Article of the Month - Sep 2004

This article by Prof. P. C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet.

(Viewed 72172 times since Sep 2004)

Lord Krishna, an entity or no entity, a name or no name, an occurrence of chronology or just what the human intellect conceived, if a reality, so unimaginably strange, if a myth, too real to be mythical, is now for centuries the most cherished theme of arts in India. The intellect finds it difficult to believe that what this single name is said to have once possessed could ever abound in a human born form, but the believing mind and the creative endeavor feel that whatever has been said of him is too little to know him, to know his dimensions, depths and expanse. The devotees, hence, have been weaving around him ever fresh myths, poets ever new songs and painters his ever quaint and curious versions, discovering him in his frailties as well as strength but always beyond both, or rather beyond everything, which they know or have ever known. Unlike Lord Vishnu, who he incarnates, Krishna is to them an entity beyond time, without end and without beginning.

He has been represented in visual arts and in the tradition of faith in human form, whether as a cowherd boy or otherwise, with innumerable attributes, but no attribute or form could ever define him. Forms decompose, erode and are subject to transition, Krishna is not. He neither decays, dies, nor transits from one birth to the other. He is akshara, the syllable, of which are composed all words, all phrases and every expression and yet it is always the same, constant and imperishable. He exists in what he creates, yet is always beyond it. Thus, all are his forms and yet he is beyond them all. This defines Lord Krishna related art vision and the entire creative endeavor, which always fell short of its theme. Nothing, from sculpture, metal cast, painting, poetry, stage, folk art to the Puranas, could ever contain him and his katha within its periphery. The 'expressed' or the 'said' always fell short of the 'experienced' or the 'felt' as something unsaid was always left. It was perhaps in this exceptional character of the Krishna-katha that the creative mind, whether with the pen in hand, canvas on an easel or the song in throat, or on lyre, always discovered in it oceans of delight and enormous scope for its creative endeavour and ingenuity.

The Growth of Krishna-cult

Early references to Krishna, sometimes as Krishna Harita, a teacher of 'Yoga' and metaphysics, and sometimes as Devaki Krishna, a great philosopher, occur in Vedic literature itself, but it is in the Mahabharata that he appears with a fully evolved personality as a great warrior, strategist, diplomat and finally in his Vishwa-rupa, manifesting the cosmos in his form. He was seen as incarnating Vishnu, the supreme Lord of all gods and all beings with a rank and distinction above them all. In the course of time, this Brahmanical cult of God as king, or Lord, had to face the challenge from the fast growing radicalism of Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity and subsequently from Islam that perceived in an humble human born prophet the ultimate divinity effecting transcendence of whosoever was devoted to his teachings. This forced brahmanical scriptures, though they yet continued with their incarnation theory, to minimize, or rather to give up, in their depiction of Krishna, his king-like 'above common man status'. They devoted greater space, instead, in delineating his exploits against evil forces, eliminating Putana, Trinavarta, Kaliya, Shakata, Keshi and finally Kansa, all doing in human form.

In most of these scriptures, the later part of his life, that is, after the Kansa-vadha, which is the prime thrust of the Mahabharata, has been dealt with just cursorily, obviously to avoid over emphasis on the depiction of his superhuman form.

Lord Krishna in Musical Harmony With Gopis

By the eleventh-twelfth century, this thesis of God as king was seen as alienating the Brahmanical God from Indian masses and then emerged to its rescue the Krishna, as we know him now, a humble born and as humbly clad village stripling herding his cows, adorning himself with peacock feathers, blowing a bamboo pipe and flirting in the streets of Vrindavana with a country born lass and at times also with others.

