The stories of Krishna appear across a broad spectrum of Hindu philosophical and theological traditions. They portray him in various roles: a god-child, a prankster, a model lover, a divine hero and the Supreme Being. The principal scriptures discussing Krishna's legands are the Mahābhārata, the Harivamsa, the Bhagavata Purana and the Vishnu Purana.
The Sanskrit word has the literal meaning of "black", "dark" or "dark-blue", and is used as a name to describe someone with dark skin. Krishna is often depicted in murtis (images) as black, and is generally shown in paintings with blue skin.
Some Hindu traditions often ascribe varying interpretations and powers to the names. The Mahabharata's Udyoga-parva (Mbh 5.71.4) divides into elements and , (a verbal root meaning "to plough, drag") being taken as expressing "being; earth" and being taken as expressing "bliss". In the of the Vallabha sampradaya, the syllables of the name Krishna are assigned the power to destroy sin relating to material, self and divine causes. Mahabharata verse 5.71.4 is also quoted in Chaitanya Charitamrita and Prabhupada in his commentary, translates the as "attractive existence", thus Krishna is also interpreted as meaning "all-attractive one". This quality of Krishna is stated in the atmarama verse of Bhagavatam 1.7.10.
The name Krishna is also the 57th name in the Vishnu Sahasranama and means the Existence of Bliss, according to Adi Sankara's interpretation. Krishna is also known by various other names, epithets and titles, which reflect his many associations and attributes. Among the most common names are Govinda, "finder of cows", or Gopala, "protector of cows", which refer to Krishna's childhood in Vraja. Some of the distinct names may be regionally important; for instance, Jagannatha (literally "Lord of the Universe") in eastern India.
Krishna is easily recognized by his representations. Though his skin colour may be depicted as black or dark in some representations, particularly in murtis, in other images such as modern pictorial representations, Krishna is usually shown with blue skin. He is often shown wearing a yellow silk dhoti and peacock feather headgear. Common depictions show him as a little boy, or as a young man in a characteristic relaxed pose, playing the flute. In this form, he usually stands with one leg bent in front of the other and raises a flute to his lips, accompanied by cows, emphasising his position as the divine herdsman, Govinda, or with the gopis (milkmaids).
The scene on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, notably where he addresses Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, is another common subject for representation. In these depictions, he is shown as a man, often shown with typical god-like characteristics of Hindu religious art, such as multiple arms or heads, denoting power, and with attributes of Vishnu, such as the chakra or in his two-armed form as a charioteer.
Representations in temples often show Krishna as a man standing in an upright, formal pose. He may be alone, or with associated figures: his brother Balarama and sister Subhadra, or his main queens Rukmini and Satyabhama.
Often, Krishna is pictured with his gopi-consort Radha. Manipuri Vaishnavas do not worship Krishna alone, but as Radha Krishna, a combined image of Krishna and Radha. This is also a characteristic of the schools Rudra and Nimbarka sampradaya, as well as that of Swaminarayan faith. Gaudiya Vaishnavas celebrate Radharamana image, who is viewed as a form of Radha Krishna by members of the sect.
Krishna is also depicted and worshipped as a small child (bāla kṛṣṇa, the child Krishna), crawling on his hands and knees or dancing, often with butter in his hand. Regional variations in the iconography of Krishna are seen in his different forms, such as Jaganatha of Orissa, Vithoba of Maharashtra and Shrinathji in Rajasthan.
The earliest text to explicitly provide detailed descriptions of Krishna as a personality is the epic Mahābhārata which depicts Krishna as an incarnation of Vishnu. Krishna is central to many of the main stories of the epic. The eighteen chapters of the sixth book (Bhishma Parva) of the epic that constitute the Bhagavad Gita contain the advice of Krishna to the warrior-hero Arjuna, on the battlefield. Krishna is already an adult in the epic, although there are allusions to his earlier exploits. The Harivamsa, a later appendix to this epic, contains the earliest detailed version of Krishna's childhood and youth.
