Life of Krishna – Powerful Illustrations from the Bhagavata


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#Did you know that the Bhagavata Purana one of the Mahapuranas of Hinduism is sometimes called the “Fifth Veda”? The word ‘purana ‘means “ancient or old”, and ‘maha’ means large or great. It is a genre of Indian literature. It talks about a wide range of important myths, interesting legends and traditional lore. They are in Sanskrit, and some regional languages, and are texts named after major Hindu deities such as Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva and the Devi. The ‘Puranas’ is a genre of literature found in both Hinduism and Jainism. The Bhagavata Purana is known simply as The Bhagavata and also as Srimad Bhagavatam. Scholars estimate the date of origin of the Bhagavata Purana to be between 800–1000 C.E. It is composed in Sanskrit and attributed to Vyasadeva who has also composed the Mahabharata, one of India’s great epics, the other being the Ramayana by Sage Valmiki. 

The Bhagavata


The Bhagavata promotes bhakti (devotion) towards Lord Vishnu and also Lord Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu. Different Gods have dominated in Hinduism in different times but Lord Krishna’s appeal is timeless. Krishna, is one of the most widely revered and most popular of all Indian divinities, worshipped as a supreme god. Krishna became the focus of numerous bhakti (devotion) cults, which have over the centuries produced an awesome wealth of religious poetry, music, and painting. The basic sources of Krishna’s mythology are the epic Mahabharata, the Harivamsa, and the Puranas, particularly skandas X and XI of the Bhagavata-purana which is totally made up of XII skandas or books/cantos with 18000 verses. The first canto has 19 chapters and opens with an invocation to Lord Krishna, the Srimad Bhagatavam, been compiled by Vyasadeva is believed to be a way to reach the divine. According to Sri Prabhupada, after composing the Bhagavatam, Vyasa taught it to his son Sukadeva Goswami who later spoke to Maharaja Parikshit in an assembly of sages on the bank of the river Ganga. The Bhagavata has been translated into different languages and illustrated very well over time and is continued by modern day artists, especially the Radha-Krishna lore, defeating of demons among others.

‘’Only those who render unreserved, uninterrupted, favourable service unto the lotus feet of Lord Krishna, who carries the wheel of the chariot in his hand, can know the creator of the universe in His full glory, power, and transcendence’’.— Canto 1, Chapter 3, Verse 38 of the Bhagavata Purana – a translation by Sri Prabhupada.

Krishna in Mahabharata

Krishna in Mahabharata

It may be mentioned here that Krishna is also the charioteer of Arjuna in the epic battle in Mahabharata, wherein his teachings on the war field at Kurukshetra, which are solemn advice given to a morally perplexed Arjuna as described in the text called the Bhagavadgita. The episode of revealing his ‘vishwaroopa’ or ‘viraatroopa’ (a great form with multiple features) to Arjuna, the Pandava, happens in the battlefield. Arjuna along with the other Pandavas are in conflict with their cousins the Kauravas, which is the main plot of the epic Mahabharata. ‘Vishwaroopa’ is considered the supreme form of Vishnu, where the whole universe is described as being within him. 

A Human Avatara of Lord Vishnu

The Bhagavata Purana, deals with different subjects like cosmology, astronomy, genealogy, geography, legend, music, dance, yoga and culture. The story deals with the forces of evil having won a war with the devas (gods), who are the good forces and evil asuras (demons) who now rule and dominate the universe. Lord Krishna, an avatar of Lord Vishnu of the Hindu trinity, first makes peace with the demons, then brings them into combat and manages to defeats them, and restores peace and hope in the universe. It is an expression of victory of good over evil. Bhagavata captures some of the events of his exemplary life.  The skandas of the Bhagavata Purana which deal with the life of Krishna includes his feats and many other noteworthy incidents which are often told as separate stories.

The birth of Krishna, his childhood and youth at Gokul-Vrindavan, attempts on Krishna’s life made by his wicked uncle Kamsa, the childhood pranks he played on his foster mother Yashoda, the Yamalurjana episode, the elimination of demons like Vatsasura, Bakasura, Aghasura, Dhenukasura, Pralamba, Keshi, Kuvalayapidha and Canura, the Kaliyamardana episode, the rescue of cows and cowherds from a devastating fire, killing of Kamsa, Krishna mesmerizing life around by playing on his flute, receiving education from Sandipani, the Govardhan Giri feat, dalliances with Radha and other gopis, or cowherd maidens, the Raas-leela, conflict with Jarasandha, his movement to Dwarka, kidnap and marriage to Rukmini, befriending the Pandavas, the Sudama episode, episode of kidnap of Subhadra who marries Arjuna, being an important part of the Kurukshetra war as Arjuna’s charioteer, make up his life. The Bhagavata-purana translations has resulted in a huge body of vernacular literature in India as already mentioned. There are also sculpted carvings in stone and on temple walls and illustrations in miniature paintings by Central Indian, Rajasthani and Pahari painters of the 17th and 18th centuries about Krishna’s life. The episodes are being re-drawn and painted in the modern times as well in different formats.

