The mysterious superhuman


In the ancient Epic

Krishna is one of the most mysterious characters in the epic. In fact he is the actual manipulator and strategist who without directly fighting the Mahabharata war, succeeds in setting up victory for the Pandava camp. Also he emerges as one of the most mature characters in the epic who doesn’t bind himself to the age old traditions and value systems. When all the key characters in the epic found solace in age old traditions and value system to justify every act of injustice they committed, Krishna in fact re-defines traditions and the core principles of dharma/righteousness. Any one reading the epic cannot simply ignore the charisma of Krishna’s character and the common sense exhibited by him at the toughest situations.

The cousin of the Pandava brothers was seen during his life time as an extra-ordinary personality by many people. Bhishma suggesting Krishna’s name for the chief guest to be honored during Yudhistira’s Rajasooya yagna and the acceptance by the rest of the crowd (excluding Shishupala) is an indication of the respect Krishna commanded among his contemporaries

Mahabharata introduces Krishna during the swayamvara of Draupadi. When Arjuna hits the target to win the contest as well as the hand of Draupadi, Krishna was among the guests seated beside the Panchala King Drupada and was the first one to recognize the disguised Pandava brothers. His role slowly becomes significant in the tale of Mahabharata with the beginning of his friendship with Arjuna which strengthens during the creation of the kingdom of Indraprastha, when Krishna joined his cousin Arjuna in cleaning up the forest to build the capital city. Later during Arjuna's 12 month pilgrimage as well, they plot together the adbuction and marriage of Krishna's sister Shubhadra with Arjuna. And Krishna becomes a frequent visitor and adviser to the Pandavas. He plots the killing of his enemy Jarasandha at the hands of Bhima and advices the Pandavas to instill Yudhistira as the emperor of the then known world. And the epic shows us how much Krishna was valued and respected not just by the Pandavas, but by several other prominent kings and leaders, when Bhishma advices to honour Krishna as the chief guest for Yudhistira's coronation as emperor (Rajasooya). Krishna's love for the Pandavas and their ever strengthening relationship can be seen during their period of exile as well, when Krishna used to be a regular visitor to their camp, all the while cheering them.

The portrayal of Krishna in the epic takes an interesting turn as the Kurukshetra war begins. In the prelude to the war, he becomes the peace negotiator. Having advised the Pandavas to avoid a bloodshed and accept any decent compromise formula, he was finally the one who pushes them to take up arms and fight for their honor. And his decision to not take weapons for any of the 2 sides is a surprise element that the epic presents us, but this gets answered when he without wielding a weapon became the best asset for the Pandava camp. His role as the charioteer of Arjuna and as the adviser and strategist for the Pandavas was very decisive in getting victory for the Pandavas who began the war as underdogs. Mahabharata in its today's form depicts a lot of stories/instances where not just Krishna's warrior skills are extensively portrayed, but his psychological and spiritual strengths as well. In what we know as Mahabharata today, Krishna simply dwarfs all other characters in the epic by his charisma.


Krishna’s depiction in the Harivamsa:


The basic sources of Krishna’s mythology are the epic Mahabharata, the Harivamsha, and the Bhagavata Purana. The Harivamsa which is believed to be an appendix or supplement to the Mahabharata and traditionally ascribed to Veda Vyasa, has been regarded as the primary source for the origin of stories depicting Krishna as Vishnu's incarnation. The text is complex, containing layers that goes back to the 1st or 2nd centuries BCE. The origin of this appendix is not precisely known but it is apparent that it was a part of the Mahabharata by the 1st century CE because the poet Ashvaghosha who’s believed to have lived around 150CE, quotes a couple of verses, attributing them to the Mahabharata, which are now only found in the Harivamsa. Dr. R.C. Hazra(1962) has dated the Harivamsa to the 4th century CE on the basis of the description of Rasa lila in it. According to him, the Visnu Purana and the Bhagavata Purana belong to the 5th century CE and 6th century CE respectively, thereby making Harivamsa as probably the first literary work depicting Krishna as the incarnation of the Supreme God “Vishnu”. There has been speculation as to whether the Harivamsa was derived from an earlier text and what its relationship is to the Brahma Purana, another text that deals with the origins of Krishna. But Harivamsa is still considered as a golden reference for the life of Krishna.

