- Legends of KrishnAvatar (Life)
- Krishn in Mahabharat
- Iconography of KrishnAvtar
- The most famous Avatar
- Balram and Krishn
The Blue god Krishn is the eighth and probably the most famous incarnation of Vishnu. He is dear to everyone. From childhood to youth and till the end of his Avatar, every stage of his life is sung, told and preserved in the oral traditions of India since centuries. Krishn was born to destroy his uncle, Kamsa, who had usurped the throne of Mathura and was harassing his subjects. Krishn also played a vital role in the Mahabharata.
Legends of Krushna Avatar (Life)
The Mahabharat, Harivamsha and the Puranas give detailed information about Krishnavatar. Krishn is also called as Vasudeva, Narayan, Devakinandan etc.
In the Vedic period, ‘Vasudeva’ was an auspicious designation given to a wise, honourable man. Taittiriya Aranyaka was the first to mention the name Vasudeva referring to god, together with Narayan and Vishnu. Krishna appears first in Chhandogya Upanishad which says that he was a pupil of sage Angiras. Two later Upanishadas refer to him as Madhusudana, i. e. Vishnu. It means that Krishn was known in the Vedic period and later he was deified and identified with Vasudev.
Kamsa was the king of Bhojas who ruled from Mathura situated on the eastern bank of river Yamuna. Kamsa was heartless. He usurped the throne by overthrowing his father Ugrasen and imprisoning him. Ugrasen’s brother Devak had a daughter, Devaki who got married to Vasudev, chief of Yadavas. Yadavas were mainly pastoral people. Devaki was Kamsa’s favourite sister. After marriage, when she was going home in a chariot, Kamsa himself offered to pull it. On the way, a heavenly voice warned him not to be so joyful as the eighth son of Devaki would kill him.
Fearful of the prediction, Kamsa thought of killing Devaki. But Vasudev pleaded with him to spare Devaki’s life accepting in return to handover all their kids to Kamsa. Then Kamsa put both of them in prison. Every time, immediately after the birth of the child, Kamsa used to kill it. This way, he destroyed Devaki’s six kids. But the seventh one was saved. Vishnu transferred the fetus into the womb of Rohini, another wife of Vasudev. Finally, in the month of Sravan, on Krishna Ashtamii (Lunar eighth day of waning phase of moon), the eighth son of Devaki took birth.
Vasudev and Devaki wanted to save this infant from Kamsa. They decided to keep the child in Gokul, at the place of Nand, who was Vasudeva’s friend. As soon as Vasudev put the baby in a basket, the prison doors opened, the guards slept as dead and Vasudev escaped. He held the basket on his head. It was midnight and it was pouring heavily. Vasudev started towards Gokul. On his way, river Yamuna was flooded and roaring like a tigress. He prayed to her and began crossing. To his amazement, the moment the water touched the baby’s legs, it receded and Vasudev could easily reach across.
In Gokul, Nand’s wife Yashoda had given birth to a girl. She was fast asleep when Vasudev reached their home. Nand exchanged the kids and gave the girl to his friend. Vasudev reached the prison with the baby.
Kamsa, hearing the cries of an infant came to Davaki’s chamber. He snatched the baby and as he was about to dash it to the ground, it slipped from his hands and disappeared into the clouds. And a voice arose, “O Kams, there is no use killing me. The one who will slay you, has been born already!” This girl was none other than the almighty goddess Durga.
Kamsa was shocked hearing this heavenly warning. All his efforts to kill Devaki’s son had proved useless. Then he decided to execute all the new-born babies in the surrounding villages.
On the other side, the whole of Gokul was celebrating the birth of the chieftain’s son. Nand named him Krishn. After some days, Rohini also came to stay there with her child. He was named Ram or Balram. Balram and Krishn grew up to be charming cowherd boys.
Kams wanted to find out and kill that unknown child desperately. He sent Putana on this expedition. Putana, his sister was a demoness. She disguised herself as a toy seller. Doing so, she wandered in the surrounding villages and killed many new-born babies by feeding them her poisonous milk.
One day, she reached Nand’s place. Yashoda was busy with her household chores and Krishn was playing quietly in his swing. Putana started suckling him. But this baby was not an ordinary one. He sucked at her breast until she fell down dead. Hearing her cries, Yashoda and the neighbourhood ladies came hurriedly. They saw a massive demoness fallen down lifeless and baby Krishna was playing beside her!
There are a number of stories about Krishna’s naughtiness in his childhood. He was dear to all, especially the women who fed him milk, curd and butter. He loved butter and used to steal it from houses with his friends.
