It was the eighth day of the dark fortnight of the month of Shravana. The asterism Rohini was on the ascendant and the planetary conjunctions were all highly favourable. Peaceful silence reigned over the quarters. The rivers were tranquil and ponds full of beautiful lotuses. The woods were resonant with the chirping of birds and the buzzing of bees. Trees and creepers were all bedecked with fowers. The air was pure, a gentle fragrant breeze was blowing across the fields, and the fires in the sacrifcial hearths were aglow. The minds of all good souls were peaceful and happy. It was at such a time in the pitch darkness of midnight that Vishnu, who resides in the hearts of all, was born of the divine Devaki, like the full moon on the eastern horizon.
Devaki’s child was but the plenitude of Brahman, pūrna brahma, manifesting its powers through the human form of an avatara, to uphold dharma and restore balance in a world afflicted with anomie. He was quick to remind his imprisoned parents about his true nature, and the parents, gifted with divine insight, were equally quick to apprehend the implications. Mother Devaki could not hide her awe:
Viśvam yadetat svatanau niśānte yathāvakāśam purusah paro bhavān; Bibharti so’yam mama garbhago’bhūd- aho nrlokasya vidambanam hi tat.
That you the Supreme Being, who hold the whole universe within yourself at the time of your cosmic sleep, have been born of my womb is only your imitation of human ways to hide your identity—what a great joke you are playing on the world (10.3.31)!
Krishna was not the first incarnation of Vishnu. So Devaki was not unaware of the special manifestation of the Divine in human form. But to have the Divine for one’s child was overwhelming even for Devaki. The incarnation is ‘the meeting point of all contradictions, the best visible expression of the invisible divine ground’, and in Krishna, the eighth major avatara of Vishnu, we find reconciled a host of paradoxes. That the apparently frail infant in Devaki’s lap could inform her of his extraordinary nature was only one of the many acts that sets apart Krishna from other humans, even as it points to the infnite potential latent in the human frame. Of the many avataras—and the Bhagavata speaks of the possibility of infinite divine incarnations- Krishna’s life remains uniquely etched in the Indian consciousness. Not only have his life and teachings had a major impact in the development of Indian culture both religious and secular his legend has been an integral part of the lives of numerous Indians down the ages. His miraculous and heroic exploits have provided the theme for numerous and varied representations in literature, art, music, sculpture, folk song, and drama. For littérateurs, artists, and spiritual seekers he is an eternal inspiration.
The Bhagavata, the Mahabharata, and the Harivamsha are our main literary sources on the life and lilas of Sri Krishna. The Bhagavata was recorded by Vyasa, famous for his prolifc scholarship, and was narrated by another remarkable personality, Shukadeva, who ‘from his very birth, by virtue of his enlightened state, wandered forth from home and relatives, all alone and dutiless’, and who, when followed by his grief-stricken father, Dvaipayana Vyasa, with cries of “O son! Where are you?” answered, as it were, through the resonance of the forest trees, since he was the soul of everything on account of his realization of the truth of non-duality.’ The raconteur had to be out of the ordinary, for the Krishna saga is no ordinary tale. The Krishna of the Bhagavata is a paragon of perfection, and though in the Mahabharata there are times when he seems to act like ordinary humans, swayed by emotions and temporal exigencies—as when he advises Yudhishthira to kill Drona by employing a half truth, or when he tries to engage himself in battle despite his promise not to wield weapons during the Kurukshetra war he remains the master of the lila in which he is voluntarily engaged. In him we have a richly diverse personality—beloved child, divine youth, loving brother, dear friend, mighty warrior, obedient and worthy disciple, wise and able administrator, master strategist, tactful messenger, and supreme teacher. All these and countless other aspects of his personality only underscore a total and perfect manifestation of the Divine.
The numerous people who get to know him from his father Vasudeva and the simple devotee Shrutadeva of Mithila, to celestial deities like Indra and Brahma—take great pains to announce that Krishna is not merely the repository of exceptional human qualities; his being is the very substratum of all existence. In his transcendental nature he is Satchidananda, the absolute Reality, absolute Consciousness, and absolute Bliss. His singular intelligence and divine love are but earthly manifestations of his transcendental nature. He is not merely immortal, he is the very embodiment of immortality. Though our appraisal of the multifaceted and multi-dimensional life of Sri Krishna is bound to be coloured by our own views and understanding, serious study and contemplation on his life is sure to enrich us.
Sri Krishna plays an important role in all the major events of the Mahabharata, albeit often in a quiet and unassuming manner. He is a friend, philosopher, and guide to the Pandavas. He counsels and protects them through all their trials and tribulations. The one point he never fails to drive home to us through virtually all of his actions is the need to tread the path of dharma, for that is the way to the highest good. The path of dharma is neither easy nor pleasant. Even Bhishma is left to wonder on his death bed that the ways of the Divine are indeed inscrutable—despite having Krishna on their side, the Pandavas seem to suffer perpetual trials.
