Category Archives: 1. Vaisnava Deities

Jayadeva and the Gitagovinda

Among the myriad of Indian epic poets, Jayadeva, the twelfth century composer of the unparalleled Gitagovinda (Song of the Cowherd), stands alone as a poet of paramount prominence. As a fervent devotee of Krsna, there is a strong undercurrent of Vaisnava faith (the worship of Visnu or his associated avatars, principally as Rama and Krsna, as the original and supreme God) and bhakti (loving devotion) in his articulation as he sings of the mystical amours between Krsna and Radha. As Jayadeva elaborates the love of this cosmic duo, he creates an aesthetic atmosphere of sringararasa or erotic-mystical mood that is bliss for the devotees of Krsna. Indeed, the Gitagovinda of Jayadeva, divinely adorned and devotionally oriented, is a source of religious inspiration in both medieval and contemporary Vaisnavism [for a detailed analysis of Vaisnavism, see Dimock (1966)].

The widely renowned lyrical composition and religious eroticism of the Gitagovinda earned sainthood for Jayadeva, and has been a powerful influence on several genres of creative and performing arts in various parts of India. It is the incredibly vivid imagery of this devotional text finds itself as an ideal subject for India’s visual and performing arts (Kaminsky 2). It is Jayadeva’s intent, not only to rouse the devotional depths of the bhakta (those engaged in devotional worship or bhakti), but to transport one literally into the heart of the love scene. The sensory imagery of Jayadeva’s poetry allows the reader or devotee to be a honey bee on a lotus blossom: seeing, touching, smelling the flora and fauna of the enchanting Indian forest. One gets close enough to “taste the sweat glistening on the upper lip of the young maiden [Radha]”(Kaminsky 2), experiencing the beatific delights of sporting with her lover. The jingling of the bells draping Radha’s waist titillates and tantalizes the soul’s inner ear as the reader sways with the melodious motion of their lovemaking. For the bhakta, it is in the union of this woman and the deity in the form of a man that the soul can find a path to oneness with the cosmic essence of the divine [on the depiction of tangible and intangible elements in Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda, see Mahapatra (2008)].

The birth and life of Jayadeva are masked in the various legends and regional paeans of the provinces of West Bengal and Orissa, each province claiming him to be their own (Kaminsky 24). Indeed, after completing the Gitagovinda, such was Jayadeva’s fame and eminence, that numerous local versions of this legend grew into disagreeing traditions about Jayadeva’s origin and poetic activity. Contemporary scholars of Bengal, Orissa, and Mithila have published claims locating the hamlet of his birthplace in their respective regions. Indeed, two strong traditions say that “Kindubilva” mentioned in the Gitagovinda is either a village near Puri in Orissa or a village in the modern Birbhum district of Bengal. A third tradition recognizes the village of Kenduli near Jenjharpur in Mithila as Jayadeva’s place of birth (Miller 3-5). Sources are ambiguous on whether or not he wrote the Gitagovinda while he was the court poet of Laksmanasena Kam, the last Hindu king of Bengal (1179-1209) (Siegel 209-210), but it is generally accepted that after the completion of the Gitagovinda, Jayadeva and his wife went on a pilgrimage to Vrndavana.  For now, it is relatively safe to say that Jayadeva resided and wrote in eastern India during the latter half of the twelfth century (Miller 4).

Despite the difference in opinion of Jayadeva’s origin, all accounts that sanctify Jayadeva’s life reveal that he was born into a Brahman family and that he became a gifted student of Sanskrit and a skilled poet. In spite of this, he abandoned scholarship at a young age and assumed an ascetic life, devoting himself entirely to God. As a wandering poet and mendicant, he would not rest underneath the same tree for more than a night for fear that attachment to the place would breach his vow of asceticism (Miller 3).

His life of renunciation and denial came to an end when a Brahman in Puri (in Orissa along the eastern coast of India) claimed that the god Jagannatha, “Lord of the World” [Jagannatha is considered to be a form of Visnu, although some scholars maintain that Jagannatha was Buddha (also considered by Hindus to be the 9th avatara or incarnation of Visnu). Others assert that he is really Krsna, the 8th of Visnu’s avataras. For a more detailed analysis of Jagannatha see, Raya (1998)] himself had ordained the marriage of Jayadeva to the Brahman’s daughter. The Brahman’s daughter was Padmavati, a young girl who was dedicated as a devadasi (religious dancing girl who gave praise to the gods and shared the tales of their greatness through dance for devotees) in the temple. Jayadeva agreed to the marriage. Padmavati served her husband and he shared her devotion to Jagannatha. As Jayadeva composed, Padmavati would dance — whence came the inspiration for the Gitagovinda (Kaminsky 25).

While composing the Gitagovinda, Jayadeva envisioned the climax of Krsna’s supplication to Radha as a command for Radha to place her foot on Krsna’s head in a symbolic gesture of victory. But the poet was reluctant to complete the couplet, in respect to Krsna, which would place Radha in a position superior to that of Krsna, as well as commit an ancient taboo of touching anyone with the foot –a symbol of spiritual pollution (juta). Leaving the poem incomplete, Jayadeva went to bathe in a river and, as the story goes, in his absence Krsna appeared in his guise to complete the couplet; Krsna then ate the food Padmavati had prepared for Jayadeva and left. When Jayadeva returned, he realized that he had received divine affirmation in exalting Krsna’s loving relation to Radha.

The Gitagovinda, deceptively simple in its exterior beauty, that is, in its exotic and sensual crust, has an abundance of meaning embedded in structurally complex forms. It is expressed as a sequence of songs interspersed with recitative portions in cadenced forms of classical kavya verses (classi­cal Sanskrit verse) (Miller 7). There are twelve main parts which can be referred to as cantos, divisions of a long poem. The Sanskrit term for this is sargah and will be used from this point on. Within each sargah are short narratives and songs, and each song has a particular tala and raga associated with it. Talas are rhythmic cycles which lie beneath the structure of an Indian musical piece and a raga is a melodic form that evokes a particular mood, most of which are selected for specific times of day, year, weather conditions, emotional states. These states of emotion are known as rasa (Kaminsky 46-47).

Several types of Indian dance and vocal music tell the legends of Radha and Krsna through these musical modes and rhythmic cycles. As it has been generally acknowledged that Jayadeva was inspired by the religious dancing of his wife, this is a likely explanation for the melodic structure of the Gitagovinda (Kaminsky 47).

While dramatizing the amours of Krsna and Radha on the surface, the Gitagovinda simultaneously conveys the deep ethos of devotion of the individual soul, its yearning for God realization and finally achieving the consummation in service of God. Or again: outwardly it describes the love, separation, longing and union of Radha and Krsna, the cosmic duo, in the mystical forest, Vrindavan, along the bank of river Yamuna. But metaphysically it expresses the pining of the individual soul (jivatma) for the mystical union with the divine soul (paramatma). Indeed, in the words of one scholar: “through the thrilling love episode of Radha and Krsna, the poet Jayadeva takes us stage by stage to the highest pitch of God consciousness and God realization” (Tripathy 5).

Indeed, while the poem’s subject is the estrangement of Radha and Krsna caused by Krsna’s dalliances with the other gopies (cowherd girl), Radha’s anguish at Krsna’s abandonment, and the rapture which attends their final reunion, the poem reverts repeatedly to devotion of Krsna as God:

If in recalling Krsna to mind there is flavour

Or if there is interest in loves art

Then to this necklace of words–sweetness, tenderness,


The words of Jayadeva, listen ( Miller 69).

In fact, Jayadeva’s objective is inducing “recollection of Krsna in the minds of the good” (Archer 65) and inserts a vivid description of the Indian forest in springtime exclusively, he says, in order once again to stir up remembrance Krsna. When, at last, the poem has come elatedly to a close, Jayadeva again insists the reader to adore and venerate Krsna and “place him forever in their hearts, Krsna the source of all merit” (Archer 65).

The story of the Gitagovinda may be briefly told. The poem opens with a description of the occasion when Radha and Krsna first join in love together:

“Clouds thicken the sky.

Tamala trees darken the forest.

The night frightens him.

Radha, you take him home!”

They leave at Nanda’s order,

Passing trees in thickets on the way,

Until secret passions of Radha and Madhava [the epithet of Krsna which also means “honey like” and “vernal”]

Triumph on the Jumna riverbank (Miller 69).

In this way the love of Radha and Krsna arises — the love which is to govern their hearts with ever growing fervour. Next, the reader, or the devotee, is captivated by Krsna and Radha’s surroundings: the trees are lush and thick with leaves, and flowering creepers are intertwined within their branches–symbolic of the lovers’ embrace. Spring is fully aroused, the birds are lively, love is ripe in the air. The couple are dressed in splendid colours of gold, red, and yellow and they are draped in gold and pearls.

Krsna is the eighth avatara (incarnation) of Visnu, and the first sargah continues with the heart touching, vivid and melodious account of the ten incarnations based on the evolutionary process of the creation and development of the animal world, each of which “came to the rescue” in various ways. According to the Srimad Bhagavad Gita, when virtue subsides and vice prevails, God manifests himself to establish righteousness [It is on this that the theory of incarnations of God is based, see Tripathy 5-9].

The poem then leaps a period of time and when the drama opens, a crises has occurred. Radha, after long enjoying Krsna’s passionate embraces, finds herself abruptly abandoned. Radha‘s friend, sakhi, tells her of Krsna’s amorous play with the other gopies, his feet stroked by one of them, his head cushioned on the bosom of another whose “heaving breasts are tenderly outspread to pillow it” (Miller 76). One beautiful damsel murmurs sweet words of praise into his ear, others care for him tenderly. He himself embraces one of them, kisses another and fondles a third (Archer 93).

