Who is Krishna?

Hinduism has a trinity consisting of a creator, stabiliser or harmoniser and a destroyer. These are actually the three aspects of the Supreme Brahman. These three are known as Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Whenever the world order deteriorates and the ancient dharma (law of righteousness) is no longer followed, Vishnu, in his role as the stabiliser takes many avatars or incarnations. It is his duty to put the world in harmony with the cosmic forces. Krishna is the 8th avatar of Vishnu. With the passage of time the Vedic way of life had deteriorated into a system of elaborate rituals and sacrifices that could not be done or even understood by the ordinary person. The mantras and rituals were only known to the Brahmins or the priest class. Only the kings or the very rich could afford to hold such sacrifices or “yajnas” as they are called. 

Thus we find that after the Vedic Age we have the Purāṇic Age which is the age of the great epics known as the Ramāyāna and the Mahābhārata. The sage Vyasa was the author of the eighteen Purāṇas (books about the various gods) as well as the epic called the Mahābhārata. The Vedic truths were imbedded in the Purāṇas so that unconsciously the listeners or readers imbibed these truths in an easy manner. The Purāṇas were written in the form of a story and was easily understood by the common person. The life of Krishna comes in the Mahābhārata as well as the Bhāgavad Purāṇa.  

The advent of Lord Krishna came at a time when the common man in Bharathavarsha (as India was known at that time), was without a simple religion that would satisfy his emotional wants and elevate him spiritually without taxing him too much intellectually. The Bhagavata Dharma which is the name of the philosophy that Krishna propounded provided a devotional gospel in which action, emotion, and intellect played equal parts and proclaimed him as Ishvara (God), who had incarnated himself for the sake of humanity. He could be communed with through love and service, and he responded to the earnest prayers and deepest yearnings of the human heart. The theory of the avatara, or the descent of God into human form, is one of the established beliefs of Vaishnava theism and may be difficult for the modern mind to conceive. 

Avatara means “descent,” and this descent is a direct manifestation in humanity by the Divine to aid the human soul in its ascent to the divine status. It is a manifestation from above of that which we have to develop from below. The avatara comes to give the outer religion of humanity, an inner meaning, which will enable it to grow into its original divine status. The ordinary person has to evolve and ascend into the god- head, but the avatara is a direct descent into human form. The first is a birth from ignorance into ignorance under the shroud of māyā, or the cosmic veil of illusion, and the other is a birth from knowledge into knowledge, with all powers intact and a full awareness and consciousness of his supreme status. He is thus a dual phenomenon, for he appears human and is yet divine. This has to be, for the object of the avatara is to show that human birth with all its limitations can still be the means for a divine unfolding. If the avatara were to act in a super- human way all the time, this purpose would be nullified. He might even assume human sorrow and suffering, like Christ or Sri Rama, in order to show that suffering itself may be the cause of redemption.  Krishna however is unique because even in the hours of deepest sorrow and travail, he showed himself to be a complete master of the situation, thus exemplifying the truth of how one who is established in unity with the Divine can remain unaffected in the midst of pain and sorrow. Hence, this avatara in the form of Krishna is known as purnavatara, or the complete descent of the entire divinity into the form of humanity. 

The Sanskrit word krishna has two meanings. It means the dark one. It also has another root and that is “karsha” which means to entice or enchant. Both these meanings are true of the great incarnation known as Krishna. He was dark in colour and had the ability to attract all those who came within his orbit. The story of his life has thrilled the hearts of all those who have been fortunate enough to have heard it. That is why despite the fact that he existed more than five thousand years ago, the tale is still as delightful and exciting as it was during his own life time. 

About five thousand years ago, ancient India was divided into many small duchies ruled by petty kings. There was continuous war and strife between these kings in order to get supremacy over the land. The Yadavas, Vrishnis, Dasharhas, Andhakas and Bhojas were different clans that had united under the leadership of their king Ugrasena who was a wise king devoted to dharma or righteousness. His capital was called Mathura. The king’s son, Kamsa was a wicked man who had usurped the kingdom after having jailed his father. The land was groaning under the weight of Kamsa’s inequities and people were praying to Lord Vishnu to deliver them from the bane of this monster.  Kamsa had a sister called Devaki who he was very fond of. He had arranged a marriage for her with a scion of the Yadava clan, known as Vasudeva. After the marriage Kamsa himself drove the bridal carriage down the main highway of their city. Hardly had they gone a few paces when the sky became overcast, thunder rumbled and a mighty voice split the clouds and froze the entire wedding party to immobility. 