Many Puranas tells Krishna's life-story or some highlights from it. Two Puranas, the Bhagavata Purana and the Vishnu Purana, that contain the most elaborate telling of Krishna’s story and teachings are the most theologically venerated by the Gaudiya Vaishnava schools. Roughly one quarter of the Bhagavata Purana is spent extolling his life and philosophy.
Yāska's Nirukta, an etymological dictionary around the 5th century BCE, contains a reference to the Shyamantaka jewel in the possession of Akrura, a motif from well known Puranic story about Krishna.Satha-patha-brahmana and Aitareya-Aranyaka, associate Krishna with his Vrishni origins. In early texts, such as Rig Veda, there is no obvious references to Krishna, however some, like Ramakrishna Gopal Bhandarkar attempted to show that "the very same Krishna" made an appearance, e.g as the drapsa ... krishna "black drop" of RV 8.96.13.
Traditional belief based on scriptural details and astrological calculations gives the date of Krishna's birth, known as Janmashtami, as either 18 or 21 July 3228 BCE. Krishna belonged to the royal family of Mathura, and was the eighth son born to the princess Devaki, and her husband Vasudeva. Mathura was the capital of the Yadavas (also called the Surasenas), to which Krishna's parents Vasudeva and Devaki belonged to. The king Kamsa, Devaki's cousin, had ascended the throne by imprisoning his father, King Ugrasena. Afraid of a prophecy that predicted his death at the hands of Devaki's eighth son, he had locked the couple into a prison cell. After killing the first six children, and Devaki's apparent miscarriage of the seventh, being transferred to Rohini as Balarama, Krishna took birth.
Since Vasudeva believed Krishna's life was in danger, Krishna was secretly taken out of the prison cell to be raised by his foster parents, Yasoda and Nanda in Gokula. Two of his other siblings also survived, Balarama (Devaki's seventh child, transferred to the womb of Rohini, Vasudeva's first wife) and Subhadra (daughter of Vasudeva and Rohini, born much later than Balarama and Krishna). According to Bhagavata Purana some believe that Krishna was born without a sexual union, by "mental transmission" from the mind of Vasudeva into the womb of Devaki.
Nanda was the head of a community of cow-herders, and he settled in Vrindavana. The stories of Krishna's childhood and youth tell of his mischievous pranks as Makhan Chor (butter thief), his foiling of attempts to take his life, and his role as a protector of the people of Vrindavana. Krishna is said to have killed the demons like Putana, sent by Kamsa for Krishna's life. He tamed the serpent Kaliya, who previously poisoned the waters of Yamuna river, thus leading to the death of the cowherds. In Hindu art, Krishna is often depicted dancing on the multi-hooded Kaliya. Krishna is believed to have lifted the Govardhana hill and defeated Indra—the kings of the devas and rain—to protect native people of Vrindavana from prosecution by Indra and prevent the devastation of the pasture land of Govardhan. In the view of some, the spiritual movement started by Krishna had something in it which went against the orthodox forms of worship of the Vedic gods such as Indra.
The stories of his play with the gopis (milkmaids) of Vrindavana became known as the Rasa lila and were romanticised in the poetry of Jayadeva, author of the Gita Govinda. These became important as part of the development of the Krishna bhakti traditions worshiping Radha Krishna.
Krishna married Rukmini, the princess of Vidarbha, by abducting her from her wedding. According to some texts, Krishna had 16,108 wives, of which eight were chief—including Rukmini, Satyabhama, Jambavati; Krishna subsequently married 16,100 maidens who were being held in captivity by demon Narakasura, to save their honor. Krishna killed the demon and released them all. According to strict social custom of the time all of the captive women were degraded, and would be unable to marry, as they had been under the control of Narakasura, however Krishna decided to marry them to reinstate their status in the society. In Vaishnava traditions, Krishna's wives are believed to be forms of the goddess Lakshmi—consort of Vishnu or special souls attained this qualification after many lifetimes of austerity, while his primary queen Satyabhama, is an expansion of Radha.