Let us delve into this ancient text and discover some powerful illustrations from dispersed pages of the Bhagavata Purana, some with and some without text.

Nanda and Vasudeva embracing, circa 1520-60, Image: The Met, New York

The illustration Nanda and Vasudeva embracing shows the bonding between the two men as Nanda has adopted child Krishna to save his uncle Kamsa from killing him as it is predicted that Krishna will be the cause of Kamsa’s end. 

Text behind the illustration

Text behind the illustration -Image:

In the illustration Yashoda binds Krishna’s hands, it is shown that his foster mother Yashoda is tying his hands as he is a prankster and people have been complaining about the same. She is punishing him for his naughty ways.  The rope has been given to Yashoda by other women, most probably he has stolen butter along with his other cowherd friends from their homes!

Yashoda binds Krishna’s hands, from Gujarat, circa 1640-50, The Met, New York. Image: Wikimedia

The painting Krishna as a student shows Krishna as blue-skinned, seated next to Balarama, both studying and wearing peacock-feather headgear, in front of their teacher Sandipani. Two other students appear on the left. And are studying along with them. 

Krishna and Balarama studying, circa 1525-1550, from Uttar Pradesh, University of Michigan, Museum of Art, U S A. Image – Wikimedia

In the painting Krishna expels the serpent Kaliya, he is shown overpowering the serpent Kaliya who has been poisoning a lake; part of the Yamuna and scaring away people. Krishna along with his cowherd friends decide to tackle the serpent so that it goes back to ocean where it came from. Kaliya is actually escaping from Garuda, the enemy of snakes. Kaliya’s royal residence is depicted at the lower right. People disturbed by the snake can be seen as well. In order to make the part of the rivet usable, Krishna tackles the serpent king by dancing on his multiple heads. Krishna then persuades him to move away to the ocean and assures that Garuda would not hurt him.

Krishna expels the serpent-demon Kaliya, from Mewar, circa 1710, Cleveland Museum of Art. U S A. Image: Wikimedia

Once there was heavy rain at Vrindavan. This was due to God Indra being very angry. Krishna had convinced the people of Braj (Gokul and Vrindavan are a part of the area of Braj) to not give the annual offering to Indra, king of the gods. This enraged Indra and he flooded the village with heavy storm and rainfall, as he is the God of Rain. Krishna, shown with four arms, lifted nearby Mount Govardhan, and the villagers and animals take shelter beneath. The painting depicts heavy rainfall, and in the upper left, Indra is depicted with two attendants, and his white elephant mount, Airavata.

Krishna lifts Mount Govardhana, painting from Malwa, circa 1686, Cleveland Museum of Art, U S A. Image: Wikimedia

When Krishna was living in Gokul-Vrindavan, his Uncle Kamsa sent a demon-horse to finish him by the name Keshi. The horse neighed like the thundering of clouds and people were in panic. But Krishna with the help of Balarama faced the horse and challenged it like a roaring lion and eventually defeated him. The painting Krishna and Balarama battling the horse-demon Keshi relates to this episode.

Life-of-Krishna-Illustrations Krishna and Balarama battling the horse-demon Keshi
Krishna and Balarama battling the horse-demon Keshi, North India, late 18th-early 19th century. Image Source

The illustration Sakhi brings a message from Radha to Krishna shows the days of dalliance with Radha and other gopis in Vrindavan, here a sakhi, who used to be friend and intermediary is shown bringing a message from Krishna’s beloved Radha. The sakhi is shown with Radha in one frame and with Krishna in another. A water body with lotuses and Radha’s pavilion add beauty to this painting which is done very thoughtfully.

Sakhi brings a message from Radha to Krishna: A leaf from the dispersed ‘palam’ Bhagavata Purana Delhi-Agra, circa 1520-40. Image

Krishna used to tease and make fun of the gopis, in this folio from a Bhagavata (along with text) Krishna steals the gopis’ clothing: he is shown to be stealing the clothes of the gopis as they are taking bath in the river. This episode has been painted by many artists.

