KṚṢṆAISM . The god Kṛṣṇa has been one of the most popular figures of Hinduism and of Indian culture generally. Episodes from his life story have found innumerable expressions in literature and art. Against this larger cultural background one witnesses a more specifically devotional and theological preoccupation with Kṛṣṇa that can be reduced to basically two different trends. On the one hand, there is the development of religious systems in which Kṛṣṇa is defined as an earthly avatāra (incarnation) of the god Viṣṇu. Here Viṣṇu plays the central role and one must thus speak of Vaiṣṇava (alternately, Vaiṣṇavite or Viṣṇuite) systems; these can be grouped together under the rubric "Vaiṣṇavism" ("Viṣṇuism"). But the global assumption that Kṛṣṇa is an avatāra of Viṣṇu is derived from an inadequate interpretation of the facts. This assumption has its origin in the Indian conceptualization of the religious situation and later came to be accepted uncritically by scholars. The concept "Vaiṣṇavism" has tended to subsume all Kṛṣṇaite phenomena and has thus proved to be far too wide. "Kṛṣṇaism" (along with parallel terms such as "Rāmaism," "Rādhāism," "Sītāism," etc.) is a useful heuristic tool, as long as it is understood to denote not a single system but a whole range of systems.
The strictest definition of a system according to traditional Indian understanding is that of a sampradāya, a religious movement that proves its orthodoxy and orthopraxy through detailed exegesis of the Vedanta scriptures. In this sense, one finds only three such Kṛṣṇaite systems (those of Nimbārka, Caitanya, and Vallabha). On the other hand, there are many further instances in which Kṛṣṇa appears de facto as the central religious figure. Whether textual, theological, ritual, or devotional, such contexts can be described as types of Kṛṣṇaism, even when not dealing with a sampradāya. Finally, there are many examples of partial Kṛṣṇaism, whereby a religious system is Kṛṣṇaite on one level and, say, Vaiṣṇava on another.
The first Kṛṣṇaite system known is the theology of the Bhagavadgītā. When read as a self-contained work, and not automatically in the light of the Vaiṣṇava theology that pervades the Mahābhārata into which it was inserted, its Kṛṣṇaite character is unmistakable. There is no suggestion here that in the person of the physical Kṛṣṇa a different being, that is, an eternal, unmanifest Viṣṇu, is contained. Thus when it is said (in 4.7): "Whenever dharma is suffering a decline, I emit myself [into the physical world]," or (in 4.8): "In different ages I originate [in physical form]," there is not the slightest hint in the text that this "I" is different from that used in the previous verse (4.6): "I am without birth, of immutable self.…" Similarly, in the grand vision that Arjuna, by means of his "divine eye," has of Kṛṣṇa in his cosmic form, no change in person is suggested. Even more important are verses like 14.27 or 18.54, in which Kṛṣṇa's relationship to brahman is indicated: Here brahman somehow is dependent on, and subsumed in, Kṛṣṇa. On the basis of these theological premises, the Gītā advocates a complex spiritual path leading ultimately to human salvation. Attention to the demands of society is combined with the need for inner spiritual growth; but both must be carried out in total "loyalty" (the primary meaning of bhakti ) to Kṛṣṇa. At the end appears "love" (called "highest bhakti") coupled with a sharing in Kṛṣṇa's "working" in the universe.
The remaining portions of the epic, of which the Bhagavadgītā is but a minute part, are on the whole Vaiṣṇava. Eventually, by about the fourth or fifth century ce, the concept of the avatāra was introduced to clarify the relationship between Kṛṣṇa and Viṣṇu. This had very far-reaching consequences for the interpretation of Kṛṣṇaite material, including the Gītā itself. Thus the earliest source on the childhood and youth of Kṛṣṇa, the Harivaṃśa (third cent. ce?), an appendix to the Mahābhārata, presented the myths within a Vaiṣṇava framework, just as did the Viṣṇu Purāṇa (fifth cent. ce?), which contains a very much enlarged account of Kṛṣṇa's early life. By no means, however, did the avatāra concept acquire spontaneous, universal validity.
