The Hindu God Krishna: History, Legends & Names

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson outlines the basic characteristics of the Hindu God Krishna. We explore the various ways that he is represented and the functions that he plays within Hindu devotion.

Lord Krishna

Krishna is perhaps the most beloved god in the Hindu world. Variously titled with 108 alternate names including Gopalpriya (Lover of the Cowherds), Manmohan (Bewildering the Mind), and Dharmadhyaksha (Lord of Dharma), Krishna has many sides to his personality. He is the god of ecstasy, sensuality, love, joy, and passion. As with virtually all aspects of Hindu devotion, Krishna has many sides to his divinity; he is the playful jokester, while also the wise teacher. Krishna is famous for his sylvan trysts with his beloved Gopis, but he is also the revered charioteer in the Bhagavad Gita. In all his forms, Krishna embodies the exaltation at the heart of Hindu religiosity.

Krishna is represented in a multitude of ways throughout the Hindu world. He is at once the most accessible of the Hindu Gods, and the most awe-inspiring form of Hindu divinity. As in many other parts of Hindu religion, Krishna must be understood to comprise many apparent paradoxes. Baby Krishna, Krishna as the young lover, and Krishna as the wise sage must all be encapsulated into a single deity.

Baby Krishna

Baby Krishna and his doting foster mother

In his most famous incarnation, Krishna was born into a high family to his parents Vasudeva and Devaki. Krishna's uncle, Kamsa, ruled the city of Mathura and prior to Krishna's birth, Kamsa received a prophecy stating that one of Vasudeva and Devaki's children would bring about his downfall. To prevent this, Kamsa had his brother and sister-in-law imprisoned and vowed to kill any children that they produced. The unscrupulous Kamsa was not successful in his infanticidal ambitions; Krishna and his brothers escaped to the nearby countryside, known as Braj, where they were raised by cowherd foster parents.

It is in the idyllic rural landscape of Braj that Krishna's most vivid life events transpire. Krishna as an infant is almost impossibly cute. He is irresistible to his foster parents, doted on by the other villagers, and adored by generations of Hindus. As a baby, Krishna embodies a joyous playfulness. He is the embodiment and distillation of the infant's innocence and the love that parents feel towards their babies.

Baby Krishna is not simply cute; he is also a prankster and a troublemaker. Stealing butter is his favorite activity, and he takes every opportunity to do so. Baby Krishna is not held back by the rules and expectations that apply to normal children. Full of unbridled glee and mischief, Baby Krishna cannot be contained. Even while stealing butter and causing trouble for his foster parents, Baby Krishna is still ethereal and precious to everyone around him.

Krishna as the Young Lover

Krishna and the Gopis, circa 1760-1765

As Krishna grows up in the bucolic environs of Braj, he matures into one of the most well-loved versions of himself; Krishna as the embodiment of sensuality. During Krishna's youth, his adventures are deeply located on the banks of the Yamana River and in the area surrounding the town of Vrindavan. Vrindavan is described in Hindu literature as a place outside of normal reality, a place of purity and joy, free of the corruption of normal material existence.

Krishna's flute playing is described as unimaginably beautiful. When the young Krishna plays his flute on the banks of the Yamana River, no one can deny the ecstasy produced by his performance. Hindu poetry describes wild states of joyous abandon, with singing, dancing, and lovemaking. The milkmaids of Vrindavan, known as the Gopis, are particularly susceptible to Krishna. Gopis, who are generally understood to be respectable married women with families, stop whatever they are doing and rush into the forest to meet with Krishna when they hear his flute. The Gopis bath with him in the Yamana River and dance euphorically to the sound of his celestial flute. Radha is the ultimate Gopi and Krishna's primary lover. Hindu poetry describes their complex courtship and amorous meetings. Radha is seen as a goddess in her own right, a manifestation of the goddess Lakshmi.

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