One widely known incarnation of Vishnu is Krishna. The great efforts of Krishna's life seem to have been directed toward the opposition of the worship of Siva, the destroyer; and of Indra, god of the firmament, hurler of the thunderbolt, etc., the Jupiter Pluvius of the Hindoo pantheon. In connection with his opposition to Indra comes the much-quoted story of the lifting of the mountain Govardhana. Indra, enraged with jealousy at the diminution of his own votaries and sacrifices consequent to the growing adoration of Krishna, sent a terrific storm to destroy the objects of his wrath. Thereupon Krishna uplifted on his little finger the mountain Govardhana (the Hindoo Parnassus), to shelter himself and the Gopia from the fury of the jealous Indra. There are many interesting pictures of this feat, which the votaries of Krishna take quite seriously.
In the Mahabharata (Great Battle of the Descendants of Bharata), the gigantic, multivolume epic of ancient North Indian kingdoms, Krishna appears as the ruler of one of the many states allied either with the heroic Pandava brothers or with their treacherous cousins, the Kauravas. Bharata was an ancient king whose achievements are celebrated in the Mahabharata and from whose name derives one of the names for modern India, that is Bharat. During the final battle, Krishna serves as charioteer for the hero Arjuna, and before the fighting starts he bolsters Arjuna's faltering will to fight against his kin. Krishna reveals himself as Vishnu, the supreme godhead, who has set up the entire conflict to cleanse the earth of evildoers according to his inscrutable will. This section of the epic, the Bhagavad Gita, or Song of the Lord, is one of the great jewels of world religious literature and of central importance in modern Hinduism. One of its main themes is karma-yoga , or selfless discipline in offering all of one's allotted tasks in life as a devotion to God and without attachment to consequences. The true reality is the soul that neither slays nor is slain and that can rejoin God through selfless dedication and through Krishna's saving grace.
A completely different cycle of stories portrays Krishna as a young cowherd, growing up in the country after he was saved from an evil uncle who coveted his kingdom. In this incarnation, Krishna often appears as a happy, roly-poly infant, well known for his pranks and thefts of butter. Although his enemies send evil agents to destroy him, the baby miraculously survives their attacks and kills his demonic assailants. Later, as he grows into an adolescent, he continues to perform miracles such as saving the cowherds and their flocks from a dangerous storm by holding up a mountain over their heads until the weather clears. His most striking exploits, however, are his affairs as a young adult with the gopis (cowherding maidens), all of whom are in love with him because of his good looks and talent with the flute.
These explicitly sexual activities, including stealing the clothes of the maidens while they are bathing, are the basis for a wide range of poetry and songs to Krishna as a lover; the devotee of the god takes on a female role and directs toward the beloved lord the heartfelt longing for union with the divine. Krishna's relationship with Radha, his favorite among the gopis , has served as a model for male and female love in a variety of art forms, and since the sixteenth century appears prominently as a motif in North Indian paintings. Unlike many other deities, who are depicted as very fair in color, Krishna appears in all these adventures as a dark lord, either black or blue in color. In this sense, he is a figure who constantly overturns accepted conventions of order, hierarchy, and propriety, and introduces a playful and mischievous aspect of a god who hides from his worshipers but saves them in the end. The festival of Holi at the spring equinox, in which people of all backgrounds play in the streets and squirt each other with colored water, is associated with Krishna.
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