How Krishna was transformed from a tribal deity to a Supreme God in the Puranic tradition

by Ruchika Sharma.

Krishna is one of the most popular deities of the Puranic pantheon. A warrior, a child god of a pastoral tribe, a preacher, and a love deity, his saga is an amalgamation of many disparate elements in one harmonious and coherent whole.

Krishna’s story, which developed over more than 800 years, was worked backwards. One first encounters the adult Krishna, a friend of the Pandavas and founder of the city of Dwarka, and then meets Krishna Gopala, the cowherd child and the lover of rasas, or dances.

Krishna’s journey begins as a hero of the Vrishni tribe, part of the Yadava clan, and ends with him being hailed as the Vishnu incarnate.

Krishna and Vasudeva

As Freda Matchett notes in her book Krsna, Lord Or Avatara? The Relationship Between Krsna and Visnu, both Krishna and Vasudeva were originally heroes of the Satvatta and Vrishni tribes of the Yadava clan who were eventually deified and with time, became synonymous with each other.

The first mention of Krishna, as early as sixth century BCE, in the Chhandogya Upanishad, refers to him as a sage and a preacher. He is also mentioned as Devakiputra (son of Devaki).

By the fourth century BCE, Panini’s Ashtadhyayi, a treatise on grammar, not only presents a deified Krishna but also gives details about the tribe to which he originally belonged – the Vrishnis.

Indica byMegasthenes, a Greek envoy to the court of a Maurya King, talks about how the Surasenoi (Surasens, a branch of the Yadava-Vrishni tribe) worshipped Heracles (Krishna) in Mathura. Thus, by fourth century BCE, not only is Krishna-Vasudeva transformed from a hero to a deity but he has also become fairly popular.

Krishna as a Vishnu incarnate

By the second century BCE, Vedic worship had become rigid and Vedic sacrifices expensive. Alongside this, Buddhism was gaining ground, fuelled by King Ashoka’s propaganda. The large-scale entry of foreign invaders, (such as the Shakas) who were favourably inclined towards Buddhism and other popular cults, weakened the authority of the priestly class.

Moreover, improved economic conditions of the lower varnas challenged caste rules. Hence, as Suvira Jaiswal argues in her book The Origin and Development of the Vaisnavism, “Brahmins seized upon the devotional cult of Vasudeva-Krishna and recognised it as a form of Narayana-Vishnu to infuse Brahmanical social ethics into this popular cult and re-establish their authority.”

Narayana and Vishnu were initially perceived as separate deities and later unified.

Thus, in this period, Krishna-Vasudeva was fused with Narayana-Vishnu and came to feature in the Mahabharata as a war hero and in the Bhagvada Gita as a preacher. Yet, the Mahabharata, in several places, reveals a hesitancy to accept a non-Aryan tribal deity as a higher god. This is why Krishna-Vasudeva is initially described as the incarnation of only a fraction of Narayana-Vishnu.

Bal Krishna

Till the first century BCE, Krishna was only worshipped in his adult form – as a preacher, a friend of the Pandavas, a Yadava-Vrishni hero and a Vishnu incarnate. What was missing from his grand narrative was a childhood.

Krishna-Gopala (or Krishna the cowherd) surfaced when Krishna was fused with another god of the Abhira (Ahir) tribe. Even though it has not been established whether the Abhiras were native to the Indian subcontinent or were immigrants, it is quite clear that in the first-century CE, the tribe was living in the lower Indus Valley and eventually migrated to Saurashtra. They became politically active under the rule of the Shakas and the Satavahanas.

The Krishna-Vasudeva of the Vrishnis was identified with the cowherd deity of the Abhiras because of the similarities between the two tribes, especially in the way they perceived women.

Krishna in the Mahabharata counsels Arjuna to acquire Subhadra, Krishna’s sister, by force and says that would be in keeping his Dharma, or religious law. He thereby hints that this must have been a common practice among Vrishnis.

