We’ve all grown up listening to stories of Lord Krishna. He’s a butter thief, a mischief-maker, an exuberant imp with the literal ability to move mountains. He’s also very romantic and plays the flute with divine grace. He’s also a god, you learn as you grow older. So, you think you know him—but actually no one does.
In his new book, Shyam, mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik finally puts together the whole story of Krishna. What you will read below is not an excerpt from the book, but eight things that Devdutt himself learned about one of Hinduism’s most popular gods.
The story of Krishna from start to finish is a bit of a jigsaw puzzle, with anecdotes from here, there and everywhere.
Story in fragments
Krishna’s story comes to us in fragments via Sanskrit literature, first in the Mahabharata (that speaks of Krishna’s adulthood amongst the Pandavas), then in the Harivamsa (that speaks of his pastoral foster family), then in the Vishnu Purana (that refers to him as Vishnu’s avatar), then the now popular Shrimad Bhagavata Purana (that refers to the dance with milkmaids at night) and the Geet Govind of Jayadeva (that introduces us elaborately to Radha).
Of course, Krishna’s story may have been transmitted in its entirety orally for thousands of years before being put down in writing. That we will never know. What we do know is that the Mahabharata reached its final textual form about 2,000 years ago, Harivamsa around 1,700 years ago, Vishnu Purana around 1,500 years ago, the final layers of the Bhagavata Purana came together 1,000 years ago, and the Geet Govind about 800 years ago.
Paradise of cows and heaven
Few retell the story of Krishna from birth to death sequentially, as they do for Ram. Of course, the devout will never say Ram, or, Krishna died! They will speak of their descent from Vaikuntha as avatars, and their return to Vaikuntha.
Ram is different from Krishna because Ram does not know he is Vishnu, while Krishna does. Ram is the seventh avatar and Krishna is the eighth in popular traditions. For Krishna devotees, Krishna is the greater avatar of Vishnu. The greatest even: the complete avatar (poorna-avatar), the most perfect personal manifestation (saguna brahman) of the impersonal divine (nirguna brahman).
So, for many devotees, Krishna’s heaven of Goloka stands higher than Vishnu’s heaven of Vaikuntha. Vaikuntha is located in the ocean of milk, but all this milk comes from the udders of cows located in Goloka. These cows voluntarily release their milk because they are so moved by the music of Krishna who, inspired by the beauty and love of Radha, plays the flute as he stands under the celestial Kadamba tree which, in Goloka, takes the form of Kalpavriksha, the divine wish-fulfilling tree.
Global Krishna in local form
While there are many common and continuous stories of Krishna across India, Krishna is different in different parts of India, and the world.
In Maharashtra, people connect with Krishna through the image of Vithoba of Pandharpur. Poet-saints of Maharashtra such as Eknath, Tukaram, and Gyaneshwar brought Krishna to the masses. In Rajasthan and Gujarat, Krishna is accessed through Shrinathji of Nathdwara.
People from Odisha connect with Krishna through the local image of Jagannath in Puri temple. In Assam, it is through the many Namghars, which was established over 500 years ago by Shankardev. Here, there are no images of Krishna. He is accessed through chanting, singing, dancing and performances.
In Tamil Nadu, Krishna is rarely distinguished from Vishnu. He inspired the collective of poets known as Alvars. In Kerala, about 400 years ago, the Sanskrit poetry known as Narayaniyum was composed. It tells the story of the Bhagavata Purana in a very short form and it is popular in the Guruvayur temple. North India is completely unaware of these traditions.
In Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Krishna is heroic. He wrestles and defeats demons, but there are no references to his pastoral roots.
So, the Krishna who became popular in Southeast Asia over 1,000 years ago is Vasudev Krishna of the Mahabharata, not Gopal Krishna of the Bhagavata. Krishna is thus very different when seen through the lens of geography, as he is when seen through the lens of history.