Alternative Krishnas by Beck

Guy L. Beck, ed. Alternative Krishnas: Regional and Vernacular Variations on a Hindu Deity. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 2005. Hardcover, vii + 217 pages.

Anyone who knows anything about Hinduism will know of Krishna, the beloved God-man of the Vaishnava tradition. He became a household name in the West through the missionary efforts of the monotheistic Krishna Consciousness movement, which is largely based on a voluminous Sanskrit scripture, the Bhāgavata-Purāna. This medieval work gives out the life story and teachings of Krishna, the eighth incarnation (avatāra) of the supreme God Vishnu. The “heretic” Buddha is generally deemed to be the ninth incarnation, leaving only one more incarnation, the fierce Kalki, who is supposed to come at the end of the current world cycle.

The encyclopedic Bhāgavata-Purāna, however, is not the only source of knowledge for Krishna, who probably was a historical personage and came to be divinized by virtue of his great spiritual realization. There are many earlier and later references to him in India’s Sanskrit and vernacular literatures. Legends abound, and it is difficult to extract from the mass of materials something like a probable biography. As the editor and contributors of the present volume argue: Hinduism presents us with many alternative Krishnas.

The focus of the essays is on the alternative views of Krishna that lie outside of what Guy Beck calls the “normative Krishna,” that is, the mainstream Vaishnava view, as it has crystallized over the centuries. A significant transformation of the figure of Krishna occurred in the Vaishnava Sahjiyā Tantric traditions of Bengal, where Krishna and his divine spouse Rādhā are seen as psychological-spiritual polarities in the yogic process. Another alternative Krishna, also from Bengal, is the one who is a spiritual presence associated with sacred statues, which are carried through the streets in the New Year festival to grant darshan to people.

The Rāmānandī monks of the holy city of Benares celebrate an annual festival in which a further alternative Krishna is wedded to the plant goddess Tulsī. We can encounter yet another Krishna in the Vallabha sect of Vaishnaivism in Braj, the heartland of Krishna devotion. Here Krishna is depicted as the servant and husband of the Divine in the form of Rādhā, a reversal of the Sanskrit tradition. The figure of Krishna underwent a yet different transmogrification in some versions of the rambunctious Holī festival, where he is portrayed as the brother of Balarāma, called Daūjī. Krishna’s name has always been connected with the path of devotion (bhakti-mārga), and it is perhaps this aspect of his teaching that lies behind the Krishna tradition’s great success, as it cuts right through the boundaries between the Sanskrit-based and the vernacular traditions. One contribution examines the reformed devotionalism in the 1914 Hindi work Priyapravās by Hariaudh, in which Krishna and Rādhā’s controversial carnal relationship is suitably sterilized for modern consumption. Rādhā is depicted as nurturing pure love and engrossed in helping others.

A somewhat hidden Krishna is present in Maharashtra in the guise of God Vitthal, who, one contributor argues, is really an amalgam of Vishnu and Shiva. The popular figure of Krishna also exerted an influence on the Buddhist and Jaina traditions, and this is the focus of investigation by several other contributors.

Clearly, Krishna has stirred not only the heart but also the imagination of many generations of Hindus. This erudite monograph assembles some of the pieces of the colorful Krishna mosaic, as it has emerged in the span of at least 3,000 years.

Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in any form requires prior permission from Traditional Yoga Studies.

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