Avatar (avatara) of the Hindu god Vishnu. Often depicted as a mischievious child or youth, or as a handsome gopa (cowheard). A main figure of the Bhagavad Gita, a very popular part of the Indian epic the Mahabharata. Teacher and charioteer of Arjuna. Also written Krsna, there should really be a dot under the 'r', 's' and 'n' to indicate the correct Sanskrit pronunciation. 'Krishna' is a phonetic transcription.
Though generally regarded as a single incarnation of the god Vishnu, some Vaishnava ('Vishnu centric' might be the best translation) Hindus regard Krishna not only as an incarnation of the god, but as the source of all such avatars, the 'avatari'. The best known of these groups is the Gaudiya Vaishnava sect, who worship Krishna as the preeminent form of the divine. They are best known in the West because of the Hare Krishna movement (ISKCON).
Krishna is somewhat unusual among Hindu deities in that he is often revered in the form of a child or infant. Devotees will offer his image milk (not unusual), bathe it as though it were a child, and even dress it up in tiny clothes sold for just such a purpose at market stalls near temples and pilgrimage sites. Some observers of religion are inclined to compare these practices to the reverence for the Christ child that one sees around the holiday of Christmas (or, at least, that one saw back before Christmas was a holiday centered around Toys 'R' Us rather than the Church). The idea is a bit more developed in modern Hinduism than it seems to be in Christianity, and enjoys much more popular currency.
Krishna worship figures heavily in pilgrimage practices, particularly the circular pilgrimage around Braj known as the Ban Yatra. In this journey through land held to be the very area where the drama of the life of Krisna played out, one travels through the so-called 'twelve forests' that are tied to significant episodes in the life of Krishna, and reenacts significant moments from the stories of the mischievious god, either directly or through ritual. Throughout the journey, one is said to take on the role of one of the gopi, the cowheards wives who were the illicit lovers of Krishna, sneaking away from their homes to dance with him at night. This reflects an aspect of love for the divine as a sort of 'forbidden love' that is much more erotic and subversive than most ideas of divinity present in the monotheist traditions- though there are certainly mystic teachings among the Sufi, Christian mystics, and others that come close.
For more information, see:
- Journey Through the Twelve Forests: An Encounter with Krishna, by David Haberman