The Harivamsa tells us the story of king Kamsa, who upon hearing a prophecy that he would be assassinated by his sister Devaki’s child, imprisoned his sister and her husband Vasudeva and tried to slay all her children. He kills 6 of her new born babies, and the 7th one ends in a miscarriage. As soon as Krishna is born as the 8th son of Devaki, his father Vasudeva manages to ease out of the prison cell and smuggles him across the Yamuna River to Gokul and exchanges him with the daughter of his friend Nanda. Krishna is raised by Nanda, the leader of the cowherds, and his wife Yashoda. The Harivamsa presents us a super admirable portrait of Krishna’s childhood. The child Krishna was adored for his mischievous pranks; and he is also described to have performed many miracles and slew demons. As a youth, the cowherd Krishna became renowned as a lover, the sound of his flute prompting the gopis (wives and daughters of the cowherds) to leave their homes to dance ecstatically with him in the moonlight. Krishna is described to have been involved in many escapades in his adventurous childhood. Notable amongst these are stories of his assassination of the witch Putana, the giant snake Akhasura, the stork Bakarusa, the giant donkey Dhenukasura, the horse Kesi and the bull Arishtasura. The Harivamsa then describes the journey of Krishna and his brother Balarama to Mathura where they slay the wicked king Kamsa and instill Kamsa’s father Ugrasena back as the king of Mathura. After repeated attacks by Jarasandha, the king of Magadha, finding the kingdom unsafe, Krishna led the Yadavas to the western coast of Kathiawar and established the city of Dvaraka(modern Dwarka, Gujarat).

The Harivamsa also presents us the various conquests and heroics of Krishna including the assassination of Narakasura, the slaying of Shalva, the defeat of Banasura etc, and his adventurous marriage to princess Rukmini followed by the marriage to 7 more princesses (Satyabhama, Jambavati, Kalindi, Nagnajiti, Mitravinda, Lakshmana and Bhadra). Throughout the Harivamsa, Krishna’s heroics are hailed as the saving of Mankind from wicked demons by the supreme God. Krishna refused to bear arms in the great war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, but sided with the Pandavas as a strategist and the charioteer of his close friend Arjuna. And he’s described as the x factor in the Pandava camp who guided them to snap victory against some of the formidable warriors of the time. 32 years after the Mahabharata war, a brawl broke out among the Yadava chiefs in which Krishna’s son and friends were slain. As the retired to the forest and sat in the forest lamenting, a huntsman, mistaking him for a deer, shot him on his heel, killing him. The Harivamsa describes this as the ascent of the the God back to Heaven.


Behind the Hero

Krishna’s personality is clearly a composite one, though the different elements are not easily separated. There appears to be a lot of mystery around the birth and childhood of Krishna. Krishna, born in the Yadava - a pastoral race, is described in Harivamsa and Bhagavata Purana as a dark skinned charming boy who became the favorite of all the mothers in the Gokul Village. He's described as a mischievous kid who was loved and adored by all. He spent his childhood as a cowherd lazying around the pastures along with other cowherd boys overseeing their cattle. Even as a kid, he was bold enough to stand up to protect his cows from wild animals, birds and snakes. His heroics in chasing away and bringing down wild bulls, snakes and vultures got exaggerated by singers and storytellers years later as the assassination of powerful demons. Krishna gains the attention of the world when he assassinates the king of Mathura Kamsa, his own uncle. He then releases his parents Devaki and Vasudeva along with Kamsa's father Ugrasena from the prison. And Krishna spends the rest of his life along with his parents and grandfather as one of the princes or chieftains of the Yadava clan.