As Radha broods on his behaviour, she is filled with bitter sadness; Radha’s yearning and lamenting in a faltering voice choked by heavy tears made even the water birds weep sorrowfully (Miller 1975: 659-665). Yet her love for Krsna is so strong she cannot bring herself to blame him. Radha’s pain of separation (viraha) from Krsna draws her interest away from worldly concerns and leads to meditation on Krsna which is the essence of bhakti that leads to the attainment of spiritual union with Krsna who is the quintessence of divinity (Siegel 66). It is Radha’s intuitive, unfaltering, all-inclusive dedication to union with Krsna which serves as a paradigm for many followers of bhakti. In this sense, one scholar has commented: “the pain of separation from the divine is in itself a source for joy as it encourages, or forces, one to meditate on the qualities with which one longs to unite” (Kaminsky 27).

As Radha sits longing for him in misery, Krsna suddenly repents, is filled with remorse and abruptly goes in quest of her. He does not know, however, where to find her and as he wanders he expresses his grief. The third Sargah reveals Krsna as he searches for Radha and laments:

She saw me surrounded in the crowd of women

And went away

I was too ashamed,

Too afraid to stop her.

Damn me! My wanton ways

Made her leave in anger (Miller 82).

Seated alone in his arbor of love, Krsna dwells on the thought of his devotee, Radha, and presently Sakhi comes to him to assure him of her passionate love for him. Without him she cannot bear to live, for every moment is filled with suffering and misery. Surely he, the source of love, will respond to her need.

It is well into the evening, the crescent moon in the sky. It looks as if Krsna will spend the night alone in misery. It is said that because of her ego, the Lord, Krsna was kept away. Due to Radha’s jealousy, or impure thoughts, Krsna, as the divine, is unable to reach her (Greenlees xvi). The idea here is that without ego, one is released to accept god’s grace.

Then, well into the darkness of the night, Sakhi finally convinces Radha to overcome her jealousy and pride which have been keeping her apart from her beloved. The scene is exceedingly dark, but the rushing Yamuna river coming from between the feminine curves of the undulating hills can be seen. Sakhi coaxes Radha to enter the bower of Krsna who sits in anticipation. In this way, Sakhi is like the guru who is responsible for uniting the human soul with the Divine (Kuppuswamy 41):

Loosen your clothes, until your belt, open your loins!

Radha, your gift of delight is like treasure in a bed of vines.

In woods on the wind-swept Jumna bank,

Krsna waits in wildflower garlands (Miller 93).

Krsna is splendid in his brilliance. His gold and pearl jewellery, white floral garland, and the white of his eyes brighten the darkness and provoke Radha to come to him. Now, Radha becoming less timid raises her eyes to meet those of Krsna. One can get a sense of an impending passionate unite.

The subsequent stanzas of the poem then reveal a reversal of devotion. Krsna asks Radha to place her feet on his head and declares his devotion to her. God is expressing his dedication to the human soul. Or as later Vaisnava texts have revealed, Radha is actually a goddess sprung from Krsna’s divineness (Kaminsky 49).

To the delight of the reader, or devotee, the lonely night ends with the ecstatic reunion (samyoga) of the lovers. The entire twelfth sargah offers the reader the full flavour of the ecstatic reunion of Radha and Krsna:

When her friend had gone

Smiles spread on Radha’s lips

While love’s deep fantasies

Struggled with her modesty

Seeing the mood in Radha’s heart,

Hari spoke to his love;

Her eyes were fixed

On his bed of buds and tender shoots (Miller 122).

Jayadeva continues:

[Radha’s] beautiful loins are a deep cavern to take the thrusts of love–

Cover them with jewelled girdles, clothes, and ornaments, Krsna! (Miller 124).

Finally Radha, the individual soul (jivatma), has achieved union with Krsna, the divine soul (paramatma).  Then with a final remembrance of Krsna as God and celebration of the song itself — its words “sweeter than sugar, like loves own glorious flavour” — the poem ends.

The dramaturgy and the poetics in the Gitagovinda have been skilfully crafted to touch the innermost core of the disciple and inspire the noblest of emotions. For this reason it is a literary legacy of India. Its spiritual essence, mystical imports, erotic undertones, sensory imagery and lyrical fluidity have perplexed critics, bewildered scholars, mystified saints, enthralled lovers, enlightened devotees and engaged people at large emotionally and sentimentally. Jayadeva, through his mystical love songs, has brought to light the strong desire of individuals for communion with divinity, and this mysticism has created extensive philosophical and metaphysical connotations that have had a profound influence on the religious outlook and spiritual psyche of devotees.


Archer, W.G (1957) The Loves of Krsna in Indian Painting and Poetry. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Dimock. E. C (1966) The Place of the Hidden Moon: Erotic Mysticism in the Vaisnava- sahajiya Cult of Bengal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Greenlees, Duncan (1979) The song of divine love: Gita-Govinda of Sri Jayadeva. Madras: Kalakshetra Publications.

Kaminsky, Alison M (1988) Radha: The Blossoming of Indias Flower in art and Literature. PhD diss., Long Beach: California State University.

Kuppuswamy, Gowri and Muthuswamy Hariharan (1980) Jayadeva and Gītagōvinda: a study. Michigan: College Book House.

Mahapatra, Gadadhar (2008) “Depiction of Tangible and Intangible Elements of Nature in Gita Govinda Kavyam.” Orissa Review 14.10, pp. 22-27.

Miller, Barbara Stoler (1975) “Radha: Consort of Krsna’s Vernal Passion.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 95.4.

Miller, Barbara Stoler (1977) The Gitagovinda of Jayadeva: Love Song of the Dark Lord. New York: Columbia University Press.

Raya, Bidyutlata (1998) Jagannātha cult: origin, rituals, festivals, religion, and philosophy. Michigan: Kant Publications.

Siegel, Lee (1978) Sacred and Profane Dimensions of Love in Indian Traditions as Exemplified in the Gitagovinda of Jayadeva. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

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Article written by: Stephenie Madany (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.


The Hindu epics are a source of entertainment and religious guidance. Today, Rama, the titular character of the Hindu epic, The Ramayana, is seen as the ideal man, who follows dharma to rigid perfection. The Ramayana, one of the two great Hindu epics, continues to have great significance today, despite being originally composed approximately two thousand years ago. While there are thousands of variations of the epic across southern Asia, its original authorship is attributed to the sage Valmiki, who lived sometime between 200 BC and 200 AD. Rama, who is married to the ideal woman, Sita, is portrayed and celebrated today as enacting true dharma in his role as son, brother, husband and member of the ksatriya class. He is also recognized as the “incarnation of Visnu in his role as Supreme God” (Gonzalez-Reimann 203).

The Ramayana is an epic that contains over 20,000 verses. Within these verses are the adventures surrounding Rama, son of King Dasaratha of Ayodhya, and heir to its throne. Laksmana, Rama’s half-brother and inseparable companion accompanies the hero throughout his many adventures. Both Laksmana and Sita, Rama’s wife, accompany him into a fourteen-year exile to the forests, during which the trio meet with various sages, encounter and defeat demons, and learn the ways of a forest-dweller. Much of Rama’s tale centers on his rescue of Sita from Ravana, a ten headed raksasas. While Rama’s adventures within The Ramayana provide entertainment, it is his action and philosophical reasoning that provide Hindus with direction in regard to dharma.

Rama is portrayed as one who is the “embodiment of…infinite virtues” (Bhattacharji 32). He is the obedient son, ready to “give up the throne and go into exile to redeem his father’s pledge” (Bhattacharji 43). Rama displays great love and faith in his brothers, trusting that Bharata would adhere to duty, caring for his throne during his banishment, and eventually restoring him. Rama’s love for even his wife Sita “became subsidiary and insignificant in comparison with love for the brother” (Bhattacharji 36). Living as a forest-dweller, he killed demons to protect sages, for “as a prince he was obligated to exercise the protective function of the warrior class” (Goldman 34). Ruler of Ayodhya for 11,000 years after his banishment, Rama “was a true warrior hero with a strict code of heroism” (Bhattacharji 43).

Large Rama Statue, Bali

Rama’s fame for his goodness has led to an expectation among readers and followers that he is pure, and acts righteously in all circumstances. Supported and “reinforced by scholars who have…their own expectations” (Stewart et al. 244) of Rama, it is often the case that Rama is seen as a flat divinity, one that is non-complex: he is good, therefore he is dharmic. This however is not the case; Rama is complex, whether portrayed as man or as god incarnate, and strays from the righteous path from time to time. Rama’s slaying of the monkey king Vali from behind a tree “violated the fundamental law of combat by striking at the enemy from behind” (Bhattacharji 36). In killing from behind, undercover, and an individual whom Rama had had no personal conflict with, he sacrificed the ksatriya codes of honor to increase his chances of finding Sita.

Although Sita, as the ideal woman, follows her dharma and willingly stays at her husband’s side and places her complete faith, love and allegiance with him. Rama does not do his wife justice, frequently disregarding Sita’s love for him. He fails to protect her from physical harm and dishonor. Upon his rescue of her, his main goal, he reveals, was not to rescue his beloved wife, “but to ensure the piety of his… lineage” (Bhattacharji 40). Despite unshakeable proof of Sita’s chastity, Rama abandons and humiliates her three times, doubting her devotion to him.

During the rare times that Rama strays from the path of dharma, it is often for his own personal gain and image. Rama kills Vali to gain the help of the monkey king to find Sita, and avenge his tarnished image. He belittles Sita, viewing her as tainted, something that he can no longer enjoy. For his personal and family honor, he doubts her purity thrice, despite receiving ample proof and being reproached by the gods that she has stayed true to Rama alone. While scholars have discussed and critiqued Rama for his cowardly killing of Vali, and his frequent betrayal and abandonment of Sita, no explanation has truly been given that adequately explains these few transgressions from the dharmic path (Goldman 35-36). Despite these few flaws in his righteousness, Rama is still considered today as the example of the ideal man, the incarnate of the god Visnu.