Developments in the South
When turning to southern India, the region where Tamil was spoken (modern Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and southernmost Andhra Pradesh), one finds the figure of Māyōṉ documented from the beginning of the common era. Although he is assumed by some to have been an autonomous Dravidian god, no evidence for this theory can be found. Instead, a closer analysis of the sources shows that they are dealing here with here is Kṛṣṇa, or better, a god-figure of predominantly Kṛṣṇaite features who also incorporates elements of Viṣṇu. (Thus, strictly speaking one ought to use "Māyōṉism" rather than "Kṛṣṇaism" here.) The name itself, and synonyms like Māl and Māyavaṉ, denote a person of black complexion—a precise translation into Tamil of the Sanskrit Kṛṣṇa. Different milieus deal with the situation differently. In the context of temple worship, the emphasis is on Viṣṇu-Nārāyaṇy. But in the area of folk religion, and, of central importance in later developments, among the (secular) literati, Māyōṉ appears as Kṛṣṇa, particularly the young Kṛṣṇa living among the cowherds, dallying with the girls and playing his tricks on the women. One also hears about his favorite, the milkmaid Pinnai, for whom he subdued seven vicious bulls. To the extent that one can infer from the literary allusions something about the religious situation during the first half of the first millennium ce, the songs, dances, and rituals celebrating those events appear decidedly Kṛṣṇaite.
With the Ᾱḻvārs (sixth to ninth centuries), considerable changes in the conceptualization of Kṛṣṇa take place. Overall, a more pronounced Vaiṣṇava orientation emerges in their works. Yet even they do not introduce the conceptual distinction of Kṛṣṇa and Viṣṇu by means of the notion of avatāra, and the names by which they address their god fuse the Kṛṣṇaite with the Vaiṣṇava. The central range of myths that they develop in their poems and the eroticism that pervades their devotion have remained fundamentally Kṛṣṇaite. The emphasis is here on "love-in-separation."
This situation changes only with the emergence of Rāmānuja's Śrī Vaiṣṇavism (from the eleventh century, with antecedents in the tenth). Although institutionally links with the Ᾱḻvārs are maintained, the formation of a definite Vaiṣṇava theology, which in turn has close historical links with the Vaiṣṇava temple tradition of the Pāñcarātras (and Vaikhānasas), encouraged a very different form of bhakti. Even so, Kṛṣṇa remains here the central avatāra, only eventually to be overtaken by Rāma.
Śrī Vaiṣṇavism was not the only heir to the devotional Kṛṣṇaism of the Ᾱḻvārs. Two Sanskrit works have to be mentioned in this connection. One is the Kṛṣṇa-karṇāmṛta by one Vilvamaṅgala (also called "Līlāśuka," or "Playful Parrot"), of unknown date and possibly from Kerala. By 1200 the work is known in Bengal, and at a later stage was a favorite text of Caitanya. From ever-new angles, the erotic attraction of the youthful Kṛṣṇa is explored in this poem. Yet the importance of this work dwindles compared with the second text, the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. Written in the Tamil country around the ninth or early tenth century by an unknown poet, in Vedic-sounding and highly poetic language, this text is far more than a traditional purāṇa. It attempts to fuse a great variety of contemporary religious and cultural strands, and it does so in a decidedly Kṛṣṇaite manner. While for its "plot" it uses as its model the Viṣṇu Purāṇa (where Kṛṣṇa is an avatāra of Viṣṇu), in two important respects, devotional-literary and metaphysical, Kṛṣṇa is presented as the central deity. Book 10 and part of Book 11 comprise the structural center of the work: They have become the most famous source on the life of Kṛṣṇa among the cowherds of Vraja. Translating or paraphrasing here poems of the Ᾱḻvārs (PeriyᾹḻvār on Kṛṣṇa's childhood, Ᾱṇṭāḻ, Nammāḻvār, and Parkālaṉ on his amours and on "love-in-separation"), Kṛṣṇaite bhakti finds here powerful expression. This devotional emphasis is complemented by a Kṛṣṇaite metaphysical framework. Thus in 1.3.28 one reads: "Kṛṣṇa is Bhagavān himself." Or in 10.33.36: "He who moves in the heart of all corporeal beings, here took on a body through playfulness." Kṛṣṇa is brahman, and—to make matters more complicated in this purāṇa —the ultimately sole real. Thus, an illusionist advaita teaching (in which Kṛṣṇa's love-play with the milkmaids can be compared to a child's playing with his own image seen in a mirror—10.33.17) is expounded in its metaphysical frame. Historically, this particular combination of advaita (metaphysical nondualism), sensuous bhakti, and the identification of Kṛṣṇa with brahman proved enormously influential. Most subsequent developments of Kṛṣṇaism in northern India are unthinkable without the Bhāgavata Purāṇa.