He reveals now and then in his acts his divinity and rises in the estimation of the people of Vrindavana but the ties between the two are always those of love and not of devotion. He soars high but never beyond the muddy lanes of Vrindavana or the sandy banks of Yamuna. This Krishna did not emerge out of rhetoricians' discourses, or from metaphysicians' pen, but from the throats of poets, Jaideva, Vidyapati, Chandidasa, Suradas and Panchasakhas of Utkala, namely, Balarama, Jagannath, Yashovanta, Anant and Achutananda. The Vaishnava saints, Nimbarka, Vallabhacharya and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, did the rest. Vallabhacharya, and later his son Vitthal, in their Pushtimarg, not only diversified his seats to different parts of the subcontinent but also dismissed the cult of ritual worship, which only the Brahmins could accomplish. He introduced the cult of 'Sewa', or 'service', which anyone irrespective of his varna, caste, gender or social status could render. This Krishna made his way into the hearts of commoners, the peasants, households, artisans, and litterateurs and from amongst them emerged a new class of his devotees. The peasantry discovered in this lad of Vrindavana, in this unique being, someone who belonged to them and the artists, poets, writers the main theme and the prime thrust of their arts and literature. Obviously, it was around this so-evolved form of Krishna that there developed his iconographic perception.

Krishna's Early Iconography

His iconographic manifestation, as reveal epigraphic records, might have begun around the second century B. C., but the actual images discovered so far are not earlier than the first century A. D., that is, from the period of Kushana rulers. The group of these early icons comprises of three largely defaced Mathura sculptures, three sculptures from Gaya and a few terracotta plaques from Rajasthan. Mathura sculptures portray three figures each, a female in the center and two males on her two sides.

Put together, the three Gaya sculptures, with a figure each, also have three similar figures.

Gaya Images of the Trinity
Gaya Images of the Trinity

The terracotta figurines also have similar set of male and female figures. The two males have been identified as Vasudeva Krishna and his elder brother Balarama, known in early scriptures as Sankarshana, the one who transited from one womb to the other, and the female as their sister Ekananga. Ekananga, sometimes known as Ekanansha, was Yashoda's daughter. Contemporary texts contain references of Vrashnis, the clan to which Krishna belonged, worshipping their heroes, these three being the foremost of them. Thus, these early sculptures might also be the votive idols from Vrashnis' family shrines. In these manifestations Krishna has been uniformly modeled with four arms, three carrying attributes of Vishnu and the fourth always imparting Abhaya. In this early iconography his distinction from Vishnu is established mainly by the presence of Balarama who, along with Ekananga, appears to be the essential component of his pre-Puranic iconography. Except their votive form and broad Vaishnava features, these largely defaced icons have little to define the iconographic characteristics of Krishna.

Krishna's Three Rupas in Indian Scriptures

Early Indian classical texts conceive three basic iconographic forms or the rupas, as they call it, of Krishna. They are his Aradhya-rupa, that is, his votive image, his Vishwa-rupa, or his cosmic vision and his Saumya, or Lalita-rupa, that is, the form that drags one with its moon-like placid beauty. In his Aradhya-rupa, he is four-armed. In three of them he carries Narayani attributes, mostly the disc, lotus and conch, alternated sometimes by a water pot, and with the fourth he imparts Abhaya. It is more or less only another version of Vaishnava iconography except that Balarama is always there when it relates to Krishna. The aforementioned Mathura and Gaya sculptures and the Rajasthani terracottas represent him in his Aradhya-rupa.

Krishna-Balarama-Ekanamsa. Imadpur, A.D. 1026, Inscribed in the 48th regnal year of Mahipala 

In scriptures, Krishna's Vishwa-rupa is not a rarity but in art it is. Whichever Vishwa-rupa images have so far come to light, are Vaishnava in character but it is difficult to say which of them belongs to Vishnu and which to Krishna. Krishna purposively showed his Vishwa-rupa thrice, first to Devaki and Vasudeva in the prison of Kansa before his birth in human form, secondly, to Akrura when the latter was bathing in Yamuna on his way back from Vrindavana and thirdly to Arjun when the latter was reluctant to stand in war against his own kinsmen. On all these occasions he looked like Vishnu and hence in iconographic perception his Vishwa-rupa could hardly be any different from that of Vishnu.

Lord Vishnu in his Cosmic Magnification
Lord Vishnu in his Cosmic Magnification

The Vishwa-rupa images are vividly executed and exceptionally symbolic. They comprise mainly of three components, sometimes repeated by different motifs, symbolizing the earth, sky and ocean. The pedestal, with or without carved figures, represents both, the earth as also the ocean. The fire-arch represents air, fire, water and other elements of sky and its apex the space above. Sometimes the fire-arch is topped by a Triratna motif and sometimes by a shrimukha or kirtimukha. Triratna (three jewels) symbolized three cosmic entities, the earth, sky and ocean, a being's senses, mind and self, as also the Dharma, or righteousness, Karma, or duty and jnana, or knowledge, and shrimukha or kirtimukha auspices. It has different other motifs symbolizing nature and the worlds of man and animals. The Vishwa-rupa image, usually attended upon by devotee figures, is represented pervading the cosmos suggested by the above symbolic elements.