“O Kamsa Beware! The hour of your death draws nigh! The eighth son of Devaki and Vasudeva will kill you and deliver this land from your wickedness!”

Hearing this proclamation Kamsa jumped out of the chariot and dragged Devaki down by her bejewelled hair and raised his sword to behead her. Vasudeva also got out and caught his upraised hand. He tried to reason with him but Kamsa was beyond reason. At last Vasudeva promised to hand over every child of his as soon as it was born to do with as he wished. This argument worked and Kamsa let go of Devaki but he took the precaution of putting them both in the same dungeon as his father.

Devaki gave birth to six boys all of who were killed by Kamsa by dashing their heads on a stone kept for this purpose. Her seventh pregnancy was aborted and the eighth was now due. Kamsa was determined to take no chances and had Devaki and Vasudeva chained to opposite pillars in the dungeon. The couple was plunged in grief since the eighth child was to be their saviour. At that time it is said that Lord Vishnu entered Vasudeva’s heart and gave him a vision of his wondrous form. He then described this vision in detail to Devaki and it is said that she conceived her eighth child in this miraculous fashion. 

When the jailor entered the dungeon the next day he was taken aback by the brilliant light that was emanating from Devaki that lit up the darkest recesses of the dungeon. He immediately gave the news to Kamsa who became frantic and ordered all guards to be doubled. But the ordinances of God cannot be kept aside by any human being. Ten months later at the appointed time, Lord Vishnu was born from Devaki. The light from the baby lit up the whole dungeon. In order to bless his parents the baby changed his form into that of Lord Vishnu so that they knew who he was. They were enraptured by this vision and extolled the small replica of the divinity that stood resplendent before them. After they had had their fill of gazing at the vision, the Lord told his father to take him to the cow-herd settlement called Gokula which was across the river Yamuna and place him on the bedside of Yashoda, the wife of the cowherd chief and bring back the little baby girl she had just given birth to. Before Vasudeva could ask him how he was going to accomplish this impossible task, he had changed into an infant in his mother’s arms. 

With total trust in what had been told to him, Vasudeva got up and found that his shackles had come undone. He took the baby from Devaki’s reluctant arms and walked towards the heavily barred doors which to his amazement swung open and revealed the guards who were fast asleep leaning on their long lances! All the doors swung open as he approached and stepped out into a titanic storm. He wrapped the baby in his tattered clothes and was surprised to find that not a drop came on him. When he reached the river Yamuna, the waters parted to give way to him. He arrived with his precious burden at the village of Gokula and reached the house of their chief, Nanda. Softly the door swung open and he saw a light burning in the first room. A lamp stood by the bed side of a sleeping mother and new-born baby. He crept into the room and quietly exchanged the babies. Before leaving he bent and kissed the pearly forehead of his son. With a last lingering look, he backed out of the room. 

In his distraught state he wouldn’t have been able to find his way back but the baby in his arms was actually the incarnation of the divine mother and she guided him so that he crossed the river and reached the dungeon and handed over the baby to his wife Devaki. Hardly had he returned to his pillar than he found himself back in chains. The baby that he had given to his wife started to squall at the top of her voice, waking the guards who ran to give the news to Kamsa. He jumped out of bed and came running to the dungeon and catching hold of the tiny feet of the baby he swung them up in order to dash it on the stone reserved for this gruesome purpose. At that time the baby slipped out of his grasp and flew up and gave him the vision of the divine mother goddess. She told him that his slayer was already born and was to be found within a radius of ten miles from there! So saying, she disappeared. Hearing this, Kamsa let loose a reign of terror unparalleled in the history of the world. His henchmen were sent to kill every baby within a radius of ten miles from the town! Many of them went to Gokula but were unable to kill the baby Krishna. 

Krishna grew up as the son of Nanda, the chief of the cowherd settlement. As a child, he was mischievous and wilful, charming all with his precocious acts. He escaped from the clutches of all the wicked people who had been sent by Kamsa to kill him. His sportive activities in the village of Gokula and later in the settlement of Vrindavana were quite miraculous and delighted the simple cowherds who marvelled at the divine power in the child. Even though he was only twelve years old, he was irresistible to all the cow herd girls who desired to get him as their husband or lover. His play with them has a deep esoteric meaning.