Early Developments in the North
Current knowledge of the situation in northern India during the first millennium ce is far more limited and patchy. No instances of Kṛṣṇaism can be cited, and yet a number of factors were essential in the formation of later types of Kṛṣṇaite religions. Numerous references in the various literatures of the period make it clear that Kṛṣṇa enjoyed enormous popularity. In predominantly secular works his amours with the milkmaids were explored and given a definite place in the imaginary landscape of classical Indian lovers. Moreover, already from the very beginning of the common era one encounters Rādhikā (later usually Rādhā) as his favorite beloved among the milkmaids. She is clearly different from the Tamil Piṉṉai, whom Sanskrit works present as Nīlā or Satyā. (Not that there is much of a story here, apart from the conventional amatory situations envisaged in the poetics of love.) But what was important was the inevitable association in the popular mind of Kṛṣṇa with Rādhikā. The religious works (the Harivaṃśa, Purāṇas, etc.) knew nothing about Rādhā, and broke the anonymity of the crowd of Kṛṣṇa's beloved ones only after his departure from Vraja, when he abducted and married the princess Rukmiṇī.
This whole popular interest in Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa reaches its culmination in Jayadeva's Gītāgovinda (written in Bengal c. 1185 ce), a kind of libretto for a dance-drama about the lovers' quarrels due to Rādhā's jealousy, and about their eventual reconciliation and their passionate lovemaking. While the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, which became known during this period in the north, provided the metaphysical and devotional frame, the Gītagovinda acted as the focusing mechanism for mythical episodes in Kṛṣṇa's complex earthly life.
A further contributory factor, rasa speculation, must be mentioned. Here one is dealing with academic aesthetics, which in India tended to focus on drama and poetry. By the ninth century ce a conceptual framework had evolved for the analysis of art and aesthetic experience that centered around the notion of rasa (literally, "flavor"). A good poem is supposed to contain one of eight possible emotions (love being by far the favorite among the poets) that, by means of poetic-linguistic devices, can be transferred to the reader (listener), to appear in the reader now in a transformed state as the reader's aesthetic relish, as rasa. Given that most of the sources on Kṛṣṇa's life were in poetry, that over the centuries an increasing concentration on his amours had taken place, and that in the devotee's emotions vis-à-vis Kṛṣṇa "aesthetic relish" could be found, it was perhaps natural for this to be developed systematically as bhakti-rasa. Particularly in the school of Caitanya, the scholastic exploration of bhakti-rasa (along with the production of Sanskrit poetry based on it) reached its climax.
