This article is about the Hindu deity and avatar of Vishnu. For other meanings, see Krishna (disambiguation).
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Lord Krishna

Krishna (कृष्ण, Sanskrit for "black". Also said to mean "All Attractive"), is, according to common Hindu tradition, the eighth avatar of Vishnu. He is one of the most important of the deities of the religions that comprise Hinduism.


Major aspects

The place of Krishna in Hinduism is complex. He appears under many names, in a multiplicity of stories, among different cultures, and in different traditions. Sometimes these contradict each other, though there is a well-known and predominant common core story that is central to most Indians' knowledge of Krishna.

According to most Hindu traditions he is one of the major incarnations of Vishnu. However in Gaudiya Vaishnavism, he is considered to be the only true God, or the source of all incarnations.

Among his important aspects in Hindu culture are:

  • Govinda Krishna, the lord of the cow-herders. He is contrasted in this to his brother Balarama of the cultivators, who is sometimes called Halayudha, the Lord of the plough.
  • Krishna the focus of devotion (the lover, the all-attractive, the flute player). He is frequently shown playing the flute, attracting and bewildering the gopis (the cowgirls) of Vrindavana.
  • Krishna the child. Stories of his upbringing in the forest of Vrindavan are a staple of children's tales in India.
  • The incarnation of God and the divine Guru, who teaches Arjuna how to take the right action in the Bhagavad Gita.

Texts, stories, and literature

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Krishna (left) with Radha
Bhaktivedanta Manor, Watford, England

A number of local traditions and regional deities may have been subsumed into the stories and person of Krishna. Accounts of or ballads about Krishna occur in a large number of philosophical, religious and poetic works. These include the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita, the Bhagavata Purana, and the Gita Govinda. In the Shrimad Bhagavata Purana there are thousands of lines that are dedicated solely to extolling His life and philosophy.

The best known, or the most important stories of Krishna, include these;

  • Krishna the butter-thief. One of the most popular children's stories is that of the butter-thief, the child stealing freshly made butter from his mother.
  • The killer of Putana. She was a demoness who was sent to suckle him as a baby, with poison on her breasts.
  • Krishna Giridhari. As a boy, he raised Govardhana hill to protect villagers from rain and flood sent by Indra.
  • Govinda Krishna, the beloved or the seducer of the gopis. The original stories of Krishna as a boy included his adolescent play with the Gopis or cowgirls of the village of Vrindavana. These were developed to form the basis of the Gita Govinda, and numerous other later works. Devotees of Krishna subscribe to the concept of lila, or divine play as the central principle of the universe. This is counterpoint to another avatar of Vishnu: Rama, "He of the straight and narrow path of maryada, or rules and regulations."
  • Krishna Vaasudeva the prince, of the Yadavas at Mathura and later at Dwaraka. As a prince he was also the husband of Rukmini.
  • Krishna together with Arjuna, is responsible for burning the Khandava forest at the instigation of Agni, causing great loss of animal and perhaps human life.
  • He plays a major role in the struggle for the throne of Hastinapura when he becomes a friend and ally of the Pandavas. He counsels and guides the Pandavas, in contrast to his brother Balarama who is more inclined to be neutral or to favour the Kauravas. He protects Draupadi when Dushasana tries to strip her in the court.
  • Paartha-sarathi the charioteer of Arjuna (called Paartha in this setting) during the great battle. In this role, he teaches and instructs Arjuna in dharma and yoga in the Bhagavad Gita.

Summary of the story of Krishna

This summary is derived from the Mahabharata, and the Harivamsaparva, an addendum to it.

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The Infant Krishna

Birth and childhood

Krishna was of the royal family of Mathura, and was the eighth son born to the princess Devaki, and her husband Vasudeva, a noble of the court. He was born in a prison cell in Mathura, and the place of his birth is now known as Krishnajanmabhoomi, where a temple is raised in his memory. As his life was in danger from his uncle the king, he was smuggled out to be raised by his foster parents Yashoda and Nanda in the forest at Vrindavana. Two of his siblings also survived, Balarama and Subhadra.

Boyhood and youth

He reached adulthood at Vrindavana. The original corpus of stories of his youth here include that of his life with, and his protection of the local people. They included those of his play with the gopis of the village, including Radha.

Krishna the prince

Krishna as a young man returned to Mathura, overthrew his uncle Kansa, and became ruler of the Yadavas at Mathura. In this period he became a friend of Arjuna and the other Pandava princes of the Kuru kingdom on the other side of the Yamuna. Later, he takes his Yadava subjects to Dwaraka (in modern Gujarat). He married Rukmini, daughter of King Bhishmaka of Vidarbha .

The Kurukshetra War

In the Mahabharata, Krishna is cousin to both sides in the war between the Pandavas and Kauravas. But he effectively takes the Pandava side. He agrees to be the chariot driver for Arjuna in the great battle. The Bhagavad Gita is the advice given to Arjuna by Krishna before the start of the battle.

