Krishna is a Sanskrit word meaning “black”; the name of one of the most beloved of Hindu gods. According to Hindu mythology, Krishna is an AVATAR of the god VISHNU. For many worshippers, however, Krishna is himself the supreme GOD. Indeed, many scholars believe that Krishna was at ﬁ rst an independent deity. Only later was he incorporated into the myths of Vishnu. Stories of Krishna are numerous and have given rise to some of the masterpieces of Indian literature.
Ancient traditions know Krishna as a prince, a hero, and a sage. In this form Krishna is called Vasudeva. Vasudeva Krishna appears in the great Sanskrit EPIC, the Mahabharata. That epic pits ﬁ ve brothers, the Pandavas, against their cousins, the Kauravas. Krishna has ties to both groups. In the ﬁ nal battle of cousins against cousins, his troops ﬁ ght on behalf of the Kauravas, while Krishna himself advises, but does not ﬁ ght for, the Pandavas. The famous Hindu scripture, the BHAGAVAD-GITA, records a conversation between Krishna as adviser and Arjuna, one of the ﬁ ve Pandava brothers.
Krishna may be Vishnu on earth, but he still dies. After the Mahabharata war, he moved to western India and the city of Dwarka. There an arrow shot into his foot by mistake killed him.
Other stories tell of the birth and youth of Krishna. This Krishna is known as Gopala, “cowherd,” because he grows up among a cowherding people. Krishna’s parents are not cowherds. He is born into the ruling lineage of Mathura, a district in north central India. But Mathura is in the hands of the wicked ruler Kamsa. In order to keep him safe, the gods secretly entrust the infant Krishna to a cowherding couple. After Krishna grows up, he returns to Mathura, kills the wicked Kamsa, and assumes the throne.
Krishna Gopala is a mischievous child and an enchanting lover. The very young Krishna is fond of stealing freshly churned butter. On one occasion, too, it is said that a witch came to poison him with her milk. But the baby Krishna was unaffected by the poison. He drank so hard and long that he sucked the very force of life out of the witch. A somewhat older Krishna is said to have convinced the people of the region not to worship the Vedic god Indra. In his anger Indra sent a torrential rain. But Krishna lifted up Mount Govardhana and held it over the people as a gigantic umbrella.
Krishna’s relations with the gopis, the cowherding girls, provide favorite stories, for they express in graphic terms the relations of God and the human soul. On one occasion, the gopis were bathing in a river. Krishna stole their clothes, which were sitting on the riverbank. Then he climbed a nearby tree, taking the clothes with him. He refused to give them back until each gopi had come naked to the foot of the tree to retrieve them herself. The idea behind this story is that we cannot hide anything from God. Before God, our souls are as good as naked.
On another occasion, Krishna danced with the gopis at a village celebration. Each gopi left convinced that Krishna had spent the night dancing with her alone. This dance, called ras-LILA, also expresses a religious truth. God is actually available to everyone, but each person experiences God as being totally engaged with him or herself.
Krishna also has a favorite lover, named Radha. Hindus who worship Krishna often see themselves as friends of Radha or Krishna, assisting them in their love-play. Indeed, play underlies many of the stories of Krishna. These stories show Krishna devotees that God relates to the world through lila, play.
An important source for the stories about Krishna, both Krishna as a baby and child and Krishna as an adult, is the Bhagavata PURANA, sometimes called the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Jayadeva’s rather explicit poem, the Gita-Govinda, celebrates the love between Radha and Krishna. Krishna and his tales provide the subject of many other works of literature, too.
In art Krishna is shown with dark blue skin. He is also often shown playing the ﬂ ute, with which he enchants the gopis. Statues in temples often show him standing with Radha. The lovemaking of Radha and Krishna and ras-lila have provided painters with favorite subjects. Artists in Rajasthan who have used these subjects for their miniature paintings have made a particularly important contribution to Indian art.
Several important Hindu festivals celebrate Krishna. Holi occurs in spring and is known for the colored powders with which worshippers decorate one another, sometimes raucously. Janmastami, the celebration of Krishna’s birth, takes place in late summer.
The community of Krishna worshippers best known in North America today is ISKCON, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Its members are often called “Hare Krishnas” because they frequently chant the “Hare Krishna” mantra. A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896–1977), an immigrant to the United States, founded ISKCON in 1966. The community stands, however, in a tradition of Krishna worship that began in the 16th century with the eastern Indian saint Caitanya. By the beginning of the 21st century ISKCON claimed to have roughly 260,000 members as well as temples, rural communities, and restaurants in 71 countries.
Some practices once made ISKCON notorious. One was sankirtan, the public chanting of praises to Krishna. Since ISKCON members wear Indian clothing and adopt Indian styles, such as shaved heads for men except for a particular lock of hair, they made a striking appearance chanting in public places in the United States. Another controversial practice was the distribution of free literature about Krishna in public places such as airports. Although laws now limit the public distribution of literature, the movement still publishes a great deal, especially writings by its founder, Prabhupada.
Members of ISKCON observe a strict diet: They eat no meat and also avoid onions, garlic, and mushrooms. In some parts of the world it has not been easy for them to do so. Perhaps for that reason ISKCON manages restaurants that serve appropriate food. In addition, ISKCON temples generally provide free meals to the public on a daily basis.
Other ISKCON activities include programs to ensure the welfare of members’ children (once a topic of public critique), prison ministries, and the maintenance of cow sanctuaries. Although the movement began as a missionary endeavor, its temples have become important spiritual centers for Hindus who have emigrated from India.
ISKCON has constructed a major complex in Mayapur, the town in the Indian state of West Bengal where Caitanya was born. It includes a large temple centered on its founder, Prabhupada. Two other sites in India are also important to ISKCON members: Puri, where Caitanya lived, and places in Mathura associated with Krishna. These places are also sacred to Krishna devotees unafﬁ liated with ISKCON. They draw millions of visitors every year.