Krishna was a cousin of the Pandavas, one of the two parties in the Kurukshetra War of the Mahabharat. Once battle seemed inevitable, Krishna offered both sides the opportunity to choose between having either his army or simply himself alone, but on the condition that he personally would not raise any weapon. Arjuna, on behalf of the Pandavas, chose to have Krishna on their side, and Duryodhana, chief of the Kauravas, chose Krishna's army. At the time of the great battle, Krishna acted as Arjuna's charioteer, since it was a position that did not require the wielding of weapons.
Upon arriving at the battlefield, and seeing that the enemies he would soon fight against were people close to him prior to the battle, Arjuna becomes doubtful about fighting. Krishna then advises him about the battle, with the conversation soon extending into a discourse which was later compiled as the Bhagavad Gita.
According to Puranic sources, Krishna's disappearance marks the end of Dvapara Yuga and the start of Kali Yuga, which is dated to February 17/18, 3102 BCE. Vaishnava teachers such as Ramanujacharya and Gaudiya Vaishnavas held the view that the body of Krishna is completely spiritual and never decays as this appears to be the perspective of the Bhagavata Purana. Krishna never appears to grow old or age at all in the historical depictions of the Puranas despite passing of several decades, but there are grounds for a debate whether this indicates that he has no material body, since battles and other descriptions of the Mahabhārata epic show clear indications that he seems to be subject to the limitations of nature. While battles apparently seem to indicate limitations, Mahabharatha also shows in many places where Krishna is not subject to any limitations as through episodes Duryodhana trying to arrest Krishna where His body burst into fire showing all creation within Him. Krishna is also explicitly told to be without deterioration elsewhere.
One of the earliest recorded instances of a Krishna who could potentially be identified with the deity can be found in the Chandogya Upanishad, where he is mentioned as the son of Devaki, and to whom Ghora Angirasa was a teacher. The Upanishads, namely and , specifically regard Krishna as a god and associate him with Vishnu.
References to Vāsudeva also occur in early Sanskrit literature. Taittiriya Aranyaka (X,i,6) identifies him with Narayana and Vishnu. Panini, ca. 4th century BCE, in his Ashtadhyayi explains the word "Vāsudevaka" as a Bhakta (devotee) of Vāsudeva. This, along with the mention of Arjuna in the same context, indicates that the Vāsudeva here is Krishna. At some stage during the Vedic period, Vasudeva and Krishna became one deity, and by the time of composition of the redaction of Mahabharata that survives till today, Krishna (Vasudeva) was generally acknowledged as an avatar of Vishnu and often as the Supreme God.
In the 4th century BCE, Megasthenes the Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya says that the Sourasenoi (Surasena), who lived in the region of Mathura worshipped Herakles. This Herakles is usually identified with Krishna due to the regions mentioned by Megasthenes as well as similarities between some of the herioc acts of the two. The Greco-Bactrian ruler Agathocles issued coins bearing the images of Krishna and Balarama in around 180–165 BCE.
Three inscriptions from Hāthibādā and one from Ghosundi (near Nāgari, Chittorgarh district) from the 2nd century BCE, record the building of a pujā-silā-prākar (stone enclosure for worship) in Nārāyana-vata (park of Nārāyana) by king for the worship of the gods Sankarshana (Balarama) and Vasudeva (Krishna). From the same century,the cave (Maharashtra) inscription of the Satavahana queen begins with an invocation to various gods including Sankarshana and Vasudeva.