Regional Trends in the North
Kṛṣṇaism makes its first documented appearance in the north with the beginning of the second millennium ce in a ritual context. This is the temple-culture of Paṇḍharpur in southern Maharashtra. The god in the temple is variously called Viṭṭhala or Viṭhobā. Although etymologies from Viṣṇu have been suggested, the personage described here, from at least a certain stage in the development onward, is clearly Kṛṣṇa. His consort is Rakhumāī, the Marathi form of Rukmiṇī. Particularly through the popularizing activities of Marathi poets such as Jñāneśvar, Nāmdev, and Tukārām, and many other (often pseudonymous) poets and texts, a markedly individual religious system of great popularity evolved in Maharashtra and also in Karṇāṭaka. Heaven and eternity, with Viṭhobā and Rakhumāī as king and queen, take visible form in Paṇḍharpur. Instead of the amorous episodes in Kṛṣṇa's earthly life (which do appear in numerous poems associated with this religious tradition), the emphasis is on secondary myths about the saints connected with Paṇḍharpur.
Maharashtra produced (from the thirteenth century onward) yet another type of Kṛṣṇaism, the very austere and idiosyncratic movement of the Mānbhāv (Mahānubhāva). Here five Kṛṣṇas are listed: Kṛṣṇa himself (husband of Rukmiṇī, etc.), who is closely connected with Parameśvara, the Absolute in the system; Dattātreya (a god-figure of Maharashtrian Hinduism); and three historical persons (Cakrādhār, the founder of the movement, and two predecessors) who are identified with Kṛṣṇa.
As a further example of regional forms of Kṛṣṇaism centered around temples, mention may be made of Jagannātha in Puri, Orissa, the building of whose temple was started around 1100 ce. Accompanied by Baladeva and Subhadrā, he is evidently envisaged in a Kṛṣṇaite context. This connection was strengthened in the sixteenth century through the bhakti culture developed in the temple by Rāmānanda Rāya and Caitanya.
The first Kṛṣṇaite sampradāya was developed by Nimbārka. Unfortunately, very little reliable information is available on him and thus it is difficult to place him accurately in the history of Kṛṣṇaism. A date before the sixteenth century would emphasize his originality in terms of Kṛṣṇaite theology, but make his alleged residing in Bṛndāvan (a locality near Mathurā, thought to correspond to the mythical Vṛndāvana) very doubtful. Here for the first time in the Vedanta school-tradition is found brahman identified with Kṛṣṇa (and not, as earlier on in Rāmānuja and also in Madhva, with Viṣṇu). Moreover, Kṛṣṇa is here envisaged in the company of Rādhā.
A further contributing factor to the increasing popularity of Kṛṣṇa throughout northern India was the appearance of vernacular poets who, in different languages and in varying approaches, dealt with Kṛṣṇa's amours and childhood pranks. While the Bengali poet Caṇḍīdās (1400 ce?) sang about his own tragic love in the imagery of Rādhā's separation, the Maithilī poet Vidyāpati (c. 1350 to 1450) fused the erotic culture of a royal court with the amours of Kṛṣṇa and the milkmaids.
But what about the locality on earth where myth places these amours, that is, Vṛndāvana? The Śrī Vaiṣṇavas had certainly listed it among their 108 primary places of pilgrimage (and in a prominent position) from the tenth century onward. But to what extent anybody from Tamil Nadu traveled all the way up to Mathurā during the period up to the sixteenth century is unknown.
Toward the close of the fifteenth century, the longing to live in the actual place where Kṛṣṇa spent his childhood takes on concrete and documented form. At this point there a number of Kṛṣṇaite devotees, originating from various parts of India, settling in Bṛndāvan along with their disciples. Many temples are constructed on sites that had been (usually miraculously) "rediscovered" as the localities mentioned in Puranic episodes. These developments may well be connected with the transfer of the Mughal capital from Delhi to Agra (in 1506) and the construction of a major road between these two cities that passed through Mathurā. Certainly the tolerant reigns of Akbar (1556–1605) and Jahāngīr (1605–1627) were decisive factors as well.
