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KRISHNA. [Source: Dowson's Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology] 'Black.' This name occurs in the Rigveda, but without any relation to the great deity of later times. The earliest mention of Krishna, the son of Devaki, is in the Chhandogya Upanishad, where he appears as a scholar. There was a Rishi of the name who was a son of Viswaka. There was also a great Asura so named, who with 10,000 followers committed fearful devastation, until he was defeated and skinned by Indra. In another Vedic hymn, 50,000 Krishnas are said to have been slain, and it is added in another that his pregnant wives were slain with him that he might leave no posterity. This is supposed to have reference to the Rakshasas or the to dark-colored aborigines of India.

The modern deity Krishna is the most celebrated hero of Indian mythology, and the most popular of all the deities. He is said to be the eighth Avatara or incarnation of Vishnu, or rather a direct manifestation of Vishnu himself. This hero, around whom a vast mass of legend and fable has been gathered, probably lived in the Epic age, when the Hindus had not advanced far beyond their early settlements in the north-west.

He appears prominently in the Mahabharata, where his character is invested with a certain degree of mysticism. Additions and interpolations have raised him to divinity, and it is in the song, Bhagavad-gita, a production of comparatively late date, now held to be part of the great epic. In this work he distinctly declares himself to be the Supreme Being. He says: -- "All this universe has been created by me; all things exist in me;" and Arjuna addresses him as "the supreme universal spirit, the supreme dwelling, the eternal person, divine, prior to the gods, unborn, omnipresent."

The divine character of Krishna having thus been established, it was still further developed in the Harivansa, a later addition to the Mahabharata; and in the Puranas, especially in the Bhagavata Purana, it attained full expansion. There the story of the life of Krishna, from his earliest days, is related with minute details, and it is upon this portion of his life that the popular mind delights to dwell. The mischievous pranks of the child, the follies of the boy, and the amours of the youth, are the subject of boundless wonder and delight. All these stories, as told in the Bhagavata Purana, have been made accessible and popular by the Hindi translation known by the name Prem Sagar, 'ocean of love,' and by other versions. Much of the story of the early days of Krishna is thus of comparatively modern invention, while the incidents of his relations with the Pandava princes are among the most ancient.

Krishna was of the Yadava race, being descended from Yadu, one of the sons of Yayati. The Yadavas of old were a pastoral race, and dwelt on the river Yamuna (Jumna), in Vrindavana, on the western side, and in Gokula on the other.

In those days, Kansa, Raja of the Bhojas, having deposed his father, Ugrasena, ruled in the city of Mathura, near Vrindavana. Ugrasena had a brother named Devaka, and Bevaka had a daughter named Devaki, who married Vasudeva, son of Sura, also a descendant of Yadu.

The history of Krishna's birth, as given in the Mahabharata and followed by the Vishnu Purana, is that Vishnu plucked out two of his own hairs, one white, the other black. These two hairs entered the wombs of Rohini and Devaki; the white hair became Balarama and the black (krishna) hair (kesa) became Krishna or Kesava. His reputed father, Vasudeva, was brother of Kunti, the wife of Pandu, and so Krishna was cousin of the three elder Pandava princes.

The Mahabharata gives two summaries of his exploits, of which the following are abridgements:

"While Krishna was growing up as a high-souled boy in the tribe of cowherds, the force of his arms was rendered famous by him in the three worlds." He slew the king of the Hayas (horses), dwelling in the woods of the Yamuna. He slew the direful Danava, who bore the form of a bull. He also slew Pralambha, Naraka, Jambha, and Pitha, the great Asura, and Mura. He overthrew and slew Kansa, who was supported by Jarasandha. With the help of Balarama he defeated and destroyed Sunaman, brother of Kansa and king of the Surasenas. He carried off the daughter of the king of the Gandharas at a swayam-vara, and princes were yoked to his car. He secured the death of Jarasandha and slew Sisupala. He overthrew Saubha, the self-supporting or flying city of the Daityas, on the shore of the ocean. He conquered the Angas and Bangas, and numerous other tribes. Entering the ocean filled with marine monsters, he overcame Varuna. In Patala he slew Panchajana, and obtained the divine shell Panchajanya. With Arjuna he propitiated Agni in the Khandava forest, and obtained the fiery weapon the discus. Mounted on Garuda, he alarmed Amaravati, the city of Indra, and brought away the Parijata tree from thence.