On one occasion Yashoda became angry with his pranks and tied him to a mortar. But he started dragging it and passed between two huge Arjun trees. When the mortar was obstructed by those trees, he pulled it until the trees fell. Once, Yashoda saw little Krishn eating soil. When she reprimanded him and asked him to open his mouth, she could see the entire universe inside.
The ladies of Gokul used to go to the market in Mathura to sell milk, curd and butter. Sometimes Krishna and his friends hid beside the road and broke their earthen pots to eat the delicious milk products.
Kams heard the legends of Krishn’s courage and understood that this boy might be his dreadful enemy. So he sent ferocious demons like Trunavart, Bakasur, Aghasur, Vatsasur one after another to destroy Krishn. But none of them could harm him. Instead they all met their end. Few asuras were also killed by Balram.
Kaliyamardan (Conquering Kaliya)
A huge serpent, Kaliya was staying in a pond called ‘Kalindi’ in the river Yamuna. He had poisoned the entire water due to which cattle and people were dying. Even the trees on the bank were burnt out and birds flew away. Krishn decided to destroy him and jumped into the river. He challenged Kaliya and fought with him, subjugated him and drove him back to the sea.
Krishn grew up to be young and handsome. Various texts describe his appearance. The ‘Gita Govind’ mentions,
– गीतगोविंद (१.४.१)
- Gita Govind(1.4.1)
‘His dusky skin was adorned with reddish sandal paste. He wore yellow robes and garlands of wild flowers. While playing, his ear ornaments used to dangle and sometimes beautified his forehead reaching there. His face was smiling always.’
The Gopis were crazy with their love for him. For them, Krishn was god, a friend, a lover, everything. He played the flute and the Gopis danced. On the full moon night of Sharad Rutu, he danced the ‘RaasKrida’ with them. Radha was his devotee-friend. Her love for Krishn had attained such a height; it is believed that she is not apart from him. Both Radha and Krishn have been considered as symbols of love, devotion and dedication since then. Their association has been portrayed in a number of texts, paintings and sculptures.
Every year the people of Gokul used to celebrate ‘Indra Puja’ i.e. worship of god Indra. They believed that Indra, being pleased with this puja would bless them with rain that would help them get on with their agricultural as well as pastoral activities. It is said that because of this honour, Indra had become arrogant. Krishn persuaded the villagers to worship their cattle and the mountain Govardhan instead of Indra.
For this mountain worship, all the people gathered on Govardhan. They offered various flowers and fruits, milk, curd etc to the mountain. This scene made Indra furious. He decided to teach them a lesson. The skies opened up and the fury of the rain threatened the hapless villagers. Krishn the savior lifted up the mountain and held it on his little finger for the next seven days sheltering the residents and cattle of Gokul. Finally, Indra’s pride was defeated and he accepted the divinity of Krishn. This incident gave Krishn another title – “Govardhandhari” (one who has lifted mount Govardhan)
The story of Govardhandhari shows the growing importance of non-Vedic gods. This can also be seen in the story of Parijatak tree which appeared during the churning of the ocean. Indra obtained this tree for his consort Shachi. But Krishn uprooted it from Indra’s courtyard and carried it for his wife Satyabhama.
Kamsa’s efforts to destroy Krishn had gone in vain. Finally, he decided to kill him personally in Mathura. He sent Akrur, his nobleman to invite Krishn and Balram to visit Mathura for a sports event.
Akrur told Krishna the evil-motive of Kamsa. Both the brothers entered the capital in the guise of poor peasants. They saw a washerman washing Kamsa’s robes. They first asked him to give them the royal clothes but when refused they killed him and wore those robes. Seeing these gorgeous young men, a flower-seller offered them garlands. A deformed lady called Kubja gave them sandalwood paste. In return, Krishn cured her of her deformity.
Next day, Balram-Krishn went to the sports complex. A fierce elephant was arranged to trample Krishn. The animal rushed towards them, the next moment it lay on the ground. Next, two mighty wrestlers namely Chanur and Mushtik attacked Krishn and Balram respectively. They were also slain. In the end, Krishn ran towards the king, pulled him onto the ground and killed him in one stroke.
The people of Mathura were freed of the tyranny of the evil king. They wanted Krishn to be their ruler. But he gave the throne to Ugrasen, the actual ruler of Mathura. He also rescued his parents and stayed with them.
