Category Archives: c. Vaisnavism

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.


Visnu is one of the most important deities in the Hindu religious system. In western culture many people are aware of Visnu, even if they do not understand who or what he is in Hindu literature. He has even been mentioned and parodied on “The Simpsons” speaking volumes to how Visnu has permeated culture and pop culture all over the world. Hindu deities are often given very human characteristics. As in western religion Hindus tend to attribute more human characteristics view of their gods’ psychology, while still acknowledging their divinity (Barrett 608-615). In studies described by Barrett participants were asked to what degree they saw Visnu to be beyond normal human attributes. Even though most people thought that Visnu had supernatural powers, they still were more likely to remember more human attributes in stories about him. For example, they were more likely to remember Visnu moving from place to place rather than being in more than one place at a time. They also saw him as needing to be near a source to see or hear it, rather than show him as being able hear or see everything around him (Barrett 615). Visnu is often depicted as blue, associating him with the sky or the clouds. He is depicted as human like in appearance but with four arms. In his arms he wields a conch shell, a club, a discus and a lotus flower (Rodrigues and Robinson 167). Visnu also has a divine consort, Laksmi, the goddess of prosperity and good fortune (Rodrigues and Robinson 155). [For more information on Laksmi see Solomon].

Large bas relief depicting Visnu reclining on the cosmic serpent Ananta during the pralaya, the period between the cycles of creation; Mahabalipuram, India
Large bas relief depicting Visnu reclining on the cosmic serpent Ananta during the pralaya, the period between the cycles of creation; Mahabalipuram, India

The worship of Visnu is, of course, not just a modern development. Visnu was worshipped as the supreme deity by the Vaisnava communities of the Pancaratrins and the Bhagavatas of ancient Northern India (Reddy 1) and is still worshipped as the supreme god by vaisnavas today. Worship via images and rituals are very important, and many of the rituals performed by the Pancaratrins and the Bhagavatas are very similar to the way that worship is done in the modern Vaisnava Temples. Vaisnava image worship is very important. Visnu is typically thought of to have 5 forms, each representing a different aspect of the deity (Reddy 4); para refers to the “all pervading” (Reddy 4) nature of Visnu. The vyuhas are emanationsfor the cosmological functions of creation, preservation, and dissolution” (Reddy 4). The vibhava are depictions of Visnu in a form of one of his avatars. The antaryamin depictions are those that appear within humans. Finally, there is the arcavatara form, which is Visnu in statue form. This final form is incredibly important to idea of image worship of Visnu as it is believed that the deity actually exists within the Statue. In this way by worshipping an image, you are directly worshipping the deity himself (Reddy 4). Sometimes images are worshipped as Visnu by Hindus, doubles as an image of the Buddha to Buddhists, such as those at Bodhgaya. This can, understandably, cause tension between the two groups (Kinnard 35). Another important part of worship, as described by the Vedas, is sacrifice. The sacrifice is an important task because, in a way, the sacrifice feeds the god. The sacrifice to Visnu by humans helps maintain the cosmic balance (Gonda 22). Perhaps the most important aspect of Hinduism concerned with Visnu is the Literature concerned with him. The legends and literature concerned with the deities are the best show of their power and their interaction with the mortals of this world. In these stories, the deities often are represented as “guardians of order and morality” (Valk and Lourdusamy 179). With their supernatural power and knowledge, the gods protect and restore the balance to a position of Dharma (Valk and Lourdusamy 179). As the preserver, Visnu is especially important in this task of protecting and preserving the karmic balance. The Vedas often identify Visnu with the sacrifice, showing his importance in the literature, and that he must be a figure of considerable power and notability. (Gonda 22) However, Visnu’s role in the Vedas seems to be secondary in comparison to other deities such as Indra or Soma, where in later texts he is the protagonist of the story (Syrkin 8). In the puranas, Visnu is a member of the trimurti where he is the preserver of creation, Brahma is the creator and Siva is the destroyer (Bailey 152). Visnu is represented as the “heroic force” in the trimurti. [For more information on the trimurti see Bailey]. A number of texts, including the sastras, state that all kings on earth were born with a bit of Visnu within them, illustrating the quality of Visnu’s character and power (Bailey 152). In the Mahabharata Visnu appears as Krsna, a very important character who helps to restore the Dharmic balance to the world. The Ramayana deals with Visnu as Rama and speaks of his righteous actions in the face of adversity (Buck 234).

