Krishna is a popular Hindu deity who is worshiped as the eighth avatar of the god Vishnu. The date of his birth is estimated to be in the range of 3227 to 3102 BCE.
We learn about Krishna through numerous legends in written sources. These sources place him in ancient India and he boasts a diverse repertoire of personalities including being 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” (1).
The Mahabharata is our earliest historical source for Krishna. It is an epic poem of importance to historians wanting to learn about Hinduism between the years 400 BCE and 200 CE. It depicts Krishna as an incarnation of Vishnu, one of the principal deities in the Hindu religion. The Bhagavad Gita (or “Gita”) is the sixth book of the Mahabharata epic in which the archer and prince Arjuna has a dialogue with Krishna who takes the role of a charioteer. The dialogue is of significant philosophical, spiritual, and ethical meaning for Hindus. Krishna’s childhood and youth years are described in the Harivamsa which is an appendix text to the Mahabharata and an important source of information on Krishna as the god Vishnu’s incarnation. It is thought to portray a more realistic style and historical narrative about Krishna as a human being despite its inclusion of poetry and fantasy forms. The Vishnu Purana has an estimated date of authorship estimated between 1000 BCE and early 1000s CE 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. The Bhagavata Purana tells of Krishna’s eight wives who are taken to be spiritual symbolism, as well as his post-death ascension into a transcendent abode. 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 Upanishad composed somewhere between 800 and 600 BCE possibly reference Krishna as a student of sage Ghora Angirasa. Religion historian Guy Beck explains scholarly views of the historicity of Krishna,
“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” (2).
What Do The Legends Teach?
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. According to this legend, the powerful king Kamsa overthrew his father for the kingdom of Mathura. Kamsa heard of a prophecy by fortune tellers that the eighth child of Devaki, who was his sister, would kill him. As a result, Kamsa imprisons his sister and her husband, Vasudeva, and each time they had a child, he would murder it. The pair then prayed and the Lord Vishnu appeared to them. Krishna informed them that he would come to their rescue and that when their eighth child is born he will be Vishnu in human form. With divine help, Vasudeva manages to transport the baby Krishna out of prison and then switches him with a baby girl in the village of Gokula. When Kamsa attempts to murder the baby girl, she transforms into the Hindu goddess Durga and tells him that his days are numbered. Having escaped, Krishna is brought up by foster parents.
The childhood and teenage years of Krishna are too full of rich legends. According to some stories he was known as a butter thief. He was also known for his pranks, miracles, and slaying of demons. In others, Krishna is fascinated with milkmaids and had a remarkable ability to play musical instruments such as the flute. Krishna was believed to be a talented instrumentalist whose music had others in the area come to join in song and dance. He was also in love with a milkmaid called Radha who too became the subject of numerous writings. Radha became a symbol for the longing for spirituality and the divine, as associated with her longing for Krishna.
During his adulthood, Krishna returns to Mathura where, despite facing numerous assassination attempts, he overthrows and kills Kamsa, his uncle and the evil king. He then gives back the throne to Kamsa’s father, Ugrasena, and becomes the prince at the court. Another famous story from the Bhagavad Gita is that during the Kurukshetra War Krishna incarnates in prince Arjuna’s charioteer. Arjuna saw his own family and respected teachers in the ranks of his enemies and decided not to fight in the battle. This is followed by a discourse on philosophical, existential, and ethical concepts he has with Krishna who convinces Arjuna that it is his duty to fight.
Krishna allegedly dies alone in a forest as a result of a curse put on him by a woman called Gandhari. Gandhari blames Krishna for the war and the death of the Pandavas and when Krishna retreats to a forest many years later to mediate, he is mistaken by a hunter for an animal. The hunter shoots an arrow into Krishna’s foot and he dies as a result. Krishna is then ascended into a transcendent realm.
The legends surrounding Krishna have influenced millions of people throughout history. We see this illustrated in works of art, sculptures, dramas, and writings. Artistic representations of Krishna are deliberately symbolic. For example, he is portrayed as having blue skin, a flute, pots of butter, and is sometimes depicted alongside cows or milkmaids. All these symbols have meaning: the milkmaids represent Krishna as seductive and romantic, the blue skin depicts his divinity and the god Vishnu. Theological views differ by Hindu tradition: according to Vaishnavas (Hindus who ascribe to Vaishnavism, one of three major Hindu traditions), Krishna is the avatar of Vishnu. Despite the god Vishnu having many avatars, Vaishnavas consider Krishna to be one of the most important of them all. The Bhakti tradition of loving devotion that evolved around many deities came to see Krishna as an important god for worship and devotion.
1. Preciado-Solís, B. 1984. The Kṛṣṇa Cycle in the Purāṇas: Themes and Motifs in a Heroic Saga. p. 40.
2. Beck, G. 2012. Alternative Krishnas: Regional and Vernacular Variations on a Hindu Deity. p. 4.
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