Krishna is one of the most popular deities of the Puranic pantheon. A warrior, a child god of a pastoral tribe, a preacher, and a love deity, his saga is an amalgamation of many disparate elements in one harmonious and coherent whole.
Krishna's story, which developed over more than 800 years, was worked backwards. One first encounters the adult Krishna, a friend of the Pandavas and founder of the city of Dwarka, and then meets Krishna Gopala, the cowherd child and the lover of rasas, or dances.
Krishna’s journey begins as a hero of the Vrishni tribe, part of the Yadava clan, and ends with him being hailed as the Vishnu incarnate.
Krishna and Vasudeva
As Freda Matchett notes in her book Krsna, Lord Or Avatara? The Relationship Between Krsna and Visnu, both Krishna and Vasudeva were originally heroes of the Satvatta and Vrishni tribes of the Yadava clan who were eventually deified and with time, became synonymous with each other.
The first mention of Krishna, as early as sixth century BCE, in the Chhandogya Upanishad, refers to him as a sage and a preacher. He is also mentioned as Devakiputra (son of Devaki).
By the fourth century BCE, Panini’s Ashtadhyayi, a treatise on grammar, not only presents a deified Krishna but also gives details about the tribe to which he originally belonged – the Vrishnis.
Indica by Megasthenes, a Greek envoy to the court of a Maurya King, talks about how the Surasenoi (Surasens, a branch of the Yadava-Vrishni tribe) worshipped Heracles (Krishna) in Mathura. Thus, by fourth century BCE, not only is Krishna-Vasudeva transformed from a hero to a deity but he has also become fairly popular.
Krishna as a Vishnu incarnate
By the second century BCE, Vedic worship had become rigid and Vedic sacrifices expensive. Alongside this, Buddhism was gaining ground, fuelled by King Ashoka’s propaganda. The large-scale entry of foreign invaders, (such as the Shakas) who were favourably inclined towards Buddhism and other popular cults, weakened the authority of the priestly class.
Moreover, improved economic conditions of the lower varnas challenged caste rules. Hence, as Suvira Jaiswal argues in her book The Origin and Development of the Vaisnavism, “Brahmins seized upon the devotional cult of Vasudeva-Krishna and recognised it as a form of Narayana-Vishnu to infuse Brahmanical social ethics into this popular cult and re-establish their authority.”
Narayana and Vishnu were initially perceived as separate deities and later unified.
Thus, in this period, Krishna-Vasudeva was fused with Narayana-Vishnu and came to feature in the Mahabharata as a war hero and in the Bhagvada Gita as a preacher. Yet, the Mahabharata, in several places, reveals a hesitancy to accept a non-Aryan tribal deity as a higher god. This is why Krishna-Vasudeva is initially described as the incarnation of only a fraction of Narayana-Vishnu.
Till the first century BCE, Krishna was only worshipped in his adult form – as a preacher, a friend of the Pandavas, a Yadava-Vrishni hero and a Vishnu incarnate. What was missing from his grand narrative was a childhood.
Krishna-Gopala (or Krishna the cowherd) surfaced when Krishna was fused with another god of the Abhira (Ahir) tribe. Even though it has not been established whether the Abhiras were native to the Indian subcontinent or were immigrants, it is quite clear that in the first-century CE, the tribe was living in the lower Indus Valley and eventually migrated to Saurashtra. They became politically active under the rule of the Shakas and the Satavahanas.
The Krishna-Vasudeva of the Vrishnis was identified with the cowherd deity of the Abhiras because of the similarities between the two tribes, especially in the way they perceived women.
Krishna in the Mahabharata counsels Arjuna to acquire Subhadra, Krishna’s sister, by force and says that would be in keeping his Dharma, or religious law. He thereby hints that this must have been a common practice among Vrishnis.
Similarly, when Arjuna is escorting Vrishni women, his entourage is attacked by Abhiras, who take the women away.
The identification of Krishna-Vasudeva with the Abhira deity also introduced the amorous dalliances of Krishna with the milkmaids (gopis).
The Abhiras, being a nomadic tribe, allowed for a greater freedom of the sexes. Hence, their god came to acquire the erotic elements that were, in time, identified with Krishna.
Krishna as supreme
We know that Krishna-Gopala is a later addition to the Krishna saga because the original story of the Mahabharata makes no mention of Krishna’s childhood. It is in the Harivamsa (dated fourth century CE), a later appendage to the Mahabharata, that the Krishna-Abhira identification was given concrete shape.
From the first to fifth centuries CE, Puranic epics such as the Vishnu Purana, and the Harivamsa weaved the fragmentary connections of Krishna-Vasudeva-Narayana-Vishnu into a coherent whole. Krishna was now born as a Kshatriya (or warrior caste) of the Yadava clan and his second name, Vasudeva, was explained away as a patronym (the name “Vasudeva” was given to his father). Fearing the wrath of his uncle, Kamsa, Krishna was eventually smuggled into the cowherd tribe of the Abhiras.
In time, the lover of gopis and the pastoral god matured into Arjuna’s sarthi (charioteer) and preacher advocating the principles of Dharma. The narrative was finally complete when the initial hesitancy of accepting a tribal deity as an incarnation of a higher god was also removed when the Bhagvata Purana, dated to the sixth century CE, hailed him as the Supreme One.