As hinted to earlier, Visnu has a number of Avatars.An Avatar is a physical manifestation of Visnu.This physical manifestation occurs by Visnu’s own choice, as he is not bound to this form by karma. He uses these Avatars to fulfill a specific purpose in this world, often restoring the cosmic balance (Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions ). Essentially these Avatars show Visnu’s true role- preservation of creation and righteousness. Visnu has ten major avatars associated with him, but there are others as well, depending on the tradition. In some traditions even the Buddha is an avatar of Visnu (Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions). The ten main avatars of Visnu are Matsyavatara, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Parasurama, Rama, Balarama, Krsna and Kalki. Matsyavatara (1st avatara) or the fish, rescues Manu, the ancestor of humanity (Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions). Kurma (2nd avatara), also known as the tortoise, was an important player in the Legend of Amrita, essential to the immortality of the gods. The Varaha avatar (3rd avatara) also known as the Boar, was a form assumed by other gods, but Visnu took this form in order to “raise the earth from the Cosmic Ocean” (Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions). Visnu’s Narasimha (4th avatara) form is a man-lion and battles the demon Hiranykasipu (Flick 238). Visnu’s Vamana avatar (5th avatara) used by Visnu to trick the demon king Bali, before defeating him (Flick 238). [For more information on Narasirhha and Vamana see Flick]. Parasurama (6th avatara) was a brahman destined to live a warriors life. Rama (7th avatara) was the hero of The Ramayana, a very important epic in the modern Hindu world. Rama’s wife in the Ramayana is Sita, who is also divine. [For more information on Sita see Singaravelu]. Although Rama is a prince, he goes into exile to serve the dharmic balance. While in exile he accompanies Visnu’s true purpose, the slaying of the demon, Ravana (Buck 239). [For more info on Rama see Buck]. Usually the 8th avatar is said to be the Buddha and that Buddhists have just misunderstood the message given by him. The Buddha is viewed as a great teacher with great vision providing a path to enlightenment that anyone can follow, which is often attributed to Visnu. However some have a problem viewing the Buddha as an avatara of Visnu because of the differences in religious belief between Hindu and Buddhist practitioners. These people view Balarama as the 8th avatara The Balarama and Krsna(9th avatara) avatars of Visnu are linked. Balarama is the elder brother of Krsna (Oxford), where Krsna himself is a very important character in the great Hindu epic, The Mahabharata, within which Krsna advises the Heroes of the story about how to correct the adharmic balance of the cosmos. Within the Mahabharata is the set for the Bhagavad Gita, which is one of the most important pieces of Hindu literature. Within in it Krsna reveals to Arjuna his divine nature in an attempt to get him to fight to restore the balance to a Dharmic position. Krsna describes himself as “as the ultimate Purusa, higher even than Brahman” and it is within the Bhagavad Gita that Krsna reveals the 3 Yogas, as well as other revelations (Gier 84). The final avatar of Visnu, Kalki is usually depicted as a warrior who will punish the evil doer, and is seen as the next avatar of Visnu to come (Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions).

Bibliography and Related Readings

Bailey, G. M. (1979) “Trifunctional Elements in the Mythology of the Hindu Trimurti.” Numen, Vol. 26, No. 2

Bowker, John(2000) Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Barrett, Justin (1998) “Cognitive Constraints on Hindu Concepts of the Divine.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 37, No. 4

Buck, Harry (1968) “Lord Rama and The Faces of God In India.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 36, No. 3.

Flick, Hugh (1993) “Book Review: The Myths of Narasimha and Vamana: Two Avatars in Cosmological Perspective.” Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 52, No. 1

Gier, Nicholas (1995) “Hindu Titanism.” Philosophy East and West Vol. 45, No.1

Gonda, J. (1983) “Vedic Gods and the Sacrifice.” Numen Vol. 13, No.1.

Reddy, Prabhavati (2006) “Vishnu’s Universe In Ritual Space: The Abhisheka Ceremony of Penn Hills’ Venkatesvara.” Journal of Ritual Studies 20 (2).

Robinson, Thomas, and Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) World Religions: A Guide to the Essentials. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers,.

Singaravelu, S. (1982) “Sita’s Birth and Parentage in the Rama Story” Asian Folklore Studies. Vol. 41.

Syrkin, A. (1988) “The Salutary Descent.” Numen, Vol. 35, No. 1.

Solomon, Ted (1970) “Early Vaiṣṇava Bhakti and Its Autochthonous Heritage.” History of Religions. Vol. 10, No. 1.

Valk, Ulo and Lourdusamy, S. (2007) “Village deities of Tamil Nadu in myths and legends: the Narrated Experience.” Asian Folklore Studies. Vol.66

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Credible Websites for Further Investigation

Written by Adam Lazzaretto (Spring 2008), who is solely responsible for its content.