At the age of twelve, he went to Mathura, where he killed his uncle Kamsa, thus freeing the Yadavas from the rule of the tyrant. He grew up to be a hero, valiant and invincible, and gradually assumed leadership of the Yadava and Vrishni clans, even though he did not accept the title of king. In fact he always played the role of a king-maker and never a king! He defeated many of the tyrant kings and made the Yadavas into one of the most powerful forces of that time. He founded his new capital on the island of Dwaraka, on the western coast of India.  He played an important part in shaping the cultural and political life of his times. Though he did not take up arms, he played a decisive part in the great war of the Mahābhārata.

As a man, he was a Mahāyogi, the greatest of all yogis, totally unattached, having complete mastery over himself and nature, capable of controlling the very elements, if need be. His miracles were only an outflow of his perfect unity with God and, therefore, with nature. The spiritual gospel that he taught is known as the Bhagavata Dharma and is chiefly expounded in the Bhagavad Purāṇa, the Bhagavad Gītā, and the Uddhava Gītā. The simplicity of his teachings were such that it could be followed by any man, woman, or child, unlike the Vedic teachings, which were meant only for the intelligent and the elite. 

His most famous teaching is contained in the Bhagavad Gītā which was the advice he gave to his friend and cousin, Arjuna at the commencement of the great battle known as the Mahābhārata war. Arjuna begs Krishna to help him out of his dilemma. His problem was a particular one related to his special need. Krishna’s answer was not limited to Arjuna’s unique case but cut at the very root of the human problem which is one of ignorance – ignorance of the nature of our own selves, ignorance of the nature of the Supreme Being and ignorance of the nature of the universe that we inhabit. This is why the Bhagavad Gītā is still as fresh and applicable to modern life as it was when it was first given to Arjuna five thousand years ago. 

There are only two instances in his life that he gave advice. One was to Arjuna on the battlefield and the other to his friend Uddhava at the end of his life when he was about to depart from the earthly realm. Both seem to be diametrically opposite. Arjuna, the Kshatriya who had an active and volatile nature, was advised to fight the war. Uddhava who had a contemplative nature, was advised to leave everything and retire to the Himalayas to meditate. This was in accordance with his teaching that insists that each person’s “swadharma” or personal duty should be in tune with his “swabhava” or nature. He did not give one adamantine rule of conduct that was applicable to the whole of humanity with no consideration of the difference in their natures. 

Even though he advised Arjuna to fight, it does not mean that Krishna supports war. He accepts it as part of the game of life. War and peace are the two sides of the coin of life. Warmongers like Genghis Khan, Hitler and Alexander accepted only one side of the coin and believed that war was the only way of life. Pacifists like Mahavira, Buddha, Christ and Gandhiji on the other hand chose the other side of the coin of life. Both these types are easy enough to understand but Krishna is not that easy. He says that it is good to avoid war, but if it becomes unavoidable then it is better to accept it bravely and joyfully rather than run away from it.  He says that in life one has to pass through the door of war as well as the door of peace. A weak person cannot maintain peace. If he wants peace he needs to have the strength and ability to fight a war. Whether he wins or loses is immaterial but he should have the strength and courage to face it, if called upon to do so.  

The world is facing a situation similar to that which occurred during the Mahābhārata War. At that time there were two camps – one which was totally materialistic and did not accept anything beyond the body or material objects. They had no idea of spiritual discipline. The present scenario is very similar. On one side are arrayed the forces that stand for the advance of civilization, taking into account all the known moral standards that are given by most religions. On the other side is a force that thinks itself to be totally right and though believing in a God, full of compassion, is still willing to kill those who do not believe in that God. They are determined to enforce their beliefs on the whole world. Their ideology is coloured by some standard of intellectual integrity totally at variance with moral norms. Their actions are enforced by their belief in the existence of a heaven in which they will be rewarded for their good deeds in this world. Krishna’s advice in the Bhagavad Gītā points out that this type of thinking is based on a false and narrow concept of the Creator as well as of the creation.

In the galaxy of spiritual luminaries that the world has produced, Krishna is the only one who did not teach that we are living here for the sake of another world. Most modern religions ask us to abstain from all the pleasures of this world. They insist that God and nature are two totally different things and anyone who wants to find God has to shun nature. These religions came into existence at a time when life was really hard. The Nature they knew was harsh and cruel. Their lives were ridden with fear – fear of Nature and fear of a God whose designs they could not gauge. Religions preyed on this human weakness and made people believe that if they were good in this life they would go to a heaven which had all the good things they were denied in this life. Those who did not follow these rules would be damned to eternal hell. The only way was to believe in God and shun this world filled with snares! 

