Oct 17, 2014

Krishna: The Making of a God

There is no Hindu god as multidimensional as Krishna: Krishna the naughty boy, the lover, the trickster, the god. What if we were to be told that Krishna was none of these?

The earliest scripture that mentions Krishna is Mahabharata, and this Krishna is completely different from what we know today. There is no mention of gopinis or his childhood mischief with butter, and he is not a clownish trickster. He has 16,000 wives, but these are women he rescued by killing Narakasura. He has no romantic relationships other than with his eight wives.

One could argue that Mahabharata is about Kurus and not necessarily Krishna’s biography. Even so, many famous incidents are missing. In the Cheerharan scene, Draupadi does cry out for Krishna, but Krishna does not come to her rescue. Vyasa writes that it was ‘Dharma’ who saved her modesty. (Dharma’s identity is a matter of debate. Both Yudhishthira and Vidur are addressed as Dharma, but it is unlikely they helped her. Dharma as an abstract concept fits best here, so Draupadi’s own goodness saved her.)

It seems Draupadi cried out for Krishna not as a god but because Krishna is her go-to friend, dearer than anyone else. Later, when Krishna visits the Pandavas in exile, she complains to him about her warrior husbands who could not save her from humiliation. To be noted: She doesn’t thank him for what he did. Krishna regrets that he could not come because he was away fighting a certain Shalva. His helplessness is all too human.

Krishna’s divine image was created from books thousands of years after Krishna’s lifetime. Mahabharata is attributed to Ved Vyas who lived around 3,000 BC and was a part of the story. Harivamsa Puran—1st century AD, Vishnu Puran—4th century AD, and Bhagawat Puran—10th century AD, are also attributed to Vyas. How plausible is it that Vyas survives for more than 4,000 years and writes radically different versions of the same story?

The gradual construction of Krishna’s divinity is evident through these books. The Mahabharata mentions Krishna’s killing of Putana and other demons through human means. These stories, when exaggerated, made Krishna a folk hero. In the Harivamsa Puran, completed 3,000 years after Krishna’s life, new and old stories appeared with divine explanations.

Krishna finds an official place among the Dashavatara in the Vishnu Puran written three centuries later. His romance with 16,000 gopinis makes its appearance in Bhagawat Puran, which some say was being edited until the sixteenth century. And most Krishna stories, like his darshan to his parents before birth, his miraculous transport to Gokul, his naughty-boy days in Vrindavan, etc can be traced to Bhagwat Puran.

Radha does not appear until the 12th century, and it is amazing just how prolific she became since. Even until the eighteenth century, new folktales about Krishna kept popping up, and the entire accrual is treated as canon today.

Some of these stories do have basis in Mahabharata. Sure, Krishna is a trickster. To convince Arjun that he has to fight, he first gives the carrot: worldly sufferings do not matter to the soul. And then he gives the stick: if you don’t fight, you will be defamed, the world will laugh at you. He brings in the worldly emotions that he denounced as inconsequential moments ago.

But here, Krishna is not the chature kind of trickster who goes for cheap thrills (that he is today). He can be better described as a strategic thinker. After Jarasandha attacks Mathura eighteen times, Krishna is forced to migrate to Dwaraka. This earns him the title of Ranchhod—deserter of battlefield. (Doesn’t this spectacular defeat alone prove that Krishna is human? Please, not the ‘humans cannot understand divine leela’ explanation!). “Your Rajasuya Yagya cannot be successful without killing Jarasandha,” he whispers into Yudhishthira’s ears, making sure his nemesis is eliminated (by someone else!).

Krishna could invent logic out of thin air to turn the situation in his favor: Arjun must kill Karna immediately, though it is against the rules of engagement to attack an unarmed warrior. So the Pandavas always turn to him for advice: how to wed Subhadra to Arjun, how to kill Duryodhan. Krishna’s plans worked because he knew human nature intimately, not because he was an omniscient god. Shishupala’s diatribe tells us he was a controversial man in his own times, his godhood was unknown.

