Krishnaism (IAST: Kṛṣṇaism) is a large group of independent Hindu traditions—sampradayas related to Vaishnavism—that center on the devotion to Krishna as Svayam Bhagavan, the source of all reality, who is not an avatar of Vishnu.[1][2][3] This is its difference from such Vaishnavite groupings as Ramaism, Radhaism, Sitaism, etc.[1]

Krishna holding Govardhan hill. From the Smithsonian Institution collections.

Krishnaism originated in the late centuries BCE from the followers of the heroic Vāsudeva Krishna, which amalgamated several centuries later, in the early centuries CE, with the worshipers of the "divine child" Bala Krishna and the Gopala-Krishna traditions of monotheistic Bhagavatism. These non-Vedic traditions in Mahabharata canon affiliate itself with ritualistic Vedism in order to become acceptable to the orthodox establishment. Krishnaism becomes associated with bhakti yoga and bhakti movement in the Medieval period.

The most remarkable Hindu scriptures for the Krishnaits became Bhagavad Gita, Harivamsa (appendix to the Mahabharata), and Bhagavata Purana.


Krishnaism originates in the early centuries CE, initially focusing on the worship of the heroic Vāsudeva Krishna in the region of Mathura, the "divine child" Bala Krishna and Gopala.[4][note 1] It is closely related to, and find its origin in, Bhagavatism.[6]

Krishnaism is a non-Vedic tradition in origin, but it further developed its appeal towards orthodox believers through the syncretism of these traditions with the Mahabharata epic.[7] In particular Krishnaism incorporated more or less superficially the Vedic supreme deity Vishnu, who appears in the Rigveda.[7] Krishnaism further becomes associated with bhakti yoga in the Medieval period.


Vāsudeva-Krishna on a coin of Agathocles of Bactria, circa 190-180 BCE.[8][9] This is "the earliest unambiguous image" of the deity.[10]

Northern IndiaEdit

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

Early Krishnaism started with the cult of the heroic Vāsudeva Krishna, which, several centuries later, was amalgamated with the cult of the "divine child" Bala Krishna and the Gopala traditions.[11] 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.[12][13][14] At that time, Vāsudeva was already considered as a demi-God, as he appears in Pāṇini's writings in conjunction with Arjuna as an object of worship, since Pāṇini explains that a vāsudevaka is a devotee (bhakta) of Vāsudeva.[12][15][16]

A sect which flourished with the decline of Vedism was centred on Krishna, the deified tribal hero and religious leader of the Yadavas.[17] 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.[6]

The character of Gopala Krishna is often considered to be non-Vedic.[18]

By the time of 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.[5] At this stage that Vishnu of the Rig Veda was assimilated into Krishnaism and became the equivalent of the Supreme God.[17] The appearance of Krishna as one of the Avatars of Vishnu dates to the period of the Sanskrit epics in the early centuries CE. The Bhagavad Gita was incorporated into the Mahabharata as a key text for Krishnaism.[19]

Southern IndiaEdit

According to Friedhelm Hardy,[note 2] there is evidence of early "southern Krishnaism," despite the tendency to allocate the Krishna-traditions to the Northern traditions.[20] South Indian texts show close parallel with the Sanskrit traditions of Krishna and his gopi companions, so ubiquitous in later North Indian text and imagery.[22] Early writings in Dravidian culture such as Manimekalai and the Cilappatikaram present Krishna, his brother, and favourite female companions in the similar terms.[22] Hardy argues that the Sanskrit Bhagavata Purana is essentially a Sanskrit "translation" of the bhakti of the Tamil alvars.[23]

Devotion to southern Indian Mal (Tirumal) may be an early form of Krishnaism, since Mal appears as a divine figure, largely like Krishna with some elements of Vishnu.[24] The Alvars, whose name can be translated "sages" or "saints", were devotees of Mal. Their poems show a pronounced orientation to the Vaishnava, and often Krishna, side of Mal. But they do not make the distinction between Krishna and Vishnu on the basis of the concept of the Avatars.[24] Yet, according to Hardy the term "Mayonism" should be used instead of "Krishnaism" when referring to Mal or Mayon.[20]

Early medieval traditionsEdit

By the Early Medieval period, Krishnaism had risen to a major current of Vaishnavism.[5]

Vaishnavism in the 8th century came into contact with the Advaita doctrine of Adi Shankara. 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,[25] although many other schools of Hindu philosophy have a different interpretation of this key concept. 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).