Krsna (Birth and Childhood)

According to his mythology, Krsna first appeared on this earth 5000 years ago (Bhaktivedanta xii) and was considered to be an incarnation (avatara) of the Vedic god Visnu (Preciado-Solis 1). There are a number of ancient Hindu texts which are important sources for the mythology of Krsna, including the Harivamsa and the Puranas. In the Harivamsa, Krsna is portrayed to the greatest extent in heroic human colors as opposed to the Visnu and Bhagavata Puranas which places emphasis on his divinity (Sheth 43). At the request of Brahma, as described in the Harivamsa, the great god Visnu attends an assembly of the gods where he is informed that the demon Kalanemin was born again into the human form of the wicked King Kamsa, who is harassing people on earth. According to this myth, Kalanemin could only be destroyed by Visnu as the demon fears only him (Sheth 7). Deciding to kill Kamsa, Visnu disguises himself with his yogic power and descends into the house of Vasudeva (a former sage born again as a cowherd) and his two wives Devaki and Rohini (Sheth 8). There are slight variations between the Harivamsa and the Visnu and Bhagavata Puranas regarding the knowledge Kamsa receives from the sage Narada, but both agree that the evil king knows he will be killed by the eighth child of Devaki, his father’s sister. In some versions Kamsa is informed the eighth child will be an incarnation of Visnu. In others, Kamsa already considers every child born of Devaki to be Visnu (Sheth 43). Since Kamsa plots to kill every child Devaki bears, Visnu made Devaki’s first six born be the reborn demon sons of Kalanemin. The Harivamsa tells how Devaki’s seventh child was extracted from her womb by the goddess Nidra, and transposed into the womb of Rohini. The seventh child born was called Sankarsana (Balarama), the brother and companion of Krsna in his future heroic exploits (Sheth 8).

Born as the eighth child of Devaki, Visnu is immediately interchanged at birth by Vasudeva with Nanda and Yasoda’s (husband and wife who herded Kamsa’s cattle [Sheth 8]) daughter who had been born at the same moment (Preciado-Solis 103). According to Vaisnava devotees, at that instant, there was in all directions an atmosphere of prosperity and peace as the planetary systems automatically adjusted for the auspicious birth of Krsna (Bhaktivedanta 23). The Puranas also describe the arduous journey of Vasudeva across the river (Jumna/Yamuna) to save his new baby from being destroyed by Kamsa, who had killed several of his other children. Leaving the prison where he and Devaki had been confined by the wicked king, Vasudeva placed the baby Krsna into a winnowing basket (supa), which he then carried on his head, and descended into the flooding river to cross to the opposite bank. The great snake deity Sesa is said to have traveled in front, driving away the heavy water with his many hoods. The Bhagavata Purana explains that Vasudeva crossed the river safely and reached the village of Gokula (Preciado-Solis 103). Once the babies are divinely interchanged, in the Harivamsa account, Kamsa then notices the baby girl beside Devaki and smashes her head against a stone. The daughter of Yasoda was actually a goddess, who rose up into the sky and took her divine form, terrifying Kamsa, and leading him to believe she is the one who will take his life. Oblivious to the exchange of baby Krsna, Nanda and Yasoda regard him as their own son and Krsna is raised as a humble cowherd (Sheth 8-9).

Another discrepancy between the Harivamsa and the Puranas is whether or not Vasudeva and Devaki are ignorant of Krsna’s divinity. In the Harivamsa, Krsna’s parents have no vision of his divine form, whereas in the Puranas they are blessed with such a vision. Krsna is then praised as the almighty Visnu, but out of a relentless fear of Kamsa, Vasudeva and Devaki request their son to withdraw from his celestial form. With the greatest emphasis placed on his divinity, the Puranic texts make Krsna’s identity as Visnu recognized by even King Kamsa (Sheth 44-45).

Certain textual variants portray Yasoda’s daughter as the goddess Nidra (Sheth 8), Durga (Bhaktivedanta 32), or Katyayani (Preciado-Solis 55). In one account, when the goddess Katyayani rose up into the sky she announced to Kamsa that he killed Devaki’s first six sons in vain as his real killer had already been born and was safe (Preciado-Solis 55). The terrified Kamsa, now aware that his evil plot had been a failure, began to plot once again the murder of Krsna and summoned his demonic allies to destroy the child at any cost (Preciado-Solis 55-56).

The first demon to attempt to kill baby Krsna was by the bird-demoness Putana, similarly depicted in both the Puranas and the Harivamsa. According to the majority of scriptures, Putana disguised herself as a beautiful woman and entered the house of mother Yasoda in the middle of the night (Bhaktivedanta 43-44). The demoness took baby Krsna onto her lap and pushed her poisonous nipple into his mouth for him to suckle. Putana was immediately killed as Krsna sucked the milk-poison, as well the life air, from her (Bhaktivedanta 45).

Referred to as the Miraculous Child by his followers, Krsna killed many more monsters while he was a mere child (Preciado-Solis 67). The Bhagavata Purana describes an episode in which Yasoda leaves baby Krsna, just a month old, sleeping under a cart while she journeys to the river. Left feeling thirsty and hungry, the child began crying, thrashing his arms and kicking the cart with such force it tipped over and broke numerous pots and pans. The Purana accounts explain that there was a supernatural being involved. Specifically in the Balacarita (an ancient Hindu text), the supernatural being is a demon called Sakata, who had taken the form of the cart and had been crushed with a single kick (Preciado-Solis 67-68).