Visnu is one of the most prominent gods in the Hindu tradition. Within Hinduism, Visnu has a tradition of returning to earth in varying incarnations or avatars to carry out or ameliorate dharmic situations. Rama, who, throughout the epic continuously acts dharmically, kills the demon Ravana near the end of the story. This, according to Gonzalez-Reimann, is the main reason for Rama’s assumed divinity within Valmiki’s Ramayana. Rama’s incarnation as “the great god Narayana…Visnu, Krsna and Prajapati” (Gonzalez-Reimann 208) creates an identity that is a “combination of man and god” (Gonzalez-Reimann 210). As an avatara of Visnu, Rama embodies the “protector of society and brahmanical dharma”(Gonzalez-Reimann 207). Because Rama is the representation of dharmic action, and because he is associated with the god Visnu in this way, like Visnu himself (who has a group of followers dedicated primarily to him), Rama today has an important role in some forms of Hindu worship.

Built into the very social structure of society, the Hindu practice of renunciation lays the path to knowing and awareness of the Self and moksa. The practice of devotionalism, or bhakti, can and does take many forms within Hinduism, varying from elaborate to simple offerings, or prayers. Devotionalism can be given to a single or multiple deities. Ram bhakti, which is a movement that was founded by Swami Ramananda in the 16th century, attempts to gain liberation from bondage by transferring “emotional attachments…to the spiritual realm”(Lamb 582). Of the numerous religious texts that have been written on the topic, none have been quite so influential as Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas. A revision of Valmiki’s The Ramayana, the text is immensely popular, and “has ultimately set the tenor for Ram bhakti…providing ideal examples for family and society relationships, for righteous action, and for selfless devotion” (Lamb 580). Followers of Ram bhakti show devotionalism through the chanting of prayers or repetition of Rama’s name. Ultimately, the relationship aspired to between devotees and the Divine is paralleled to the relationship of Rama and Hanuman; the relationship “is one of Ram[a] as lord and master” (Lamb 582).

The main character and hero of Valmiki’s The Ramayana, Rama is the righteous prince of Ayodhya, whom, accompanied by his brother and wife, has many adventures in both fictitious and actual places. Acting always in the right, Rama gives an example to modern followers of the correct way to follow dharma. Despite some of his actions being critiqued as unrighteous and morally wrong in today’s world, such actions were more or less seen as socially acceptable at the time of the epic’s composition, and Rama is still seen as the ideal man, in part due to his role as an incarnation of Visnu. Based on this fact, religious orders such as Ram bhakti have been fashioned after Rama’s example. Despite being created thousands of years ago, Rama still has relevance today, providing entertainment, rules of social etiquette, and religious prescriptions for people around the globe.

Bibliography and Related Readings

Bhattacharji, Sukumari. “A Revaluation of Valmiki’s ‘Rama.’” Social Scientist. 30.½ (2002), pp. 31-49.

Goldman, Robert P. The Ramayana Revisited. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Gonzalez-Reimann, Luis. “The Divinity of Rama in the Ramayana of Valmiki.”Journal of Indian Philosophy. 34.1 (2006), pp. 203-220.

Lamb, Ramdas. “Devotion, Renunciation, and Rebirth in the Ramananda Sampraday.” Crosscurrents. Winter (2007), pp. 578-590.

Stewart, Tony K. and Dimock, Edward C. (2001) “Krttibasa’s Apophatic Critique of Rama’s Kingship.” Questioning Ramayanas. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

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Written by Lara Ulrich (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.


As a manifestation of Visnu, Krsna is the creator of his creatures, while also the loving god to his devotees (Sheth 77). Krsna has been called Brahman, the most supreme, the highest self, and the highest bliss, among others (Sheth 80). He has been referred to as a manifestation, or avatara also of Narayana, “Lord of the Universe”. Narayana is another name for Visnu or the original man, purusa. Krsna is one of the two more famous avatars of Visnu, Rama being the other. Krsna is probably more popular than Rama, however, as he fulfills almost every human need. As the divine child, he satisfies the maternal instincts of womanhood. As the divine lover, he gives romantic fulfillment and freedom of sexual expression. He can even save the sinner from evil rebirths (Schweig 16). Although considered by some to be an incarnation of Visnu, Krsna stands alone due to his unusual adoration (Bhandarkar 59).

Krsna’s life spanned from around 3228 BCE to 3102 BCE, according to scriptural documentation (Rosen 124). The earliest mention of Krsna is found in the Chandogya-upanisad (Majumdar 2). He appeared in Mathura, India and spent his youth as a cowherd or gopa in the nearby Northern village of Gokula. He lived with his ‘father’, Nanda, the ruler of the village, along with his ‘mother’ Yasoda and his brother Balarama (Hudson 5). This is where Krsna’s first mischievous yet endearing thieveries took place (Rosen 130). Krsna is also portrayed in texts such as the Mahabharata, the Harivamsa, the Visnu-purana and the Bhagavata-purana. The Harivamsa portrays Krsna as a hero while the Visnu-purana and the Bhagavata-purana portray him as divine (Sheth 43). Some view Krsna as a deity while others view him as a prince who was deified. Some believe he is a real historical person (Majumdar 279) and others as an Indian form of Christ (Couture 38).

Vaisnavism is said to be the most strictly theistic among traditions within the Hindu complex as it claims devotion, or bhakti as both a means and an end. Vaisnavism is the term used for all the devotional traditions dedicated to the worship of Visnu and his avatars (Schweig 15). Vaisnavism was first called Ekantika Dharma, the religion of a single-minded love and devotion to one. It appeared as a religious reform based on theistic principles (Bhandarkar 142). More and more elements have been added to Vaisnavism over time such as the worship of the cowherd boy, Krsna, because of his marvelous deeds and amorous frolicking with the cowherdesses, or gopis. He then came to be regarded as a god and another element was added: the worship of Krsna along with his mistress Radha (Bhandarkar 143). Some Vaisnava groups view Krsna as the source of Visnu and not as a manifestation (Rosen 124).

Someone in full Krsna consciousness uses everything for Krsna’s service and is always liberated from false egoism (Prabhupada 93). The devotee desires nothing for himself but can seek prosperity for others as this is what the Lord wants. (Hudson 25). Schweig calls the devotion to Krsna “theistic intimacy” as Krsna is a god that presents his closest or innermost relationships of love (14). It is significant that what Krsna devotees desire is not moksa (liberation), not freedom from entanglement in samsara, the cycle of repeated births, but continuous “entanglement” in Krsna. They want nothing more than to serve him intimately forever, even if such intimate service may depend upon their own continuous rebirth with him rather than upon release (Hudson 9). Even when the gopis do not purify themselves through ritual bathing or proper actions before rushing to offer themselves to him, Krsna still receives them because it is their intense longing for him that causes their behavior. Receiving the gopis turns all their past and future faults to cotton that will burn up and leave no trace behind (Hudson 26). All devotees seek to emulate the gopis’ pure and consummate devotion to Krsna (Rosen 122).

Krsna is frequently depicted with his female counterpart, Goddess Radha (Schweig 15). Radha has been called the supreme goddess. She embodies all the gopis and all other goddesses. Although Krsna has intimate relationships with all the gopis, Radha is a special gopi; she is Krsna’s supreme gopi (Schweig 19). Many devotees of Krsna worship Radha with him. Their relationship is said to be light, playful, and amusing, leaving out work, worry and anger (Kinsley 84).

If there is one god that is more playful than the others, it is Krsna. Krsna is often called a ‘playful lover’ and he is often engaged in playful actions. Krsna’s actions are called play, or lila, because he is completely fulfilled. His actions are not purposeful; they come from an overflowing abundance (Kinsley 1). Sheth attempts to give evidence to Krsna’s divinity by stating that because his actions are pure, purposeless play, Krsna is unlike a finite being (82). He is commonly worshipped in the form of a baby or child, whose very nature is to play (Kinsley 61). As a child, he is known for his mischief, but his misbehavior is unique in that it purifies and heals all who take part in them rather than evoking concern (Rosen 132). Even when wrestling with enemies, Krsna appears as if he is playing (Sheth 84).

Krsna’s maya, which can be defined as the power to change form or an illusion, is used as a veil when in human form so that during encounters with people, they will not treat him like a god but as another human. For example, when Krsna’s parents realized his divinity, he spread maya on them so that they would continue their parental affection for him (Sheth 89). Another power of Krsna’s is that he can destroy, or heal simply with his touch. He can kill enemies or turn someone beautiful just by touching them (Sheth 91). In his Visnu form, Krsna carries four weapons. In two hands, he carries a lotus flower and a conch shell. These are to assure his devotees that they cannot be vanquished. In the other two hands, he carries a club and a disc. These weapons are meant for the non-devotees to bring them to their senses and remind them that there is the Supreme Lord above them (Prabhupada 21). More distinguishing of Krsna, is a bamboo flute held up to his mouth with both arms. He also carries a herding stick and a buffalo horn. Schweig shows the importance of Krsna’s flute by quoting from a Sanskrit poetic verse, the Krishna Karnamrita, that people would wait to hear Krsna play his flute so that om might sound (24).

Krsna is noted to be strikingly beautiful and youthful, and that he is beauty himself. His speech and his odor are equally as beautiful and it is said that one may find Krsna by his irresistible smell (Kinsley 75). In almost every Vaisnave-Krsna work, Krsna’s physical appearance is revered (Kinsley 77). He usually wears a silk, yellow garment, an ornament with a peacock feather on his head, and a garland made of fresh flowers and leaves. He is a deep blue color, frequently compared to a dark raincloud (Schweig 23). Krsna is so beautiful that even though he wears ornaments, it is his body that enhances the ornaments he wears (Rosen 122). Krsna’s charm and beauty are not purposeless however; they are to allure humanity back to the transcendental realm (Rosen 157).