Late medieval traditionsEdit

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486–1534), believed to be an expansion of Krishna in the mood of Radha.

The Bhakti movement of late medieval Hinduism emerges in the 9th or 10th century, and is based on the Bhagavata Purana. Gitagovinda of Jayadeva considers Krishna to be the supreme lord while the ten incarnations are his forms. In North India, Krishnaism gave rise to various late Medieval movements. Early Bhakti Krishnaite pioneers include Nimbarka (12th or 13th century CE),[1][26] but most emerged later, including Vallabhacharya (15th century CE) and (Chaitanya Mahaprabhu who founded congregational chanting of holy names of Krishna in the early 16th century after becoming a sannyasi. They started their own schools, namely Nimbarka Sampradaya (or Kumara sampradaya, the first Krishnaite),[1][27] Vallabha Sampradaya, and Gaudiya Vaishnavism, with Krishna as the supreme god.[note 3][29][30][31]

In the Deccan, particularly in Maharashtra, saint poets of the Warkari sect such as Dnyaneshwar, Namdev, Janabai, Eknath, and Tukaram promoted the worship of Vithoba, a local form of Krishna, from the beginning of the 13th century until the late 18th century. Before the Warkari tradition, Krishna devotion became well established in Maharashtra due to the rise of Mahanubhava Sampradaya founded by Sarvajna Chakradhara.[32]

19th–20th centuries traditionsEdit

The cult of Krishna later evolved in modern times by Swaminarayan, the founder of the Swaminarayan Sampraday in early 19th century, also worshipped Krishna as God himself (see his Shikshapatri),[33] and to form the reform Gaudiya Math and its successor, the international Hare Krishna Mouvement, founded by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.[1]


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

Krishnaism and VaishnavismEdit

The term "Krishnaism" has been used to describe the sects focused on Krishna, while "Vaishnavism" may be used for sects focusing on Vishnu in which Krishna is an avatar, rather than a transcended Supreme Being.[2] Vishnuism believes in Vishnu as the supreme being, manifested himself as Krishna, while Krishnaism asserts Krishna to be Svayam Bhagavan (Sanskrit: "The Fortunate and Blessed One Himself"), 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.[34] In common language the term Krishnaism is not often used, as many prefer a wider term "Vaishnavism", which appeared to relate to Vishnu, more specifically as Vishnu-ism.

Krishnaism is often also called Bhagavatism, after the Bhagavata Purana which asserts that Krishna is "Bhagavan Himself," and subordinates to itself all other forms: Vishnu, Narayana, Purusha, Ishvara, Hari, Vasudeva, Janardana, etc.[note 4]


Vaishnavism is a monotheistic religion, centered on the devotion of Vishnu and his avatars. It is sometimes described as a"polymorphic monotheism", since there are many forms of one original deity, with Vishnu taking 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.[35]

Krishna 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.[36]

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.[37][38] 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.[39]

Common scripturesEdit

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.

The most remarkable Hindu scriptures for the Krishnaits became Bhagavad Gita, Harivamsa (appendix to the Mahabharata, and earliest discription of Krishna with gopies), and Bhagavata Purana.[41][42] 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.[43][44][45][note 5]

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)."[47]
  • "After attaining Me, the great souls do not incur rebirth in this miserable transitory world, because they have attained the highest perfection."[48]

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:[49]

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).[50]

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.[51] Jiva Goswami has called it Paribhasa-sutra, the "thesis statement" upon which the entire book or even theology is based.[52][53]

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.[54] 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.[55]

Other common scriptures



Maha-mantra Hare Krishna in Devanagari script.