A second episode of Krsna’s childhood is described as the Yamalarjuna incident. There are numerous depictions of the episode; however all variations agree that it was due to a number of pranks by Krsna which lead Yasoda to tie him to a mortar (Preciado-Solis 69). This was an attempt to keep him from wandering, but with his power, the young Krsna uprooted two trees known as yamala arjuna (Bhaktivedanta 177) by hauling the mortar in between them (Sheth 11). The texts either depict this incident as an account of a young boy’s extraordinary strength or as a marvel achieved by a young god. Krsna’s most devoted followers perceive the two trees as supernatural beings, specifically the demons Yamala and Arjuna (Preciado-Solis 69).

In another myth told in the Harivamsa, one day while playing with Sankarsana, Krsna came across the river Yamuna. The waters and the surrounding area were polluted by venom from the powerful serpent-king Kaliya. In order to render the water pure for the use of cowherds, Krsna decided to subdue the five-hooded monster. When he jumped into the lake, Krsna was immediately engulfed by the serpent’s hoods, which strove to render him immobile. An angry Sankarsana shouted advice to his brother Krsna to restrain Kaliya. The young god snatched a hold of the serpent’s middle hood, danced upon it and thus subdued the evil monster. Kaliya was then expelled to the ocean and the waters of Yamuna were purified (Sheth 11-13).

Before his childhood comes to an end, Krsna is depicted as vanquishing many other demons. Krsna ripped apart the beaks of the demon Bakasura and threw the evil Vatsasura into a tree (Bhaktivedanta 177-178). The demon Arista, taking the form of a bull, was killed by Krsna with the beast’s own left horn. Also, the carnivorous horse-demon Kesin could not escape being slain (Sheth 14-15).

During the latter part of Krsna’s childhood, the Harivamsa tells how King Kamsa was informed by the sage Narada that Vasudeva had interchanged Yasoda’s and Devaki’s babies at birth. Learning of Krsna’s valiant deeds, Kamsa suspects his divinity and fears that Krsna is the one who will destroy him. Fabricating another plot to murder Krsna, Kamsa ordered Nanda and his family to Mathura to participate in a bow-festival. Upon entering the arena, Krsna slew a charging elephant and, unable to resist a challenge, slew two formidable wrestlers, Canura and Tosala. Furious from seeing these victories and the cheering audience, Kamsa ordered Krsna and Sankarsana to be banished. He also ordered Nanda to be chained, Vasudeva to be murdered, and the entirety of the cowherd’s wealth to be seized (Sheth 17). Hearing Kamsa speak in such a way, Krsna leaped over the high guards and seized the evil king with great force. The crown was knocked off Kamsa’s head and he was dragged from his throne into the wrestling arena. Straddling his chest, Krsna began to strike Kamsa repeatedly and the evil king was finally slain (Bhaktivedanta 277-278).


Bhaktivedanta, A.C. (1970) Krsna: The Supreme Personality of Godhead. Massachusetts:

Iskcon Press.

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

Hardy, Friedhelm (1983) Viraha-bhakti: The Early History of Krsna Devotion. Delhi: Oxford.

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

Preciado-Solis, Benjamin (1984) The Krsna Cycle in the Puranas. New Delhi: Narendra Prakash


Redington, James (1983) Vallabhacarya on the Love Games of Krsna. Delhi: Motilal


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


Sullivan, Bruce (1999) Seer of the Fifth Veda: Krsna Dvaipayana Vyasa in the Mahabharata.

Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

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Hare Krsna

Bhagavad Gita

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


The city of Banaras is considered to be the holiest city in the Hindu tradition. Millions of people make pilgrimages to the holy city every year in hopes of fulfilling their spiritual desires. The religious importance of the city is not only recognized by the people of India but also by scholars, anthropologists, sociologists and the likes from all over the world. Many come to study the city while others come to bask in its spiritual and cultural offerings (Kapur 209). The city itself is actually considered by believers to be the dwelling place of all Hindu deities (Hertel and Humes 1). For pious Hindus this grants enormous importance to many of the city’s major festivals. It can be said that Banaras is most proclaimed for its festivals and traditions, one of the most notable of which is the Ramnagar Ramlila. The Ramlila at Ramnagar is an event that takes place every year and is the celebrated victory of Ram over Ravana, from the epic Ramayana.

There are many Ramlilas in Banaras. Ramlilas (play) are a way in which a Hindu tales are recreated for audiences in the city. The during the Ramila season there can be up to sixty neighbourhoods that participate by hosting the play on their block (Parkhill 104). The importance of these plays is immense because it sets out to recreate the “epic story of Lord Rama” (Eck 269). Rama is a highly regarded figure in Hinduism. He is considered to be the reincarnation of the deity Visnu. Visnu is one of the highly regarded deities and is widely worshipped across Hindi speaking northern India. This makes the Ramlilas an important and integral element of the city. Many of the roles in the Ramlilas are played by children (specifically boys). This also has an underlying spiritual connection because when the children are playing the role of Rama, or his wife Sita or Hanuman his devotee [For more information on Hindu deities, see Hertel (1998)], they are said to become temporary residence for the deities, during the presentation of the Ramlila (Parkhill 104). During this time there are many pilgrims who also come to the city hoping for a chance to view a Ramlila. Their visits add to the reputation of Banaras as a site of pilgrimage, which already attracts many because of its large number of deities and their temples.

