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date: 28 February 2021


A Dictionary of Hinduism

W. J. Johnson

Kṛṣṇa (‘ black’) 

One of the major Hindu gods, regarded by his devotees as the supreme deity. As worshipped since the medieval period, Kṛṣṇa has been characterized by some scholars as a ‘composite’ god, insofar as his character and story appear to be derived from the amalgamation of what were, originally, at least two different figures. Apart from some ambiguous appearances in the Vedic literature, the earliest references to Vāsudeva, a god identified as a precursor of the Epic and Purāṇic Kṛṣṇa, occur in Sanskrit sources of the 5th and 6th centuries bce, and in the works of Greek historians. This Vāsudeva may have originated as the deified hero or king of the Vṛṣṇi tribe. He was subsequently amalgamated with Kṛṣṇa, the similarly deified chief of the Yādavas of Dvāraka, so that, by the time of the Sanskrit Mahābhārata, Vāsudeva-Kṛṣṇa appears as a single deity, thought to be synonymous with, or an avatāra of, the Vedic god, Viṣṇu.

As Bhagavān, the god of the Bhāgavatas and the personal omnipotent deity of the Bhagavadgītā, Vāsudeva-Kṛṣṇa was, by the 4th century ce, further fused with another Kṛṣṇa, Gopāla, the cow-herd god of the semi-nomadic tribes inhabiting the banks of the Yamunā. This Kṛṣṇa first comes to light in the appendix to the Mahābhārata, the Harivaṃśa (early centuries ce), which contains in its middle book, the Viṣṇuparvan, the first extended and complete account of Kṛṣṇa's childhood, later life, and death, including his and Saṃkarṣaṇa's (Balarāma's) play among the cowherds (and, briefly, the gopīs) at Vṛndāvana. Undoubtedly drawing on previous folk-religious stories, the Harivaṃśa thus provides the model for later accounts of Kṛṣṇa's life and deeds, such as those in the Viṣṇu Purāṇa and the Bhāgavata Purāṇa (9th–10th centuries), which in turn provide the narrative and theological basis for the medieval bhakti movements.

In the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, in particular, Kṛṣṇa is regarded as not simply a partial avatāra of Viṣṇu, but as Bhagavān himself, i.e. God, the supreme being, actively and intimately involved in his creation and with his devotees. It is this God who is subsequently worshipped as Kṛṣṇa-Gopāla by the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas (16th century onwards). Their intense devotionalism, expressed through various repetitive ritual practices, is supported by a theology predicated on Kṛṣṇa's life with the gopīs in Vṛndāvana (as narrated in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa), and, in particular, on the mutual erotic love between the god and his beloved Rādhā, which had been portrayed in texts such as Jayadeva's Gītagovinda, and by numerous bhakti poets. A more recent and conservative form of this kind of Kṛṣṇa devotionalism has been propagated in the West by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Another important Kṛṣṇa bhakti tradition is the largely western Indian Puṣṭimārga; based on the teachings of Vallabha, it requires disinterested service (sevā) of, and complete surrender to, the youthful or infant deity, and a blanket reliance on his grace for spiritual progress and salvation.

As his name suggests, Kṛṣṇa is most usually depicted as a blue or dark-skinned young man. He has an extended and rich pan-Indian mythology, ranging from his exploits as a child and flute-playing youth in Vṛndāvana, to his identification with Viṣṇu, and his pivotal role in the Mahābhārata. In all such guises, he has been, and remains (with a wide variety of local and regional variations) an immensely popular subject for paintings, textile hangings, sculpture, and poetry, as well as the inspiration for dramatic performances, and musical compositions.