Krishna steals the gopis’ clothing, Mewar, Rajasthan, circa 1620-30, The Met Museum New York. Image: Wikimedia

Krishna defeated many demons who were creating havoc and giving trouble, Kamsa. In order to restore peace and defeat the demon Krishna faced many battles. The painting Krishna battles the armies of a demon-king Naraka depicts one such feat. The demon-king, most probably Naraka and his consort are seen in the palace interior of their fortified city of Pragjyotisha, watching over a raging battle. Krishna and his consort Satyabhama are entering sitting on Lord Vishnu’s mount the eagle-man, Garuda. 

Krishna battles the armies of demon-king Naraka, from Delhi - Agra region, circa 1540, The Met, New York.
Krishna battles the armies of demon-king Naraka, from Delhi – Agra region, circa 1540, The Met, New York. Image –

The Akrura episode – Kamsa, ruled as the king of the Yadus, based in his capital at Mathura. He had a cousin named Akrura. As Kamsa is prophesied to be killed by his nephew, Krishna, he was waiting for the first chance to eliminate him. He ordered Akrura to bring Krishna and Balarama in his chariot to Mathura to the Dhanuryaga festival, where he planned to have them killed. Kamsa informed Akrura that following the death of his nephews, he wished to seize all the possessions of the cowherds, and rule in concert with him. Akrura was excited at the prospect of meeting Krishna, as he was a devotee of Vishnu; Krishna being his avatar. He came to Gokul and saw Krishna and Balarama with cows. He was confused if they would trust him as he was related to Kamsa. However, the opposite took place.

He was however treated very well and he then told them about the mistreatment of Vasudeva, Devaki, and Ugrasena under the tyranny of Kamsa, and the reason why he had come. The brothers agreed to accompany Akrura to Mathura the following day, much to the anguish of the gopis. Akura had a mystic vision of Krishna, when he stopped to bathe in a river. On reaching Mathura, he informed them that they would have to walk the royal road from that point forward, and he proceeded ahead alone in his chariot. The paintings Krishna brings the messenger Akrura inside Nanda’s house, Akrura drives Krishna and Balarama to Mathura and Akrura’s mystic vision of Krishna as Vishnu and Balarama as Adishesha relate to the Akrura episode.

Krishna brings the messenger Akrura

Krishna brings the messenger Akrura inside Nanda’s house: maybe Delhi-Agra, between circa 1620 and 1630, The Met, New York.
Krishna brings the messenger Akrura inside Nanda’s house: maybe Delhi-Agra, between circa 1620 and 1630, The Met, New York. Image: Wikimedia

Akrura drives Krishna and Balarama to Mathura

Akrura drives Krishna and Balarama to Mathura, circa, 1560–70, from Delhi-Agra, 16th century, Cleveland Museum of Art, U S A.
Akrura drives Krishna and Balarama to Mathura, circa, 1560–70, from Delhi-Agra, 16th century, Cleveland Museum of Art, U S A.

Akrura’s mystic vision of Krishna as Vishnu and Balarama as Adishesha

Akrura’s mystic vision of Krishna as Vishnu and Balarama as Adishesha, from Basohli, Jammu and Kashmir, circa 1760-65, Philadelphia Museum of Art, U S A. Image: Wikimedia

It had been decided that a suitor could marry Rukmini after a swayamvar; in which the bride chooses her groom from a group of suitable men. In the painting, A Brahmin gives Krishna the message of Rukmini’s swayamvar, Krishna receives the message or invitation for the competition to Rukmini’s swayamvar.

A Brahmin gives Krishna the message of Rukmini’s swayamvar, Malwa painting, circa 1640, Cleveland Museum of Art, U S A.
A Brahmin gives Krishna the message of Rukmini’s swayamvar, Malwa painting, circa 1640, Cleveland Museum of Art, U S A. Image: Wikimedia

In the painting Krishna welcomes Sudama, the depiction is of Krishna receiving his poor friend, Sudama at his resplendent palace at Dwaraka. Sudama was a poor man but earned rich rewards from Krishna because of his devotion and simplicity.

Krishna welcomes Sudama, Pahari painting, 17th century, The Freer Gallery of Art, U S A. Image: Wikimedia

Thus, the Bhagavata Purana has been well illustrated about Krishna’s life in manuscripts especially of the X and XI skanda, for people to visually understand and recall the episodes connected with his life easily in order to understand and to further revere this favourite God in Hinduism.

References –

  2. Nagar, Shantilal (2003) -Miniature paintings and sculptures on Krsna. New Delhi: BRPC(India) Ltd.

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