The grandest Ramlila is the one that takes place at Ramnagar. It is a thirty one day theatrical event that attracts hundreds of people from all across the country (Schechner 20). The immensity of this Ramlila is greater than any other in terms of the crowds is attracts and its longevity. Despite its popularity the Ramlila is not strictly meant for entertainment purposes, as we in the west might go and see a theatrical event. It has significant spiritual importance that is not compromised, because all Ramlilas especially those of Ramnagar are “celebratory performances tracing the footsteps of Vishnu” (Schechner 20). The Ramlilas typically enact how Rama suffered when Ravana the demon kidnapped his wife Sita and took her away in hopes of wooing her into marriage. The Ramlilas use ritual and drama to demonstrate how Rama rid the world of Ravana and finally returned to Ayodhya [The city or kingdom to which Ram returns after his victory. See Schechner (1998) for more information] in triumphant victory (Schechner 41). The significance of the story and victory is displayed not only by its performers but also by the spectators who take part in their own rituals that they deem an important part of the Ramlilas. For example, some spectators will not walk on the ground where the Ramlilas are being held in their shoes, because they consider those sites to be like temples, and one would not walk into a temple with shoes on (Schechner 32). The Ramlilas therefore are not merely plays put on by the town people simply for entertainment. They have a strong religious significance for most Hindus. Particularly because Rama, who is regarded as an incarnation of Visnu, is held in high regard. As one scholar remarked, the Ramlilas are “carefully crafted enactments of a narrative transmitting information and values concerning sacred history and geography, social hierarchy, ethics and the personalities of god, heroes, and demons” (Schechner 22).

The epic story and the Ramlilas are significant because of their importance in the Hindu tradition. However they have also been significant in the shaping of Indian life and culture. The Ramnagar Ramlila has been shaped by many years of influence from the Maharajas [Maharajas were the ruling royalty in India until its Independence in 1947; they still exist but have no ruling power. See Schechner (1998)] of Banaras who gathered scholars, poets and theatre practitioners and guided the Ramlila (Schechner 24). The first of these was Maharaja Balwant Singh who ruled in the seventeenth century. Later on Maharaja Ishavari Prasad Narain Singh who ruled in the eighteenth century also played a significant role (Schechner 24). The present Maharaja of Banaras has had no political power in India since its independence in 1947. However he is highly active in his role and participation in the Ramnagar Ramlila because it has been such a tradition for previous kings that his royal identity is now dependent on his involvement in the festival drama (Schechner 37).

Since the kings’ roles in the Ramlila have evolved, it raises the question of how the Ramlila itself has evolved through the ages? Of course the text from which the Ramlilas’ performance is derived has been mostly unchanged for centuries. However, there are some significant changes that have occurred in India culturally and structurally. For one, the power and grandeur of the Maharaja has declined which has led to far less glamorous shows, with only half the materials once used in previous Ramlilas (Schechner 51). There are also some more obvious changes that have occurred as well. The most significant of these is the growth in population of India. This has limited the theatre space available for the Ramnagar Ramlila; in an area where there were once trees and grass, there are now vast amounts of housing and people. Another shift has been in some of the innovative advances that have been introduced in staging the drama. Circumstances now allow production officials to use electrical lighting and other technical innovations (Parkhill 108). However, this creates a spilt between those who want to keep the Ramlila traditional and those interested in using modern innovations. The issue is emotionally charged; many consider the innovations improvements while others see them as tools for corruption (Parkhill 111). Still some feel that the message and value is in the rituals and practice themselves and not the aesthetics of the presentation.

Even with such changes over the centuries in the Ramnagar Ramlila, the sheer magnitude and importance it enjoys today has still not diminished. The story of Rama and Sita is one that has been told for centuries by Brahmins [Brahmins are the priestly caste in Hindu society. See Parkhill (1998)], scholars, and parents to children and will certainly continue. The Ramnagar Ramlila is an event that can only grow in stature. No matter what elements are introduced to enhance its performance the ritual enactments will continue as they have for centuries. As one scholar notes the “Ramlila is not reducible to single meanings or experiences” (Schechner 48). Rather it is an event that can offer something to everybody, from the performers to spectators and even the poor of the city who benefit from offerings by the Maharaja.


