The Teachings of Krishna

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Krishna was born 5,520 years ago. Before Krishna's birth there was a prophecy in relation to Kansa, a tyrannical king, that the eighth child of Kansa's sister would be the cause of his death. It happened that this child was Krishna, the son of Devaki and Vasudeva, born in a prison at Mathura. His childhood was spent in Gokul and Vrindavan with Yashoda and Nanda.

Krishna proved to be a child with extraordinary abilities. He was recognized as an avatar. What is an avatar? Does God actually take birth in the form of a human being? We don't know, but according to all the conclusions, certain parameters have been defined which determine who a yogi is, who a siddha is, who an acharya is, who a sannyasin is and who an avatar is. In the course of Krishna's life, all the qualities of an avatar were seen in him. Therefore, he is considered to be an avatar. As thinkers, not as devotees or bhaktas, we can also accept that he had certain qualities which people at large do not have. He expressed himself in certain extra-human ways and was therefore endowed with extraordinary qualities.

Humanitarian purpose

Krishna's extraordinary qualities were seen when he was only a child. There is a purpose in everyone's life and the purpose of those whom we consider to be avatars or siddhas or yogis is a humanitarian one. The aim is to improve the quality of life, to indicate a way, a process, a direction by which one can attain harmony, satisfaction and contentment.

The central theme of Krishna's life was not destruction of the wicked or protection of the pious. Despite what it says in the Bhagavad Gita, it would be unjustified to believe that he took birth for this purpose because if he had said it, then he would not be an avatar. The relationship between the individual and God is not the relationship of the pious and the wicked. Wickedness is a personality trait or tendency. Interaction with the divine power happens in another dimension where wickedness is overcome by continuous remembrance and thinking of God. Even Kansa, who was wicked, did nothing but think and dream about Krishna from the time of the prophecy till the time of his death. Whether the remembrance was due to fear or affection is not important, but the thought process was ongoing and constant. From the time of Sita's abduction till the time of his death, Ravana thought continuously about Rama. The relationship that an individual has with God transcends their wicked and pious nature. Wickedness and piousness are external expressions of human personality, but the thought and remembrance which is continuous, ongoing and unbroken indicates the awareness and the relationship that one has with the higher power, with God.

Establishment of dharma

The focus of Krishna's life was the establishment of dharma. Dharma is identified as a purushartha. Dharma is not a belief, a concept or a religion; dharma is action, effort. This action and effort should lead one to experiencing the divine nature that is dormant in every being. Krishna wanted to establish this concept of dharma right from the time he became self-aware.

In the festival of Ganga Dashahara, the women float candles or deepaks on the river as a form of worship. There is a story that when Krishna was very young he accompanied his mother, Yashoda, to the banks of the river to observe this ritual. When he saw people floating little candles on the river, he entered the water himself and every time a deepak or candle floated by he would pick it up and put it on the riverbank.

When his mother asked him what he was doing, he replied, “Mother, all the candles that come near me I pick up and put on the shore. My little hands can't reach the candles that are in midstream or near the other shore, but any deepak that floats towards me I pick up and put on the shore.”

Deepaks or lights represent the individual souls who are floating in this stream of samsara. Those who are too far away go unattended, but those souls which float towards the godly nature are immediately picked up and saved. Coming close to the proximity of the Divine is the purpose of dharma, nothing more.

Be involved with karma

Teachings that can bring us closer to God change from age to age, from civilization to civilization. In Satya Yuga, the method was tapasya. In this age, known as Kali Yuga, Buddha, Mahavir, Christ, all the saints and sages, have said that the form of religion should be love and compassion. Being compassionate, loving and kind towards others was the teaching of these sages for this age.

However, what would the teachings have been in another time, in the past, when people had a different kind of lifestyle and were living according to the precepts of dharma? The relevant teaching for that age, as enunciated by Krishna and as enunciated in the time of Rama, was involvement with karma. Rama did not say to be compassionate, it was part of the natural expression of that society. There was no poverty, everyone had plenty. There was no need to become charitable. People were charitable, compassionate, loving and kind by nature; it was part of their personality expression. Today we are not charitable, loving and kind by nature; we are by our nature creating an egocentric and self-centred society. So, the teachings have to change according to the time and the mentality of the people who form a society.

In the times of Krishna and Rama, when there was affluence everywhere, when there was no rampant poverty, when adherence to dharma was an integral part of the human act, there was confusion as to whether to renounce action for the attainment of God or whether to involve oneself in action. Rama, and the teachings that Rama was exposed to, spoke about acceptance of action and living according to the demands of the situation. Krishna, and the teachings of Krishna, speak about accepting and realizing action. This idea is the underlying philosophy of life as practised in those times.

In the Bhagavad Gita, emphasis was given to acceptance, performance and realization of actions. It is also said that knowledge of action, knowledge of human participation in life, in this creation, understanding the role that each human being has to play, is a very secret subject that has never been revealed before. But it is only through perfection in action that one can improve the quality of life.

