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Krishna holding Govardhan hill. From the Smithsonian Institution collections.

Krishnaism (also Bhagavatism) is a group of Hindu denominations within Vaishnavism, centered on devotion to Krishna or other forms of Krishna.[1] It is often also called Bhagavatism, because it is the Bhagavata Purana that asserts that Krishna is "Bhagavan Himself," and subordinates to itself all other forms: Vishnu, Narayana, Purusha, Ishvara, Hari, Vasudeva, Janardana, etc.[2] The term "Krishnaism" has been used to describe the sects focused on Krishna, while "Vaishnavism" for sects focusing on Vishnu in which Krishna is an Avatar, rather than a transcended Supreme Being.[3]

Krishnaism originates in the early centuries CE, arising from an amalgamation of the heroic Krishna Vasudeva, the "divine child" Bala Krishna and the Gopala traditions, and syncretism of these non-Vedic traditions with the Mahabharata canon, thus affiliating itself with Vedism in order to become acceptable to the orthodox establishment. Krishnaism becomes associated with bhakti yoga in the medieval period. Friedhelm Hardy in his "Viraha-bhakti" analyses the history of Krishnaism, specifically all pre-11th-century sources starting with the stories of Krishna and the gopi, and Mayon mysticism of the Vaishnava Tamil saints, Sangam Tamil literature and Alvars' Krishna-centered devotion in the rasa of the emotional union and the dating and history of the Bhagavata Purana.[4][5] The central text of Krishnaism is the Bhagavad Gita.[6][7][8]

Krishnaism has a limited following outside of India, especially associated with 1960s counter-culture, including a number of celebrity followers, such as George Harrison, due to its promulgation throughout the world by the founder-acharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.[9][10][11]


Relationship between different forms of Krishna as paripurna avatara of Vishnu and as Svayam Bhagavan.

Vaishnavism is a monotheism, sometimes described as "polymorphic monotheism", with the implication that there are many forms of one original deity, that is, belief in a single unitary deity who takes many forms. In Krishnaism this deity is Krishna, sometimes referred as intimate deity - as compared with the numerous four-armed forms of Narayana or Vishnu.[12] While in common language the term is not often used, as many prefer a wider term "Vaishnavism", which appeared to relate to Vishnu (more specifically as Vishnu-ism), there are a few theories as to the origins and the definitions of Krishnaism.

Within Vaishnavism, Krishnaism contrasts with "Vishnuism". Vishnuism believes in Vishnu as the supreme being, manifested himself as Krishna, while Krishnaism accepts Krishna to be Svayam bhagavan or "authentic", that manifested himself as Vishnu. As such Krishnaism is believed to be one of the early attempts to make philosophical Hinduism appealing to the masses.[13]

Historically, it was Caitanya Mahaprabhu who founded congregational chanting of holy names of Krishna in the early 16th century after becoming a sannyasi.

The object

Krishna is the principal deity of Krishnaism that is also worshiped across many other traditions of Hinduism. Krishna is often described as having the appearance of a dark-skinned person and is depicted as a young cowherd boy playing a flute or as a youthful prince giving philosophical direction and guidance, as in the Bhagavad Gita.[14]

Krishna and the stories associated with him appear across a broad spectrum of different Hindu philosophical and theological traditions, where it is believed that God appears to his devoted worshippers in many different forms, depending on their particular desires. These forms include the different avataras of Krishna described in traditional Vaishnava texts, but they are not limited to these. Indeed, it is said that the different expansions of the Svayam bhagavan are uncountable and they cannot be fully described in the finite scriptures of any one religious community.[15][16] Many of the Hindu scriptures sometimes differ in details reflecting the concerns of a particular tradition, while some core features of the view on Krishna are shared by all.[17]

Main traditions


File:History of Vaishnavism.png
History of Krishnaism in the framework of Vedas and Vaishnavism as a whole.

Gopala Krsna of Krishnaism is often contrasted with Vedism especially based on the story appearing in the Bhagavata Purana when Krishna asks his followers to desist from Vedic Indra worship. Thus the character of Gopala Krishna is often considered to be non-Vedic.[18]

Worship of Krishna, the deified tribal hero and religious leader of the Yadavas, took sectarian form as the Pancaratra and earlier as Bhagavata religions. This sect has at a later stage merged with the sect of Narayana.