In the 1st century BCE, Heliodorus from Greece erected the Heliodorus pillar at Besnagar near Bhilsa with the inscription: "This Garuda-column of Vasudeva the god of gods was erected here by Heliodorus, a worshipper of the Lord Bhagavata, the son of Diya Greek Dion and an inhabitant of Taxila, who came as ambassador of the Greeks from the Great King Amtalikita [Greek Antialcidas] to King Kasiputra Bhagabhadra the saviour, who was flourishing in the fourteenth year of his reign [...] three immortal steps [...] when practiced, lead to heaven—self-control, charity, and diligence."
Another inscription from Besnagar, from the same period, records the setting up of a Garuda pillar in a (excellent temple) in the twelfth regnal year of a king called , usually identified as a Sunga king. A 1st century BCE inscription from Mathura records the building of a part of a sanctuary to Vasudeva by the great satrap Sodasa.
The renowned grammar scholar Patanjali, who wrote his commentary on Panini's grammar rules around 150 BCE (known as the Mahabhashya), quotes a verse: "May the might of Krishna accompanied by Samkarshana increase!" Other verses are mentioned. One verse speaks of "Janardana with himself as fourth" (Krishna with three companions, the three possibly being Samkarshana, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha). Another verse mentions musical instruments being played at meetings in the temples of Rama (Balarama) and Kesava (Krishna). Patanjali also describes dramatic and mimetic performances (Krishna-Kamsopacharam) representing the killing of Kamsa by Vasudeva.
Also in the 1st century BCE, there seems to be evidence for a worship of five Vrishni heroes (Balarama, Krishna, Pradyumna, Aniruddha and Samba) for an inscription has been found at Mora near Mathura, which apparently mentions a son of the great satrap Rajuvula, probably the satrap Sodasa, and an image of Vrishni, "probably Vasudeva, and of the "Five Warriors". Brahmi inscription on the Mora stone slab, now in the Mathura Museum. Many inscriptions and references to worship of Krishna can be found from the early centuries of the Common Era.
The Bhakti movements devoted to Krishna became prominent in southern India in the 7th to 9th centuries CE. The earliest works included those of the Alvar saints of the Tamil country. A major collection of their works is the Divya Prabandham. The Alvar Andal's popular collection of songs Tiruppavai, in which she conceives of herself as a gopi, is the most famous of the oldest works in this genre. Kulasekaraazhvaar's Mukundamala was another notable work of this early stage.
The movement spread rapidly from northern India into the south, with the Sanskrit poem Gita Govinda of Jayadeva (12th century CE) becoming a landmark of devotional, Krishna-based literature. It elaborated a part of the Krishna legend—his love for one particular gopi, called Radha, a minor character in Bhagavata Purana but a major one in other texts like Brahma Vaivarta Purana. By the influence of Gita Govinda, Radha became inseparable from devotion to Krishna.
While the learned sections of the society well versed in Sanskrit could enjoy works like Gita Govinda or Bilvamangala's Krishna-Karnamritam, the masses sang the songs of the devotee-poets, who composed in the regional languages of India. These songs expressing intense personal devotion were written by devotees from all walks of life. The songs of Mirabai and Surdas became epitomes of Krishna-devotion in north India.
These devotee-poets, like the Alvars before them, were aligned to specific theological schools only loosely, if at all. But by the 11th century CE, Vaishnava Bhakti schools with elaborate theological frameworks around the worship of Krishna were established in north India. Nimbarka (11th century CE), Vallabhacharya (15th century CE) and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (16th century CE) were the founders of the most influential schools. These schools, namely Nimbarka Sampradaya, Vallabha Sampradaya and Gaudiya Vaishnavism respectively, see Krishna as the supreme god, rather than an avatar, as generally seen.
In the Deccan, particularly in Maharashtra, saint poets of the Varkari sect such as Dnyaneshwar, Namdev, Janabai, Eknath and Tukaram promoted the worship of Vithoba, a local form of Krishna, from the beginning of the 13th century until the late 18th century. In southern India, Purandara Dasa and Kanakadasa of Karnataka composed songs devoted to the Krishna image of Udupi. Rupa Goswami of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, has compiled a comprehensive summary of bhakti named Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu.