No other figure in the history of Indian culture has given rise to as much controversy as Krsna (Majumdar 1). He is an extremely powerful, playful, and loving god. Krsna is the true friend of all souls because, when he kills, he not only protects his devotees but, he liberates those that he kills (Schweig 23). Krsna gives salvation not only to his devotees, but also to those who hate him (Sheth 77). Krsna is also multi-faceted as seen in texts such as the Mahabharata, where he exhibits qualities of a philosopher, warrior, friend, lord, husband, charioteer, and guru (Rosen 122). In essence, loving Krsna is synonymous with loving God. In Hinduism, even though there is a hierarchy of sorts, the absolute nature of a god and his name are one (Rosen 220). Krsna eventually returned to the spiritual realm after ridding the world of its worst demons and establishing dharma, or righteousness (Rosen 136). His appearance in this world is claimed to be for the benefit of humankind, to remind us of our real life in the spiritual realm (Rosen 125).


Bhandarkar, Ramkrishna Gopal (1995) Vaisnavism, Saivism and Minor Religious Systems. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.

Couture, Andre (2002) Krsna’s initiation at Sāndīpani’s hermitage. Numen, 49(1), 37-60. Retrieved March 3, 2009, from ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials database.

Hudson, Dennis (1980) Bathing in Krishna : a study in Vaisnava Hindu theology. Harvard Theological Review, 73(3-4), 539-566. Retrieved February 28, 2009, from ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials database.

Kinsley, David R. (1979) The Divine Player: A Study of Krsna Lila. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Majumdar, Bimanbehari (1969) Krsna in History and Legend. Calcutta: Calcutta University Press.

Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (1970) Krsna: The Supreme Personality of Godhead. New York: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism – The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online

Books, Ltd.

Rosen, Steven J. (2006) Essential Hinduism. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Schweig, Graham M. (2004) “Krishna, the Intimate Deity.” The Hare Krishna Movement: The Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant. Ed. Edwin F. Bryant & Maria L. Ekstrand. New York: Columbia University Press, 13-30.

Sheth, Noel S.J. (1984) The Divinity of Krishna. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.



Bhagavata Purana

Chandogya Upanisad




Hare Krnsa Movement











Visnu Purana


Article written by: Annie Siegrist (March 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Visnu Purana

The Puranas were composed as a tool to popularize the religion of the Vedas and still contain the essence of the Vedas (Sharma 1). The Puranas utilize themes from the Vedas to create connections with stories and deities of contemporary importance during their time of composition (Rodrigues 273). The works of the Puranas are derived from different ages and have been compiled under different circumstances (Wilson ix). It is not easy to date the Puranas. For instance, it is noted that the Visnu Purana lacks any cleat particulars that aid in ascertaining the date of composition (Wilson lxix). The Puranas were composed in Sanskrit and therefore, were not directly accessible to the common person and were disseminated by Brahmin scholars (Sharma 5). It is believed that Puranas were composed within the oral tradition of recitations in temples, courts, and for royal patrons (Rodrigues 290). The Puranas have been regarded as traditional Indian history compiled and transmitted in order to preserve the past as a repository of values for the present and future (Matchett 138).

It is commonly held that there are eighteen major or Mahapuranas together with many lesser Puranas, called Upapuranas (Rodrigues 290). The number eighteen may not be intended to single out specific Puranas from the others, but instead it may be a symbol of their close connection with the Mahabharata, just as there were eighteen paravans in the Mahabharata, eighteen chapters in the Bhagavadgita, eighteen days of the Mahabharata battle, and eighteen armies fighting in it (Matchett 134). The Puranas make up a great deal of literature derived from the oral tradition and are usually categorized along with the Epics as they tell of historical information together with myth. The Mahapuranas and Upapuranas were written in Sanskrit and most contain five laksanas, or distinguishing marks. The five distinguishing marks are: Sarga, the creation of the universe; Pratisarga, secondary creations, or the destruction and renovation of worlds; Vamsa, genealogy of gods and patriarchs; Manvantara, the creation of the human race; and, Vamuanucaritam, dynastic histories (Sharma 4). The five laksanas provide order for the events of the Purana and provides the listener with a view of time and space in which the narrated events occur (Narayana Rao 89). It is suggested that the five distinguishing marks found in Mahapuranas and Upapuranas are shared with other traditional religious scriptures of the world, including the Bible (Sharma 4).

A further classification is found within the eighteen Mahapuranas distinguishing between goodness (Sattva), passion (Rajas) and ignorance (Tamas) (Sharma 4). The Visnu, Naradiya, Bhagavata, Garuda, Padma and Varaha Puranas are considered to be pure or that of goodness and purity (Wilson xii). These are believed to be Vaishnava puranas. The second classification includes the Matsya, Kurma, Linga, Siva, Skanda and Agni puranas which are Tamasa or are considered to be Puranas of the darkness. These Puranas prevail from the quality of Tamas which refers to ignorance and gloom and are seen to be indisputably Saiva puranas (Wilson xii). Finally, the third classification includes Brahmanda, Brahmavaivartta, Markandeya, Bhavishya, Vamana and Brahma Puranas which are designated from Rajasa, or as being passionate. These Puranas are to represent the property of passion (Wilson xii). The Visnu Purana, according to the Padma Purana, is found within the Sattva category (Sharma 4).

The form of the Puranas is one of a dialogue and the immediate narrator is commonly believed to be Lomaharshana or Romaharshan, the disciple of Vyasa (Wilson x). Vyasa is a Sanskrit term meaning ‘arranger’ or ‘compiler’ of the Puranas as spoken by Brahma (Wilson x). The Puranas have different speakers for different listeners and no speaker ever directly narrates in any of the Puranas (Narayana Rao 94). The two poems, Ramayana and Mahabharata, are considered to be safe sources for ancient legends of the Hindus, and it is believed that most, if not all, Puranas are drawn from these texts (Wilson lvi). Further, the Visnu Purana contains twenty-three thousand slokas and has six major sections (Sharma 309).

The first of the six books within the Visnu Purana focuses on the details of creation of the universe through the dialogue of Maitreya, attending the sage Parashara (Sharma 309). The first book first explains how the universe proceeds from eternal crude matter and how forms are created and developed from the simple substances previously evolved, or the concept how forms reappear after temporary destruction. This book tells of how creations are periodical and termination occurs when not only all gods and all other forms are annihilated but at the end of the life of Brahma, when again, the elements are merged into a primary substance (Wilson lvii). This is said to take place at the end of every Kalpa, or day of Brahma, and affects only the forms of inferior creatures and lower worlds (Wilson lvii). Visnu is claimed to adopt the form of Brahma to create the universe and when the universe is to be destroyed, Visnu then adopts the form of Siva and performs the act of destruction (Sharma 309).

The first book also illustrates the creation of beings that Brahma produced. Demons were created from Brahma’s thighs, gods emerged from Brahma’s mouth, ancestors or pitris were created from the sides of Brahma and the humans were created last (Sharma 309). The four varnas or classes of people are credited as being derived from Brahma: the brahmanas from his mouth; the kshatriyas from his chest; the vaishyas from Brahma’s thighs; and the shudras from his feet (Sharma 309).

The second book tells the story of India receiving its name from Bharata and explains of the seven circular continents, their surrounding oceans and to the limits of the world (Wilson lx). Although the topographical system described are mythological fictions containing no truth with respect to India or the Bharata, the mountains and rivers are verifiable along with verifiable truths surrounding cities and nations that are described (Wilson lx). This second book also tells of Bharata as a king turned Brahman, who attains liberation, which is peculiar to this Purana (Wilson lx)

The third book explains the authorities of their religious rites and beliefs together with describing the caste duties, the obligations of different stages of life and the celebration of rites, in harmony with the Laws of Manu (Wilson lxi). These descriptions are a distinguishing feature of the Visnu Purana which is further characteristic of being work of an earlier time than the other Puranas (Wilson lxi). The Visnu Purana directs no self-imposed observances, no holidays, no birthdays of Krsna, no nights dedicated to Lakshmi, no sacrifices and no models of worship other than those corresponding to the rituals put forth in the Vedas.

The fourth book includes comprehensive information about ancient history including dynasties and individuals which is thought to be somewhat of a genuine chronicle of persons and possibly occurrences (Wilson lxii). Although aspects surrounding the longevity of the princes of some earlier dynasties can be discredited, it is understood that a consistency in the succession of persons is based on a credible foundation (Wilson lxii).

The fifth book contains another distinguishing characteristic of the Visnu Purana in that it is almost entirely occupied with the life of Krsna (Wilson lxviii). This unique characteristic is an argument against its antiquity and this book leads some to question its originality (Wilson lxviii). Finally, the sixth book tells of the dissolution of the world and the end of all things by fire and water and then proceeds to tell of universal renewal (Wilson lxix). The annihilation of the universe and the release of the spirit from bodily existence, as described in the Visnu Purana, is often comparable to other doctrines. The telling of the cyclical dissolution of the world followed by the perpetual renovation of the world in the sixth and final book of the Visnu Purana, exhibits commonly accepted opinions of the ancient Hindu world (Wilson lxix).


Matchett, Freda (2005) “The Puranas” in The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism, Gavin Flood (ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Narayana Rao, V. (1993) “Purana as Brahminic Ideology” in Purana Perennis: Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jaina Texts, Wendy Doniger (ed.). Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

Rodrigues, H. (2006) Hinduism: The eBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Sharma, P.R.P (2007) Encyclopaedia of Puranas. New Delhi: Anmol Publications Pvt. Ltd.

Wilson, H.H. (1989) The Visnu Purana: A System of Hindu Mythology and Tradition. Delhi: Nag Publishers.