Early Krishnaism thus consist of an amalgamation of the heroic Krishna Vasudeva, the "divine child" Bala Krishna and the Gopala traditions.

By its incorporation into the Mahabharata canon during the early centuries CE, Krishnaism began to affiliate itself with Vedism in order to become acceptable to orthodoxy, in particular aligning itself with Rigvedic Vishnu. By the Early Medieval period, Krishnaism had risen to a major current of Vaishnavism.[19]


According to Hardy's study of the various connections between records and traditions there is evidence of early "southern Krishnaism",[4] even there is a tendency to allocate this tradition to the Northern traditions. There is a narrative context in which the early writings in Dravidian culture such as Manimekalai and the Cilappatikaram present Krishna, his brother, and favorite female companions in the similar terms.[20] Friedhelm Hardy argues that the Sanskrit Bhagavata Purana is essentially a Sanskrit "translation" of the bhakti of the Tamil alvars.[21] Whether to accept this radical suggestion, it an accepted view that South Indian texts illustrate close parallels to the Sanskrit traditions of Krishna and his gopi companions, so ubiquitous in later North Indian text and imagery.[20]

While some refer to devotion to indigenous Mal (Tirumal) as early forms of Krishnaism, since Mal appears as a divine figure, largely like Krishna with some elements of Vishnu.[22] It has been suggested by Hardy that the term "Mayonism" should be used instead of "Krishnaism" when referring to Mal or Mayon.[4] On the other hand, another prominent early evidence gathered from the poetry of Alvars, whose name can be translated "sages" or "saints", is that they were devotees of Mal. In their poems there comes a pronounced orientation to the Vaishnava and often Krishna side of Mal. It is however important to note that they do not make the distinction between Krishna and Vishnu on the basis of the concept of the Avatars.[22]

Early and medieval traditions

Vaishnavism in the 8th century came into contact with the Advaita doctrine of Adi Shankara. There were counter-movements in South India to Shankara's theory of Brahman in particular, Ramanuja in the 11th century and Madhva in the 13th, building on the devotional tradition of the Alvars (Shri Vaishnavas).

The Bhakti movement of late medieval Hinduism emerges in the 9th or 10th century, and is based on the Bhagavata Purana. On opinion of others it is Bhagavad Gita that may be said to constitute the gospel of Krishnaism. It is believed to be the most seminal of all Hindu scriptures.[23]

In North India, Krishnaism gave rise to various late Medieval movements: Nimbarka and Ramananda in the 14th century, Kabir and Sankaradeva in the 15th and Vallabha and Caitanya in the 16th.

Radha Krishna

A number of interpretations according to traditions possess a common root of personalism in the understanding of worship. Some proclaiming the supremacy of Krishna and the reality and eternality of individual selves.[24]

One of the kings of Manipur, Gareeb Nivaz, ruling from 1709 to 1748, was initiated into Krishnaism and practiced this religion for nearly twenty years.[25] Since that period of time Manipuri Vaishnavas do not worship Krishna alone, but Radha-Krishna.[26] With the spread of the worship of Krishna and Radha, it becomes the dominant form in the Manipur region.[27]

Charlotte Vaudeville, in her essay ‘Evolution of Love Symbolism in Bhagavatism’, draws some parallel to Nappinnai, appearing in Godha's magnum opus Thiruppavai and also in Nammalwar's references to Nappinnani, the daughter-in-law of Nandagopa. Nappinnai is believed to be the source of Radha's conception in Prakrit and Sanskrit literature, although their characteristic relations with Krishna are different.