Krishna upholds the dignity of all work through personal example. He has no hesitation in washing the feet of the guests at Yudhishthira’s Rajasuya Yajna, undertakes the work of a messenger to the Kaurava court even at the risk of personal humiliation, and willingly undertakes to be Arjuna’s charioteer during the Mahabharata war. That Arjuna prefers the non-combatant Krishna to an entire army is highly significant. When Krishna questions him about this apparently irrational act, Arjuna replies: ‘With you as my charioteer on the battlefield, the world will have occasion to see how dharma is established in this diabolical world. It will not be a whip that you will wield in your blessed hand; it will be the sceptre of dharma. With the reins of my horses in your hand, I will have little reason to worry. Where there is dharma, there victory is. And where there is Krishna, there dharma reigns.’
The Embodiment of the Gita
It was on the battlefield of Kurukshetra that the immortal and perennially inspiring teachings of the Bhagavadgita poured forth from Krishna’s lips. Swami Ranganathananda observes: Arjuna and Śrī Krsna were remarkable personalities; they were warriors. And the teacher, Śrī Krsna, was a man full of compassion, and endowed with universal vision. The Gītā is thus a heroic message from a heroic teacher to a heroic pupil. Its universality makes it applicable to any human being anywhere in the world, to make him or her realize one’s fullest human possibilities. The Upanishads or the Vedanta expounded the science of human possibilities a thousand years earlier, and the Gītā expounds the practical application of that science. Hence, Swami Vivekananda considered the Gītā as the best book of practical Vedanta.
Krishna’s teachings are for everyone—as much for the beginner in spiritual life as for the most advanced sadhaka. Whether one is inclined towards karma, bhakti, or jnana—one can benefit greatly by studying the Gita. It has the essence of all Vedic and Upanishadic knowledge. As the colophon at the end of each chapter of the Gita announces, the text is both brahma vidyā, an exposition on the knowledge of Brahman, as well as yoga śāstra, a compendium of the science of yoga. ‘Its message is universal, practical, strengthening, and purifying’
Swami Vivekananda says: This was the great work of Krishna: to clear our eyes and make us look with broader vision upon humanity in its march upward and onward. His was the frst heart that was large enough to see truth in all, his the first lips that uttered beautiful words for each and all. …
Two ideas [stand] supreme in his message: The first is the harmony of diferent ideas; the second is non-attachment. A man can attain to perfection, the highest goal, sitting on a throne, commanding armies, working out big plans for nations.
Krishna affirmed the plurality of approaches to the Divine and the validity of every path tread with sincerity: ‘In whatsoever way people approach Me, even so do I reward them, for it is my path, O Partha, that people follow in all things.’Again, ‘Whatever be the form a devotee seeks to worship with faith—in that very form I make his faith unwavering’ (7.21). Swami Vivekananda reminds us: We are always afer truth, but never want to get it. We simply want the pleasure to go about and ask. We have a lot of energy and spend it that way. That is why Krishna says: Get hold of any one of these chains that are stretched out from the common centre. No one step is greater than another. Blame no view of religion so far as it is sincere. Hold on to one of these links, and it will pull you to the centre. Your heart itself will teach all the rest. The teacher within will teach all the creeds, all the philosophies.
The Gita provides spiritual food for seekers of every shade. In the very second chapter, Krishna teaches Arjuna about the immortality of the soul that in its real nature the Atman is one with the absolute Brahman. In later chapters, he explicates the means to realization of the Divine. These include cultivation of the daivī sampad, divine attributes of character, avoidance of such opposites as attachment and hatred, and practice of various spiritual disciplines harmonizing them in one’s life. He reminds Arjuna of the impermanence of the world and advises him to practise non-attachment assiduously and perform his duties without hankering for results. He emphasizes that cultivating real devotion and dependence on God is the key to happiness in life.
Krishna is himself the embodiment of the teachings of the Gita. A cursory look at his life is enough to convince us that from his very birth difficulties and problems kept pounding him like waves, one after the other; but he faced them all with perfect equanimity—with a smile on his lips. His numerous victories did not affect his poise, nor was he dejected on having to flee in the face of Jarasandha’s threats. He performed the duties of every station of life to perfection, but remained unattached all the same. He was strongly committed to the welfare of the inhabitants of Vrindavan, who were not only deeply attached to him but also loved him with all their hearts. However, this did not prevent him from moving to Mathura and then to Dwaraka in response to the call of duty. In fact, he never looked back at Vrindavan, the playground of his childhood, even though he ensured the well-being of its residents. He was equally at ease on the throne of Dwaraka and the seat of the charioteer.He is the perfect master of yoga, the yogīśvara; in his person are harmonized all the yogas.
Through the ages, innumerable devotees have adored Krishna as their Chosen Deity, ista, and have attained him by chanting his name with firm faith and devotion. In the medieval bhakti period, a number of Vaishnava saints—like Haridas, the great musician, and Surdas, the celebrated poet—achieved the ultimate goal of their lives through exclusive devotion to Krishna. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu—who is considered a dual incarnation of Krishna and Radha—Vallabhacharya, and others spread the message of devotion to Krishna far and wide. Chaitanya’s message of divine love helped break the social barriers of his time. Among his followers were not only Hindus of diferent castes and social standing, but also Muslims, of whom Haridas is particularly well known.