Further Reading and Related Websites

Ramanujan, A.K. (1993). “On Folk Mythologies and Folk Puranas” in Purana Perennis: Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jaina Texts, Wendy Doniger (ed.). Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

Related Topics






The Mahabharata












Naradiya Purana

Bhagavata Purana

Garuda Purana

Padma Purana

Varaha Purana

Matsya Purana

Kurma Purana

Linga Purana

Siva Purana

Skanda Purana

Agni Purana

Brahmanda Purana

Brahmavaivartta Purana

Markandeya Purana

Bhavishya Purana

Vamana Purana

Brahma purana




Written by Gail MacKillican (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Vamana Avatar

The Hindu deity Visnu is said to have had nine avatars with a tenth still to come (McLeish 1). The fifth of these is the Vamana avatar, the dwarf avatar. The dwarf avatar is said to have been of Brahmin nature. Although the avatars are interpreted differently throughout devotional literature; however, all writings address the avatar as being Brahminic in nature (Soifer 114). The reason for the need of avatars is not certain. However, a rationale is provided in the Bhagavad Gita in the words of Krsna “Whenever the dharma withers away and adharma arises, then do I send myself forth. For the protection of good, for the destruction of evil-doers, for the establishment of the dharma do I come into being age after age” (Bhagavad Gita 4.7-8). This statement makes clear that avatars descend to earth to correct the wrong doings and protect the innocent from evil. Visnu’s fifth avatar was no exception from this rule. The dwarf was sent to destroy the forces of Bali. In the thirty different versions of the myth, there at least two which are identical to the other texts (Soifer 113). While there are many versions of the myth, certain elements remain consistent.

The Vamana (Dwarf) Avatara of Visnu (Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi)

All twenty-eight different versions of the myth have small variations, but do not alter the overall meaning. “[I]t would be safe to suggest that nearly any version could be picked and exhibited as ‘typical’” (Soifer 114).The Vedas, the Brahmanas and the Puranas are major texts containing myths of the Vamana avatar. These differences can be put into context by three varying patterns [Deborah Soifer illustrates these three patterns in great detail in her book (114-115); I provide only a brief overview]. The first variance is that Bali is a typical demon, whose desire is to cause havoc and is ignorant of Visnu’s greater power. The second presents a topsy turvey point; Bali is presented as a demon that does good, which is dangerous because he is in violation of Svadharma (one’s own obligatory duty, based on one’s caste, gender, or social position). In the myths containing this skewed view, Bali was able to win heaven by using a boon given to him by Brahma for his sternness. The third variance is that Bali willingly gives his kingdom to the dwarf. This gives a view of the demon’s dependence on the gods of Hinduism. We can correlate these three patterns to time periods using motifs that are present in the myth. The first variance can be linked to the Vedic period, the second to the post-Vedic period, and the third is characteristic of the bhakti period. Having looked at the varying patterns of the myth, we can obtain a greater understanding pertaining to the development of the myth over time.

The purpose of the dwarf avatar is that Visnu had been asked to descend to earth by Indra in order to end king Bali’s reign, and to make the earth less like heaven so that the gods can once again gain control (Soifer 119). The purpose of the dwarf avatar, being Brahminic in nature, appears to be for keeping a logical flow to the myth, because only the Brahmins receive gifts before a sacrifice (Soifer 123). The dwarf’s arrival is at the moment when Bali about to perform a sacrifice, which is when Brahmins are given gifts. The sacrifice differs from myth to myth. In many myths it is said to be an Asvamedha ceremony; others say it was a twelve-year sacrifice. If it were to be an Asvamedha ceremony it would have furthered the significance of Indra asking Visnu to descend to earth. Had Bali been commencing the last of one hundred horse sacrifices he would have become Indra. The dwarf hinders this by going to receive his present from Bali before the sacrifice begins. For his gift he requests three paces of land. In one myth Sukra asks that Bali give nothing to the dwarf, and Bali chooses to ignore his forewarning. In the rest of the myths Sukra conveyed his opinion more strongly. He attempts to prevent the water from being poured onto the dwarf’s hands, which would seal the deal. Going against Sukra’s wishes, Bali makes the deal with the dwarf. In some myths Sukra is so enraged that he curses Bali to lose his kingdom. Once the deal between Bali and the Vamana avatar had been sealed, it is said that the dwarf returns to his gigantic size and steps around the universe in three steps, therefore allowing Bali to keep reign over the underworld. In other myths the dwarf steps around the universe in only two strides and with the last, steps on Bali. An interesting aspect of this myth is that Visnu’s trickery, in playing the role of a dwarf, is never dealt with. Technically this is an Adharmic act on his part, because he has won on a foul. Interestingly, Bali never complains of the loss due to the trickery. Depending on the version of the myth, only Bana, Sukra and Prahlada call foul. Bali readily accepts defeat. (see Soifer 116-119)

The Vamana avatar remains a popular Indian myth; it is a common choice for dance-dramas in many cultures (Bloomsbury Dictionary of Myth). This popularity can be linked to the many versions of this myth. There are varying parts to the myth although the meaning remains the same. While we may not fully understand the significance of certain parts of the myth, it has remained popular and brought further understanding to those who have read it.

References and Further Recommended Readings

Soifer, Deborah (1950) The Myths of Narasimha and Vāmana: 2 Avatars in Cosmological Perspective. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Flick, Hugh M, Jr. (1993) “The Myths of Narasimha and Vāmana: 2 Avatars in Cosmological Perspective.” Asian Folklore Studies 52.1 237-238.

Related topics

Visnu Purana



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Meaghan Lightheart (March 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.


Sita is the principal female character in the Ramayana, an Indian epic said to have been composed by the sage Valmiki. Her name means “furrow”, a reference to her birth story where her father found her in a field after ploughing. Rama, the hero of the story, won the right to marry Sita when he succeeded in stringing and breaking Siva’s bow. Sita accompanied Rama back to his home and, when Rama was banished to the forest instead of being crowned king, decided to go with him because it was her Dharmic duty to stay with her husband. Rama tried to persuade her to stay at the palace but she persisted and he gave in. They lived in the forest until Sita was captured by a demon king named Ravana. Rama and his brother Laksmana set out to rescue her while Ravana tried to seduce Sita. Rama and Laksmana eventually rescued Sita, with the help of an army of monkeys, but Rama doubted Sita’s purity, having lived with the demon for over a year. Sita endured a trial by fire and proved herself untouched by any but Rama. They went home and Rama became king, but the people did not believe Sita was loyal to their King, so he banished her to the forest. Sita met the sage Valmiki and, while staying with him, gave birth to Rama’s twin sons. At the end of the epic, Sita once again proved her purity and, instead of returning to Rama, was taken into the earth.

Sita’s origins have been the subject of scholarly study. In one version of the Ramayana, Sita is the rebirth of a woman named Vedavati, who had thrown herself into a fire to escape Ravana’s lust and swore revenge (Doniger 22). Many versions of the Ramayana hold Sita as being an incarnation of a goddess or a holy maiden (Singaravelu 239). In other stories, Sita is Ravana’s daughter who was abandoned, put in an urn or a lead box and buried in a field or set afloat on the ocean. Some of the stories also present Sita as being the natural daughter of King Janaka or King Dasaratha (Singaravelu 240).

Sita’s purity has also been the concern of scholars and writers. In the fifteenth century Adhyatmaramayana, the Sita that begs for the deer and is kidnapped by Ravana is not the real girl at all, but a shadow Sita, created by Sita on Rama’s orders to keep her safe. It is this Sita that is kidnapped, rescued and eventually disappears into the fire, upon which time the real woman rejoins her husband (Doniger 23). In this version, Sita’s purity is unquestionable because the genuine Sita never spent any time in Ravana’s home. There are also texts where the shadow Sita survives and goes on to live her own life (Doniger 25).

Sita is supposed to be the ideal woman for the ideal man, the embodiment of right thought and right action. Because Rama is the ideal man, many readers feel that there is something wrong with his treatment of his faithful and loving wife. Sita is forced to prove her chastity not once, but twice in a trial of fire, and when she is taken into the forest, it is by Laksmana, without an explanation from Rama (Hess 2-3). “[M]any devotional Ramayanas from the twelfth century on eliminate the episode of Sita’s abandonment.” and many fans of the Ramayana have expressed discomfort with these episodes when talking to Hess (Hess 3-4).

The word “furrow” not only refers to the act of plowing the earth, but also to the female reproductive organ (Peltier 85). Sita is a fertility goddess, intimately connected with nature, and Sakti, “the energy that inspires the hero Rama to action” (Dimmitt 210-211). Throughout the Ramayana, the plants and animals echo Sita’s moods, and nature is thrown into chaos when she leaves Ayodhya with Rama and Laksmana and again when she is kidnapped (Dimmitt 214). The forest delights Sita, “she is the one who prays to and propitiates the river deities and the holy fig tree. Dwelling places are chosen to please her. The flowers and trees delight her” (Peltier 80).

