It has been estimated that more than 700 million Hindus identify themselves as Vaishnava, Hindus primarily devoted to the God, Vishnu (literally, the “All-pervading One”). And among those who grew up in a Hindu environment as Vaishnavas (and even for a great many Hindus who aren’t Vaishnava), one thing is fairly clear: among the gods, Krishna is outstandingly significant. His wide popularity today is attested to by the variety of cults, schools of thought, iconography, arts, and practices that have emerged with specific attention to his persona. Krishna has perhaps always been a fascinating enigma, as much for the practitioners of the various current cultic traditions which grew out of his historical wake as for the religious and philosophical thinkers who have investigated his own thought and attitudes toward the meaning and value of life in their own writings. Thus, it is somewhat daunting to even attempt a simple explanation for Krishna’s actions and words; his Being signifies on so many levels and in so many ways the most basic mysteries of existence as experienced in the Hindu world.
To some of the most influential traditions, he is an avatara (literally, ‘one who descends’), in this case, as an expansion into historical, earthly existence from the primal, transcendent God, Vishnu. But to other significant traditions, he is Vishnu’s very source! Some meditate upon him via the medium of his childish and amorous pastimes in Vrindavan, dallying among the cowherds of the village of Vrindavana, bewildering and enchanting them with his unparalleled beauty and charisma. Others see him primarily as the paragon of moral virtue and wisdom, as the speaker of the Bhagavad-gita, the song of the all-attractive. And many strive to understand him paradoxically as embodying both of these simultaneously!
Playful mastery of Krishna
Both the playful mastery of Krishna as the amorous cupid-in-human-form, and the penetrating, holistic thought of Krishna as the revealer of the topmost transcendental wisdom, seem as though a burning, utterly urgent question for almost all Hindus. To be Hindu, to some extent, means to be associated with the thought and action of Krishna. Countless poems have been dedicated to his fame, beauty, wisdom, strength, renunciation, opulence, and variegated pastimes. Whole theological traditions have been founded on the Bhagavad-gita, his compassionate, empowering instructions to his anxious friend, Arjuna, and his life as described in various Puranic texts, most extensively described in the Bhagavata-Purana. Whole historical cultures have been dedicated to him.
Krishna’s persona achieved such historically-extensive popularity in South Asia that semi-isolated incidents frequently arise in India, in which individuals have attempted to emulate him by their very lives, assuming the authority of his identity as their own. Yet others avow themselves to his service, assuming themselves as his humble, eternally devoted servants. His name has itself achieved worldwide fame through the practices of public mantra singing by the ‘Hare Krishna’ Movement, formally known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a social-missionary institution incorporated in 1966 by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, a Bengali renunciate who translated and extensively annotated a number of key Vaishnava texts into English, such as the Bhagavad-gita and Bhagavata-Purana, among others.
Today, as much as ever, Krishna continues to embody the complex fabric of Vaishnava-influenced versions of Hindu thought. But as such, he is a touchstone of sorts; he provides a positive way to enter into Hindu thinking. Therefore, his importance is critical to understanding Hinduism-nay, it is essential.