The Yadava clan was divided into two streams namely, Andhak and Vrushni. Krishn united both the groups and became their leader. After the death of Kams, his father-in-law Jarasandh angrily attacked Mathura but the Yadavas defeated him. He kept on attacking repeatedly with the intention of killing Krishn. Though Krishn overpowered him, he could not completely destroy Jarasandh. Finally, he shifted with all his people to far away Saurashtra. He built a new city near the sea called Dwaraka. Dwaraka gave the Yadavas a new identity and power. It became a legendary town of prosperity, wealth, strength and culture.
King Bhishmak of Vidarbha had a daughter, Rukmini. She had heard of Krishn’s courage, strength and intelligence in her father’s court. She fell in love with Krishn. But her brother Rukmi wanted her to get married to his friend Shishupal. Rukmini did not accede to this proposal. Finally, she sent Krishn a letter describing her situation and requested him to accept her as his bride. On the day of her wedding, she went to Ambika temple situated on the outskirts of the town. Krishn came there in a chariot and in a trice, they disappeared and reached Dwaraka. There they were married.
This was Krishn’s first marriage. Later he married Satyabhama, Jambvati, Kalindi, Mitravinda, Satya, Bhadra and Lakshmana. These eight wives of Krishn are famous as ‘Ashtanayika’.
Later when Krishn slew the demon Narakasur, he rescued the sixteen thousand girls held captive by the demon. To secure their prestige and honour, Krishn accepted them as his wives.
The Yadava clan became very powerful in the course of time under Balram-Krishn’s direction. Gradually they became proud and arrogant. One day after the Mahabharat war, all the Yadava men went to Prabhas kshetra on pilgrimage. On reaching the seashore, they indulged in drinking and in drunken stupor began quarreling with one another. Arguments turned into fights and in this unfortunate combat, most of them died. Seeing this depressed Balram and he left this earth.
When Krishn came to know of this incident, he understood that his end was near. He sat silently under a tree in deep thought. A hunter, Jara saw his left foot on right knee behind leaves which together created an illusion of a deer’s mouth. The hunter shot an arrow that took Krishn’s life. Going near, he realized his mistake but Krishn forgave him, sent him to heaven and abandoned his mortal body. It is believed that on the day of Krishn’s nirvana, Kaliyug started.
After the nirvana of Krishn, all the Ashtanaikas entered his funeral pyre. Arjun went to Dwaraka, and took all other ladies and children to Indraprastha. When they came on the shore, Krishna’s Dwaraka submerged under water.
Krishn in Mahabharata
Though Krishn played a very crucial role in Mahabharat, he appears fairly late. Vasudev’s father, Sur had a daughter, Kunti. Later she was given to the childless KuntiBhoj. Thus Krishn was Kunti’s nephew. He first met the Pandavas during Daupadi’s swayamvar. When Arjun won her hand, and all the Pandavas got married to her, Krishn gave them lot of wealth and treated them graciously. This deed of his showed the support of the mighty Yadava kingdom to Pandavas.
Later Krishn met Pandavas in Indraprasth and helped Arjun to burn the Khandav forest. Afterwards when Arjun visited Dwarka, he fell in love with Krishn’s sister Subhadra. Krishn helped him elope with her. He assisted the Pandavas in the Rajasuya sacrifice and arranged a wrestling match between Bheem and Jarasamdh which ended with the death of the latter. In the sacrifice, Pandavas offered the honour of ‘Agrapuja’ to Krishn. Shisupal opposed this and insulted him so Krishn killed him with his ‘Sudarshan chakr’.
In the gamble, Yudhishtir lost everything including Draupadi. Krishn saved her honor when Duhshasan humiliated her in the open court. Being Pandava’s diplomat he talked to Kauravas for peace. He did his best to avoid the war and help the Pandavas get their lost kingdom back. When Arjun and Duryodhan both went to seek his help, he refused to take any active part in the war and asked them to choose between his army and himself. While Duryodhan chose his army, Arjun asked for Krishn himself. Krishn became his charioteer and narrated the Bhagvadgita on the battlefield.
Parthay pratibodhitam bhagvatanarayanenswayam
Vyasengrathitam puranmuninamadhye mahabharatam |
Advaitamrutvarshinim bhagvatim shtadashadyayinim
Ambtvamanusanddhami bhagvadgite bhavdveshinim ||
Lord Partha himself taught the eighteen chapters of the Bhagavad Gita which is the essence of Advaita and which creates disenchantment with the material world. This work compiled by Vyasa himself nourishes the individual, Oh, mother Bhagvadgita, I worship you.’
Bhagvadgita means the Song Celestial, sung by the lord Himself. It comes in the Bhishmparv of Mahabharat. On the first day of war, when Arjun saw all his relatives in front of him, he became sentimental. They were his family, teachers, kith and kin. He was overcome with delusion and did not want to fight or destroy his own clan.