In another passage, Arjuna rehearses some of Krishna 's exploits. He destroyed the Khoja kings in battle, and carried off Rukmini for his bride. He destroyed the Gandharas, vanquished the sons of Nagnajit, and released King Sudarsana, whom they had bound. He slew Pandya with the fragment of a door, and crushed the Kalingas in Dantakura. Through him the burnt city of Benares was restored. He killed Ekalavya, king of the Nishadas, and the demon Jambha. With the aid of Balarama he killed Sunaman, the wicked son of Ugrasena, and restored the kingdom to the latter. He conquered the flying city of Saubha and the king of the Salwas, and there he obtained the fiery weapon Sataghni. Naraka, son of the earth, had carried off the beautiful jeweled earrings of Aditi to Pragjyotisha, the impregnable castle of the Asuras. The gods, headed by Indra, were unable to prevail against Naraka, so they appointed Krishna to slay him. Accordingly he killed Muru and the Rakshasa Ogha; and finally he slew Naraka and brought back the earrings.

It further appears in different parts of the Mahabharata that Krishna, prince of Dwaraka, was present at the swayamvara of Draupadi, and gave his judgement that she had been fairly won by Arjuna.

While the Pandavas were reigning at Indra-prastha, he paid them a visit, and went out hunting with them in the Khandava forest. There he and Arjuna allied themselves with Agni, who was desirous of burning the Khandava forest, but was prevented by Indra. Agni having secured the help of Krishna and Arjuna, he gave the former the celebrated chakra (discus) Vajranabha, and the club Kaumodaki. Then Indra was defeated and Agni burnt the forest.

Arjuna afterwards visited Krishna at Dwaraka, and was received with great demonstrations of joy. Arjuna, with the connivance of Krishna, eloped with Subhadra, Krishna 's sister, much to the annoyance of Balarama, her elder brother.

When Yudhishthira was desirous of performing the Rajasuya sacrifice, Krishna told him that he must first conquer Jarasandha, king of Magadha. Jarasandha was attacked and slain, and Krishna was thus revenged upon the enemy who had forced him to leave Mathura and emigrate to Dwaraka. Krishna attended the Rajasuya sacrifice performed by Yudishthira and the Kauravas.

When Draupadi had been staked and lost, she was dragged into the public hall by Duhsasana, who tore off her clothes, but Krishna pitied her, and renewed her clothes as fast as they were torn away.

After the close of the exile of the Pandavas, Krishna was present, and took part in the council which preceded the great war, and strongly advised a peaceful settlement. Then he returned to Dwaranka. Thither Arjuna and Duryodhana followed him with the object of enlisting his services in the coming war, but he refused to take any active part because he was related to both parties. He gave them the choice of his personal attendance or of the use of his army. Arjuna, who had arrived first, and therefore had the first choice, asked for Krishna himself, and Duryodhana joyfully accepted the army. Krishna then became the charioteer of Arjuna.

After this, at the request of the Pandavas, he went in splendid state to Hastinapura as a mediator, but his efforts were unavailing, and he returned. Preparations for action were then made and the forces drawn out. On the eve of the battle, while acting as Arjuna's charioteer, he is represented as relating to Arjuna the Bhagavad-gita or divine song.

He rendered valuable services to Arjuna throughout the battle, but on two occasions he suggested unfair dealing. He prompted the lie by which Yudhishthira broke down the prowess of Drona, and he suggested the foul blow by which Bhima shattered the thigh of Duryodhana.

He afterwards went to Hastinapura with the conquerors, and he also attended their Aswamedha sacrifice. On returning to Dwaraka he issued a proclamation forbidding the use of wine. Portents and fearful signs appeared, and a general feeling of alarm spread among all in Dwaranka. Krishna gave directions that the inhabitants should go out to Prabhasa on the sea-shore and endeavor to propitiate the deity. He gave permission also that wine might be drunk for one day. A drunken brawl followed, in which his son Pradyumna was killed in his presence, and nearly all the chiefs of the Yadavas were slain. Balarama went out from the fray and died peacefully under a tree, and Krishna himself was killed unintentionally by a hunter named Jaras, who shot him with an arrow, mistaking him at a distance for a deer.