The last days

Krishna rules the Yadavas at Dwaraka with his wife Rukmini. In the end, the Yadavas kill themselves in infighting, and Krishna is killed by accident by a hunter. His death marked the end of Dvapara yuga. One calculation puts the year of his death at 3102 BC.

The Bhakti traditions

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Indian-standard silver drachm of the Greco-Bactrian king Agathocles (190-180 BCE)
Obv: Indian god Balarama-Samkarshana, wearing an ornate headress, earrings, sword in sheath, holding a mace in his right hand and a plow-symbol in the left. Greek legend: BASILEOS AGATOKLEOUS "King Agathocles".
Rev: Indian god Vasudeva-Krishna, with ornate headdress, earrings, sword in sheath, holding sankha (pear-shaped vase) and chakra (wheel). Brahmi legend: RAJANE AGATHUKLAYASA "King Agathocles".

Earlier traditions

Bhakti, meaning devotion, is not confined to any one deity of Hinduism. However Krishna has become the most important and popular focus of the devotional and ecstatic aspects of Hindu religion. Those bhakti movements devoted to Krishna first developed in southern India in the late 1st millennium AD. Earlier works included those of the Alvar saints of the Tamil country. A major collection of their works is the Divya Prabandham.

Gita Govinda - the song of the cowherd

Certain literary works were important to later development of the bhakti traditions, including especially the Gita Govinda. This work was composed by Jayadeva Goswami in eastern India, in the 12th century AD. It elaborated part of the story of Krishna, and of one particular Gopi, called Radha who had been a minor character in the Mahabharata. According to one interpretation of this work, Radha represented humanity, and Krishna represented divinity. The desire of Radha for Krishna can be seen as allegory of the desire of humanity for union with the godhead.

Recent Krishna bhakti movements

Later derivatives of the earlier bhakti traditions include those promoted by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (16th century in Bengal). Chaitanya has sometimes himself been raised to the status of an avatar of Vishnu or of Krishna. A number of modern movements belong in this tradition, and include ISKCON, sometimes called the Hare Krishna movement. While ISKCON is specifically targeted at a western audience, related movements are also active in India today.

The name

The name and word in Devanagari is written कृष्ण (Kṛṣṇa in IAST transliteration; see Sanskrit for pronunciation.

Krishna the Dark One

Icon of  in .
Icon of Lord Krishna in Udupi.

The term Krishna in Sanskrit means "black" according to standard dictionaries. It is related to similar words in other Indo-European languages meaning black. The name is often translated as 'the dark one' or as 'the black one'.

In depictions, Krishna often appears as a black or dark-skinned figure. For instance the modern murtis (statues) and pictorial representations of Lord Jaganatha at Puri (Krishna as Lord of the World). In the same representations, his brother and sister are shown with a distinctly lighter complexion. Early pictorial representations also generally show him as dark or black-skinned. Rajasthani miniature paintings of the 16th century are often of a brown or black skinned figure. However, by the 19th century, he is almost always shown as blue skinned.

Other meanings of the name

The name is sometimes said to mean dark blue, rather than black. This may be connected to the common modern practice of representing many Hindu deities with blue skin.

The name has also been said to mean all-attractive, though this may be from a related Sanskrit word.

According to the Vishnu sahasranama, Krishna is the 57th name of Vishnu, and also means the Existence of Knowledge and Bliss.

Other names of Krishna

He is known by numerous other names or titles. The most commonly used of these include;

  • Chakradhari - the bearer of a discus (chakra)
  • Giridhari - he who lifted a hill or giri (Govardhana hill)
  • Gopala - cowherd; protector of cows
  • Gopinath - lord of the the gopis
  • Govinda - protector of cows; also connected to the Govardhana Hill
  • Hari - the yellow one (the colour of the sun); Hare Krishna is the vocative, viz. "o golden one! o dark one"
  • Hrshikesha - master of the senses
  • Jaganatha - lord of all places (see also Juggernaut).
  • Keshava long haired,
  • Madhava - bringer of springtime
  • Partha Sarathy - charioteer, a reference to his role with regard to Arjuna in the great battle
  • Vaasudeva, Krishna Vaasudeva - son of Vasudeva
  • Yadunandan - son of the Yadu dynasty
  • Yogeshwara - the Lord of the Yogis
  • Radha Vallabha - The consort of Radha Rani


A paper presented recently at a convention in Prabhas Patan near Somnath, concludes that Krishna died at the age of 125 on February 18, 3102 BC at 14:27:30 hours on the banks of river Hiran in Prabhas Patan. As the report goes, he was 125 years, 7 months and 6 days old when he left the earth for his divine abode Goloka.

The finding was based on clues in the Vedic literatures. Certain dates were fed into special software which was used to prepare a kundli (astrological horoscope charts). The Vishnu Puran and Bhagavad Gita mentions that Krishna "left" Dwarka 36 years after the Battle of the Mahabharat. The Matsya Purana mentions that Krishna was 89 years old when the battle was fought. It further mentions that the Kali Yuga began on the day Krishna "left". The year 2004 is the year 5105 of the Kali Yuga (which began with a year 0).

External links

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