From the 10th century CE, with the growing Bhakti movement, Krishna became a favourite subject of the arts. The songs of the Gita Govinda became popular across India, and had many imitations. The songs composed by the Bhakti poets added to the repository of both folk and classical singing.
The classical dances of India, especially Odissi and Manipuri, draw heavily on the story. The 'Rasa lila' dances performed in Vrindavana shares elements with Kathak, and the Krisnattam, with some cycles, such as Krishnattam, traditionally restricted to the Guruvayur temple, the precursor of Kathakali. The Sattriya dance, founded by the Assamese Vaishnava saint Sankardeva, extols the virtues of Krishna. Medieval Maharashtra gave birth to a form of storytelling known as the Hari-Katha, that told Vaishnava tales and teachings through music, dance, and narrative sequences, and the story of Krishna one of them. This tradition spread to Tamil Nadu and other southern states, and is now popular in many places throughout India.
Narayana Tirtha's (17th century CE) Krishna-Lila-Tarangini provided material for the musical plays of the Bhagavata-Mela by telling the tale of Krishna from birth until his marriage to Rukmini. Tyagaraja (18th century CE) wrote a similar piece about Krishna called Nauka-Charitam. The narratives of Krishna from the Puranas are performed in Yakshagana, a performance style native to Karnataka's coastal districts. Many movies in all Indian languages have been made based on these stories. These are of varying quality and usually add various songs, melodrama, and special effects.
In each age of the Jain cyclic time is born a Vasudeva with an elder brother termed the Baladeva. The villain is the Prati-vasudeva. Baladeva is the upholder of the Jain principle of non-violence. However, Vasudeva has to forsake this principle to kill the Prati-Vasudeva and save the world. The Vasudeva then descends to hell as a punishment for this violent act. Having undergone the punishment he is then reborn as a Tirthankara.
The story of Krishna occurs in the Jataka tales in Buddhism, in the Ghatapandita Jataka as a prince and legendary conqueror and king of India. In the Buddhist version, Krishna is called Vasudeva, Kanha and Keshava, and Balarama is his younger brother, Baladeva. These details resemble that of the story given in the Bhagavata Purana. Vasudeva, along with his nine other brothers (each son a powerful wrestler) and one elder sister (Anjana) capture all of Jambudvipa (many consider this to be India) after beheading their evil uncle, King Kamsa, and later all other kings of Jambudvipa with his Sudarshana Chakra. Much of the story involving the defeat of Kamsa follows the story given in the Bhagavata Purana.
As depicted in the Mahābhārata, all of the sons are eventually killed due to a curse of sage Kanhadipayana (Veda Vyasa, also known as Krishna Dwaipayana). Krishna himself is eventually speared by a hunter in the foot by mistake, leaving the sole survivor of their family being their sister, Anjanadevi of whom no further mention is made.
Since Jataka tales are given from the perspective of Buddha's previous lives (as well as the previous lives of many of Buddha's followers), Krishna appears as one of the lives of Sariputra, one of Buddha's foremost disciples and the "Dhammasenapati" or "Chief General of the Dharma" and is usually shown being Buddha's "right hand man" in Buddhist art and iconography. The Bodhisattva, is born in this tale as one of his youngest brothers named Ghatapandita, and saves Krishna from the grief of losing his son. The 'divine boy' Krishna as an embodiment of wisdom and endearing prankster is forming a part of worshipable pantheon in Japanese Buddhism.
Let it be clear that Lord Krishna, according to what has been revealed to me, was such a truly great man that it is hard to find his like among the rishis and avatars of the Hindus. He was an avatar (i.e. a prophet) of his time upon whom the Holy Spirit would descend from God. He was from God, victorious and prosperous. He cleansed the land of the Arya from sin and was in fact the prophet of his age. He was full of love for God, a friend of virtue and an enemy of evil.