Arguably the most popular god in the Hindu pantheon, both in India and beyond, Krishna makes a dramatic appearance in the epic Mahābhārata and its famous philosophical discourse, the Bhagavad Gita, but his historical origins in ancient India are obscure and debated among scholars. Whether a mythological figure or a historical hero eventually deified, Krishna is now known and loved as a heroic prince, a playful child, and an alluring lover who is also the supreme God incarnate in human form. Stories about Krishna’s childhood and youth appear early in the first millennium of the common era and then become even more popular subsequent to their depiction in the medieval Puranas, where Krishna’s boyhood play in the cowherd community of Vraja endears him to all his devotees, who attain salvation through their exclusive devotion expressed variously in affection and passion. Although stories of Krishna Vāsudeva, the virile warrior and chivalrous husband who establishes his kingdom in Dvārakā, remain important and well known throughout India, it is Krishna Gopāla who captivates devotees’ hearts, especially in his role as the lover of Rādhā, their passionate romance famously portrayed in the 12th-century Gītagovinda. Such tales then form the basis for diverse iconographic traditions that display Krishna’s līlā (divine play) in various media ubiquitously in India, providing devotees their salvific darśana (vision) of Vishnu’s most beloved avatāra (incarnation). Krishna is the object of worship in countless temples worldwide, but his special place on earth nevertheless remains Vṛndāvana, the celebrated forest in Vraja where he danced with the amorous gopīs under the moonlight and thereby offered his grace to simple cowherding women who loved him without knowing his true nature as God. Likewise known in the West since the founding in the 1960s of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), Krishna is also a beloved figure in the popular Indian comic book series Amar Chitra Katha. From ancient epics to modern comics, then, the Hindu god Krishna continues to engage the imagination and inspire fervent devotion among devotees worldwide.
Varying in scope, length, and content, summary studies of Krishna and his significance in Indian culture present selective historical overviews of diverse textual and artistic traditions. Spink 1971 and Archer 1957 offer illustrated histories of the Krishna narrative: Archer 1957 includes only monochrome plates, but Spink 1971 displays a greater diversity of images, many in color. Encyclopedia articles, some available online, provide concise but useful reviews of Krishna and Krishnaite traditions. Hawley 2005 considers iconography, Sanskrit and vernacular literature, and performance traditions. Coleman 2007 treats epic, Puranic, and poetic literature and contemporary practice. Malinar 2009 addresses early history, epic and Puranic literature, and modern developments. Hardy 2005 discusses regional traditions, with some attention to Krishnaite sampradāyas (sects). Mani 1975 offers a detailed outline of Krishna’s mythology sometimes with reference to specific verses from the epic Mahābhārata and the Puranas.
Archer, W. G. The Loves of Krishna in Indian Painting and Poetry. New York: Macmillan, 1957.
A summary of the Krishna narrative and its artistic representations, with a focus on the Bhāgavata Purāṇa and later poetry featuring Rādhā. Monochrome plates display paintings from the 16th to the 19th centuries, each with detailed descriptions, including style, region, approximate date, and 20th-century location.
Coleman, Tracy. “Kṛṣṇa.” In Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Edited by Denise Cush, Catherine Robinson, and Michael York, 425–434. New York: Routledge, 2007.
Treats epic and Puranic literature, vernacular poetry, icons and rituals, festivals, and pilgrimage, with some discussion of women devotees.
Hardy, Friedhelm. “Kṛṣṇaism.” In Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 8. Edited by Lindsay Jones, 5251–5255. Detroit: Macmillan Reference, 2005.
Discusses textual and regional developments in Krishnaism, in contrast to Vaishnavism, from the Bhagavad Gita to the modern era, with attention to Nimbārka, Caitanya, and Vallabha, and to Vṛndāvana.
Hawley, John Stratton. “Kṛṣṇa.” In Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 8. Edited by Lindsay Jones, 5248–5251. Detroit: Macmillan Reference, 2005.
Gives attention to iconographic representations in a discussion of Krishna’s early history as the epic prince Vāsudeva, his Puranic supremacy, and his intimate accessibility as Gopāla, the playful child and youthful lover.
Malinar, Angelika. “Kṛṣṇa.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Vol. 1, Regions, Pilgrimage, Deities. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, 605–619. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2009.
Addresses early history and epic literature in detail, Puranic texts, and regional traditions, with some attention to contemporary mass media productions.
Mani, Vettam. “Kṛṣṇa.” In Purāṇic Encyclopaedia: A Comprehensive Work with Special Reference to the Epic and Purāṇic Literature. By Vettam Mani, 420–429. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975.
A detailed overview in outline form, often with reference to specific verses, along with a genealogy and a list of Krishna’s names and epithets. Discusses Krishna’s deeds in Vraja, Mathurā, and Dvārakā, including significant events in the Mahābhārata.
Spink, Walter M. Krishnamandala: A Devotional Theme in Indian Art. Ann Arbor: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan, 1971.
A richly illustrated synopsis of Krishna’s deeds as portrayed in Sanskrit and vernacular literature from various regions and periods, with reference to historical developments in the practice of bhakti based on popular stories. Some attention to musical traditions. Image descriptions include style, date, medium, size, and 20th-century location.
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- Amar Chitra Katha
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