Vishvarupa (Paintings on the Cosmic Form of Krishna-Vasudeva)

However, no early sculpture, or terracotta, depicting his Vishwa-rupa has so far come to light, though later, from around the eleventh century onwards, the Vishwa-rupa sculptures begin appearing. In miniature painting the Vishwa-rupa theme has been more common.

The natural human form with just two normal arms defines the Saumya or the Lalit-rupa of Krishna.

Large Size Krishna in ‘Tri-bhang’ Aspect

From around the second-third century onwards, the Puranas weave around him tales of his exploits accomplished in his human form. It was also the golden period of Indian art under the Gupta rulers. Obviously, his human form, as devised Puranas, and which the scriptures defined as his Saumya-rupa, dominated since onwards the sculptural art, although time and again there also appeared his four-armed form loaded with Narayani attributes. Most of the sculptures of this period depict his exploits against evil forces, a child sucking dead a ferocious demoness, knocking to pieces the demon Shakata, squeezing to death the whirlwind demon Trinavata, killing the horse demon Keshi, the elephant demon Kubalyapitha, the python demon Agha, and the bull demon Vatsa and dancing over the hoods of deadly viper Kaliya and so on, a kind of divine drama full of fiction and stunning action.

Large Size The Dance of Victory

It was actually the transitional phase of Krishna's iconography seeking to do away its divine aspect and replace it with the humane. Now his all three rupas, the Aradhya, the Vishwa and the Saumya, blend to create an altogether different Lila-rupa of Krishna, widely known as Lila Krishna. The traits of Vaishnava incarnation cult yet lingered and now and then the four armed icons too were sculpted, but the iconography had made a decisive shift from his unborn to his human born form and the mysticism had replaced his erstwhile divinity. The Lila Krishna is as much, or perhaps more than ever, the enshrining deity of the Vaishnavites, but different from the earlier cult the iconography was not required to conceive for sanctum a specific kind of image (Aradhya).

The Lila-rupa

Krishna's icons in Lila-rupa might be classed under three groups. The first one comprises of his sanctum images, the second one of images in which he is seen eliminating evil or misgivings and the third in which led by Radha and other Gopis he is drawn into sensuous pursuits and love games. Practically, these three iconic forms of Krishna correspond to his earlier Aradhya, Vishwa and Saumya Rupas with the difference that all three aspects reveal only in his normal human form and are represented as various dimensions of his Lila. The Lila-rupa is now the prime thrust of Krishna cult and not only the three prior Rupas merge into it but also the later ones emerge out of it. In every manifest form he is the Lila-Krishna or Lila-Purusha.

Shrinathji Of Nathdvara

Any of his Lila-rupas, or its fragment, crystallized and fixed into an iconic form, may define what might be termed as his sanctum image. Krishna lifts mount Govardhana on his left hand little finger for protecting Vrindavana, its people, animals, nature and so on from Indra's ire. Lifting Govardhana is the climax of a long chain of events, such as Krishna persuading people of Brij to give up the annual worship of Indra and to worship instead their cattle, their real benefactor, Indra's retaliation against the people of Brij and flooding it in entirety with the non-stop torrential rains, and so on. The climax part of the event, which represents Krishna holding Govardhan over his left hand finger, when crystallized into an icon, comprises one of his most popular sanctum image types known as Govardhana-dhari Krishna. This Govardhana-dhari Krishna, though Govardhana itself is only symbolically represented, is the presiding image of Vallabha's Pushtimarga and enshrines its principal seat at Nathdwara and is known as Shrinathji. This seat of Shrinathji developed around it not only an enormous art activity but also its characteristic style and symbolism.