While the claim that Nimbārka (at an earlier date) had lived in Bṛndāvan is of doubtful validity, both the Caitanyites and Vallabhites refer to an otherwise nebulous Mādhavendra Purī (late fifteenth century) as the original "rediscoverer" of the site of the mythical Vṛndāvana. He in turn appears to have inspired Caitanya to visit the place around 1516 and to settle his disciples there from 1516 onward. Vallabha (c. 1480–1533) and Haridās (c. 1500–1595) arrived somewhat later. During the sixteenth century a whole cluster of Kṛṣṇaite religious movements had their center in the locality of Bṛndāvan. These included Nimbārka's followers and Hit Harivaṃś (c. 1500–1552), who was native to the region. While as religious systems they preserved their separate identities, the common milieu nevertheless produced great similarity of theology and devotion. Although Vallabha himself, and then the branch of his movement that eventually arose in Gujarat, ignored Rādhā and concentrated on the child Kṛṣṇa and his various pranks, through Vallabha's son Viṭṭhaladeva (c. 1518–1586) Rādhā gained prominence theologically, and through the vernacular poetry of Sūrdās (from c. 1480 to between 1560 and 1580), whom the Vallabhites consider as one of their poets, attention is focused upon Rādhā's and Kṛṣṇa's lovemaking. The poetry of Haridās and Hit Harivaṃś is very similar to this. In contrast, the Caitanyites emphasized the viraha ("separation") of Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā.
This milieu shares generally the following features. The Absolute, namely, brahman, is Kṛṣṇa together with Rādhā (whom the Vallabhites, in this aspect, call Svāminī-jī). Their relationship may be formulated as that of śaktimān ("powerful") and śakti ("power"), which—according to the advaita stance employed—is one of "nonduality." The older, Upaniṣadic definition of brahman as saccidānanda ("being, consciousness, bliss") is transformed through emphasis on the "bliss" aspect (in which the other two become subsumed); Rādhā is Kṛṣṇa's hlādinī-śakti, the "bliss-causing power." Their lovemaking (and separation), which scriptures locate in the mythical Vṛndāvana, is on the one hand envis-aged as denotative of the nature of brahman (ultimate unity of Kṛṣṇa and his śakti, differentiation within an advaita sense, etc.). On the other hand, it is perceived as taking place, more literally, in eternity, in a heaven usually called Goloka far above the world (and even above Viṣṇu's heaven, Vaikuṇṭha). Yet the earthly Bṛndāvan remains central, for here the eternal love mysteries and the events that took place in the mythical Vṛndāvana fuse invisibly. Thus, by living here and meditating through song and poetry on Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā—by cultivating bhaktirasa —the devotee has direct access to the divine mysteries.
A large corpus of scriptures (devotional poetry along with learned treatises) evolved from all this. Even anonymous works such as the Brahmavaivarta Purāṇa and the Garga Saṃhitā, or later sections of the Padma Purāṇa, show an affinity, if no direct connection, with this Bṛndāvan milieu.
The centripetal forces that Bṛndāvan exerted on the north soon were balanced by a centrifugal diffusion of the type of Kṛṣṇaism developed here. Thus Vallabha's son Viṭṭhala moved to Gujarāt in about 1570, where the sampradāya acquired a large following. Kṛṣṇa's temple in Dvārakā served as ritual center and the maharajas —descendants of Vallabha and guru s of the community—as Kṛṣṇa's personal embodiments. A personal, devotional Kṛṣṇaism is expressed by the Rajput princess Mīrā Bāī (c. 1500–1565). In her famous poetry she sang about her love for Kṛṣṇa who is fused with her gurū. A contemporary of hers was the Gujarāti poet Narsī Mehtā (c. 1500–1580), who wrote about Kṛṣṇa's and Rādhā's Vṛndāvana amours. In the east, the Caitanyites continued to flourish in Bengal and influenced Bengali poetry on Kṛṣṇa. Śaṇkardev (died c. 1570) and others introduced versions of Kṛṣṇaism into Assam. During the eighteenth century Calcutta witnessed the rise of the Sakhībhāvakas, whose members wore female dress in order to identify themselves even externally with the female companions of Rādhā. In modern times, the Hare Krishna movement exemplifies the continuation of devotional Kṛṣṇaism.