Similarly, when Arjuna is escorting Vrishni women, his entourage is attacked by Abhiras, who take the women away. The identification of Krishna-Vasudeva with the Abhira deity also introduced the amorous dalliances of Krishna with the milkmaids (gopis).

The Abhiras, being a nomadic tribe, allowed for a greater freedom of the sexes. Hence, their god came to acquire the erotic elements that were, in time, identified with Krishna.

Krishna as Supreme

We know that Krishna-Gopala is a later addition to the Krishna saga because the original story of the Mahabharata makes no mention of Krishna’s childhood. It is in the Harivamsa (dated fourth century CE), a later appendage to the Mahabharata, that the Krishna-Abhira identification was given concrete shape.

From the first to fifth centuries CE, Puranic epics such as the Vishnu Purana, and the Harivamsa weaved the fragmentary connections of Krishna-Vasudeva-Narayana-Vishnu into a coherent whole.

Krishna was now born as a Kshatriya (or warrior caste) of the Yadava clan and his second name, Vasudeva, was explained away as a patronym (the name “Vasudeva” was given to his father). Fearing the wrath of his uncle, Kamsa, Krishna was eventually smuggled into the cowherd tribe of the Abhiras.

In time, the lover of gopis and the pastoral god matured into Arjuna’s sarthi (charioteer) and preacher advocating the principles of Dharma. The narrative was finally complete when the initial hesitancy of accepting a tribal deity as an incarnation of a higher god was also removed when the Bhagvata Purana, dated to the sixth century CE, hailed him as the Supreme One.

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20 thoughts on “How Krishna was transformed from a tribal deity to a Supreme God in the Puranic tradition”

  1. Brother please do not mix history with Spirituality . Krishna is the supreme being , you can not understand Krishna with materialistic point of view . Please read original sastras like Srimad Bhagvatam , Bhagvat purana , Vishnu puranaa you will get the identity of Krishna as the Suprema being. Moreover KRISHNA is not at all the incarnation of Lord Vishnu , Lord Balaram was the incarnation as his brother but Krishna is the Supreme being as He tells in Bhagavat Gita. Krishna was the son of Vasudev and was adopted by Nanda Maharaj ,was actually a king holding great number of cows surely not a tribe. Please come to Vrindavan you will Understand Krishna much better.

    Jay Sri Krishna Chandra ki Jay .

  2. Well , Bhagavat Gita is not only philosophy but also practical knowledge in a scientific way and any living entity could apply in their life …. It is a manual of life. If you go by Bhagavat Gita Krishna says He is the Original Vishnu ,The Supreme Maintainer,preserver and Dertroyer and showed his UNIVERSAL FORM … He also teaches or explains many complex concepts in a more logical and scientific way like how to control mind? In Bhagavat Gita Krishna says To know him There are many paths or Yogas among the yogas Bhakti yoga is the best , the surest and easiest way to get Him.
    Now Srimad Bhagvatam canto 10 describes Pastimes of Krishna in a detailed way there nowhere is described Krishna as a tribe …. Krishna was born in Chandra dynasty or Yadu and was adopted by Nanda Maharaj was the king of Vraja. He may be living among his Gopa or Gopi friends but he was a son of king. Rig Veda also described Krishna.
    Sometimes History is wrong but sastra cannot be wrong as it is the actual ethology…
    In Vimohan Lila or pastime Lord Brahma stole all cows and Gopa friends of Krishna to see the Supremacy of Krishna later Krishna created Cows and his friends from his own divine body and Brahma was wonderstuck by it and Krishna transform each and every cows and Gopas into Vishnu form…. Moreover Krishna is not at all the avatar of Vishnu , Balaram with white completion his elder brother is the Incarnation…. And Krishna the supreme being. Krishna ruled for Mathura than He moved to Dwarka which shows his Kshatriya quantities. And when Krishna was born Garg Muni said to Nanda Maharaj that Original Lord Vishnu have taken birth as your son. Moreover mere human or any mortal cannot have such Divine qualities as Krishna .
    And lastly
    I will just personally suggest or beg you come to Vrindavan you will feel or lost in Divine Pastime of Krishna….
    Hare Krishna ??