Shri Jagannatha in King's Costume (Raja Vesha)

Most of the Vaishnava seats, dedicated to the Krishna cult, except the Jagannath temple at Puri in Orissa, enshrine Krishna in one of his Lila-rupas. The icons in the Jagannath temple at Puri are an exception to it. The Puri icons, a product of some erstwhile unknown folk or tribal tradition of Krishna worship cult, are reminiscent of the ancient Vrashni Trio comprising of Vasudeva Krishna, his brother Balarama and their sister Ekananga and represent the initial Aradhya-rupa cult of Krishna image. Here Subhadra, the real sister of Krishna, has replaced Ekananga.

14" x 17" Navaneeta Krishna Tanjore Painting | Traditional Colors With 24K Gold | Teakwood Frame | Gold & Wood | Handmade | Made In India

In the images, enshrining other Vaishnava seats, Krishna is more often represented in three rupas, the Gopalak Krishna, the Bala Krishna and Krishna with Radha, or Radha Krishna. In his Gopalak rupa, that is, the protector and the keeper of cows, he is Gopal, in his Bala-rupa, he is the child and in the Radha Krishna rupa he is with Radha, either in a dance move or in a tribhanga posture, a figure with triple body curves, playing on flute or poised otherwise amorously. Krishna as Gopala is further manifested as Dhenu Gopal (surrounded by cows), and with flute on his lips, he is Venu Gopal. Some of the popular icons of the child Krishna, or Bal Gopal, represent him as holding in one of his hands the sweet ball, or laddu, the form known as Laddu Gopal, as stealing butter, the form known as Makhan-chor, as holding the pot with butter in it, or a ball of butter, the form known as Navaneet Krishna and the like.

He enshrines a sanctum in every form, although his icons depicting his exploits against evil, except subduing Kaliya, are little preferred as a votive image. The globally revered Banke Bihari temple at Vrindavana enshrines the triple curved Krishna image with flute on his lips, though such flute is represented only symbolically.

The gold complexioned nude Navaneet Krishna, seated under a well adorned sanctum inlaid with precious stones is the iconographic vision of the South Indian shrines. All ISKCON temples enshrine Radha Krishna in an amorous dance pose.

The icons, depicting Krishna eliminating evil, or removing misgivings, form another group of Krishna's iconographic visualization. Here the detached Krishna is in his cosmic role eliminating evil, protecting environment and Yamuna like resources of life from polluting venom, undoing forest fires, devastating whirlwinds, defeating python, Keshi, Dhanuka and Kubalyapitha type agents of death and assuring observance of social and ethical norms. He removes the misgivings, which the people of Brij entertained by way of worshipping Indra for giving them favorable rains and good crops and which prevailed over Arjun who in the battlefield gets swept by personal emotions and disregards for them his right duties which as a warrior he was obliged to perform. The icons falling under this group appear alike in stone, metal, wood and colors and since as early as the Gupta period. They lay scattered from sculpted and painted temple walls to their sanctum sanctorum.

Classica Rasaleela Image

The ingenuity of Krishna image is, however, seen in the medieval miniature painting, which presents him in thousands of modes and situations of love and sensuality and discover in them the subtlest means of spiritual elevation and transcendence. This part of his visual representations forms the third group of his icons depicting his Lila-rupa. Each of the paintings illustrating Bhagavata Purana, Gita-Govind, Surasagara, Rasikpriya, Bihari Satsai and numerous other Krishna-lila related texts is a drama enacted in lines and colors. In them, he has been used for personifying Ragas and the Baramasa-type abstractions, as also to model various Nayakas, the hero types, as per Indian classical canons. The paintings of this group range from the large size cloth paintings, the well known pichhawais, to the paintings rendered on rice like tiny objects and from his innocent childhood tricks to his Rasa, the dance in a ring, and erotic involvement with Radha and Gopis.