In this age of advanced technology, science has already eliminated most of the hardships of life and people have more money than they know what to do with so the reason to be good has to be something other than the hope of a heaven after death! More and more people are scoffing at religions that promise us heavenly delights if we behave in certain ways that are considered socially and morally good on this earth. We live in a scientific age and one would think that religions believing in this sort of ideology would have no relevance now. Unfortunately there is an insidious growth is some sections of our society that have brainwashed their flock into believing that if they die for the sake of their faith, they will certainly be rewarded in heaven in a most delightful manner. The wonder is that in this day and age there are people who are prepared to blow themselves up for the sake of the uncertain bait of a wonderful hereafter!

Five thousand years ago Krishna had already discarded such a view of life. He insisted that heaven, (if there be such a place), should be here and now. He never offered the uncertain bait of a wonderful life after death in order to entice people to become good in this life. He said that this very life was capable of being filled with joy. “Ihaiva tairjita sarga”, is what he said – “Heaven is here and now!” He is the only God who is always laughing, never wearing a long face, playing the flute and joyously accepting every situation.  He defies all our pre-conceived notions of how a God should behave and that is why he has never been understood by mediocre minds steeped in superstition and middle class morality. 

The multi-faceted personality of Krishna defies all attempts at cutting him down to fit our particular idea of how a human being should look and behave. He is unique and therefore can never be made to fit into any of the niches in which the human mind loves to deposit people. Actually he belongs to the future and not to the past. None of us have reached the heights of his intelligence or powers. Of course it is true to say that all those who have made a mark in this world have come ahead of their time, but Krishna was too far ahead. That is why he was not fully understood in his own time or even in these times. Hopefully there will come a time when he will be fully understood. 

The wonder is that such a mighty being lived centuries before modern civilization as we know existed. He is a unique personality. His life accepts no limitations. He was not bound by any rules of pseudo- morality. If anyone can be said to have been totally free it is only Krishna. There was no ground that he did not tread, no point where his steps faltered and no limits that he did not transcend. This freedom is the ultimate fruit of enlightenment. A truly emancipated person or a sthitha prajna as he calls him in the Bhagavad Gītā should unreservedly be able to accept all the dimensions of life. He should be above the dualities of existence like love and hate, sex and abstinence, violence and non-violence, action and meditation as well as asceticism and indulgence. Krishna lived like an actor who participates in everything with enthusiasm but always knows that he is only playing a part. No other religious leader has shown this type of acceptance of life. If you want to ascend to the heights you have to descend to the abyss first. In the history of the world it is only Krishna who was able to do this. He alone can be whole who is prepared to accept the whole which includes all contradictions!

The story of a divine manifestation is always filled with mystery and defies all attempts at human analysis. The river of time collects flotsam and jetsam on its way, and the story of the Lord’s life has been embellished with a wealth of detail, perhaps true, perhaps imaginary. Fact and fiction, truth and fantasy are entwined. But the final test of truth is time itself. It is the true touchstone. It deletes the dross and retains the gold. In and through the seemingly redundant detail that has woven itself around the story through the centuries, it retains its breathtaking beauty, for it is dominated by the powerful influence of Krishna’s enchanting personality in which the wisdom of the seer is mingled with the charm and simplicity of a child and the glory of God gushes forth in an inexhaustible fountain of divine love and wisdom. 

The charm of his avatara is the perfection with which he played every role he was called upon to play. He was a staunch friend, a dutiful son, an exciting lover, and a model husband, not to just one but to all women who desired him. There was none who called to him with intensity to whom he did not go with speed! “However a man approaches me, in that same manner do I go to him,” was what he declared. In whatever guise people looked upon him—as son, lover, friend or husband—he went to them in that very form in which they visualized him and satisfied their desires in the way that was most meaningful to them. At the same time, he sublimated their desires and fulfilled their earthly lives and led them to eternal bliss. 

There was no one who approached him, whether saint or sinner, in hatred or fear or love, who did not attain liberation. The difference between a Kamsa, who tried to kill him, and a Kuchela, who worshipped him, is slight indeed. One approached him with hatred and the other with love, but both thought of him constantly and were thus rewarded with moksha, or liberation. An object of mortal dread and antagonism can produce as much absorption in the mind as an object of love. If this object of dread happens to be God, concentration on him, though motivated by antagonism, must purify the person, just as potent but unpleasant medicine must affect a cure even if you don’t believe in it. This is what the Bhāgavad Purāṇa declares. 