Sita, though, thought to be a perfect embodiment of womanhood, is not as submissive as we might suspect. “Sita’s first clear act of will” is to insist on going into the forest with Rama. She “is defining for herself just what a devoted wife is, choosing what she sees as the substance rather than just the form of marriage. She is also insisting on her own needs and feelings, her desire to be with Rama” (Peltier 79-80). Sita also demands that Rama capture or kill the golden deer, the demon Marica in disguise, for her. Sita is not reacting as a woman seeing something pretty that she must have, but as an Artemis figure, a goddess of the forest that has dominion over all things in her realm, so the creatures are hers and she has a right to treat them as she pleases (Peltier 84). The golden deer possesses her. “She is a woman enchanted by an image of herself.” Throughout the Ramayana, Sita is described as “doe-eyed” and “golden-skinned” and the “golden deer is an image of her beauty and her forest wildness” (Peltier 84). When Marica, dying, calls out for help in Rama’s voice and Laksmana, convinced that Rama would never be in trouble, refuses to go help him, Sita again has to assert her will. She pleads with Laksmana, accuses him of “having designs on her” and finally threatens to kill herself if Laksmana does not go to Rama’s rescue (Sutherland 75). After being rescued from Ravana, Rama rebukes her and asks her how he can take her back now that she has spent time in another man’s house. “Sita weeps bitterly, then wipes her face and gives a spirited speech. It includes a passionate rebuke of his cruelty and a rational analysis of where moral responsibility lies in the case of violence against women. Not mincing words, she says, “Why do you talk to me like that, oh hero, like a common man talking to an ordinary woman? … You, lion among men, by giving way to wrath and passing premature judgment on a woman, have acted like a worthless man.”” (Hess 6). In the final chapter of the Ramayana, when Rama comes to take Sita back with him, realizing she had bore him two sons, instead of meekly submitting, she chooses her own fate. “After suffering countless insults and rejections, Sita finally takes revenge on Rama in the most aggressive manner she knows. In carrying out her characteristic and oft repeated threat of self-immolation, she brings to a culmination her passive-aggressive response to Rama” (Sutherland 78). She chooses to return to the earth, instead of remaining with a man who has twice abandoned her.

Works Cited

Dimmitt, Cornelia (1982) “Sita: Fertility Goddess and Sakti.” The Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India. Berkeley: Berkeley Religious Studies Series: 210-223.

Doniger, Wendy (1997) “Sita and Helen, Ahalya and Alcmena: A Comparative Study.” History of Religions 37, no 1: 21-49.

Hess, Linda (1999) “Rejecting Sita: Indian Responses to the Ideal Man’s Cruel Treatment of His Ideal Wife.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 67, no.1 (March): 1-32.

Peltier, Mary Damon (1995) “Sita’s Story: In the Valmiki Ramayana.” Journal of Vaisnava Studies 4 :77-103.

Singaravelu, S. (1982) “Sita’s Birth and Parentage in the Rama Story.” Asian Folklore Studies 41, no 2: 235-243.

Sutherland, Sally J. (1989) “Sita and Draupadi: Aggressive Behavior and Female Role-Models in the Sanskrit Epics.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 109, no. 1: 63-79.

Related Terms






Related Resources – wikipedia article on Sita – Website dedicated to Sita – online cartoon of the Ramayana focusing on Sita’s role. – a short text version of the Ramayana with some illustrations.

The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic, by Ramesh Menon- an accessible novelization of the Ramayana.

Written by Sara Kundrik (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

Bengal Vaisnavism

The Vaisnava-Sahajiya cult is found in Bengal, and is part of the larger tantric bhakti, or devotional movements. The cult’s roots can be traced back to the eleventh or twelfth century C.E., although the Vaisnava-Sahajiya cult rose as a separate entity in the sixteenth century. Because information about the cult is very difficult to find, this article will mainly discuss the Vaisnavas in Bengal as a whole and specify, where possible, the differences between the Vaisnavas and Vaisnava-Sahajiyas.

Caitanya (1486-1533), was a major figure in the development of the Vaisnavas. He was very instrumental in asserting the doctrine that the god Krsna is a supreme deity and not simply an incarnation of Visnu (Dimock 107-108). In his lifetime, Caitanya travelled through the South of India, and with him brought back many religious texts, including the Brahma-samhita and the Krsna-karnamrta. Although he did popularize the Krsna-centric bhakti movements, Caitanya was not the originator of the tradition in Bengal. Caitanya is believed by some to be either an incarnation of Krsna, or the god Krsna himself (Dimock 108). Some in the cult even see him as the ultimate divine figure in human form. Later biographers, such as Murari, even used events from Krsna’s life to fill gaps in Caitanya’s life (Stewart 1997 225). It is interesting, then, that Caitanya is only known to have written a total of eight devotional, not philosophical, verses (Dimock 109). Caitanya died in 1533, and there are very many mythical accounts of how this occurred. To those who believe he was a god, he did not die but ascended to heaven. While others claim he died of a foot infection (Stewart 1991 231). It was then left to other theologians and philosophers to write and outline the doctrine of the cult.

The six Gosvamins were theologians who were sent by Caitanya to Vrndavana, which was a holy place for worshipers of Krsna. There, they were supposed to establish a pocket of Vaisnavas, and also outline the basic doctrine of the movement (Dimock 110). These six men, most of whom knew Caitanya personally before his death, were extremely influential in establishing the doctrine and rituals of the Vaisnavas in Bengal (Dimock 110). However, according to Dimock, they rarely made mention of Caitanya and his divinity.

The main sacred texts of the Vaisnava-Sahajiya cult are the puranas and the Vedic texts. Of the puranas, the Bhagavata is considered the greatest by the Vaisnavas, as it tells the story of the life of Krsna (Dimock 108).

As mentioned above, the Vaisnavas and Vaisnava-Sahajiyas of Bengal believe that the one supreme god is Krsna. Krsna to them is not just an avatara, or incarnation of Visnu, but a powerful god himself. The overall doctrine of the Vaisnavas is explained extremely well by Edward C. Dimock in his article “Doctrine and Practice among the Vaisnavas of Bengal.” The following three paragraph explanation of doctrine is paraphrased from information on pages 113-115 of this article.

In Vaisnava belief, divinity bears three aspects of reality: Brahman, Paramatman, and Bhagavat. The true essence of the highest of these, Bhagavat, is Krsna. In the Bhagavat are “infinite energizing powers,” or saktis. These saktis are also divided into three groups: svarupa-sakti, jiva-sakti, and maya-sakti. The most divine of these three is svarupa-sakti. The jiva-sakti, evident by its name, has connections to the Creature, or the jiva. The jiva is found in all humans and is not fully in the divine, but also not completely without the divine. In contrast, the maya-sakti is the cause of both pain and pleasure in the material world. It is felt only in the lower areas of life. Within the Bhagavat, the jiva shares the divine quality of pure bliss, or ananda. In order for the jiva to gain absolute bliss and complete independence from the maya (worldly existence), a person must be involved in bhakti, or devotion. Once this release takes place, the jiva is only affected by svarupa-sakti.

As Dimock explains, bhakti is “selfless dedication to the Bhagavat.” In bhakti, there must only be the desire to please the god Krsna, as opposed to the desire of the jiva to release itself from earthly pain, or to experience the complete bliss of the divine. To the Vaisnavas, knowledge, works, and ritual are not enough to secure absolute release, unless they are practiced in conjunction with bhakti.

The greatest quality expressed within the Bhagavat is “belovedness.” Earthly love is not as perfect as this “belovedness.” Therefore, only the pursuit of the love within Bhagavat can be truly satisfying, both to the devotee and the god. This mutual pleasure and love attracts the devotee to the god, and also the god to the devotee. Just as the bhakta (devotee) needs the god as the object of devotion, Krsna needs the devotee. By demonstrating Krsna’s beauty and sweetness towards the god through bhakti, the devotee allows Krsna to taste his own goodness. And through his love for the bhakta, Krsna understands his personal beauty. The bhakta assumes a worshipful attitude towards the god, which is known as bhava. The experience of the pure ecstasy that is the love relationship between Krsna and the bhakta is called rasa. The doctrine of the Vaisnavas goes much deeper than this; however, there is no place in this article for a full explanation.

The sexual imagery, doctrine, and practices of the Vaisnavas of Bengal relate directly to the stories of the Bhagavata. The Gopis in the Bhagavata are women who are the wives of others, but who still completely devote themselves to Krsna. In this devotional love, Krsna participates in “love play” with them (Dimock 123). Radha is the main Gopi in this story, and is often seen as the consort of Krsna. Also in the Bhagavata and poetic theory, women seem to be divided into two distinct categories: svakiya and parakiya. Svakiya refers to “she who is one’s own,” while parakiya refers to “she who is another’s” (Dimock 123). The Gopi in the story are parakiya. Because of this, their love for Krsna is considered pure and intense, as the desire to satisfy the beloved above one’s own pleasure can only result from a parakiya relationship.

To the Vaisnavas, the highest state and experience in earthly life is the act of sexual union (Dimock 125). One of the major separating factors between the orthodox Vaisnavas and the Vaisnava-Sahajiya sects is that the former use the imagery of sex only as symbolism, while the latter have ritualized the human erotic experience in tantric practices as an experience of the divine (Dimock 127). Through human coupling, devotees are able to experience first-hand the ecstasy and beauty of the god.

References and Further Recommended Readings

Dimock, Edward C. (1989) The Place of the Hidden Moon: Erotic Mysticism in the Vaisnava-Sahajiya Cult of Bengal. University of Chicago Press. (Recommended reading; not referenced in article.)

Dimock, Edward C. (1963) “Doctrine and Practice among the Vaisnavas of Bengal.” History of Religions (summer): 106-127.

Stewart, Tony K. (1997) “When Rahu Devours the Moon: The Myth of the Birth of Krsna Caitanya.” International Journal of Hindu Studies (August): 221-264.

Stewart, Tony K. “When Biographical Narratives Disagree: The Death of Krsna Caitanya.” Numen (December): 231-260.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Bhakti movements

The Bhagavata



Tantric practices (Hindu)


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Written by Caitlin Jackson (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

Garuda: King of the Birds

Garuda is a Hindu deity and is not to be confused with the Garuda Purana, which will be briefly described later. Garuda is described as having the body of a human with a face of an eagle. His hair is tied in a top knot, and with beautiful strong wings, he is known for having an abundance of strength. In different epics, Garuda is described as having either two or four arms, wearing snakes as anklets and bracelets, similar to what Visnu is depicted as wearing (Dallapiccola 2002). The Indian myth of Garuda and how he became to be Visnu’s vahana is found in the Mahabharata, an 180,000 line poem written in Sanskrit by a sage called Vyasa, and is filled with courage, betrayal and maternal love (Mcleish 1996).