Pulling at Heart Strings

These paintings showed still greater ingenuity in diversifying Krishna's Bal-rupa. In Krishna-lila paintings, although different regions discovered in them their own styles and iconic characteristics, the theme, with its dramatic effects, stunning actions, deeply moving emotions, pictorial quality, lyricism and the all pervading mysticism, overrides the iconography. Even in regional perception, it is the image and not the style of rendering it that matters more. To the Pahari artist, he is a village stripling, very much like the one from his own neighborhood;

Inspired by Radha and Krishna.

to the Rajasthani painter, he is the model for any ruler to copy his dressing style, sensuality and art of love making;

and to the Tanjore artist, he is a nude butter eating and butter like tender fleshy, plump and cute child glowing with moon's brilliance. Texts prescribed iconographic specifications for rendering his image, but with too dynamic a form, if a form he ever had, he hardly ever allowed a prescription to arrest him into a specific model.


Does Krishna Symbolize an Entity Different from a Born One?

Krishna appears sometimes to have been conceived to symbolize the cosmic personality, the face and the figure of the Infinite, the emotions, the passions and the frailties of the born one, depths of thought and philosophy and the mysticism of the Divine. The blue bodied Krishna, as he has been conceived in scriptures and art, except in Tanjore and Mysore paintings where his figure glows with gold's luster, corresponds to the sky and the ocean, one defining cosmic vastness and the other cosmic depth and both conjointly the Infinity, which as Vishnu's incarnation Krishna represented.

Krishna-The Most Beautiful Musician

Pitambara, his yellow garment usually comprising of a single dhoti worn as a long loin cloth, is a uniform feature of his iconography. It corresponds to light, a cosmic entity that cleaves the darkness and makes things known but is well short of Infinity. So is Krishna's pitambara, covering only a part of his being. Light covers but the lower regions of the cosmos and beyond it are regions of abysmal darkness, which has no light but its own galaxy of colors and its own sounds and echoes. Krishna wears the multi-hued peacock feather crest, a galaxy of colours radiating from within the darkness. He blows his bamboo pipe, the flute, and breaks the abysmal stillness. The flute is an organ different from lyres and all other instruments. Except its pierced hollowness it has nothing more, no strings, no cords and no sound creating agents. Here the winds that transmit into sound and echoes rise from within and vibrate its hollowness, as does the nada, the cosmic sound. Bamboo creates fire by its frictions and sound by waving. It grows in clumps and has a zenithal rise. What else but a bamboo alone could be his pipe that, by its sound, created fire within Gopis' hearts and drew them in flocks to collectively participate in the divine act of love and elevate to spiritual heights.

As if Asserting His Own Obeisance to the Great God…

Other aspects too have alike mystic dimensions. His tribhanga posture defines the three-tiered existence (upper, lower and middle) of the cosmos, which he contains in his being. Whenever he eliminates a demon, his right foot has a forward thrust, suggesting the direction of his act.

His partially bent legs during a Rasa constitute a square with all its sides equal, as in a Rasa every Gopi, that is, every self, has an alike significance. He is Gopal, that is, 'Go' plus 'pal', meaning 'cow' and 'to look after', broadly the protector and the keeper of cows. Krishna takes cows to graze and protects them from everything, whether the forest fire, Indra's wrath, Kaliya's venom, conspiracy of Kansa or Brahma's mischief that endangers their lives. In Indian tradition, cow stands also for the earth as she has earth like forbearance and capacity to feed mankind. Allegorically, Krishna protects the earth from evils and sustains it. 'Go' also means 'senses', the five ones that human beings have. Thus, Gopal stands for him who sustains senses, that is, one who discovers the substance of life in its entirety, in its spiritualism, as well as in its sensuality. It is significant as when many religions advocated renunciation, Krishna's Vaishnavism sought transcendence and salvation by sensual elevation. In yet another allegorical perception, Krishna stands for the Supreme Self and Gopis for 'jivatmas' or individual selves pining to unite with it. Their love for him is the divine longing to unite. Radha defines the culminating of this longing, that is, a Gopi, before she unites with the Supreme Self, is required to attain Radhahood, that is, Radha-like absolute dedication and devotion.

