Mostly all stories related to Lord Krishna can be found in the Mahābhārata, the Harivamsa, the Bhagavata Purana, and the Vishnu Purana. The scenes from the narrative are set in ancient India, mostly in the present states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Haryana, Delhi, and Gujarat.
The story of Lord Krishna’s birth has had numerous accounts, many of which are varied, but the major facts have remained the same. The story starts off with Kamsa, the king of the Yadava clans. He was considered a tyrant having destroyed life and limb in the kingdoms that he had ruled. Mother Earth or “Shakti” weeped at what she saw and asked Lord Vishnu to help, to which he agreed. Kamsa had a sister by the name of Devaki who would soon wed, Vasudeva. A grand ceremony was held in their honour. Kamsa attended the ceremony and once the celebrations ended, he ordered the charioteer to step down as he wanted to drive the newly wed couple himself. As he would be his end. Upon hearing, Kamsa ordered Devaki and Vasudeva to be imprisoned. They were imprisoned for many years and Vasudeva had to bring each and every child to Kamsa. He killed all seven children.
The Birth of Krishna Phad Painting by Kalyan Joshi
Before the birth of the 8th child, Devaki and Vasudeva prayed to Lord Vishnu asking for help. After hearing everything, he reincarnated himself as Shri Krishna and told Vasudeva to take Krishna away to Gokula. Lord Vishnu continues to tell Vasudeva to swap Krishna with a newborn baby in the village, whose mother was Ma Yasoda. Vasudeva does what he is told, he walks out of the imprisonment with the help of Lord Vishnu. He travelled in the pouring rain and he crossed the river which had parted ways to let him walk. He reaches Gokul and swaps the two children and returns back to the dungeon with a baby girl. Shortly, his brother-in-law, Kamsa enters the dungeon in order to kill the 8th child. As he is about to kill the child, she transforms into the Goddess Lakshmi and informs Kamsa that the children destined to kill him were already born and lived somewhere else.
The Story of Krishna, Handpainting Pattachitra Lord Krishna Painting by Apindra Swain
This marks the tragic beginning of Lord Krishna’s life, swapped at birth and an uncle already planning his next move to find and kill him. Kamsa would go on to send many demons and monsters such as Shakata, Aghasura, Kaliya etc to kill Shri Krishna but all these demons would die trying to battle Lord Krishna who for the most part of it was a small child or “Balakrishna” or Little Krishna. But Lord Krishna’s childhood wasn’t limited to battling demons. His childhood has been depicted as a combination of youthful games and childhood pranks. He has been described as a cow herder, a mischievous boy whose pranks earn him the nickname Makhan Chor (butter thief), and a protector who steals the hearts of the people in both Gokul and Vrindavan. Lord Krishna is depicted in various ways across India but some of the features have remained the same. Described below is the iconography of Lord Krishna-
- He is usually depicted as dark-skinned such as black or dark-blue. In some texts, his skin is described as the colour of Jambul (Jamun, purple-coloured fruit).
- He is depicted wearing a peacock feather wreath or crown and is playing a bansuri or flute. Usually he is standing in a “tribhanga” posture in which one leg is standing in front of another. Sometimes, he is accompanied with cows which symbolises the divine herdsman Govinda.
- Alternatively, he is also depicted as a baby (Bala Krishna), a toddler crawling on his hands and knees, a dancing boy or an innocent-looking child playfully stealing or consuming butter (Makkan Chor), holding Laddoo in his hand (Laddu Gopal) or as a cosmic infant sucking his toe while floating on a banyan leaf during the Pralaya.
Regional variations in the iconography of Krishna are seen in his different forms, such as Jaganatha in Odisha, Vithoba in Maharashtra, Shrinathji in Rajasthan and Guruvayoorappan in Kerala.
Little Krishna, Kalamkari Painting by Harinath N.
Shreenath ji Krishna painting, Pichwai Painting by Jayesh Sharma
He is also described as a playful lover and enchanter of gopis (milkmaids) of Vrindavan, especially Radha. These love stories form a part of the “Raasleela” which are an important part of the Hindu scriptures such as the Bhagavata Purana and Gita Govinda. The word, “Raasleela”, has been described as “rasa” meaning aesthetics and “leela” meaning “act”, “play”, or “dance” translating to a “play (leela) of aesthetics (raasa), broadly described as “Dance of Divine Love”. During the raasaleela, the Gopis of Vrindavan sneak out of their households and families upon hearing Krishna’s flute. They dance throughout the night in the forest with Lord Krishna which stretches for one “kalpa” (a hindu unit of time) which supposedly lasts for 4.32 billion years. In Krishna bhakti traditions, the raasaleela has been described as “one of the most beautiful depictions of soulful love”. Here the romantic love between human beings in the material world is seen as a reflection of the soul’s original spiritual love of Lord Krishna in the spiritual world. The raasaleela also acts as the central development in worshipping Radha and Krishna.