    1. I agree that Gita is one of the most amazing practical guides for anyone and a divine scripture truly blessed for all mankind.. but the theological perspectives are varied even in India depending on the region you here the particular and varied stories of the Vedas.. which shows that most is subjective and specific to traditions and individual experiences, tho varied they can both be valid, due to the Lord’s unlimited nature and the truth of parallel universe and multi-dimensional reality, hence the idea of Lila and how Krishna’s Lila can be going on infinitely here and now and in infinite universes or Lokas all at once.. these are all realities that exist because we can imagine them and so they can all exist simultaneously. And Divine mind/God is infinite and can’t be limited right? Sooo, the theologies are all relevant showing an infinite way of perceiving and experiencing the divine, which is of the unlimited spiritual experience each individual is capable of connecting to and experiencing… which is awesome! Yet… we can also understand that historically on this planet earth the images of Shiva and Vishnu predate any images or ideas of Krishna.. he came later and the theology surrounding Krishna put him as the forehead of Vishnu/Shiva because it is a specific revelation experienced by certain famous Krishna devotees which while completely genuine and simply sharing their unique personal experiences with their isha devta (personal relationship with God) it is still biased and ultimately this article is suggesting not a theological debate verses the different schools of thought whether they be Gaudiya, Vaishnava, Shaiva, Shakta, Ganapati, or any other sampradaya.. this article is simply suggesting that historically on this planet earth the earlier images and cults were to Shiva and Vishnu and Krishna came later based on various tribal cultures and folk tales and experiences which evolved over time to the special sacred cult of Sri Krishna and his theology (blessed as it is) came later as his cult developed on earth.
      Blessings to you and no disrespect to your specific interpretation of God.. I also value the theological aspects as a form of metaphor and metaphysical guide to my life… and I have been to Vrndavan and I do not doubt the mystical and inconceivable Spirit of Radha Krishna and all the saints that have blessed that holy dham. My humblest obeisance to this Holy Place that lives in me always.

  3. Brother I can understand what you said… Now I will give you instances from scriptures.

    In Bhagavat Gita Krishna says “I gave the imperishable science of Yoga to Sun God (Vivasan).”(4.1BG)
    So he gave the knowledge To Sun God 2 million year ago approximately before to Arjuna.
    So what we can infer Krishna must be present millions of years before …

    Krishna says to Arjuna that “The difference between you and me is You do know know about your past life but I can “.

    In BG 4.7 Krishna says
    “Whenever whenever there is decline in Religious practice O descendent of Bharat and a predominant rise of irreligion- I descend Myself”.
    So Krishna acts when there is a need , otherwise He has no job with this material world ,He is always present in his Supreme Abode Goloka Vrindavan.
    Material world is maintained by Goddess Durga or Maya external potency of Krishna …

    You said there is many sampradayas in India Shakta , Shaiva, Vaishnav, etc.
    But for your information these these sampradayas is based on Puranas written by Vyasadev , literary incarnation of Sri Vishnu only…..
    You see Devi Bhagvatam says Shakti is Supreme for Shakta

    Shiv Purana says Shiva is Supreme for Shaivas

    Everything written by Vyasadev …. But he was not feeling satisfied and peace of Mind after writing everything so he approached Narada Muni. He said to Meditate on Bhagvata . And
    Thus he Produced his last purana Srimad Bhagvatam or Bhagavat Purana as the purest and greatest Purana and this is the gist of every Purana and Devotion was Introduced … SB clearly says Lord Hari as the Supreme being, the ultimate goal. So what we can infer now you see Supreme being only writing the Puranas and he his only deciding….
    Mahadev or Shiva is the Greatest Vaishna as SB states “Vaishnavam yatha Sambhu”. And Maya is the external potency of Lord . So Bhagvatam is the gist of every Purana, Upanishads, etc.