Krishna is the human version of the metaphysical Satchidananda Brahman (existence-consciousness-bliss) of the Upanishads, who took on a human form to help the ordinary mortal to attain union with the formless Brahman (the indivisible absolute) through bhakti or devotion alone and not merely through the path of meditation and samādhi (super conscious state), as advocated in the Upanishads. He is the perfect example of a totally liberated person who is ever in the state of cosmic consciousness, whose contact transforms even sinners into saints, ignorant men into sages, sense-bound beings into spiritual ecstatics, and even animals into devotees.  But he is also the Uttama Purusha, the perfect person. He is the eternal boy, the paragon of masculine beauty, who always retains his spiritual nobility, absolutely unaffected and unperturbed in every situation, be it amid the poverty and hardships of the cowherd settlement, the rigors of a hermitage, the seductive charms of dancing beauties, the gory scenes of the battlefield, the self-destructive holocaust of his own kith and kin, or the peaceful interludes with his friends. As he himself taught, Krishna lived in this world of duality as the lotus leaf in water, absolutely untouched and unaffected by the environment, always a witness of situations, never a victim! 

All his human actions during the span of his earthly life were meant not only to bless his contemporaries and establish righteousness on Earth, but to provide a spiritually potent account of his earthly deeds for the uplifting of the future generations. By meditating on these stories, one can establish a devotional relationship with him, similar to that which his great devotees had during his lifetime. He is the expression of the redeeming love of God for humanity, which manifests itself in different ages and in different lands, bringing spiritual enlightenment and bliss into our otherwise dreary life. Even during his lifetime, he became canonized among those of his own clan, as well as among many others. He was looked upon as the incarnation of Vishnu, the preserver, in the trinity made up of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

During his lifetime the Yadava clan had become invincible. Inevitably prosperity and military supremacy took its toll on their characters. All the Yadava heroes including his own sons became very haughty and lazy. No longer were they fired with the principle of upholding dharma at all costs. They were constantly drinking and revelling in sensual pleasures. Krishna realised that he was the only one who was capable of putting them down. He had subdued all the haughty Kshatriyas who were going against the ancient laws of conduct but now his own clan was doing the same. He decided that they would have to be put down before he left this world. It was by his will that they fought with each other until the entire clan perished like a fire generated by the mutual friction of bamboos in the grove. 

He had already prophesied that Dwaraka would revert into the sea from which he had reclaimed it, within a week of his departure from this planet.  He gave instructions to his charioteer to see to it that the city of Dwaraka should be abandoned. He knew that Arjuna was already on his way to take away the old and the women who had been left behind. He then left for the forest and sat beneath a tree and established himself in a super conscious state. Seeing his foot from far away through the branches of a bush, a hunter’s boy mistook it for the face of a deer and shot a poisoned arrow at it. When he ran to collect his prey, he saw to his horror that his arrow was lodged on the divine foot of the Lord. He begged him to kill him for his crime but Krishna smiled at him and told him that he had only been an instrument in following out his own wishes. He blessed him and told him that he would be taken to the abode of all noble people. 

It is said that that the whole sky was filled with the celestials who had come to watch the final act in the drama of the Lord’s life. As at the time of the Advent, the sky was covered with a pearly light and the air seemed to be filled with the music of the spheres. His form seemed to glow with an unearthly light and disintegrated into the elements before the wondering eyes of the celestials. Even they failed to trace his path as he disappeared from the earthly scene since he had simply resolved back into the divinity that is present in the whole of creation. He who had all powers to control nature did not choose to allow his own body to remain after the destruction of his clan! It is also a lesson to us that this mortal body has no ultimate value and the way of those established in the Brahman is to let it fall without regret after it had served its purpose! Seven days after the Lord’s departure, the ocean swept away the last vestiges of the once prosperous city of Dwaraka. 

(The sea kept its secrets for many centuries but today with all modern resources, the underwater archaeologists have discovered the city of Dwaraka, fully preserved under the waters exactly as it was described in the Mahābhārata and the Bhagavad Purāṇa.)

Krishna’s clarion call to humanity through his advice to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gītā, is to rise above the frailties of our human nature and attain the heights of our divine personality. This can be done only by a conscious acceptance of the fact that we are only instruments in the hands of the divine and act as free agents of that divinity that is constantly guiding us from the time of birth to the time of death! May his grace fall upon all of us!

Jai Sri Krishna!