Yasastilaka Champukavya (AD 959) makes references to Radha and Krishna well before Jayadeva's period. There are elaborate references to Radha in Brahma vaivarta and Padma Puranas.[28]

Early Bengali literature gives a vivid description of the depiction and evolution of understanding of Radha and Krishna.[29] However the source of Jayadeva Goswamis heroine in his poem Gita Govinda remains a puzzle in Sanskrit Literature.[30]

In Caitanya Vaishnavism metaphysical status and Radha-worship is considered to be established by Krsnadasa in his Caitanya Caritamrta where he represents the doctrine that prevailed among the Vrindavan Caitanyaites following Caitanya's demise in 1533.[31]

One of the self-manifested deities established by Gopala Bhatta Goswami is called Radharamana; it is not surprising that Radharamana is seen as not only Krishna but also as Radha-Krishna.[32]

The adepts and followers of the Nimbarka Sampradaya worship the youthful Krishna, alone or with his consort Radha are representing the earliest of the second wave of Greater Krishnaism, dating at least to the 12th century, matching and extending beyond tradition of the Rudra Sampradaya does.[33] According to Nimbarka, Radha was the eternal consort of Vishnu-Krishna and there is also a suggestion, though not a clear statement, that she became the wife of her beloved Krishna.[34]

Vallabhacharya introduced the worship of Radha Krishna, where according to some sects, for example, the devotees identify mainly with the female companion (sakhi) of Radha who is privileged to witness the Radha-Krsna private relationship.[35]

In the Swaminarayan Faith, spreading very rapidly throughout the world, Radha Krishna Dev has a special place as Swaminarayan himself made a reference to Radha Krishna in the Shikshapatri.[36]

Holy places

Vrindavana is often considered to be a holy place by majority of traditions of Krishnaism. It's a center of Krishna worship and the area includes places like Govardhana and Gokula associated with Krishna from time immemorial. Many millions of bhaktas or devotees of Krishna visit these places of pilgrimage every year and participate in a number of festivals that relate to the scenes from Krishna's life on Earth.[37]

On the other hand, Goloka is considered the eternal abode of Krishna, Svayam bhagavan according to some Vaishnava schools, including Gaudiya Vaishnavism and the Swaminarayan Sampraday. The scriptural basis for this is taken in Brahma Samhita and Bhagavata Purana.[38]


Common scriptures

Jiva Gosvami's Bhajan Kutir at Radha-kunda. Jiva Goswamis Sandarbhas summarize Vedic sources of Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition's accretion of the concept Krishna to be the supreme Lord, bhagavān svayam, based on paribhasa-sutra of Bhagavata Purana.

While every tradition of Krishnaism has its own canon, in all Krishna is accepted as a teacher of the path in the scriptures Bhagavad Gita and the Bhagavata Purana.[37]

As Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, establishing the basis of Krishnaism himself:

  • "And of all yogins, he who full of faith worships Me, with his inner self abiding in Me, him, I hold to be the most attuned (to me in Yoga)."[40]
  • "After attaining Me, the great souls do not incur rebirth in this miserable transitory world, because they have attained the highest perfection."[41]

In Gaudiya Vaishnava, Vallabha Sampradaya, Nimbarka sampradaya and the old Bhagavat school, Krishna is believed to be fully represented in his original form in the Bhagavata Purana, that at the end of the list of avataras concludes with the following assertion:[42]

All of the above-mentioned incarnations are either plenary portions or portions of the plenary portions of the Lord, but Sri Krishna is the original Personality of Godhead (Svayam Bhagavan).[43]

Not all commentators on the Bhagavata Purana stress this verse, however a majority of Krishna-centered and contemporary commentaries highlight this verse as a significant statement.[44] Jiva Goswami has called it Paribhasa-sutra, the "thesis statement" upon which the entire book or even theology is based.[45]

In another place of the Bhagavata Purana (10.83.5-43) those who are named as wives of Krishna all explain to Uraupadi how the 'Lord himself' (Svayam Bhagavan, Bhagavata Purana 10.83.7) came to marry them. As they relate these episodes, several of the wives speak of themselves as Krishna's devotees.[46] In the tenth canto the Bhagavata Purana describes svayam bhagavans Krishna's childhood pastimes as that of a much-loved child raised by cowherds in Vrindavan, near to the Yamuna River. The young Krishna enjoys numerous pleasures, such as thieving balls of butter or playing in the forest with his cowherd friends. He also endures episodes of carefree bravery protecting the town from demons. More importantly, however, he steals the hearts of the cowherd girls (Gopis). Through his magical ways, he multiplies himself to give each the attention needed to allow her to be so much in love with Krishna that she feels at one with him and only desires to serve him. This love, represented by the grief they feel when Krishna is called away on a heroic mission and their intense longing for him, is presented as models of the way of extreme devotion (bhakti) to the Supreme Lord.[47]