    Shiva , Brahma , Shakti are Demigods and they should be approached in a different mood , we should ask for any material desire but to reach The Supreme Goal Lord Govinda….

    Krishna says in BG ” Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender upto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction.Do not fear.
    I hope you have got it.

    1. Yes I am very familiar with all of those passages… yet the fact remains the same.. these are theological statements which can be interpreted many ways and signify the Vaishnava theology of Krishna as Supreme Personality of Godhead. I have no problem with that at all. It’s a beautiful and relevant theology. But Again this article is not debating theology.. it’s talking about the fact that on this planet earth, the first images and ideas of Godhead were Shiva/Vishnu & the cult of Krishna and the theology around him came later. This fact doesn’t have to weaken your faith in Vaishnava theology. It’s just a historical fact regarding the iconographic, symbolic, philosophical, linguistic and cultic traditions of Shiva/Vishnu came earlier on this earth plane. Other planes of existence or lokas we can use theology but that’s not what this article is talking about.

  4. Krishna was present from beginning…. Now I will give evidences, You know Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the combined form of Radha Krishna he appeared in Kali Yuga 534 years ago , but he appeared in Satya Yuga to a king in a dream and told him about his future incarnation . Like wise the prediction that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu will appear are given in many Sastras so He is present Philosophically , Sastrically !(Recorded in Sastras) . In the same way Ramayana was written before Lord Rama was born so He is present Philosophically, symbolically, He may not be present physically but He is there as is Original form and when the time comes He descends.

    1. All that you are presenting is theological, and a biased theology from the Gaudiya Vaishnava, I have no problem with the theology… again the article isn’t debating theology it’s talking about the fact that on this earth plane the earliest icons, symbols, linguistics, sastric, philosophical and cults were to Shiva & Shakti and later Vishnu and later came the Cult and Theology of Krishna. The references and prophecies you mention are based on theological bias and a specific tradition’s perspective, not based on the historical evidence we can verify. Re-read my responses if necessary.

  5. Now if you want proofs The Sastras are the proofs …. Krishna is mentioned in Rig Veda.
    The King Suvarna who saw Gouranga Mahaprabhu , the Golden Avatar in Satya Yuga and appeared as Buddhimanta khan in Kali Yuga is the Proof. Like this numerous instances say that Krishna is very much present Philosophically, symbolically , iconographically. What more you want .
    Goura Nityananda ?

    1. That’s conjecture my friend, any mention of Krishna in Rig Veda and the theological ideas which were attributed to him are based on the Vaishnava theological traditional perspective, not the historical evidence such as the Linga worship which predates any Krishna or Vishnu worship for that matter or worship to Shakti the Mother Goddess and the varied symbols, names, icons and practices associated with her devotion. These predate Krishna worship by thousands of years.. that’s what we are talking about here, not the theology of Krishna or Shiva, ect…

  6. Thanks for your quick responses. I can understand ,
    Now I want you to give evidences that Shiva/Shakti are earliest in the earth.

    1. That’s simple, this article is a starting point and go research the earliest forms of God in most ancient cultures and they have a version of the Linga worship and Mother Goddess worship and all the earliest icons found in India are Lingas and Goddess Icons

  7. First I want to say there is many thing that is till date unknown.
    India was inhabited by Dravidians
    And other aborigines they followed agama . Now the origin doctrines of Agama are not known. Moreover Agama means that which is came down. Now Aryaans came to India they worshipped Indra , Agni ,Surya yama,etc. And also Indus River as a female deity that may not necessarily be Shakti. I don’t think they worshipped Lingam. They may worship different symbols , animals. Oldest shiv lingam is in Parasurameshwar temple it is dated from 3rd -1st BCE.
    So this was about for Shiva/Shakti

    Saligram Silas are the symbol of Lord Vishnu from ancient times found in Caves of Himalayas in Nepal and India .They are typically in the form of spherical, black-coloured Ammonoid fossils of the Devonian-Cretaceous period which existed from 400 to 66 million years ago.