Arjuna proceeded to Dwaraka and performed the obsequies of Krishna . A few days afterwards the city was swallowed up by the sea. Five of Krishna 's widows were subsequently burnt upon a funeral pile in the plain of Kuru-kshetra.

"Among the texts of the Mahabharata," says Dr. Muir, "there are some in which Krishna is distinctly subordinated to Mahadeva (Siva), of whom he is exhibited as a worshipper, and from whom, as well as from his wife Uma, he is stated to have received a variety of boons. Even in these passages, however, a superhuman character is ascribed to Krishna."

The popular history of Krishna, especially of his childhood and youth, is given in the Puranas, and is the subject of many a story. The Bhagavata Purana is the great authority, and from that the following account is condensed:

The sage Narada had foretold to Kansa that a son of Devaki, his brother's daughter, should destroy him and overthrow his kingdom. To obviate this danger, Kansa kept his cousin Devaki confined in his own palace, and six children that she bore he caused to be put to death.

She conceived a seventh time, but the child was an incarnation of Vishnu, and was miraculously preserved by being transferred from the womb of Devaki to that of Rohini, who was Vasudeva's second wife. This child was Balarama.

Devaki again conceived, and her eighth child was born at midnight with a very dark skin, whence he was called Krishna . He had a peculiar curl of hair, called srivatsa, upon his breast. The gods interposed to preserve the life of this divinely begotten child. The guards of the palace were overpowered with sleep, and bolts and barriers were removed. Vasudeva secretly changed the infants, and carried back the daughter of Yasoda to his wife Devaki.

Kansa discovered that he had been cheated, and in his wrath he ordered that every male infant that gave signs of vigor should be put to death. Vasudeva and Devaki, being no longer dangerous, were set at liberty. Nanda, alarmed by the order for the massacre, took the young child and removed with Yasoda and with Rohin and Balarama to Gokula.

Here Krishna was brought up, and wandered about in company of his elder brother Balarama. They played many pranks and passed many practical jokes; but they exhibited such marvelous strength and such godlike powers that they soon became famous.

Kansa was continually forming schemes for the death of Krishna . The female demon Putana assumed a lovely form, and tried to kill him by suckling him, but the child sucked away her life. Another demon tried to drive a cart over him, but he dashed the cart to pieces. A demon named Trinavartta took the form of a whirlwind and flew off with him, but the child brought the demon to the ground with such violence that he died.

One day Krishna broke the vessels of milk and curds and ate the butter, which made Yasoda angry. She fastened a rope round his body, and tied him to a large bowl, but he dragged the bowl away till it caught between two trees and uprooted them. From this feat he got the name of Damodara (rope-belly).

He had a terrible conflict with the great serpent Kaliya, who lived in the Yamuna, and he compelled him to go away.

On one occasion, when the gopis or milkmaids were bathing, he took away all their clothes and climbed up a tree, and there he remained until the damsels came to him naked to recover them. He persuaded Nanda and the cowherds to give up their worship of Indra, and to worship the mountain Govardhana, which sheltered them and their cattle. Incensed at the loss of his offerings, Indra poured down a heavy rain, which would have deluged them, but Krishna lifted up the mountain Govardhana, and held it upon his finger as a shelter for seven days and seven nights, till Indra felt that he was foiled. From this feat he obtained the name of Govardhanadhara and Tungisa. As he had protected the kine, Indra expressed his satisfaction, and geve him the title of Upendra.

He was now approaching manhood, and was very handsome. The gopis were all enamoured of him, and he dispensed favours very freely. He married seven or eight of them, but his first and favourite wife was Radha. At this period of his life he is represented with flowing hair and with a flute in his hand. One of his favourite pastimes was a round dance, called Mandalanritya or Rasamandala, in which he and Radha formed the centre whilst the gopis danced round them.

But his happiness was interrupted by the machinations of Kansa, who sent formidable demons to destroy him - Arishta in the form of a bull, and Kesin in the form of a horse. These attempts having failed, Kansa sent his messenger, Akrura, to invite Krishna and Balarama and Mathura to attend some games, and he formed several plans for their destruction. They accepted the invitation, and went to Mathura. Near the city they found Kansa's washerman engaged in his calling. They threw down some of his clothes, and he addressed them insolently, upon which they killed him, and took such clothes as they liked. In his progress he me Kubja, a crooked damsel, who gave him some unguent, and he repaid her gift by making her straight. In the games he killed Chanura, the king's boxer.