At this moment, Krishn preached to him the Gita. He says, “Oh Arjun, wise men do not weep for mortal things. Nothing on this earth lasts forever. The Soul is immortal, it is neither born nor does it die. Duties come with birth. Without performing his duties, no one can attain salvation. You ought to perform your duty: you have no right to its consequences.”
This sermon of Krishn enlightened Arjun with the essential secrets of Hindu philosophy, Dnyanyog, Karmayog, Bhaktiyog and Shraddha. Arjun understood the divine lesson and held his bow once again. Bhagvadgita is a great philosophy of India, which teaches the true way of life to common people even after centuries.
Iconography of KrishnAvtar
The Vaikhanasagama says that the image of Krishn should be black and with a Kirita (headgear) on the head. It should be adorned with various ornaments. The right hand should be holding a curved stick and the left hand should be lifted up and bent at elbow.
On his right, there should be the image of Rukmini adorned with ornaments and her hair should be tied beautifully. Her right hand should be hanging down and the left hand shown holding a flower. On the left of Krishn, the image of Satyabhama should be placed. Her right hand should be holding a lotus and the left hand shown hanging down.
On the left of Krishn, Garud should be shown with hands in Anjali mudra.
The Vishnu-dharmottarPuran says that Krishn should hold Chakra in one of his hands.
There are certain forms of Krishnmurty popular in various parts of India. They are;
1. Navnita Nrutyamurty
The child Krishn has received his favourite butter ball and he is dancing with joy. This is prominent in South India. The Navnita Nrutyamurty is standing on the left leg, slightly bent on the knee. The right leg is lifted up and folded inwards as in dancing pose. The butter ball should be placed in the right hand and the left hand is stretched upwards.
The image has to be adorned with all ornaments. Sometimes it is shown nude and sometimes wearing a cloth. Occasionally, the image is shown standing on a lotus pedestal.
The image of Krishn punishing Kaliya is shown as a child dancing upon the hood of a serpent. The tail of the snake should be held by Krishn with his left hand. The image is shown to be wearing a short lower garment and usual ornaments with a headgear.
Venugopal or Gangopal is another variety of Krishn image, in which he can be seen delighting the world with his enchanting flute. His sweet music has captivated the cows, cowherds and cowherdesses. They have forgotten their own existence. The ecstasy can be clearly seen on his face.
This image should be shown standing with the left leg on the ground and right leg should be bent across the left one. The flute is held in both the hands and touched by Krishna’s lips. He is mainly wearing a headgear of peacock feathers and other usual ornaments. Sometimes he is shown standing under a tree or a cow behind him.
Krishn holding the Govardhan hill with his right hand is identified as Govardhandhari. Generally, these types of images are very well decorated. Cows, cowherds and cowherdesses are shown taking shelter under the mountain. The mount Govardhan is shown covered with trees and creepers along with various birds, animals, small and big.
Krishn is worshipped in the form of Parth-sarathi, the charioteer of Arjun. During the famous war of Mahabharat, Krishn served Arjun by being his charioteer. Vaikhanasagam describes this kind of image thus ‘Krishn should be shown holding the reins in one hand and a cane in the other. He is mounting the chariot as his right leg is resting on the floor and the left is placed in front of the chariot. Arjun, with bow in hand, standing on the ground in the Anjali mudra.’
This image demonstrates the Gita Updesh where Krishn taught Arjun, the essential lessons of philosophy.
Vrindavan is situated in district Mathura, Uttar Pradesh. It is a famous pilgrimage centre as it is believed that Krishn spent his childhood here. The followers of Vaishnavism visit Vrindavan often. The place is full of devotion for “Radhe-Krishn”. It is believed to be associated with Gokul and Govardhan hill. A complex of temples dedicated to Krishn’s life and activities immortalize the events of his life.
Madan Mohan Temple – It is said that this is the oldest temple of Vrindavan which was built by Kapur Ram Das of Multan. The original image of Madan Mohan Krishn was shifted to Rajasthan during Aurangzeb’s rule.
BankeBihari Temple – This is the most popular temple in Vrindavan. The image of BankeBihari was found by Swami Haridas, a krishn devotee.
Radha Raman Temple – It is an example of beautiful craftsmanship. It was built on the request of Gopal Bhatt Goswami in 1542 CE. Beside Radharani, there is a Shaligram formed Krishn called as Radha Raman.
GovindDev Temple – One of the popular places in Vrindavan. It was constructed in 1590 CE by Raja Man Singh of Jaipur. It is seven storied and built using western, Hindu as well as Muslim elements of architecture. The ceiling of the main hall is carved with a lotus that weighs in tons.