    Historically, the use of Shaligrama (or Salagrama) Shilas in worship can be traced to the time of Adi Shankara through the latter’s works. Specifically, his commentary to the verse 1.6.1 in Taittiriya Upanishad and his commentary to the verse 1.3.14 of the Brahma Sutras suggest that the use of Saligrama in the worship of Vishnu has been a well-known Hindu practice.

    1. That’s cool, but there were Shiva lingas that predate the Parasurameshwar temple and yes the Dravidians has ancient forms of Shiva & Shakti in their indigenous culture and worship. The practice of Linga worship predates the time of Adi Shankara by thousands of years

  8. Brother Google says Parasurameshwar temple has oldest shiv lingam … And Dravidians may not necessarily worship lingam , they may worship symbols or stones… If they worship lingam then Brahma , Vishnu and Shiva have to come in this …. The basal part symbolises Brahma the pedestal part Vishnu and the pillar part Shiva …. I don’t think it is lingam.
    If this is the case Aryans worship water from where every thing started and we can interpret as Narayan as ‘Who is expanding’
    And till date We Hindus put a Ghata or small pot of water in front of deity


    From the very beginning the westerners who excavated the Indus valley civilization misled the general public by attributing their personal opinions to the seals and objects. Because of their misleading interpretations, we couldn’t decipher the Indus script till today. They put forth some divisive theories such as Aryan Invasion theory .The Aryan –Dravidian theory was rejected by Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi and the great Harijan leader Dr B.R Ambedkar. The other prominent people who rejected the Aryan invasion theory include Kanchi Sankaracharya Swami Sri Chandrasekarendra Saraswathy and Sri Aurobindo. When the foreigners saw the so called Pasupathy seal they jumped to conclusion that the Indus people were Shaivaites. They never got of this grew and started inventing ‘Lingam’ and ‘Yoni’ in other objects

    Please read my article about a newapproach to solve the Indus Mystery by clicking the link here.

    The Indus seal with a figure (god) surrounded by animals was interpreted as Lord Shiva or Proto Shiva (please see the picture). It is true that Shiva was called Pasupathy meaning Lord of the animals. But we could not read the words Shiva or Pasupathy on the seal. What is written on the seals remains a mystery till today. The day the seals are deciphered to the satisfaction of world scholars, most of the Indian History books will be thrown in to Indian Ocean and a new chapter will be written in Indian history.

    The godly figure surrounded by the animals can be interpreted as Vishnu or any god. We have found seals of gods surrounded with animals even in the Middle East and Denmark. It was common in many ancient cultures (Please see the pictures of Gundestrup cauldron and the Middle Eastern god).

    Gundestrup Cauldron

    Indus god has crowns made by horns. In Sanskrit and Tamil, a horned person means a great person. Tamils have a saying ‘Are you a big Komban (horned person) to expect a royal treatment?’ (Tamil: Nee Enna Periya Kombano?). Sanskrit poets also have used this expression. They call horned person as a Sringan. The greatest of the Indian poets Kalidasa even plays pun on this word in his Raghuvamsa Kavya. Kings are described as Veerya Sringan. (Komban in Tamil has another meaning i.e. a single male elephant with big tusks).

    Vishnu Sahasra Namam ( 1008 names of Lord Vishnu) describes Lord Vishnu as Maha Sringan (Name 536) meaning the great horned one. Adi Sankara commenting on this word quotes another name from Rik Veda 4.38.3 and Taitriya Aranyaka 1.10.17 which describe god as ‘Chathwari Sringa: ‘meaning a person with four horns. Name 139 ‘Chathur Dhamstraya’ means four horns or one who with four teeth. Adi Sankara mentions both in his commentary.
    In another place in the Sahasranama (1008 names) Vishnu is described as god with more than one horn ( Name 763 ‘Na Eka sringaya ‘meaning not with one horn).