The myth of Garuda starts with Kasyapa, a tortoise-man, who had two wives named Vinata and Kadru (Wessing 208). He impregnated both his wives at the same time and mentioned that he would grant them both a boon since he was very pleased with the services they provided him. Kadru asked Kasyapa for a thousand nagas (half human beings and half serpents, usually of the feminine gender (Wessing 208) while Vinata asked Kasyapa for two sons, which would be more powerful and heroic than Kadru’s thousand nagas. After granting Kadru’s and Vinata’s boons, Kasyapa disappeared in the forest. (Mani 581)

Both Kadru and Vinata took great care of their eggs. On the 500th year, Kadru’s thousand eggs hatched and all kind of nagas came forth, but Vinata’s eggs showed no sign that they would be hatching anytime soon. It truly pained Vinata as she watched Kadru playing with her children, so that out of curiosity, Vinata secretly cracked open one of her eggs. Out came Garuda’s oldest brother, Aruna, a half grown child. He was upset not only having his egg cracked prematurely but for having his rest disrupted as well. For having done so, Vinata was punished and was to be Kadru’s slave. She would be freed 500 years from then, when her second egg would hatch naturally (Mani 581). Aruna would later become the vahana of Surya.

Garuda was born 500 years after the birth of Aruna, in the shape of a human, having a head of an eagle with a beak, and with wings and talons instead of toes and fingers. Due to his golden skin colour, Garuda was initially and accidentally worshiped as Agni, the god of fire.

Garuda figure (Srirangam Temple, South India)

While his mother was still enslaved to Kadru for having lost a bet, and Garuda was not able to bear the sight of his mother enslaved and performing Kadru’s demands. Garuda took it upon himself to free his mother from Kadru’s enslavement, and asked Kadru what the price of his mother’s freedom would be. She replied, “Amrta from Devaloka,” an elixir that would revive the strength of the gods and render them immortal. Garuda informed his mother of his journey to find the elixir to purchase her freedom and she wished him well. She asked that his wings be blessed by Vayu, his lower body by the sun and the moon and the rest of his body by the Vasus and he then embarked on his journey (Mani 581). As a final word of warning to Garuda, his mother warned him to not eat anything, for it would burn his throat.

After having embarked on his journey, Garuda found his father Kasyapa in the forest, where he told him of his journey and asked Kasyapa if he could have something to eat. Kasyapa replied by telling him the story of a fight between two brothers, Vibhavasu and Supratika, who were enemies at the time and had been transformed into an elephant and a tortoise, respectively. Kasyapa told Garuda that he could eat them without his throat burning. Since Vinata settled for two eggs that would lead her children to be powerful, Garuda had an enormous amount of power. Because of this power, he was not able to sit down to eat the elephant and the tortoise because anything he would approach or sit on would collapse within a blink of the eyes, due to the vibration his powerful wings created. (Mani 581)

Garuda faced many opponents and events throughout his journey before he had reached the heavens, where the Devas where protecting the pot of Amrta. The same moon and sun that had blessed Garuda’s lower body attacked him when he got closer to the pot of Amrta. Garuda not only defeated the moon and the sun but also defeated anybody that was against him, for his strength was unmatchable. The strength of his wings, when flapping, created a dust storm which blinded his opponents (Mcleish 1996). As he got closer to the tower of flames where the Amrta was kept, he noted two wheels with serpents protecting the elixir. Even though he was blinded by looking into the eyes of the serpents, he defeated the serpents with his beak, grabbed the elixir and flew away.

Mahavisnu, proud of Garuda’s achievements, granted him two boons. Garuda asked to become Visnu’s vahana and to be immortal without having to drink the elixir so that he could return safely and deliver the elixir to his mother Kadru. Indra attacked Garuda as he was flying away with the elixir, by striking him with lightning. Indra told Garuda that the only way they would become friends and be at peace would be if Garuda would return the elixir back to the heavens. In another version, Indra took the elixir before Garuda was able to take it and a few drops of the elixir spilled onto the ground. The drops of the elixir fell near the snakes that were protecting the pot. The snakes both split their tongues and tried to lick off as much elixir as they could which; is the reason why snakes are immortal and shed their skin to be re-born once again (Mcleish 1996).

Garuda replied that the elixir was not for him and that the only reason that he stole the elixir was to release his mother from her sister’s slavery. When he returned to his mother, she was released from Kadru’s enslavement. From that moment on, Garuda wanted to take revenge on Kadru. He decided that he would slowly eat all of Kadru’s nagas. After a certain time that Garuda was hunting and eating the nagas, they came to him with a deal that a naga would come to him day after day for him to feed on and Garuda accepted.

Throughout his life, Garuda faced many opponents and went through many adventures, such as helping Galava, a disciple of Visvamitra, fighting Airavata, searching for the Saugandhika flower and saving Uparicaravasu (Mani 584). To this day, Garuda is a sign of speed and force due to the abundant strength he has. The image of Garuda is widely used throughout Asian countries, such as Indonesia, Thailand and Mongolia. It is a symbol depicted from flags to royal crests and hotels, and even on the national airline of Indonesia. Although the image portrays a different form of Garuda, they all carry the same meanings: speed and strength.

Garuda Statue (Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal)

In the early 1970’s, a statue dating from the 7th century was discovered in Kathmandu, Nepal, depicting Garuda kneeling and praying (Exhibit 1). Garuda is normally depicted as devouring snakes or carrying Visnu on his back, with two of his arms folded in anjalimudra (where the hands and palms are clasped together near the chest) and his other two arms holding Visnu’s feet (Dallapiccola 2002).

According to myth, after Garuda became Visnu’s vahana, and Visnu subsequently wrote the Garuda Purana, a set of instructions for Garuda to follow. The Garuda Purana contains all kind information regarding funeral rites, the reconstitution of a new body, judgement of deeds and the many stages between death and rebirth (Dallapiccola 2002). Although the Garuda Purana is extremely long and consists of many stories, it is still widely read by Hindus to this day.

References & Further Recommended Reading

DALLAPICCOLA, Anna L. (2002) Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend. New York: N.Y. Thames & Hudson

DOWSON, John (1979) A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology. London: Trubner’s Oriental Series.

MANI, Vettam (1979) “Garuḍa” Purāṇic Encyclopaedia. 1st ed.

MCLEISH, Keenth (1996) Myths and Legends of the World Explored. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd.

VAJRĀCĀRYA, Gautamavajra. Sheperd Slusser, Mary (1974) A Newly Discovered Garuda Image in Kathmandu, Nepal. Artibus Asiae, Vol. 36, No. 4 P. 292-293

WESSING, Robert (2006) Symbolic Animals in the Land Between the Waters: Markers of Place and Transition. Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 65, No. 2 P. 205-239

Related Topics for Further Investigation


  • · Airavata
  • · Agni
  • · Amrta from Devaloka
  • · Anjalimudra
  • · Aruna
  • · Devas
  • · Flower of Saugandhika
  • · Galava
  • · Garuda Purana
  • · Indra
  • · Kadru
  • · Kasyapa
  • · Mahabharata
  • · Nagas
  • · Purana
  • · Supratika
  • · Surya
  • · Uparicaravasu
  • · Vasus
  • · Vayu
  • · Vibhavasu
  • · Vinata
  • · Visvamitra
  • · Vyasa


Noteworthy Websites Related to Garuda





Written by Maxime Babin-Lavoie (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.


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Radha has been recognized in direct association with the Hindu god Krsna. Known as one of the Gopi cow-herd milkmaids of Vraja, Radha’s strong and passionate love for Krsna is the main story of this goddess. Radha becomes a primary example of love for the lord that followers to relate to. For many devotees, the strength and unconditional love that Radha has for Krsna is one to be imitated. “The love affair of Radha and Krsna in the devotional context becomes a metaphor for the divine/human relationship”(Kinsley 82).

Early History

The character of Radha is not fully developed until relatively quite late in the Hindu tradition. Before Jayadeva’s Gitogovinda, Radha is only referred to briefly. Although the references are short, they are unquestionably clear in the fact that they are referring to Radha. The Padma-, Brahma-vaivarta and Devi-bhagavata-puranas give in-depth descriptions of Radha and Krsna’s relationship (Kinsley 82). Although the adulterous aspect of Radha is not addressed in any of the earlier references, the theme of love in separation is a central one in all of the references. For example in the Venisamhara of Bhatta Narayana (date to around 800 CE), Radha is described as becoming angered while making love to Krsna and choking on her tears as she leaves him. In the Dhvanyalokalo-cana (early 10th century), Radha is saddened because Krsna must leave Vraja to go to the village of Mathura to begin his adult life, and is described as weeping pitifully. She is also mentioned in Ksemendra’s Dasavataracarita (1066 CE) as barely able to speak as Krsna is leaving for Mathura (Kinsley 82). Another notable characteristic that is uniform in all of the early references to Radha, is that they are always in direct connection with Krsna. The passages do not refer to her strictly individually and it is only her love for Krsna or his love for her that is talked about. Because Radha is known as the young girl who is passionately in love with Krsna, and mainly their love is described in separation, there is room for speculation that their affair was an illicit one. There is evidence that she belonged to another, was already married, and went against societal norms and risked being judged by the community by entering this illicit relationship.