Krishna's life is really like a fairy tale. Without proper schooling and education (though he had a short stint at the school of Sandeepani), he goes on to become one of the cleverest politician who defined and manipulated the political inheritance and systems of multiple kingdoms. And without any meaningful training, he becomes one of the best warriors of the period (described to have achieved feats which the likes of Arjuna or Karna could not achieve), and his excellence in the use of Chakra as a weapon was unique. Also his diplomatic and philosophical skills are unbelievable for someone who had spent his childhood as a cowherd. He emerges as the only mysterious character in the epic whose qualities are too great to be true. When all the well educated scholars seated in the court of Hastinapur during the game of dice (including the Pandavas, Bhishma, Drona, Kripa etc), believed that they adhered to the principles of righteousness and responsibilities, Krishna simply blows them away by blatantly uttering that the age old traditions and value system needs to be redefined. He does not hesitate to take blame on himself if it serves a greater cause. Despite defeating Jarasandha 17 times, he decided to run away from the battle field when he saw that his army cannot withstand the 18th attack of Jarasandha and he moved his capital from Mathura in the north of India to Dwaraka in the west of India. Moving a complete kingdom by such a large distance is indeed an unbelievable story and probably only his Army (and the people from the Yadava clan) moved to Dwaraka to establish their new Kingdom. But the point here is that the thought of being called a coward did not bother him. Also he did not bother to take the blame of resorting to injustice to bring down the great commanders of the Kaurava Army and he justifies with his redefinition of righteousness and honesty. This is where he stands out from the rest of the crowd. The message one could learn from the life of Krishna is immense and his wonderful feats are unparalleled. This probably is the reason why people easily revered him as an incarnation of the God himself.


Despite trying to portray Krishna as a person devoid of emotions, the epic also presents us instances which show the emotional tenderness of Krishna. Despite being portrayed as the most mature personality in the entire epic, Krishna is also seen to be emotionally drained during multiple instances including the death of Abhimanyu, the destruction of the Yadava clan including his son, the demise of his brother etc. Despite being described as possessing the most calm and steady state of mind, Krishna is also seen losing his temper at numerous occasions including the killing of Shishupala and the raising of weapon against Bhishma in the battlefield. Despite these instances which demonstrate the humanness of Krishna, he still stays as the most composite personality in the epic and deservedly hailed as a superhuman.


Was Krishna Really the Supreme God?:


Well that's a very sensitive question. And the answer to this would depend upon how one sees the Epic Mahabharata and other literatures like Bhagavata Purana, Harivamsa etc. For someone who sees Mahabharata as a piece of history, Krishna is one of the most clever rulers, a skilled warrior, a great philosopher and a charismatic leader who led his people (and friends) with his own principles of life and righteousness. For those who see Mahabharata as a holy book about a magical period when Gods interacted with men, Krishna is an incarnation of the Supreme God Vishnu, who came over to this earth to redefine traditions and culture and revive humanity from evil powers. For those who see Mahabharata as a myth, Krishna is simply a mythic hero who kindles the imagination of storytellers and story lovers alike. Irrespective of which category you fall into, you simply cannot ignore the name Krishna, if you ever read any version/retelling of the epic Mahabharata. Such is the significance of his character.

Vasudeva-Krishna was deified probably by the 4th or 5th century BCE. The worship of Krishna as an incarnation of Vishnu was widely accepted due to the amazing combination of behavioral and managerial skills exhibited by Krishna which includes

  • the influence he had on the political system of Mahabharata period,
  • the impact he had on the war by turning the fortunes upside down,
  • the mystery surrounding his birth and rise to power,
  • the numerous conquests he had throughout his life and the unmatched warrior skills possessed by him.
  • his way of redefining the age old traditions and value systems and more importantly
  • the messages of simplicity and equality he conveyed by his own lifestyle (including compassion to all class of people and establishing a semi-democracy in the Yadava clan).


