The Birth of the Popular Hindu God Krishna

Prayer beads, a man meditating, Varanasi, India
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As an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, Lord Krishna is one of the faith's most revered deities. The story of how the Hindu god of love and compassion was born is one woven through many of Hinduism's most sacred texts, and it inspires faithful throughout India and beyond.

How Krishna Was Born and Survived

Mother Earth, unable to bear the burden of sins committed by evil kings and rulers, appealed to Brahma the creator for help. Brahma, in turn, prayed to the Supreme Lord Vishnu, who assured Brahma that Vishnu would soon return Earth to annihilate tyrannical forces.

Kamsa, the ruler of Mathura (in northern India) was one such tyrant, inspiring fear among all the rulers. On the day Kamsa's sister Devaki was married to Vasudeva, a voice from the sky prophesied that Devaki's eighth son would destroy Kamsa.

Frightened, Kamsa jailed the couple and vowed to kill any child Devaki gave birth to. He made good on his word, killing the first seven infants Devaki bore Vasudeva, and the imprisoned couple feared their eighth child would meet the same fate. 

Lord Vishnu appeared before them, telling them he would return to Earth in the guise of their son and rescue them from Kamsa's tyranny. When the divine baby was born, Vasudeva found himself magically freed from prison, and he fled with the infant to a safe house. Along the way, Vishnu removed obstacles like snakes and floods from Vasudeva's path.

Vasudeva gave the infant Krishna to a family of cowherds, exchanging him for a newborn girl. Vasudeva returned to the prison with the girl. When Kamsa learned of the birth, he rushed to the prison to kill the child. But when he arrived, the infant ascended to the heavens and was transformed into the goddess Yogamaya. She warned Kamsa that his nemesis had already been born elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Krishna was raised as a cowherd, leading an idyllic childhood. As he matured, he became a skillful musician, wooing the women of his village with his flute-playing. Eventually, he returned to Mathura, where he slew Kamsa and his henchmen, restored his father to power, and became friendly with many of Hinduism's heroes, including the warrior Arjuna.

Background and History

References to Lord Krishna are found in several important Hindu texts, most notably the epic poem the Mahabharata. Krishna also is a principal figure in the Bhagavata Purana, another Hindu text that dates to the 10th century B.C. It follows the adult Krishna's exploits as he confronts evil and restores justice to Earth. 

He also plays a prominent role in the Bhagavad Gita, which dates to the 9th century B.C. In that text, Krishna is the charioteer for the warrior Arjuna, offering moral and military counsel to the Hindu leader. 

Krishna is typically depicted as having blue, blue-black, or black skin, holding his bansuri (flute) and sometimes accompanied by a cow or a female cowherd. One of the most widely revered of the Hindu deities, Krishna is known by many other names, among them Govinda, Mukunda, Madhusudhana, and Vasudeva. He may also be depicted as an infant or child engaging in playful pranks, such as stealing butter.

Primary Theme

As one of the principal gods of Hinduism, Krishna represents mankind's aspiration to embody all that is divine. Amorous and loyal, he is seen as the ideal husband, and his playful nature is a gentle admonition to remain good-natured in the face of life's challenges. 

As counsel to the warrior Arjuna, Krishna serves as a moral compass for the faithful. His exploits in the Bhagavad Gita and other holy scriptures are ethical models of behavior for Hindus, particularly on the nature of personal choice and responsibility to others.

Impact on Popular Culture

As the god of love, compassion, music, and dance, Krishna has been closely associated with the arts in Hindu culture since its beginnings. The story of Krishna's birth and childhood, called Ras and Leela, is a staple of classical Indian drama, and many of India's classical dances pay homage to him.

Krishna's birthday, called Janmashtami, is one of Hinduism's most popular holiday. It takes place in August or September, depending on when the date falls on the Hindu lunisolar calendar. During the festival, the faithful engage in prayer, song, fasting, and feasting to honor Krishna's birth.

In the West, followers of Krishna are often associated with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Formed in New York City in the mid-1960s, it soon became known as the Hare Krishna movement, and its chanting followers could often be seen in parks and other public spaces. Musician George Harrison included portions of the Hare Krishna chant in his 1971 hit single "My Sweet Lord."