Learn About the Birth of Krishna, Incarnation of the Supreme God

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 divinities. 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.

Background and History

References to Lord Krishna can be 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.

Synopsis of Krishna's Birth

Mother Earth, unable to bear the burden of sins committed by evil kings and rulers, appeals to Brahma the Creator for help.

Brahma, in turn, prays to the Supreme Lord Vishnu, who assures Brahma that Vishnu will soon return earth to annihilate tyrannical forces.

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

Frightened, Kamsa jails the couple and vows to kill any child Devaki gives birth to. He makes good on his word, killing the first seven infants Devaki bears Vasudeva, and the imprisoned couple fear their eighth child will meet the same fate. 

Lord Vishnu appears before them, telling them he will return to earth in the guise of their son and rescue them from Kamsa's tyranny. When the divine baby is born, Vasudeva finds himself magically freed from prison, and he flees with the infant to a safe house. Along the way, Vishnu removes obstacles like snakes and floods from Vasudeva's path.

Vasudeva gives the infant Krishna to a family of cowherds, exchanging him for a newborn girl. Vasudeva returns to the prison with the girl. When Kamsa learns of the birth, he rushes to the prison to kill the child. But when he arrives, the infant ascends to the heavens and is transformed into the goddess Yogamaya. She tells Kamsa, "O foolish! What will you get by killing me? Your nemesis is already born somewhere else."

Meanwhile, Krishna is raised as a cowherd, leading an idyllic childhood. As he matures, he becomes a skillful musician, wooing the women of his village with his flute-playing. Eventually, he returns to Mathura, where he slays Kamsa and his henchmen, restores his father to power and becomes friendly with many of Hinduism's heroes, including the warrior Arjuna.

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 the faithful. His exploits in the Bhagavad Gita and other holy scripture 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, are 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 holidays and is celebrated throughout the Hindu world. 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 Lord 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. George Harrison included portions of the Hare Krishna chant on his 1971 hit, "My Sweet Lord."

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Das, Subhamoy. "Learn About the Birth of Krishna, Incarnation of the Supreme God." ThoughtCo, Oct. 7, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-story-of-the-birth-of-lord-krishna-1770453. Das, Subhamoy. (2017, October 7). Learn About the Birth of Krishna, Incarnation of the Supreme God. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-story-of-the-birth-of-lord-krishna-1770453 Das, Subhamoy. "Learn About the Birth of Krishna, Incarnation of the Supreme God." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-story-of-the-birth-of-lord-krishna-1770453 (accessed May 21, 2018).