A mantra is a sacred utterance. The most basic and known it among the Krishnaits—Mahā-mantra ("Great Mantra")—is a 16-word mantra in Sanskrit which is mentioned in the Kali-Saṇṭāraṇa Upaniṣad:[56][57]

Hare Rāma Hare Rāma
Rāma Rāma Hare Hare
Hare Kṛṣṇa Hare Kṛṣṇa
Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa Hare Hare

— Kali-Saṇṭāraṇa Upaniṣad

Its variaty within Gaudiya Vaishnavism looks as:

Hare Kṛṣṇa Hare Kṛṣṇa
Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa Hare Hare
Hare Rāma Hare Rāma
Rāma Rāma Hare Hare

The Maha-mantra Radhe Krishna of Nimbarka Sampradaya is as follows:

Rādhe Kṛṣṇa Rādhe Kṛṣṇa
Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa Rādhe Rādhe
Rādhe Shyām Rādhe Shyām
Shyām Shyām Rādhe Rādhe

Holy placesEdit

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.[46]

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.[58]

Contemporary Krishnaite traditionsEdit

Such offshoot of Krishnaism as Radha-centric Radha-vallabha sampradaya is a part of another Vaishnavite stream, the so-called Radhaism.[1]


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.[59][60] The first Hindu member of the United States Congress Tulsi Gabbard is follower of the Krishnaite organisation Science of Identity Foundation.[61][62]

Krishnaism and ChristianityEdit

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,[63] 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.[64]


  1. ^ "Present day Krishna worship is an amalgam of various elements. According to historical testimonies Krishna-Vāsudeva worship already flourished in and around Mathura several centuries before Christ. A second important element is the cult of Krishna Govinda. Still later is the worship of Bala-Krishna, the Divine Child Krishna — a quite prominent feature of modern Krishnaism. The last element seems to have been Krishna Gopijanavallabha, Krishna the lover of the Gopis, among whom Radha occupies a special position. In some books Krishna is presented as the founder and first teacher of the Bhagavata religion."[5]
  2. ^ 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.[20][21]
  3. ^ "(...) After attaining to fame eternal, he again took up his real nature as Brahman. The most important among Visnu's avataras is undoubtedly Krsna, the black one, also called Syama. For his worshippers he is not an avatara in the usual sense, but Svayam Bhagavan, the Lord himself."[28]
  4. ^ "It becomes clear that the personality of Bhagvan Krishna subordinates to itself the titles and identities of Vishnu, Narayana, Purusha, Ishvara, Hari, Vasudeva, Janardana etc. The pervasive theme, then, of the Bhagavata Puran is the identification of Bhagavan with Krishna."(Sheridan 1986, p. 53)
  5. ^ "..Bhagavad Gita and the Bhagavata Purana, certainly the most popular religious books in the whole of India. Not only was Krsnaism influenced by the identification of Krsna with Vishnu, but also Vaishnavism as a whole was partly transformed and reinvented in the light of the popular and powerful Krishna religion. Bhagavatism may have brought an element of cosmic religion into Krishna worship; Krishna has certainly brought a strongly human element into Bhagavatism. ... The center of Krishna-worship has been for a long time Brajbhumi, the district of Mathura that embraces also Vrindavana, Govardhana, and Gokula, associated with Krishna from the time immemorial. Many millions of Krishna bhaktas visit these places ever year and participate in the numerous festivals that reenact scenes from Krshnas life on Earth."[46]