The other temples include Radha Damodar Temple, RadhaRasBihariAshtaSakhi Temple, RadhaGovind Temple etc.
The temple of Jagannath at Puri in Odisha is one of the sacred Char Dham centres of India. The present temple was built in 12th century CE by the Ganga rulers. The huge temple compound is protected by a 20 feet wall. The main temple is a ‘Panchratha’ type. From outside it is decorated with beautiful sculptures.
The temple is erected on an elevated platform and divided into Viman, Mukhashala, Nat Mandir orJagamohan and BhogMandap. The images of Jagannath, Balram and Subhadra are situated in the main shrine or Viman. It consists of a tall shikhar. The other chambers are built along the main temple. There are four main gates known as Simhadvar, Ashwadvar, Hathidvar and Vyaghradvar. The Simhadavar is guarded by sculptures of guardians Jay-Vijay.
Krishn Janmashtami is celebrated on the eighth day of KrishnPaksh in the month of Sravan. It is believed that Krishn was born on this day. It is celebrated throughout India with various rituals. Generally people keep fast on the previous day and break it at midnight when Krishn was born. Lamps are lit in the Krishn temples.
In Maharashtra, Janmashtami is popularly known as ‘DahiHandi’. It recalls the childhood days of Krishn when he used to steal butter with his friends. On this day, young men make a human pyramid to grab and break the earthen pot which is tied at a height. When the topmost person breaks the handi, the curd, butter and buttermilk is spilled over the pyramid. These boys are called ‘Govindas’ for this particular day.
Sacred places related to Krishn in Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and Gujarat celebrate this festival by visiting temples, lighting lamps and keeping fast. At many places, auspicious books like Gita, Harivamsh and BhagvatPuran are read.
In South India, people decorate the floors of temple with Kolam (rangoli drawn with rice paste). Devotional songs are sung in honour of Krishn. Fruits, butter and sweets are offered to him.
The most famous Avatar
The BhagvatPuran says,
“कृष्णस्तु भगवान् स्वयम्” (Krishnastu Bhagwan Swayam)
It identifies Krushn as Vishnu. In the later period, Krishna became a prominent deity. Since Mahabharat period, Krishn was believed to be Vishnu. This leads the author of Gita Govind to confirm that the cult of Krishn was in vogue.
Afterwards, in South India, Alwar devotees promoted Krishna-Bhakti. This tradition turned into Vaishnav Sampraday. Today, Krishn is the most famous deity and worshipped throughout India.
Balram and Krishn
Balram is not worshipped independently as a deity. Nor has he acquired a place in the Dashavataras. The glory of the younger brother overpowers the elder one. He supports many of Krishna’s activities and helps him to destroy the asuras.
The Mahabharat gives an account of Krishn and Balaram’s birth. It says that Vishnu pulled out a black and a gray hair of his head and both of them entered into the wombs of Devaki and Rohini respectively. Afterwards, Krishn was born of black hair while Balram was born of white hair. Once, on the occasion of a sporting event, a demon called ‘Pralambasur’ came to participate and carried away Balram in the sky. Balram, increased his weight and brought him down. Another demon ‘Dhenukasur’ was destroyed by Balram. He, in the form of an ass, used to guard the forest of palm trees. Once Krishn, Balram and their cowherd friends went there to taste a fruit. Balram starting shaking down the fruit and the demon came rushing towards them. He tried to hit Balram with his hind legs. Balram caught them and threw him in the air and killed him.
Vaikhanasagam states that the image of Balram should carry ‘Musal’ (pestle) in the right hand and ‘Hal’ (plough) in left hand. According to Agni Puran, Balram should be either two-handed or four-handed. The two-handed image should be shown carrying ‘Gada’ (mace) and ‘Hal’. Four-handed image should be shown with counch, pestle, mace and plough. On his right, his consort Revati should be standing. Her right hand should be holding a lotus while the left hand should be shown suspended down.
Some sources believe Balaram is the ninth incarnation of Vishnu instead of Buddha. But Balram is considered to be an incarnation of ‘Shesh Nag’ in Mahabharat.
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- Joshi M. 1964. BharatiyaSanskrutiKosha, Vol.III. Pune: BharatiyaSanskrutikoshMandal.
- Rao, T. A. G., 1998(Reprint), Elements of Hindu Iconography Vol I, Part I. New Delhi:MotilalBanarasidas.
- Desai, K.1973 Iconography of VishnuNew Delhi: Abhinav Publications