Eck, D. L (1982) Banaras the City of Lights. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hertel, R. Bradley., and Humes, Ann Cynthia (eds.) (1998) Introduction. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Kapur, Anuranha (1990) Actors, Pilgrims, Kins and Gods: The Ramlila at Ramnagar. Calcutta: Seagull Books.

Parkhill, Thomas (1998) Whats Taking Place: Neighborhood Ramlilas in Banaras. Eds. Bradley R. Hertel and Cynthia Ann Humes. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Schechner, Richard (1998) Crossing the Water: Pilgrimage, Movement, and Environmental Scenography of the Ramlila of Ramnagar. Eds. Bradley R. Hertel and Cynthia Ann Humes. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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Written by Osman Shah (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.


Hanuman is one of the many deities of the Hindu tradition. He is regarded as the monkey-general of a mythic monkey kingdom, known as Kiskindha. In Hindu tradition, Hanuman is most commonly known for his role in the Ramayana [A Sanskrit epic featuring the characters of Rama, Sita, Hanuman, and Laksmana], in which he is a great ally to Rama and Laksmana [Rama is the central character of the Ramayana epic; Laksmana is his brother who accompanies Rama during his banishment from his kingdom]. The Ramayana describes how Hanuman was devoted to Rama and willingly set off to Lanka [Many people believe Lanka to be the location of today’s Sri Lanka] to search for Sita. Rama is unable to go himself; he had been expelled from the city for his 14 year exile. Earlier in the Ramayana, Rama had said that “[e]verywhere, even among the animals, can be found good creatures that follow the ways of righteousness, that are brave and provide a sure place of refuge” (Regier 995). This statement fits the description of Hanuman, for he is a loyal and virtuous being, and he is willing to endure the risk of crossing into Ravana’s land to save Sita. Hanuman does find Sita, but she refuses to return with him because of her loyalty to her husband. She is unwilling to touch another man, and believes that it is Rama’s duty (dharma) to save her himself (Regier 995).

Hanuman also demonstrates a few great powers that are useful in his role in the Ramayana epics. In the Sundarakanda [5th book of the Ramayana], Hanuman becomes a major character, with a talent for jumping extremely far distances. This is demonstrated in his jump between Mount Mahendra to Lanka’s Mount Trikuta His duality as a monkey-hero is demonstrated in this leap between the two territories and his search for Sita. Hanuman’s essential presence in the story is indicated by “the fact that the poet devotes nearly two hundred verses to the description of his jump” (Goldman 13). Hanuman further demonstrates his unique powers by his ability to change his size at will, for example during Hanuman’s leap to Lanka “he takes on a size that is said to be immeasurable. As he flies along, his shadow on the sea below is said to measure ten leagues in breadth and thirty in length” (Goldman 44).

Hanuman demonstrates that his moods are constantly changing. “[I]n some ways parallel to Hanuman’s vast and sudden changes in size are his sharp swings of mood throughout the first half of the Sundarakanda” (Goldman 47). Hanuman begins his journey to Lanka with lots of enthusiasm and optimism, but when faced with difficulties he “lapses into gloomy thought” (Goldman 47). After finding Sita, Hanuman decides to cause mayhem in Lanka. Ravana sends his forces after Hanuman, but all are unsuccessful in restraining the monkey. Ravana finally sends out his son, a powerful warrior, Indrajit, who soon realizes that he too is unable to kill Hanuman. However, he was able to acquire a “divine weapon of the god Brahma” which was able to impede any further destruction caused by Hanuman (Goldman 10). The Ramayana never directly says that Hanuman was immortal, but

“both accounts of his birth , one in the Kiskindhakanda and one in the Uttarakanda, indicate that his is to be no ordinary life span. In the former, Jambavan reports that Indra had conferred on him the great boon of being able to choose the moment of his death. In the latter Brahma foretells that he will be long-lived” (Goldman 54).

If it is then true that Hanuman is able to decide when he will die, this may account for Indrajit’s realization that even as a mighty warrior he will never be able to kill Hanuman. This demonstrates that Hanuman is not like the other monkeys in the monkey kingdom, although he has a beast-like quality when it comes to his rashness and spontaneity, like the other monkeys. He demonstrates his god-like quality with his powers, his personality, and his being the first to find Sita.

Hanuman (The monkey god Hanuman serves as a guardian deity and flanks a palace entrance in Bhaktapur, Nepal)
Hanuman (The monkey god Hanuman serves as a guardian deity and flanks a palace entrance in Bhaktapur, Nepal)

According to Goldman, Hanuman is presented in a “dual nature” (47). He is represented as a monkey with monkey instincts, but is also represented as a hero in the way that he is continually attempting to save someone. His continual changing in size emphasizes this duality. He can appear in a gigantic size, representing his heroic/divine qualities. Or he can shrink down to a size that is smaller than the average human. The dual-nature of Hanuman can be compared with Rama’s contrasting personality,

“[If] the liminal nature of the avatara and the particulars of its associated boon-motif account for the ambiguity of Rama’s nature as a god-man, then the same factors would appear to determine the ambivalent status of Hanuman as both god and beast.” (Goldman 47)

Hanuman’s behaviour, and his powers are the result of his parentage. He is the “mind-born” son of Vayu, the wind god, and Anjana. It is said that he can move with the swiftness of the wind as a result of his family line. In the Sundarakanda, it is said that his father helps him leap between the two kingdoms on his search for Sita (Goldman 41).