References and Further Reading

  • Chhandyogya Upanishad, Gita Press, Gorakhpur.
  • Bhagavata Purana, Gita Press, Gorakhpur.
  • Mahabharata, Gita Press, Gorakhpur.
  • Gita Govind, Moti Chandra, Lalit Kala, New Delhi.
  • Krishna : Raga Se Viraga Tak, Dr. Daljeet and P.C.Jain, New Delhi.
  • The Life of Krishna in Indian Art, Dr. P. Banerjee, New Delhi.
  • Krishna : The Living Spirit of Vrandavana, Dr. Daljeet, New Delhi.
  • Krishna : the Divine Lover, published by B. I. Publications.
  • The Divine Player, A Study of Krishna-lila, D, R, Kinsley, Delhi.
  • The Loves of Krishna in Indian Painting and Poetry, W.G. Archer, London.
  • Kala Mein Krishna, published by State Museum, Lucknow.


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  • Well said Dr. P.C. Jain - indeed your logic is hard to argue with. And your article itself, if you ask me; is quite simply, Divine in nature.. Divinity manifests itself in even an Article.. Who would have thought that ha ha
    Wayne Barney May 10, 2012
  • Very...... Nice
    Shyam Krishna Shrestha June 25, 2011
  • Jai Sri Radha-Madhava :D
    Hare Krishna! November 05, 2007
  • I love to have my favourite god reviewed xD thanks!
    Mirari September 09, 2007
  • please no human being is divine. divinity belongs only to god.
    zai September 06, 2007
  • There is another aspect here, Hindus also believe in one all powerful, beyond description power, (which we usually represent as OM) which manifests, or incarnated itself on this earth in the form of men, to show that he has endowed men with an ability to overcome many odds.
    Akhilesh Sabharwal October 13, 2004
  • Dear Charles Ogunsanya, Thank you very much for your comment in regard to our article: "Iconographic Perception of Krishna's Image". In view of what I could make out of the exact context of your comment, I agree with you that God is the ultimate Divinity, but I would also request you not to squeeze the meaning of the term so much that it becomes a term of dictionaries and not of experience or realization. Actually the Formless God manifests best in His Grace and Divinity often perceived in His creation, say, in the innocent smile of a child, in selfless sacrifice, say as of Christ, and selfless service, say as of Mother Teresa, and so on. Divinity itself is immortal but it will not enshrine a child's lips as his smile, or a mother's caressing hands treating lepers, because they are mortal and may pass away the other moment is, at least to my mind, a wrong notion. Even when they are not there the Divinity shall remain. God Himself pervades the Creation, which decays, perishes and ends. God imparts to creation His attributes but is not bound by those of the creation. So is His Divinity and Grace. They may impart to any thing, to a perishable flower, their attributes and at the same time will not perish with it. When we see in a thing or act something that transcends our perceptual world, something beyond man's world, we feel transported into a realm different from ours and there the ladder to the world of the Divine begins. I would also request you that men and women are mortal but it is in them that man has seen manifest cosmic powers and even the face of God, as in the entire creation and in 'beyond Created' he perceives the apex, of both, good and bad and vice and virtue, only in man and seeks to realize in his form all, the created and the 'beyond created'. Metaphysics permit abstract rhetoric, but the theology often demands a form. If it was not so, Islam, a strong adherent of the Formless God, would not discover in the human born Muhammad, the prophet, the messenger of God, Christianity in Jesus Christ His son and Sikhs in Guru the body of the Supreme. Early Vedic rhetoric in India believed in the Formless God, but then for a lay believer it sought Him manifest in Trinity. Six of the nine major theologies in India do not talk of any God but only of human born teachers and these teachers themselves prohibited their worship but man has been worshipping them now for ages. No matter the man dies, but till he lives, he may house in his being the Divinity and Grace of the Supreme Being. And, 'to believe' is an attitude of mind. One believes a thing till he thinks that it is true. The moment one knows it is a lie, he will not believe it. So whatever one believes is his supreme truth beyond question. Besides, who may decide what comprises a lie and what not? As I requested you, six of the nine philosophical orders in India alone, to include Buddhism, Jainism, Sankhya and so on, do not believe in anything like a God. To them, the existence of God amounts to a lie. Would you agree with them? Perhaps not. So ultimate is a believing mind and its theme, it better knows. I hope you will not mind. With best wishes, Yours sincerely, P.C.Jain. (In response to a reader's comment published below)
    Dr. P. C. Jain September 19, 2004
  • Please no human being is divine. Divinity belongs only to God. Men and women are mortal and will die. It is important not to believe a lie.
    Charles Ogunsanya September 18, 2004