    One who looks at the Indus god with horns after reading Kalidasa, Rik Veda and Vishnu Sahasra Nama along with the Tamil saying ‘Nee Enna Periya kombano’ can’t but think of Lord Vishnu. The figure of an Irish God and the Middle Eastern God were also surrounded by the animals. No one had commented upon them as Shiva!

    Indus Fish symbol and Vishnu
    Another interesting coincidence is ‘Vishnu Sahasra nama ‘ describes Vishnu as a Red Colour Fish –‘Rohithaya’ (name 364). More over Lord Vishnu’s first incarnation was a Fish ( Matsya Avatar) and many Indus scholars agree that the Indus fish symbol denotes god.
    Interestingly the peepal leaf (Arasa Maram in Tamil,Aswatha in Sanskrit, Ficus Indica in Latin) is drawn on many seals and objects in the Indus valley. This tree is worshipped by the Hindus for thousands of years. In Tamilnadu most of the Ganesh temples are under the Peepal tree (arasa maram). Vishnu Sahasranama associates Lord Vishnu with three trees and one of them is Aswatham (name 824 ‘Aswathaya Nama:).

    In the Viswarupa Darshan chapter of Bagawat Gita, Lord Krishna says that he is Surabhi among the cows, Lion among the animals, Airavatam among the elephants, Uchairsravas among the horses, Garuda/eagle among the birds and shark among the fishes. Among the Avatars, fish, tortoise, pig and goose (Hamsa) figure. This proves the link between the animals and Lord Vishnu.

    In conclusion we see Lord Vishnu in the Fish symbol, in the tree symbol and in the animal seal symbol of Indus valley.

    How many horned Gods are in Indus?
    My study shows there are at least three different horned gods in the Indus valley. Apart from the ‘pasupathi seal’ there are other seals where the gods or the godly men sit in yogic posture. Their horns are different. We have to study them closely to identify them. The writing on the seals is also different. May be they are different gods. The fish symbols in all the three seals also differ in one or two details.

    Vishnu Sahasranama in Cankam Literature
    Tamil Cankam (also spelled Sangam) literature mentions Hindu Gods and the Vedas in hundreds of places. The oldest Tamil book Tolkappiyam even mentions Indra and Varuna as gods of the Tamil lands. (Ref. ‘Mayon meya kadurai ulakamaum———-‘).

    Vendha- n (Indra) is the god of Marutham and Varunan is the god of Neithal. Marutham is cultivated field and its surrounding areas and Neithal means sea and its surrounding areas.
    Old Tamil scholars have already pointed out that Natrinai,one of the Tamil anthologies of Cankam period has a verbatim translation of a Vishnu Sahasranama sloka. The Sahasranama dyana sloka starting ‘’bu padau yasya nabir————‘’ compares Lord Vishnu to earth and the heavenly objects. The same lines appear in the prayer song of Natrinai starting with ‘’Maanilam sevadiyaaka——————– -‘’.Both describe sun and moon as the eyes of Lord Vishnu. The Natrinai prayer song was composed by Bharatham paadiya perunthevanaar.

  10. First of all, Abhiras were a warrior tribe from the very very beginning.From earlier puranas like matsya,vayu and brahma purana they were mentioned as a northern and North Western tribe.Later, they migrated to Punjab and Sindh region and got penetrated into the typical Indian caste based society .They married local girls and got mixed with native population.At present they are present in many caste groups like Maratha,Brahmin,Jats, gawali ,chamar,mahar koli sonar etc.They can be identified with the name like Aheer,Aveer,Heer etc.Some books like Amarkosha tagged them as gopa, thereafter many so called historian propagating this theory that Krishna was some Abhira god.The truth is so called Vedic/brahminical culture is always pastoralist and they have always been a worshipper of her urine/dung.

  11. Is any evidence of vasudevaya Krishna in madura archeology. You dig any where in madura region you will get kushana artifacts

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