But today it is difficult to separate Krishna the man from Krishna the god because his divinity had managed to creep into Mahabharata itself. Mahabharata was written over a span of centuries, begun in 3,000 BC and finished in 500 BC. Other Puranas were also written over hundreds of years, and these books freely borrowed from each other. As a result, Mahabharata is full of inconsistencies. It is not easy to decide which parts are original and which are later additions.

For example, when Krishna goes to the Kaurava court to speak for peace, Duryodhan plans to capture him. Krishna blinds everyone with his divine roop to escape, but what he does before and after is ignored. Krishna was not alone, he had thousands of Yadavas. He did not learn of Duryodhan’s plot through Divya Drishti, it was his friend Satyaki who found out. Satyaki arranged for a chariot and informed Krishna of the plot. Krishna laughed it off, blinded everyone, but nonetheless rushed to the chariot and galloped away. In the midst of such entirely human self-defense activities, the divine roop is clearly a latter addition.

If one is looking to deconstruct Krishna’s image, the difference between reasonable and superfluous is evident. Krishna as a god leaves gaping holes in the story. With Krishna as a human, everything makes sense. Even in Geeta, the first few chapters explaining the conundrum of duty versus desire are the most impactful. Later chapters showcasing Krishna’s divinity do not have the same philosophical depth.
On the one hand, the graceful and dignified human of Mahabharata is extremely attractive. On the other hand, in a romantically repressed society, (others are sexually repressed, Hindus don’t even get there) a playful figure who celebrates romance is gratifying. His sensuality is an outlet in a philosophy that idealizes renunciation and control of senses. Bigots have a hard time explaining why Krishna had 16,000 married mistresses, so Krishna helps make a case against bigotry. Both as a god and human, Krishna’s moral ambiguity is delightful. In the company of morally uptight gods, Krishna shows us that complex questions have complex answers. The multifaceted Krishna is an example of Hinduism’s acceptance of diversity.

Why is Krishna blue?
There are several theories to explain why Krishna is a deep shade of blue. In classical texts we do not find Krishna described as blue. The words that describe his complexion—Krishna, Shyam, Neel, color of dark lotus, color of dark clouds, etc – all mean ‘dark’ and not necessarily blue.

Some believe that since black is inauspicious, Krishna is painted blue. But up until the fourteenth century, we find images of a black Krishna.

The word ‘Neel,’ which means dark and not blue, may have been misinterpreted as blue by artists.

Another theory is that since Vishnu resides in the ocean, the ocean’s color is reflected on him and all his avatars like Ram. But again, other deities like Shiva and Kali are also blue.

Yet another theory that explains all these anomalies is that things beyond human comprehension, like the ocean and the sky, are blue. Hence, blue is the color of the infinite, and is given to gods who are infinite and beyond human comprehension.


Timeline of Krishna stories
  • 3rd millennium BC: Events of Mahabharata happen
  • 5th century BC: Vyasa’s Mahabharata given final form
  • 3rd century BC: Bhagawad Geeta given final form
  • 1st century BC: Beginning of Krishna sects
  • 1st century AD: The Harivamsa Puran written, describing Krishna’s prowess
  • 4th century AD: Rise of Vaishnavism
  • 4th century AD: The Vishnu Puran written, establishing Krishna as Vishnu
  • 4th – 10th century AD: Rapid growth of the Bhakti Movement
  • 10th century AD: Bhagawat Puran written, detailing Krishna’s mischief
  • 10th century AD: Unnamed Gopini mentioned in Bhagawat Puran that could be Radha
  • 12th century AD: First recorded mention of Radha in Jayadeva’s love poem Gita Govinda
  • 16th century AD: Krishna Pranami sect established
  • 1966: International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) established

Note: Dates are approximate and contested by various groups.

Published in Republica on August 15, 2014


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