creativity, and metaphor including, for example, representing Krishna as a symbolic universe. Finally, a wide collection of metaphysical stories included in the Chandogya Unpanishad (composed somewhere between 800 and 600 BC) possibly reference Krishna as a student of sage Ghora Angirasa. As a matter of an objectivist approach to history, religion historian Guy Beck explains that,
“the empirical evidence of inscriptions, dated monuments, and original manuscripts, is not perhaps as strong for Krishna as in some other examples of religious figures. However, most scholars, of Hinduism and Indian history accept the historicity of Krishna – that he was a real male person, whether human or divine, who lived on Indian soil by at least 1000 BCE and interacted with many other historical persons within the cycles of the epic and puranic histories” (10).
This tends to be a common view despite numerous disparate and contradictory chronologies of events surrounding the historical Krishna.
What Do The Legends Say About Krishna?
Some have divided Krishna’s lifespan into several stages: his birth, childhood/teenage years, adulthood, and death. The birth of Krishna is a story of great drama (11). According to this legend, the powerful king Kamsa overthrew his father for the kingdom of Mathura. Kamsa soon heard of a prophecy by fortune tellers that the 8th child of Devaki, who was his sister, would kill him. As a result, he imprisoned his sister and her husband, Vasudeva, and each time they would have a child, Kamsa would murder it. The pair then prayed and the Lord Vishnu appeared to them, informed them that he would come to their rescue, and when their 8th child would be born, he would be Vishnu in human form. With divine help, Vasudeva managed to transport the baby Krishna out of prison. Vasudeva then switched him with a baby girl in Gokula, a village some 15kms south-east of Mathura. When Kamsa attempted to murder the baby girl infant, she transformed into the Hindu goddess Durga, and told him that his days were numbered. Having escaped, Krishna was reared by foster parents.
The childhood and teenage years of Krishna are too full of rich legends. According to some stories he was known for being a butter thief, his pranks, his miracles, and slaying of demons. In others he was fascinated with milkmaids, and possessed a talented ability to play musical instruments such as the flute. Krishna was believed to be a talented instrumentalist whose music would have others in the areas come to join him in song and dance. He was also in love with one milkmaid by the name Radha. Over many years Radha would become the subject of numerous writings, and this included her becoming a symbol for the longing for spirituality and the divine, as associated with her longing for Krishna (12).
During his adulthood, Krishna returned to Mathura where, despite facing numerous assassination attempts, he both overthrew and killed Kansa, his uncle and the evil king. Consequently, he gave back the throne to Kansa’s father, Ugrasena, after which he became the prince at the court. During the Kurukshetra War, Krinsha, despite remaining loyal to his conviction to avoid picking up a weapon in battle, became Arjuna’s charioteer. According to legends found in the Mahabharata poem, Arjuna saw his own family in the ranks of the enemies, and upon this realization decided not to fight and kill others. What follows is a discourse of philosophical, existential, and ethical concepts Arjuna has with Krishna pertaining to war, good and evil, peace, death, and more (13).
Krishna was said to die alone in a forest, as per a curse put on him by a woman named Gandhari. Gandhari blamed Krishna for the war and the death of the Pandavas. Many years later Krishna retreated to a forest to mediate where he was mistaken by a hunter by the name Jara for an animal. Jara shot an arrow into Krishna’s foot after which he forgave the hunter and died. What follows is a story concerning Krishna’s ascension into a transcendent realm.
The legends surrounding Krishna have influenced millions of people today and have also taken shape through numerous theological views, works of art, sculptures, dramas, and writings. Artistic representations of Krishna are overtly symbolic. For example, he is portrayed having blue skin, a flute, pots of butter, and is sometimes depicted alongside cows or milkmaids. All these symbols possess meaning, for example, the milkmaids represent Krishna as seductive and/or romantic, and the blue skin is a way to depict divinity as well as the god Vishnu (14). Theological views differ according to different Hindu traditions. According to Vaishnavas (Hindus who ascribe to Vaishnavism, one of three major Hindu traditions), Krishna is the avatar of Vishnu. Despite the god Vishnu possessing many avatars, Vaishnavas consider Krishna to be one of the most important of them. The Bhakti tradition, which evolved over time around numerous deities, holds Krishna to be an important avatar for worship and devotion (15). Krishna appears in other religious beliefs and traditions, notably within Jainism and Buddhism, which, despite basing their narratives on the same baseline story generally proposed in the Hindu texts, introduce noticeable and significant differences to the stories. Temples have been constructed in a number of countries in devotion to Krishna while the annual festival of Janmashtami celebrates the time when Krishna was believed to have been born. Efforts to expand Eastern philosophy based on Krishna beyond Asia have led to followers in other parts of the world, including western nations. This has led to the founding of ISKCON, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and the construction of temples in the western world, including South Africa.
1. Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Krishna Hindu deity. Available.
2. Preciado-Solís, B. 1984. The Kṛṣṇa Cycle in the Purāṇas: Themes and Motifs in a Heroic Saga. p. 40.
3. Basu, A (Ancient History Encyclopedia). 2016. Mahabharata. Available.
4. Violatti, C (Ancient History Encyclopedia). 2015. Bhagavad Gita. Available.
5. Winternitz, M. 1981. History of Indian Literature. p. 426-431.
6. Matchett, F. 2001. Krishna, Lord Or Avatara?: The Relationship Between Krishna Nd Vishnu. p. 145–149.
7. Matchett, F. 2001. Ibid. 146.
8. Hudson, D. 2008. The Body of God: An Emperor’s Palace for Krishna in Eighth-Century Kanchipuram. p. 102–103.
9. Bryant, E. 2003. Krishna: The Beautiful Legend of God: Srimad Bhagavata Purana. p. 417–418.
10. Beck, G. 2012. Alternative Krishnas: Regional and Vernacular Variations on a Hindu Deity. p. 4.
11. Cartwright, M (Ancient History Encyclopedia). 2015. Krishna. Available.
12. Kinsley, D. 1988. Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. p. 81-86.
13. Beck, G. 2012. Ibid. p. 4-5.
14. Blurton, R. 1993. Hindu Art. p. 133–134.
15. Krishna.com. History of the bhakti tradition. Available.