Sectarian scriptures

Varkari movement

In the Varkari movement the following scriptures are considered sacred in addition to general body of the common writing:

  • Dyaneshawri
  • Tukaram-Gatha
  • Sopandevi
  • Namdev-Gatha
  • Eknathi-Bhagwat

Chaitanya movement

  • Sad Sandarbhas
  • Brahma Samhita

Relationship to other traditions in Hinduism

The first inscription of the Heliodorus pillar that was made by Heliodorus 110 BCE after his conversion to Bhagavata Monotheism.

While Vishnu is attested already in the Rigveda, the development of Krishnaism appears to take place via the worship of Vasudeva in the final centuries BCE. This earliest phase was established the time of Pāṇini (4th century BCE) who, in his Astadhyayi, explained the word vasudevaka as a bhakta (devotee) of Vasudeva. The appearance of Krishna as one of the Avatars of Vishnu dates to the period of the Sanskrit epics in the early centuries CE. By the 8th century CE, Vasudeva has been interpreted by Adi Shankara, using the earlier Vishnu Purana as a support, as meaning the "supreme self" or Vishnu, dwelling everywhere and in all things,[48] although many other schools of Hindu philosophy have a different interpretation of this key concept. However the primary meaning remains enshrined in the inscription of the Heliodorus pillar 110 BCE.

There is also evidence that sect which flourished with the decline of Vedism was centred on Krishna, the deified tribal hero and religious leader of the Yadavas.[49] It is believed that at a later stage Krishnaism started to align with Vedism so that orthodoxy would find it acceptable. It is also believed that at this stage that Vishnu of the Rig Veda was assimilated into Krishnaism and became the equivalent of the Supreme God.[49] While there is a considerable debate as to Shivaism versus Vishnuism, and foisting of Krishnaism upon Vishnu to be passed as a Vedic deity, some consider that, "stated in this way, such scarcely can have been the case".[50]

Such views distinguishing Vishnu from Krishna are believed to be without basis by some. For example, the Mahabharata is believed by some to predate the Bhagavata Purana[citation needed] and in the interpretations of Vishnu sahasranama composed by Bhishma in glorification of Krishna, where Krishna, according to some commentators, is identified as an avatar of Vishnu[51] and worship of Krishna was seen as identical to worship of Vishnu.

In the 149th chapter of Anushāsanaparva in the epic Mahabharata, Bhishma states, with Krishna present, that mankind will be free from all sorrows by chanting the Vishnu sahasranama, the thousand names of the all-pervading Supreme Being Vishnu, who is the master of all the worlds, supreme over the devas and who is one with Brahman.[48] This seems to indicate that Krishna is identical with Vishnu. Indeed, Krishna himself said, "Arjuna, one may be desirous of praising by reciting the thousand names. But, on my part, I feel praised by one shloka. There is no doubt about it." [52]

Krishnaism and Christianity

Debaters have often alleged a number of parallels between Krishnaism and Christianity, originating with Kersey Graves' The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors claiming 346 parallels between Krishna and Jesus,[53] theorizing that Christianity emerged as a result of an import of pagan concepts upon Judaism. Some 19th- to early 20th-century scholars writing on Jesus Christ in comparative mythology (John M. Robertson, Christianity and Mythology, 1910) even sought to derive both traditions from a common predecessor religion.[54]


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  8. Charlotte Vaudeville has said, it is the 'real Bible of Krsnaism'. Quoted in: Matchett, 2000
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    ete cāṁśa-kalāḥ puṁsaḥ kṛṣṇas tu bhagavān svayam :indrāri-vyākulaṁ lokaṁ mṛḍayanti yuge yuge
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