Although the Ramayana is the text through which Hanuman gained his popularity, it is not the only epic in which he has appeared. In the Mahabharata, in the Kadali forest Hanuman meets his half-brother Bhima; the two are both sons of the wind god, Vayu. The two met when Hanuman was sleeping over a path on which Bhima was travelling. Bhima requested that Hanuman move out of the way so that he could pass. Hanuman replied by asking Bhima to move his tail to one side. Bhima, though the strongest of the Pandava Brothers, could not budge Hanuman’s tail. Hanuman then introduce himself to Bhima in the form that he took while crossing the ocean to Lanka (Nagar 386).

Hanuman is a widely worshipped deity in India; “[h]is images are smeared with the sacred colour vermilion, to denote the estimation in which he is held, and the universal admiration of his devotion as a model faithful servant” (Monier-Williams 140). He is looked up to, and is admired for his faithfulness to Rama. He went to rescue Sita a woman that he had never met, nor seen before, without any thought for his own well-being. Located in Delhi is the Sri Hanuman Maharaj (Great Lord Hanuman) temple, a building made of white marble dedicated to Hanuman (Lutgendorf 311). “According to many Hindus, the popularity of Hanuman—who in narrative often expands his physical from—has itself been steadily expanding in recent decades. Certainly its iconic manifestations have been growing, as groups of prominent patrons vie with one another to erect larger and larger murtis of the great monkey in highly visible locations” (Lutgendorf 312). “He [Hanuman] exemplifies both ‘sakti and bhakti’—briefly ‘power’ and ‘devotion’” (Lutgendorf 315). For this reason he is widely admired, and well-liked.

Hanuman is also widely popular because of his deviant childhood. Hanuman’s childhood stories appeal to many people because of its human-like quality. As a child he ascends towards the ‘rising sun’ in an attempt to grasp it. However, the god Indra sees this as a threat and sends him plummeting back down, breaking Hanuman’s jaw; hanu means jaw, giving Hanuman his name. Hanuman’s father Vayu then threatens the entire cosmos. To make up for what happened to Hanuman, each deity grants him with a unique boon, giving him his particular powers that are useful in his adventures during adulthood (Lutgendorf 317).

Hanuman played a key role in the Ramayana and other stories featuring him. He is widely well known in Hinduism, and by many other people around the world. Hanuman’s incredible dedication is what makes him an ideal character to respect and support.


Lutgendorf, Philip. “Monkey in the Middle: The Status of Hanuman in Popular Hinduism.” Religion 27.4 (1997): 311-332.

Monier-Williams, Monier (2003) Hinduism and its Sources Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi.

Nagar, Shantilal (2004) Hanuman: Through the Ages Vol. 2. India: B.R. Publishing Corporation.

Regier, Willis G. “The Ramayana of Valmiki. Volume 4. Kiskindhakanda.” The John Hopkins University Press. 112.5 (December 1997): 994-998.

The Ramayana of Valmiki: An Epic of Ancient India (1999) Vol. V Sundarakanda. Trans. R. P. Goldman & Sally J. Sutherland-Goldman. Princeton: Princeton University Press:

Related Topics for Further Investigation













Bhima and the Pandava Brothers

Vayu, the wind god

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Mount Mahendra

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Article written by Kristin Barry (March 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.

Iconography of Hanuman

The epic story of the Ramayana plays an important role all over South Asia. Many different versions exist, among these is the Valmiki Ramayana written somewhere before 600C.E. (Nagar 85). In this epic drama of over 20,000 verses, there are numerous characters idealized by Hindu society, including the god Hanuman. Known by many names, Hanuman, Maruti, Pavanakumara, Vayu-tanaya, Anjaneys… is an anthropomorphic monkey god whose divinity represents the divine within the human and animal kingdoms (Channa 33, Nagar 41). While Rama and Sita are seen as the ultimate icons of the ideal man and woman, Hanuman is the ultimate example in loyalty and servitude, displayed by his devotional relationship with Rama, an avatar of visnu.

Hanuman is the son of the wind god Vayu, and a langur monkey; thus he has a monkey face with an upright human-like body. As myth has it, Hanuman’s mother and langur monkey, Anjani, was standing in human form at the edge of a riverbank. When Vayu blew by and saw Anjani, he was captivated by her beauty, and with a strong gust of wind which blew off her clothes, she became pregnant (Channa 33-34). Various sections of India claim to be the birthplace of Hanuman, and thus it is unknown. Hanuman as a child was quite mischievous and knowing his incredible superpowers, was extremely brave and in a way, arrogant. He could not be tamed until a group of sages, angry with his conduct cursed him to forget his powers only to recover his memory when someone reminded him (Nagar 42). This someone would eventually prove to me Rama. Hanuman lives his life loyal to his master, playing a large role in the Ramayana. Later he appears in the Mahabharata, since thought his father Vayu, he his brothers with Bhima, one of the Pandava brothers (Nagar 89).