Before any mention of Radha, Krsna is described as being the subject of irresistible beauty and charm to the village women of Vraja. They are described as married women who have household duties, but when they hear the flute of Krsna calling them to the woods, they cannot resist.They run to Krsna in such frenzy, that they abandon their household duties and their husbands to rush to his side. The woods of Vraja, where the women run to, to meet Krsna, are described as beautiful, forever spring and considered to be heaven residing on earth. It is important to understand the relationship between these women and Krsna before seeing how his relationship with Radha develops. It is clear that the message portrayed in these passages is that his love is not exclusive, in that he loves all of the women, and encourages them all to love him in return.The correlation from this theme to religious devotees is that those who are truly devoted to the lord are encouraged to act like the Gopis. When they hear his call, they should abandon all their duties to be with him and let nothing come in between their relationship. An aspect of Radha’s relationship with Krsna that is discussed, is the jealousy that escalates when Radha is aware of Krsna spreading his love with others.

Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda

It is in this twelfth century text that Radha is first presented as a central character. She is singled out as Krsna’s favorite, but the text mainly deals with Radha searching for Krsna and the emotions of longing, jealousy and sorrow she feels. Where previous texts about Krsna have a more joyous, playful tone, the Gitagovinda is written in a sad and distressed voice, with Radha expressing the pain caused from her separation from Krsna, painting images of obsessive love. The following is a translated excerpt from Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda, exemplifying Radha’s distress and sorrow that comes hand in hand with her devotional love for Krsna:

My heart values his vulgar ways,
Refuses to admit my rage,
Feels strangely elated,
And keeps denying his guilt.
When he steals away without me
To indulge his craving
For more young women,
My perverse heart
Only wants Krisna back.
What can I do? (Olson 255)

Although it is not clearly stated, it is hinted that Radha is married to another man. When the two lovers meet, their meeting is in surrounded by secrecy, in dark woods, and with an implied eye of disapproval by society. It is, however, very clear that Krsna is not married to Radha, as she speaks in jealousy of the love he gives to all the other women. Despite her jealousy, she risks the chance that she may be socially ostracized from the community and the “dangers of the night, the woods and public censure” (Kinsley 86) to be with Krsna.

Even though Radha’s affair with Krsna seems improper, the love she has for Krsna is appropriate as a “devotional metaphor” (Kinsley 89). Some theologians argue that illicit love is given freely, without a sense of obligation. In comparison, being married to someone has a sense of legal obligation and those in a marriage are constrained within the parameters of a marriage. The common view is that married love can be mundane or dull and in contrast, illicit love is filled with excitement and ecstasy. Therefore the relationship between Radha and Krsna serves as comparable to the human-divine relationship. The obstacles that are faced by Radha, so that she can love Krsna, prove to strengthen and increase her love for him. She gives him the selfless love that he desires. For devotees, love for Lord Krsna is held to be irresistible, extraordinarily beautiful and overpowering.


The earliest evidence of worship for Radha can be found sometime between 1486 to 1533 (Wulff 196). Her earliest images can be found in temples in Bengal and Vrndavana, but are not restricted to these areas. Images of Radha usually include her as being paired with Krsna. It is considered that when a devotee is worshipping Krsna, he is also worshipping Radha at the same time. “Devotees can share in the blissful experience of Radha and Krishna in sexual union by playing the role of friends of the divine couple” (Olson 232). The high degree of Radha’s importance can be verified in Vrndavana, where the use of the vocative form of her name is used as a standard greeting (Wulff 196). Radha’s love “symbolizes the religious ideal of selfless, unswerving devotion to God” (Wulff 196). Today she is worshipped through images, her name, and performances that tell the love story of Radha and Krsna.

Works Cited

Wulff, Donna Marie (1986) “Radha.” The Encyclopedia of Religion V.12. New York: Edited by Eliade, Mircea.

Kinsley, David (1986) Hindu Goddesses. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Olson, Carl (2007) Hindu Primary Sources: A Sectarian Reader. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Related Topics

Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda
Gopis of Vraja


Related Websites

The Lord Krsna

Krsna is possibly one of the most recognizable gods of the Hindu pantheon. He is the playful child, divine lover, and the wise friend, the ever-present beauty in the world. In most common images of him he is depicted with blue skin as a reference to his divine nature and his association with Visnu. Poets and devotees have sung praises of Krsna’s otherworldly grace and beauty. There is nothing that is unworthy of praise as his beauty is all encompassing; it is even said that he was accompanied with a scent so fragrant it was to be irresistible, and that his companions could locate him by it (Kinsley 1975: 24-25). Such is the beauty of Krsna that the goal of devotees is to see him in a vision, or gain a place in his heavenly realm of Vrndavana in their afterlife (Kinsley 1975: 25).

Vrndavana, became the highest heavenly realm of Krsna, but was first his childhood home where the Bhagavata-purana tells how he spent his days in blissful mischief, such as his notorious butter thievery (Kinsley 1975: 14). The shenanigans of Krsna’s childhood reveal the concept of lila. As a child Krsna is compelled to pursue pleasure for pleasure’s sake; it is the innocent pursuit of play for the sake of amusement in itself. He is unrestrained by the perceptions and social boundaries that permeate adulthood, and is therefore able to revel in every desire and impulse to which he feels inclined (Kinsley 1975: 15). Krsna is accepted as a prince, although he was forced into exile for his own security, for fear of his uncle Kamsa (Majumdar 1969: 2). Kamsa was the king of the city of Mathura, and his sister’s name was Devaki. When Devaki was married to a man named Vasudeva, it brought to Kamsa’s mind an old prophecy which spoke of the destruction of his lineage by the eighth child of Devaki. Kamsa became resolved to kill any children born of Devaki, and he had her and her husband locked away. It was then that the fetus of Devaki’s seventh son, was transferred by Visnu into the womb of Vasudeva’s other wife, and it was this son who grew to be Krsna’s brother Balarama. Devaki’s eighth son was smuggled to safety and switched with the daughter of Yasoda and Nanda, two humble cowherds. When Kamsa came to see Devaki’s child, the daughter of Yasoda and Nanda revealed herself as the Goddess, or Devi, and told Kamsa that the eighth child, Krsna, was indeed beyond his reach and would eventually be his undoing (Rodrigues, 313).

Large bas-relief depicting the god Krsna holding aloft Mount Govardhana to protect his fellow cowherds from Indra's thunderstorm; Mahabalipuram, India
Large bas-relief depicting the god Krsna holding aloft Mount Govardhana to protect his fellow cowherds from Indra’s thunderstorm; Mahabalipuram, India

Kamsa sent many demons to destroy Krsna, however many of them became nothing more than new sources of amusement for the young god. In the Bhagavata-purana there is the story of the demoness Putana who comes to Krsna in the guise of a beautiful young woman. She begs the favor of Krsna’s mother Yasoda, in allowing her to suckle the young baby Krsna, which Yasoda grants her. Krsna, however, sees through the façade, and when the demoness takes him to her poison covered breasts, he is untouched by the poison and instead drains out her life (Kinsley 1975, 20). The Bhagavata-purana was written circa 10th century C.E., and discusses the first eleven years of Krsna’s life at Vraja, which he spent living amongst the cowherds (Krsna in History and Legend, 56).

An extremely popular myth cycle concerns the compelling relationships between Krsna and the cowherd woman, the gopis. As an overwhelmingly attractive young man, Krsna seems to enjoy a large part of his youth as a rampant womanizer; however, his fondness for these women and the dynamics of his relations with the gopis, are of a greater substance than that. The gopis exist as representations of those who would aspire to intimacy with the divine; they are that which all devotees of Krsna should aspire to be (Kinsley 1979: 77). The gopis mentioned in the earlier Vaisnava Puranas are not the more polished entertainers they become in such later texts, such as the Brahma-vaivarta-purana and the Govinda-lilamrta. First depicted as more pastoral, they eventually become the inspiring adornments of his heavenly realm of Vrndavana. It is the relationship between Krsna and one particular gopi, Radha, that has gained more modern notority. David Kinsley states that Krsna’s lovemaking should be examined in its relations to the gopis as a group, or to a particular gopi such as Radha (Kinsley 1979: 78). This is because these relations with the gopis are symbolic to the personal relationships between the divine and its devotees.

The Bhagavadgita reveals Krsna as the teacher and as the divine. In it Krsna is a charioteer for his friend Arjuna, and counsels him before a coming battle. He reveals himself as the 8th avatar of Visnu and teaches Arjuna the path of bhakti-yoga (Kinsley 1975: 57). Bhakti means devotion, and is offered by Krsna as the ultimate means of salvation. It becomes a central concept to those who follow Krsna, as calling on his divinity will bring that individual salvation (Kinsley 1975: 57). Krsna could be viewed as the embodiment of Hindu devotionalism, and the history of his worship displays many periods in which the concept of bhakti has been expressed in differing ways. In the 7th to 10th centuries in southern India, bhakti was seen as ardent love, which gave way to bhakti cults (Kinsley 1975: 59-60). Krsna is capable of inspiring such passion because of his relatable nature, and his differing aspects; he can be approached as a son, a teacher, a friend, a lover, a confidant, and a god. As Krsna changed, so too did the concept of bhakti. The gopis become the true symbol of what it means to be a devotee of Krsna, for even in the strict social confines of Hindu society they ignore these social boundaries in order to bring themselves closer to the pure state of being that is Krsna (Kinsley 1975: 65). Ever enigmatic, Krsna allows one to explore his nature and through the sheer delight of discovering him, uncover one’s own true self.


Kinsley, David R. The Sword and the Flute: Kali and Krsna, Dark visions of the

Terrible and Sublime in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1975.

Kinsley, David R. The Divine Player (A study of Krsna Līlā). Delhi: Motilal

Banarsidass, 1979.

Majumdar, Bimanbehari. Krsna in History and Legend. Centre of Advanced Study in

Ancient Indian History and Culture: University of Calcutta, Lectures and Seminars No. III-A. India: University of Calcutta Press, 1969.

Rodrigues, Hillary. Hinduism – The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online

Books, Ltd, 2006.

Related Topics





Radha diacritic







Noteworthy Websites about Krsna

Article written by: Stephanie McNiven (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.