Raasaleela Radha Krishna photo, Pichwai by Jayesh Sharma
Krishna and Radha is a union throughout the world and is revered across the length and breadth of India. In Hinduism, their union is seen as the combined forms of feminine as well as masculine realities of God. Radha is considered to be the chief consort of Lord Krishna and the chief of the gopis (milkmaids). She is also seen as the avatar of Goddess Lakshmi. Radha is also considered as a metaphor for the human spirit (atma), her love and longing for Krishna is theologically viewed as symbolic of the human quest for spiritual growth and union with the divine (brahman). Together they’re seen as the primaeval forms of God and his pleasure potency (Hladini Shakti). It has been described that Krishna is only satiated by devotional service in loving servitude and Radha is considered to be the personification of devotional service. Radha is also depicted as Krishna himself, split into two for the purpose of his own enjoyment. Radha and Krishna are known to share two types of relationships namely, Parakriya i.e. love without social limitations and Svakiya i.e. married relationship.
Radha Krishna Photo, Kalamkari painting by Harinath N.
When asked why Krishna can’t marry her; Krishna replied, “ Marriage is a union of two souls. You and I are one, how can I marry myself?’. Several Hindu texts allude to these circumstances. But many traditions state that Radha was married to another gopa called Rayan also called Abhimanyu or Ayan but she still loved Krishna. Many interpreted this as a person’s love and devotion towards God which is not bound by social limitations. But we do find contradictions to these versions in the Sanskrit scriptures namely, Brahma Vaivarta Purana and the Garg Samhita. It mentions that Lord Krishna married Radha in secret in the presence of Lord Brahma in the Vrindavan or Brindavan forests, long before any of their other marriages. The site of their marriage is still present today on the outskirts of Vrindavan called “Radha Krishna Vivah Sthali, Bhandirvan”. The story is mentioned in the Braham Vaivarta Purana indicating that Radha has always been Krishna’s divine consort and that it was her shadow that married Rayan. But to give importance to Parakiya relationship (love without any social foundation) over Svakiya's (married relationship), Radha Krishna's marriage was never publicised and kept hidden.
As per Hindu scriptures, Radha is also considered as the complete incarnation of Mahalakshmi. It is believed that Krishna enchants the world but Radha enchants even him. Therefore, she is seen as the Supreme Goddess. It is mentioned in Braham Vaivarta Purana (Krishnajanam khand, chapter 125) and Garga Samhita (Ashwamedh Khand, chapter 41) that after the curse of 100 years of separation got over, Krishna revisited Braj and met Radha and gopis. After performing the divine pastimes for sometime, Krishna called a huge divine chariot which took the residents of Braj along with Radha and gopis back to their celestial abode Goloka where the final reunion of Radha Krishna happened.
Radha Krishna photo, Kalighat painting by Manoranjan Chitrakar
Krishna's childhood illustrates the Hindu concept of Lila, playing for fun and enjoyment and not for sport or gain. This Lila is a constant theme in the legends of Krishna's childhood and youth. Even when he is battling with a serpent to protect others, he is described in Hindu texts as if he were playing a game.This quality of playfulness in Krishna is celebrated during festivals as Rasa-Lila and Janmashtami, where Hindus in some regions such as Maharashtra playfully mimic his legends, such as by making human gymnastic pyramids to break open handis (clay pots) hung high in the air to "steal" butter or buttermilk, spilling it all over the group.
The Story of Krishna painting, Pattachitra painting by Purusottam Swain
As Krishna reaches adulthood, he has successfully been battling demons that have been Kamsa to kill him. Distraught and furious by many failed attempts, he invites Krishna and his brother Balarama to Mathura to ensure their death. Here, Kamsa battles Krishna but fails and Krishna kills him. After this, Lord Krishna releases his birth-parents from prison, reinstates Kamsa’s father, Ugrasena as the king of the Yadava clan, and he becomes a leading prince at court.
Another extremely important and key role Lord Krishna has played is in Mahabharata. Whether it was protecting Drupadi’s honour or guiding Arjuna on the battlefield, Lord Krishna played a key role in playing out the Mahabharata. Upon arrival at the battlefield and seeing that the enemies are his family, his grandfather, and his cousins and loved ones, Arjuna is moved and says his heart will not allow him to fight and kill others. He would rather renounce the kingdom and put down his Gandiva (Arjuna's bow). Krishna then advises him about the nature of life, ethics, and morality when one is faced with a war between good and evil, the impermanence of matter, the permanence of the soul and the good, duties and responsibilities, the nature of true peace and bliss and the different types of yoga to reach this state of bliss and inner liberation. This conversation between Krishna and Arjuna is presented as a discourse called the Bhagavad Gita.
Krishna's Chariot: Kalamkari Painting by Sudheer
Lord Krishna is by-far one of the most famous and revered dieties across India and the world. He is also mentioned across various religions such as Buddhism and Jainism. Along with that, Krishna literautre has inspired various art forms such as Bharatnatyam, Kathakali, Odissi and Manipuri dance. Since the 1960s, the worship of Lord Krishna has spread across the Western World and to Africa, largely due to the work of organisations such as International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).
References and Further Readings-