(Also see a Select Research Bibliography)

Among Indian deities, perhaps none is as widely worshipped, admired, and adored as Krishna [also Krsna]. The worship of Krishna takes many forms, and he is encountered in numerous distinct regional traditions. The god Vishnu is most commonly worshipped in his aspect as Rama and Krishna, two of his ten incarnations; indeed, it is no exaggeration to suggest that Rama and Krishna have, in a manner of speaking, superseded Vishnu himself. Where Rama is usually and preeminently associated with the Ramayana, Krishna has a rather more complex place in Indian narrative traditions. He appears, of course, in the Mahabharata, as the wise, some might say cunning, counselor of the Pandavas, whose timely and much-debated interventions in the great war lead the Pandavas to victory; even more memorably, perhaps, he appears as the charioteer of the Pandava prince Arjuna, passing down those teachings that got enshrined in the part of the Mahabharata that came to be known as the Bhagavad Gita. However, for a great many Hindus, the preeminent text of Krishna worship is the Bhagavata Purana, and most particularly its Tenth Book, which recounts the childhood exploits of Krishna, his adolescence, and his life in Vrindavan and the Braj area amidst the villagers, gopis [cowherdesses], and his beloved, Radha.

Though one can speak of many Krishnas in the Indian context, it is most productive to think of Krishna as falling either within the ‘historical’ or ‘mythical’ traditions of Indian thought; within, in turn, each of these traditions, one can speak of multiple traditions. The historical Krishna is the Krishna who is encountered in the Mahabharata, and his stock rose considerably in the nineteenth century with the advent of the Indian nationalist movement. To understand the resonance that the historical Krishna began to have for educated, middle-class Indians, one can do no better than to turn to the writings of Bankimchandra Chatterji, the famous Bengali novelist and essayist who also penned the Krsnacaritra, or “The Life of Krishna”. Bankim asked himself the question that all educated Indians at this time were pondering over, namely how is it that India had, for innumerable centuries, been ‘enslaved’ by ‘foreigners’. According to Bankim, the excessive devotionalism of the Hindus had ill-prepared them to meet foreign invasions, or even take an interest in material life; the Hindus, he argued, had little or no appetite for governance, and for centuries they had neglected their social and political institutions, preferring instead to be regaled by stories of a god, Krishna, who appeared as a naughty boy, lover, cowherd, trickster, playful youngster, and even adulterer in Indian literature and art. In the Bhagavata Purana, and countless number of other Indian texts of medieval devotionalism and ‘secular’ literature alike, the exploits of Krishna — as the “butter thief”, the simultaneous lover of 16,000 gopis or nubile young women, the man-about-town who frolics on the village green, the toddler who eats mud but is recognized by his mother as the Supreme Being, and the initiator of the rasa lila, or cosmic dance — are recounted, celebrated, and interpreted with evident delight. It is this Krishna who has ever predominated in the Indian tradition, to whom paeans were sung by the bhakta or devotional poets, over whom the great Mirabai went mad, and who furnished Indian artists and musicians with the material from which they drew their sustenance.

Bankim traced this devotionalism in Bengal to the piety of Sri Caitanya and other Vaishnavas, who had made a cult of Krishna worship, and it was a matter of acute embarrassment to him that as a candidate for a Hindu deity, Hindus could do no better than put forth a god who would have been considered intolerable in the Semitic religions. Hinduism had no place in the modern world, Bankim appeared to suggest, as it was a largely unregulated, polycentric, and ahistorical religion; it had no conception of a single book, or a single prophet, and its deities, such as Krishna, were scarcely the kind of models that Muhammad and Jesus were for Islam and Christianity, respectively. What kind of religion was it that humored its devotees by presenting them with a deity whose amusements consisted in stealing women’s clothes while they bathed in the river, dallying with women under the moonlight, or exchanging roles with his beloved, Radha? Yet Bankim was certain that, had Indians not been indifferent to their own history, they would have been aware of the other, historical Krishna who had once reigned supreme in the Indian tradition. This Krishna counseled Arjuna to fight and fulfill his duties as a warrior; this Krishna, though not taking up arms himself, led the Pandavas to victory, and so paved the way for the rejuvenation of Bharat [India]. Bankim, and other Indian nationalists of his ilk, thus took it as their mandate to resuscitate the historical Krishna, turn Krishna into a historical figure in the manner of Christ and Muhammad, and transform Hinduism into a world historical religion. Bankim’s near contemporary, the Maharashtrian political leader Bal Gangadar Tilak, similarly argued for a reading of the Gita that stressed not merely the contemporaneity of the text, but which evoked the image of a Krishna who could inspire nationalists to the fulfillment of their task of evicting the British from India.

Yes, as I have already suggested, the Krishna whose life and exploits fills the many pages of Indian literature is much less the Krishna of the Gita and the Mahabharata than the Krishna of the Bhagavatam, Mirabai, and Surdas, and the musicians and artists — exemplified by the master miniature painters — of India have drawn largely upon the playful lover and God for their inspiration. Krishna has, outside the realm of his devotees, most commonly been considered from the standpoint of religion and art history, the two academic disciplines which have been most concerned with representations of Krishna in Indian tradition, but he can also be viewed from the standpoint of history, politics, and cultural and social anthropology. The study of Krishna raises complex questions: how might one, for example, write the biography of an Indian deity? Some scholarly studies have attempted to view Krishna in relation to other Indian deities, as well as in relation to the prophets and saviors of other religions; others have attempted to draw a portrait of the historical and spiritual landscapes that inform Krishna’s biography: these include the towns of Vrindavan, Mathura, and other neighboring areas in the region of Braj, other pilgrimage towns associated with Krishna worship, such as Nathdwara, Dwarka, Puri, and Kurukshetra, and the eternal lands where Krishna partook of the rasa lila. Recent anthropological perspectives have focussed not only on divergent traditions of Krishna worship in India, but also on modern forms of Krishna devotionalism, such as those which are embodied in the Hare Krsna movement.

Further Reading:

Anand, D. Krishna: The Living God of Braj. New Delhi: Abhnav Publications, 1992.

Archer, William G. The Loves of Krishna. New York: Grove Press, 1957.

Bhagavata Purana [also called Sri Bhagavatam]. Various translations and editions in English, Hindi, Sanskrit, French, and other languages. Book X, on the life and loves of Krishna, is the most critical part. See Tagare (below).

Chatterjee, Bankimcandra. Krishnacharitra, translated into English by Pradip Bhattacharya. Calcutta: M. P. Birla Foundation.

Jayadeva. The Love Song of the Dark Lord: Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda, ed. and trans. by Barbara Stoller Miller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.

Tagare, Ganesh Vasudeo, trans. The Bhagavata Purana. Pt. 4 (10th skandha). Ancient Indian Tradition & Mythology Series, vol. 10. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1978.

Varma, Pavan K. Krishna: The Playful Divine. Delhi: Viking, 1993.

See also: Krishna: A Select Research Bibliography

See also: [Braj] [Krishna and Kubja] [Krishna: Dan Lila] [Vastraharana — The Theft of the Clothes] [Krishna: The Butter Thief] [Kaliya, the Snake] [Krishna and Radha] [Krishna: The Flutist] [The Raslila Dance] [The Death of Kamsa] [Krishna in the Mahabharata] [Putana, the Child-Killer]