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  2. ^ a b Flood 1996, p. 117.
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  5. ^ a b c Klostermaier 2005, p. 206.
  6. ^ a b Welbon 1987.
  7. ^ a b "Non-Vedic in origin and development, Kṛṣṇaism now sought affiliation with Vedism so that it could become acceptable to the still not inconsiderable orthodox elements among the people. That is how Viṣṇu of the Ṛgveda came to be assimilated—more or less superficially—into Kṛṣṇaism." in Eliade, Mircea, ed. (1987). The Encyclopedia of religion. 15. Macmillan. p. 170. ISBN 978-0-02-909880-6.
  8. ^ Singh, Upinder (2008). A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century. Pearson Education India. p. 436–438. ISBN 978-81-317-1120-0.
  9. ^ Osmund Bopearachchi, Emergence of Viṣṇu and Śiva Images in India: Numismatic and Sculptural Evidence, 2016.
  10. ^ Srinivasan, Doris (1997). Many Heads, Arms, and Eyes: Origin, Meaning, and Form of Multiplicity in Indian Art. Brill. p. 215. ISBN 978-90-04-10758-8.
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  12. ^ a b Flood 1996, pp. 119–120.
  13. ^ Doris Srinivasan (1997). Many Heads, Arms, and Eyes: Origin, Meaning, and Form of Multiplicity in Indian Art. Brill Academic. pp. 211–220, 236. ISBN 90-04-10758-4.
  14. ^ Christopher Austin (2018). Diana Dimitrova and Tatiana Oranskaia (ed.). Divinizing in South Asian Traditions. Taylor & Francis. pp. 30–35. ISBN 978-1-351-12360-0.
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  16. ^ "The affix vun comes in the sense of "this is his object of veneration" after the words 'Vâsudeva' and 'Arjuna'", giving Vâsudevaka and Arjunaka. Source: Aṣṭādhyāyī 2.0 Panini 4-3-98
  17. ^ a b "Vaishnava". Archived from the original on 12 February 2012. Retrieved 22 May 2008.
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  19. ^ G. Widengren (1997). Historia Religionum: Handbook for the History of Religions - Religions of the Present. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers. p. 270. ISBN 90-04-02598-7.
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  24. ^ a b "Devotion to Mal (Mayon)". Archived from the original on 5 February 2012. Retrieved 22 May 2008.
  25. ^ Ganguli translation of Mahabharata, Ch.148
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  32. ^ The religious system of the Mahānubhāva sect, by Anne Feldhaus, Manohar publications: Delhi, 1983.
  33. ^ "Shikshapatri, verse 109 by Bhagwan Swaminarayan". Archived from the original on 5 February 2012.
  34. ^ Wilson, Bill; McDowell, Josh (1993). The best of Josh McDowell: a ready defense. Nashville: T. Nelson. pp. 352–353. ISBN 0-8407-4419-6.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
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  45. ^ Charlotte Vaudeville has said, it is the 'real Bible of Krsnaism'. Quoted in: Matchett, 2000
  46. ^ a b Klostermaier 2005, p. 204.
  47. ^ Radhakrishan(1970), ninth edition, Blackie and son India Ltd., p.211, Verse 6.47
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  49. ^ Matchett 2000, p. 153Bhag. Purana 1.3.28 :ete cāṁśa-kalāḥ puṁsaḥ kṛṣṇas tu bhagavān svayam :indrāri-vyākulaṁ lokaṁ mṛḍayanti yuge yuge
  50. ^ 1.3.28 Swami Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta. "Srimad Bhagavatam Canto 1 Chapter 3 Verse 28". Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. Retrieved 7 May 2008.
  51. ^ "Sri Krishna". Retrieved 30 April 2008.
  52. ^ Dhanurdhara Swami (2000). Waves of Devotion. Bhagavat Books. ISBN 0-9703581-0-5.
  53. ^ "Waves of Devotion". Archived from the original on 5 February 2012. Retrieved 4 May 2008. In Hari-namamr†a-vyakarana, Jiva Gosvami defines paribhasa-sutra as aniyame niyama-karini paribhasa: "A paribhasa-sutra implies a rule or theme where it is not explicitly stated." In other words, it gives the context in which to understand a series of apparently unrelated statements in a book.
  54. ^ Matchett 2000, p. 141
  55. ^ Matchett 2000, 10th canto transl.
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  59. ^ Giuliano, Geoffrey (1997). Dark horse: the life and art of George Harrison. New York: Da Capo Press. p. 12. ISBN 0-306-80747-5.
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  61. ^ What Does Tulsi Gabbard Believe?, Kelefa Sanneh, The New Yorker, Oktober 30, 2017.
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