Afterwards he killed Kansa himself, and replaced Ugrasena on the throne. He remained in Mathura and studied the science of arms under Sandipani. He went down to the infernal regions and brought back his six brothers, whom Kansa had killed, and these, having tasted the milk of their mother ascended to heaven.

During this period he killed a demon named Panchajana, who had attacked the son of his teacher. This demon lived in the sea in the form of a conch-shell, and Krishna afterwards used this shell, called Panchajanya, as a trumpet.

Kansa's two wives were daughters of Jarasandha, king of Magadha. This king assembled his forces and marched against Mathura to chastise Krishna, but he was defeated. He renewed his attacks eighteen times, and was as often defeated.

A new enemy then threatened Krishna, a Yavana or foreigner named Kalayavana, and Krishna had been so weakened that he knew he must succumb either to him or to his old enemy the king of Magadha, so he and all his people migrated to the coast of Guzerat, where he built and fortified the city of Dwaraka. [The Mahabharata makes no mention of this foreign king, and says that Krishna retired before the eighteenth attack of Jarasandha. The foreign king would, therefore, seem to be an invention of the Puranas for saving Krishna 's reputation.]

After his settlement at Dwaraka, Krishna carried off and married Rukmini, daughter of the Raja of Vidarbha, and the betrothed of Sisupala.

An incident now occurred which brought him two more wives. A Yadava chief named Satrajit had a beautiful gem called Syamantaka, which Krishna wished to possess. Satrajit, for the sake of security, gave the gem into the charge of his brother Prasena, and Prasena was killed in the forest by a lion, who carried off the jewel in his mouth. This lion was killed by Jambavat, the king of the bears. Satrajit suspected Krishna of taking the jewel, and he, to clear himself, went out into the forest, ascertained the manner of Prasena's death, fought with Jambavat, and recovered the jewel. Krishna then married Jambavati, the daughter of Jambavat, and Satyabhama, the daughter of Satrajit. But the number of his wives was practically unlimited, for he had 16,000 and a hundred or so besides, and he had 180,000 sons.

By Rukmini he had a son Pradyumna and a daughter Charumati. His son by Jambavati was Samba, and by Satyabhama he had 10 sons.

Indra came to visit Krishna at Dwaraka, and implored him to suppress the evil deeds of the demond Naraka. Krishna accordingly went to the city of Naraka, killed the demon Muru, who guarded the city, and then destroyed Naraka himself.

Krisha next went to pay a visit to Indra in Swarga, taking with him his wife Satyabhama. At her request he requited the hospitality shown him by carrying off the famed Parijata tree, which was produced at the churning of the ocean. The tree belonged to Sachi, wife of Indra, and she complained to her husband. Indra drew out his forces and tried to recover it, but was defeated by Krishna.

Pradyumna, son of Krishna, had a son named Aniruddha, with whom a female Daitya, Usha, daughter of Bana, fell in love. She induced a companion to carry off the young man, and Krishna, Balarama, and Pradyumna went to rescue him. Bana, with the whole Daitya host, and assisted by Siva and Skanda, the god of war, encountered them. Krishna, "with the weapon of yawning, set Siva agape," and so overpowered him. Skanda was wounded. Bana made a fierce combat with Krishna, and was severely wounded, but Krishna spared his life at the intercession of Siva, and Aniruddha was released.

There was a man named Paundraka, who was a Vasudeva, or descendant of one Vasudeva. Upon the strength of the identity of this name with that of Vasudeva, the father of Krishna, this man Paundraka assumed the insignia and title of Krishna, and he had the king of Kasi or Benares for an ally. Krishna slew Paundraka, and he hurled his flaming discus at Benares and destroyed that city.

Such are the principal incidents of the life of Krishna as given in the Harivansa, the Puranas, and the Prem Sagar.

Modern Languages MLLL-4993. Indian Epics. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. The textual material made available at this website is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one. No claims are made regarding the status of images used at this website; if you own the copyright privileges to any of these images and believe your copyright privileges have been violated, please contact the webmaster. Page last updated: October 16, 2007 12:22 PM