In Kerala ritual Kṛṣṇaism flourishes in connection with the temple of Guruvāyūr, which attracts nowadays large numbers of pilgrims from all over India. Popular texts such as the Kṛṣṇavilāsa (by Sukumāra, possibly thirteenth or fourteenth century) and the Nārāyaṇīyam (by Mēlpathūr Nārāyaṇa, 1560–1646)—both based on the Bhāgavata Purāṇa —provide a literary backing for it.
The term Kṛṣṇaism, then, can be used to summarize a large group of independent systems of beliefs and devotion that developed over more than two thousand years, through the interaction of many different cultural contexts. Given the composite nature of the Kṛṣṇa-figure itself (as prankish child, lover, king, fighter of demons, teacher of the Bhagavadgītā, etc.), the selective emphasis in these systems on such individual aspects is worth noting. No grand theological synthesis was attempted. Instead, one notices centralizing trends (on an abstract level, in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, and in concrete form, in the influence of the Vṛndāvana milieu) that in turn produced localized expressions. As an overall trend, a concentration on Kṛṣṇa the lover can be recognized, and it is only in the twentieth century that people such as Gandhi or Bal Gangadhar Tilak began to explore the role of Kṛṣṇa's teaching in relation to the demands of modern politics and society. The move "beyond Kṛṣṇa" in the direction of a "Rādhāism" (as found, for example, in the later teaching of the Rādhāvallabhīs or with the Sakhībhāvakas) was, on the other hand, tentative and of limited appeal.
Ᾱḻvārs; Bhagavadgītā; Bhakti; Caitanya; Hindi Religious Traditions; Indian Religions, article on Rural Traditions; Jayadeva; Kṛṣṇa; Marathi Religions; Mīrā Bāī; Nimbārka; Rādhā; Śrī Vaiṣṇavas; Sūrdās; Tamil Religions; Vaikhānasas; Vaiṣṇavism, article on Pāñcarātras; Vallabha; Viṣṇu; Vṛndāvana.
No single book has thus far surveyed the whole range of Kṛṣṇaism. William G. Archer's charming The Loves of Krishna in Indian Painting and Poetry (New York, 1957) can serve as a first introduction to the subject. Four more recent works explore different aspects of the Kṛṣṇa figure, but mainly of the earlier period. My Viraha-Bhakti: The Early History of Kṛṣṇa Devotion in South India (New Delhi, 1983), deals primarily with early North Indian material as received and developed in the South (particularly by the Ᾱḻvārs and in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa ). The Kṛṣṇa of the classical Purāṇas is envisaged in Benjamin Preciado-Solís's The Kṛṣṇa Cycle in the Purāṇas: Themes and Motifs in a Heroic Saga (New Delhi, 1984) in the context of heroic poetry and Indian art history, and in Noel Sheth's The Divinity of Krishna (New Delhi, 1984) from a theological point of view. In his Krishna, the Butter Thief (Princeton, N.J., 1983), John Stratton Hawley concentrates on the prankish child as treated in later Hindi poetry, but he includes earlier textual and art-historical material on the theme. Two collections of individual articles contain much relevant information: Krishna: Myths, Rites, and Attitudes, edited by Milton Singer (Honolulu, 1966), and Bhakti in Current Research, 1979–1982, edited by Monika Thiel-Horstmann (Berlin, 1983). Surendranath Dasgupta's A History of Indian Philosophy, vols. 3 and 4 (Cambridge, U.K., 1949–1955), may be consulted on the more technical side of the philosophical and theological discussion.
Vaisnavi: Women and the Worship of Krishna. Edited by Steven J. Rosen. Delhi, 1996.
Varma, Pavan K. Krishna, the Playful Divine. New Delhi, 1993.
Friedhelm E. Hardy (1987)