The Krishna who emerged from the blending of these figures was ultimately identified with the supreme god Vishnu-Narayana and, hence, considered his avatar. His worship acquired distinctive traits, chief among them is an exploration of the analogies between divine love and human love. Thus, Krishna’s youthful dalliances with the gopis are interpreted as a symbolic of the love between God and the human soul and his friendship with Arjuna is interpreted as the sublime example of God's love for a devotee. The cowherd Krishna was probably the god of a pastoral community at the beginning and was widely accepted by the rest of the population because of the composite nature of his personality. Today he is worshiped as the supreme Hindu god by many believers. One of the many festivals held in his honor is the ratha-yatra chariot festival in Puri which commemorates Radha’s successful attempt to persuade Krishna to return to Vrindavan. His birthday (Janmashtami) is today one of the most widely observed festivals among Hindus.


Arjuna and Krishna:


The relationship between Krishna and Arjuna is one of the most beautiful and selfless form of friendship that the epic presents us. Krishna did care a lot about the welfare of his cousins, the Pandavas. And since Arjuna was of the same age as Krishna, they bonded well as friends.The cousins were too fond of each other that they considered their relationship to be more dearer and important than almost all other relationships in their life. Their mutual trust was too deep to explain. Krishna is today revered as the incarnation of the supreme lord. He was probably revered so during his lifetime as well. But if you are willing to keep this belief aside and take a look at Krishna the prince, there are many instances that show how human Krishna was. His relationship with Arjuna was one of those. Their relationship was in fact multi-faceted. At times they are cousins who respect each other, and sometimes they are the best friends who trust in each other. There are instances when the relationship is that of a teacher and student. And at times, it's that of a devotee and deity. We see a warrior and his charioteer, and at the same time see a manipulator and his pawn. Despite how you see their relation, you can simply not ignore the list of positive emotions that are always reflected in Krishna-Arjuna relationship. Selflessness, trust, respect, devotion, love, and openness areall what define their relationship. And theirs is probably the purest form of selfless love that you could find in the entire epic.


In Modern versions:


Today Krishna is one of the most widely revered and most popular of all Indian divinities, and is worshiped as the ninth incarnation of the Supreme God Vishnu. He is perhaps the most popular of all the heroes of Hindu mythology and is hailed as the Supreme Being and creator of the universe. In all of the modern versions of Mahabharata, Krishna enjoys the divine status conferred upon him by the latest known original version of Mahabharata. He is seen as "The person" who knew the outcome of everything that transpired in the epic and the one who decided and controlled everything that happened on the battlefield. Krishna is associate to a multitude of emotions and different stages of Krishna's life are alluded to spritual solace for those who seek it depending on what distress enables someone to look for such a reliance. The young boy image of Krishna kindles emotions of love and care among the believers, while the adoloscent Krishna's dance with the Gopis (Radha specifically), ignites the idea of blending spirituality with romance and the image of Krishna's Gita recitation to Arjuna makes people become philosophical and adore the beauty and maturity of the holy Bhagavat Gita.


Krishna became the focus of numerous devotional cults, which have over the centuries produced a wealth of religious poetry, music, and painting. The rich variety of legends associated with Krishna’s life led to an abundance of representation in painting and sculpture. The child Krishna (Balakrishna) is depicted crawling on his hands and knees or dancing with joy, a ball of butter held in his hands. The divine lover—the most common representation—is shown playing the flute, surrounded by adoring gopis. The image of Krishna reciting Bhagavatgita to Arjuna, as well as paintings portraying Krishna steering the Charriot of Arjuna are more popular than most other art works featuring Krishna. In 17th- and 18th-century Rajasthani and Pahari painting, Krishna is characteristically depicted with blue-black skin, wearing a yellow dhoti (loincloth) and a crown of peacock feathers. And the modern art works vary in their portrayal or Krishna as either dark, blue or fair skinned, but almost all of them would depict a charming face bearing a calm and steady smile. Krishna is a symbol for a handful of traits today.