Hanuman possesses many mystical abilities, which include the ability to expand or shrink his invincibly strong body to the size of a mountain or that of a thumb and super strength (Nagar 237). These were awarded to him by other gods when Hanuman was a small child (Nagar 41). Often Hanuman is depicted displaying these abilities in service to Rama (Channa 33). At one point in the Ramayana, Hanuman is sent to get medicine from a mountain in the Himalayas. Upon arrival at the mountain, Hanuman forgets what he was sent to retrieve, so he enlarges himself to a size big enough to pick up the whole mountain and carry it with one hand back to Rama. As a result of this incredible act, pictures of Hanuman carrying a mountain in one hand are common. Another tale of the Ramayana, Hanuman jumps across the ocean from the tip of southern India to Lanka in search of Sita. Upon locating Sita, she insists Rama rescue her because it is his dharma to do so. Hanuman respects this, leaving Sita to destroy much Lanka. Ravana eventually captures Hanuman, and sets his tail on fire to humiliate him. Upon release, Hanuman lights the whole city ablaze with his tail. (Channa 33). It is important to remember that Hanuman displays such power in service to Rama. Given this fact, another common image of Hanuman is one in which he is opening his chest with both hands to show Rama and Sita that they are deeply loved within his heart. Hanuman’s strength is divine, and his service to Rama defines his character, he is depicted to emphasize these key attributes.

Hanuman is worshiped within Hinduism as the protector of evil forces. His name has even come to be known as SankatMochan which means “The one who delivers from all troubles.” Worshiped for good luck in any venture and also good health (Channa 34), Hanuman is worshiped commonly for gains of a materialistic nature as well (Aryan 88).

It should be noted that Hanuman is typically depicted at the side of Rama. Generally, Hanuman is standing in front and a little on the right side of Rama, only as tall as Rama’s hip or chest. By and large these images are sculpted, with Hanuman having two hands. One hand hangs down to his knees, representing the respectful manner servants should have towards their masters. The other hand, as a symbol of devotion to Rama, is raised up and placed over Hanumans mouth. Hanuman’s stance is intended to suggest to the onlooker empathy for Hanuman, should remind people of the faithfulness of Hanuman to Rama, and the willingness to serve (Nagar 250 Hanuman normally carries a golden gada or club, and may also have a golden crown on his head (Channa 34). He is sometimes depicted with hair all over his body. This hair is described as being yellow or golden. At other times, Hanuman is shown with no hair at all, and looks like he simply has a plain human body. Hanuman’s monkey face and complexion are described in various texts, suggesting color from bright white, golden yellow or copper red and usually is compared to sunlight (see Nagar 241). Hanuman has incredibly muscular shoulders, arms and chest. This is evident for the reason that typically he is clothed in a basic loin cloth (Channa 34). His face is described as incredibly beautiful with eyes said to be various colors varying from yellow to red, with the “sparkle of heated gold”. Hanuman also has a long tail, which when raised, looks like a flag (Nagar 245-248).

Hanuman is one of Hinduism’s most extraordinary deities, whose divinity is celebrated by millions of people. His role as faithful messenger and servant to Visnu’s avatar Rama has led Hanuman from being a semi-divine langur monkey, to the highest state of divinity to be worshiped among mainstream deities within the Hindu tradition. Not only does Hanuman rise up into his divinity with the help of Rama, he also shows that divinity is not only found within the human race, but the animal kingdom as well. Hindus have dedicated countless pieces of art to the monkey-god depicting Hanuman’s bravery, strength and supernatural powers. This may be what led people to worship him as they do, but Hanuman is more than power. He is a perfect icon of loyalty, devotion, servitude, honor and morality within Hindu culture. As the epic story of the Ramayana lives on in the hearts of Hindus, so will the great monkey god Hanuman.


Aryan, K.C. (1994) Hanuman Art, Mythology & Folklore. New Delhi: B. Nath for Rekha Prakashan.

Channa, V.C. (1984) Hinduism. New Delhi: National Publishing House.

Ludvic, C (1994) Hanuman in the Ramayana of Valmiki and the Ramacaritamanasa of Tulasi Dasa. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.

Nagar, S (2004) Hanuman Through The Ages. Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation.

Further Recommended Reading

Rao, T.A. G. (1914) Elements of Hindu Iconography. Madras: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Ltd.

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Forms of Hindu Worship



Hindu Art

Indian Temples











The Ramayana








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Article written by Carling Nugent (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.