Perfection in action

This belief holds true even today. All the masters, after they have attained the highest realization, have involved themselves in hard karma. Buddha, after attaining nirvana, plunged himself into karma. He did not isolate himself from the world. Mahavir, after attaining nirvana, plunged headlong into karma. He did not seek the isolation of a mountain top. Ramana Maharishi, after attaining moksha, plunged himself into karma. That has been the trend followed by every seer and saint in this age, whether it is Maharishi Dayananda or Ramakrishna Paramahamsa or Swami Vivekananda or Swami Sivananda or Swami Satyananda.

When we see these living examples of people who have attained realization again involving themselves in action, then we have to think, because the common belief is that nothing needs to be done after realization, that one is free to retire to the mountains and lead a solitary life. It is possibly because of this misunderstanding that sadhakas have been unable to advance in spiritual life. We isolate ourselves by creating walls of silence around us, by meditating for ten or twenty hours a day. But that has no meaning because the transformative experience of life lies in karma, not in meditation.

Karma, not meditation, has been the central philosophy of spiritual life. If followed sincerely, the state of meditation can be achieved within one year. But what about the karma which binds your personality, your nature, your individuality to this plane and which restricts the growth of human nature by becoming a samskara, an unconscious desire, an unconscious seed for happiness and contentment. How do we eradicate that? Meditation cannot eradicate the seeds created by karma. Meditation can provide you with mental, emotional and psychic strength, tranquillity and harmony. Whenever the grass grows, you can cut it and make it look beautiful on the surface, but the weeds are still there. Similarly, whenever the mind goes through difficult times, conflicts, tensions, anxiety and stress practise meditation and you will find relief. It will make the surface of the mind tranquil and peaceful. But the seeds of karma, the weeds of karma, are deep-rooted and cannot be uprooted through meditation alone.

For this, the central theme in yoga and in other spiritual philosophies is karma yoga. I am not talking about the type of karma yoga that we perform in the ashram or in society. When you associate the word yoga with karma, it takes on a different meaning altogether. It indicates a process, a state in which you are the master of your karma and not a subject of your karma. When you are the master of karma, you become a karma yogi. When you are under the influence of karma, you are subject to karma.

This was the message that Krishna gave to Arjuna, and through Arjuna to all of us. In order to transform and harmonize life, in order to understand the secrets of life, in order to understand your relationship with other beings and with the universe, with the cosmos, with creation and with God, you need to understand how you interact with the karmas. It is a very simple thought that Krishna conveyed, yet it is one of the most difficult to understand.

Develop love and compassion

Another theme in the teachings of Krishna is never to be under stress. Krishna was a compassionate person. No other person in history has been as compassionate, not Buddha, not Christ. There is a story that Krishna had 16,000 wives. Some people even joke about it and say he was the biggest playboy the earth has ever seen. But which society, whether past or present, would allow a person to declare, “I have 16,000 wives,” and for those 16,000 wives to accept one husband?

The story is that these women were kidnapped by a king and liberated by Krishna. In Eastern society and also in Western society the belief is that marriages are made in heaven. When people have been kidnapped and kept in bondage in another kingdom by another king, their purity and chastity will definitely be doubted. In prison anything can happen – rape, voluntary affairs, etc. When Krishna liberated the women he knew they would be rejected by their society, families and friends upon their return home because they were no longer pure. So he married all of them. Did he marry out of passion or out of compassion?

Society accepted it because they knew that Krishna's love was not physical or carnal. His character was such that people knew he was providing shelter and support. Krishna himself had eight wives to whom he was legally married and he provided social protection for the 16,000 wives so that they would be able to live in dignity. Krishna radiated love. When we speak of love we always think of carnal, physical love, but love does not mean a physical relationship. These are very gross definitions of love. Real love is transcendental.

Radha was supposed to be Krishna's lover. She was many years older than he was and married to someone else, yet today we do not remember the names of Krishna's other wives. In India, songs of love are dedicated to Radha and Krishna to show respect for the love that existed between them. We bow our heads to that idea, that belief, that philosophy. And why go back so far? Read the story of Mira. She was born a few hundred years ago. Her love for Krishna was so intense that at the time of her death, her physical body dissolved into the statue of Krishna. She did not die a physical death as we do. The force of her love was such that her physical body merged with the statue of Krishna. Can we call this physical love? Can we understand such an expression of love? No, we cannot. Yet when we hear about it, we respect it and bow our heads in reverence. Such love is definitely transcendental.


Krishna's teachings were to develop transcendental love and to be involved with karma. If we can understand these two concepts, we will find that many of our doubts about life, spirituality and dharma can be clarified. Today, on Krishna Janmasthami, we celebrate the birthday of this extraordinary child who was later recognized as an avatar. We also acknowledge the teachings we have received from this extraordinary person and we take a sankalpa to understand, if not to work upon, at least to understand the teachings, the guidelines and the path which has been shown to us through inspirational and uplifting examples from his life.

Ganga Darshan, Janmasthami, September 3, 1999