In more recent times, we have the example of Aghoramani Devi, a devotee of Ramakrishna who attained the vision of Krishna through the repetition of his name and intense devotion to him. Popularly known as Gopal-ma—Gopala’s MotherAghoramani was a child widow who lived most of her life at a temple dedicated to Radha and Krishna at Kamarhati, near Dakshineswar. She was poor and illiterate but had intense devotion to Gopala—the baby Krishna. Through regular japa of the Gopala mantra, year afer year, she had numerous visions of Gopala and ultimately the vision of the universal form of Krishna—a very rare experience. Swami Saradananda records: When the Master passed away, Gopal-ma’s grief knew no bounds. For a long time she did not leave Kamarhati to go anywhere. She lived alone in seclusion. Afer a while, when she began to have visions of the Master as before, her grief came to an end. Once she attended the Chariot Festival at Mahesh, across the Ganges, and was overwhelmed with joy as she saw Gopala in all living beings and in everything else. She said that she saw her beloved Gopala in the chariot, in the image of the Lord Jagannath in the chariot, in those who were pulling the chariot, and in the vast crowd—her beloved Gopala had become manifest in different forms. She was beside herself with joy at this cosmic vision of God and lost outer consciousness of her surroundings in ecstasy. Gopal-ma described this vision to a woman friend, saying: ‘I was not myself. I danced and laughed and created quite a commotion.
Concluding his masterly essay on the philosophy of the Bhagavata, Swami Tyagisananda writes: The philosophy of the Bhāgavata is intensely practical and affects all aspects of life. A thorough understanding of this philosophy can be had only by a study of the lives of the great philosophers presented in it. They come from all walks and stages of life, from all classes of society, from both sexes, and from all age-groups. But the greatest amongst them all is Śrī Krsna, who, according to Swami Vivekananda, is the first great teacher in the history of the world to discover and proclaim the grand truths of love for love’s sake and duty for duty’s sake. Born in a prison, brought up by cowherds, subjected to all kinds of tyranny by the most despotic monarchy of the day, and derided by the orthodox, Krsna still rose to be the greatest saint, philosopher, and reformer of his age. All the greatest sages and the most immaculate saints of his time pay him divine honours; they consider him the best and most perfect among the spiritual men of the age, and with one voice acclaim him as divinity manifest on earth, looking up to him for light and guidance. To them, he is not only a vibhūti (an especial divine manifestation), vyūha (the fourfold expression of Purusottama), bhagavattama or avatāra, but also the personal God and even absolute Reality. In him we find the ideal householder and the ideal sannyāsin, the hero of a thousand battles who knew no defeat, the terror of despots, sycophants, hypocrites, sophists, and pretenders, the master statesman, the uncrowned monarch, the king-maker who had no ambition for himself. He was a friend of the poor, the weak, the distressed, the champion of the rights of women and of the social and spiritual enfranchisement of the Śūdra and even of the untouchables, and the perfect ideal of detachment. In him, again, we fnd the perfect harmony of jñāna, bhakti, and karma—of head, heart, and hand. 
Madhusudana Saraswati, who, though a staunch advaitin, is also a great devotee of Krishna, salutes this amazing being:
Vamśī-vibhūsita-karānnavanīradābhāt pītāmbarād-aruna-bimbaphalādharosthāt; Pūrnendu-sundara-mukhād-aravinda-netrāt krsnāt-param kimapi tattvam-aham na jāne.
I know no reality other than Krishna whose hands are adorned with a flute, whose lustre resembles the new rain-cloud, who is dressed in yellow, whose lips are ruddy like the Bimba fruit, whose face is bright like the full moon, and who has lotus-like eyes.
Innumerable devotees continue to echo the sentiments expressed by Madhusudana Saraswati to this day.
- 1. See Bhagavata, 1..1–8.
- See Swami Ranganathananda, The Central Theme of Śrimad Bhāgavatam (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2003), 10–11.
- 3. See Kamala Subramaniam, Mahabharata (Mumbai: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 2001), 380–1.
- 4. Swami Ranganathananda, Universal Message of theBhagavad Gita (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 2000)12–13.
- 5. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997) .438–9.
- Bhagavadgita, 4.11.
- Complete Works, 1.439.
- 8. Swami Saradananda, Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play, trans. Swami Chetanananda (St Louis:Vedanta Society, 2003), 699–700.
- Swami Tyagisananda, ‘Philosophy of the Bhāgavata and The Philosophies, ed. Haridas Bhattacharyya, vol.3 of The Cultural Heritage of India (Calcutta: Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, 1953), 298–9.
- See Madhusudana Sarasvati, Bhagavad-Gita with the annotation ‘Gūdhārtha Dīpikā’, trans. Swami Gambhirananda (Calcutta:Advaita Ashrama, 1998), 802.
- Originally published by Prabhuddha Bharata Nov 2008 edition.Reprinted with permission.