When I was younger, the average Westerner knew very little about the religions of Southeast Asia. One day, baldheaded devotees in strange clothing appeared in our airports chanting “Hare Krishna”. Then came the meditation instructors and yoga teachers. One Westerner made a fortune publishing the Kama Sutra. And in those days, Gandhi inspired us all.
Our Western culture has greatly benefited from the infusion of Southeast Asian culture into our own, and yet we still do not know much about the native religion and its sacred scripture. Maybe we have a good excuse because the language and customs are very foreign, and the sacred literature needs to be understood in that native context. Jews and Christians have one book, the Bible, which lays out most of the basics. Muslims have the Quran. But the Hindu have a giant library; it is hard to know just where to start.
I thought I would start by picking out something eye catching. My first thought was the Kama Sutra until I opened a popular version and discovered it might be too eye catching. I also learned that Westerners corrupted the Kama Sutra by making it into a book of sexual positioning. The true Kama Sutra has a much deeper meaning.
Then I found the eye catcher I was looking for, “Krishna’s 16,000 Wives” Now, we all know the Hindu practiced polygamy like many other ancient cultures, but a deity with 16,000 wives is too unbelievable not to have a juicy hidden meaning in it. It sounded like a good place for me to dig in and start climbing this huge, unexplored mountain of Hindu religion.
The first thing I learned about Hindu religion is that none of its scriptures is taken literally. They are all considered metaphor and allegories with a moral. If I were Krishna, I know I would be relieved to hear this, otherwise I would regress three lifetimes wondering how to pay the bill at the hair salon for 16,000 visits. It’s not just about me. The entire universe would be at risk if I had to stop and kiss each wife goodbye first in the morning on my way to work. Also polygamy of any sort has its drawbacks. Jacob had only two wives and got himself in a lot of trouble. Maybe that is where the Jewish saying “It is enough!” came from. King Solomon never learned this lesson, and the mess it caused required no less than four books of the bible to be written to chronicle it.
The picture above is not Krishna with his 16,000 wives. It is a scene from a story of his childhood told in a work called the “Bhagavata-Purana” which means “Great Story of the Lord”. According to this literature, Krishna was adored as a child in his native village for his mischievous pranks. Later as a young herder of cows, Krishna became renowned as a lover, the sound of his flute prompting the wives and daughters of the people in the village, who were mostly cow herders, to leave their homes to dance ecstatically with him in the forests. He had quite a way with the flute and the ladies in this story. There are other stories in which he slays dragons and chases away demons. He is the legendary hero and deity of the cow herders. There were plenty of herders throughout India. The cow was sacred to the villagers, a symbol of divine creation and nurturance. It was forbidden to eat the meat of cows or bulls. So they multiplied without restraint, which then required a lot of herders and cheesemakers. Eventually Krishna became worshipped as the Supreme God.
Why is he blue? The blue signifies his “invisible” radiance, not yellow or white like the sun, moon and stars. He is dark. The name Krishna in Sanskrit literally means “black”. In Hindu culture, black is not the absence of radiance, but the appearance of a radiance that cannot be perceived directly by the natural sense of sight. This is usually depicted as blue in the Hindu literature.
Who Is Krishna?
Krishna is one of the most widely revered and most popular of all Indian divinities, worshipped as the eighth incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu and also as a supreme god in his own right.
Vishnu is the second god in the Hindu triumvirate. The triumvirate consists of three gods who are responsible for the creation, upkeep and destruction of the world. The other two gods are Brahma and Shiva. Brahma is the creator and Shiva is the destroyer.
Vishnu is responsible for the upkeep of the world. He is its preserver. In this picture he is depicted holding a symbolic item in each of four hands. There is the conch which produces the sound “om” representing the primeval sound of creation. There is the chakra (discus) symbolizing the mind. Then there is the lotus flower which is an example of glorious existence and liberation, and finally there is the mace which represents mental and physical strength.
One thing we must understand about the ancient Hindu is that they were a collaboration of local tribes and each tribe’s deities. The triumvirate is a syncretization of three of these deities that caught on as time went by. However, later devotees singled out Krishna and made him the origin from which all the other gods came, including Vishnu. It gets complicated. Krishna is like the father of all creation from which all things spring forth, man and god; but he also manifests himself as the 8th incarnation of Vishnu in much of the Hindu literature. He is very popular in later forms of Hindu religion as somewhat analogous to Jesus as an incarnation of the Father. Some would say there is some similarity in the function of pre-incarnate Christ and Krishna as creator, and the post-incarnate Christ and Krishna as savior.
The names “Christ” and “Krishna” are not directly related in their meaning. Christ is the English form of the Greek word “Christos”, which means “Anointed”. It matches the meaning of the Hebrew word “Meshiach”, which means “Anointed” and which then translates into English as “Messiah”. We mentioned earlier that Krishna is Sanskrit for “Black”.
However, there may be an indirect connection between the words Christ and Krishna which do not depend on meaning. Krishna is also sometimes referred to by the Hindu using a shortened Sanskrit name “Krista” which means “All Attractive”. Greek is believed to be derived from Sanskrit, so that the Greek word “Christos” in Greek has the equivalent spelling as “Krista” in Sanskrit. It has become the habit in Greek to refer to both Christ and Krishna as Christos. This is a somewhat weak connection, however. It would be deceiving to skip a few steps and claim Christ and Krishna have the same meaning. The words just kind of bump into each other, but not their meanings. Christ means “Anointed” and Krishna means “Black”. Perhaps there were closer connections in the meanings of the names that have been lost to time.
The number eight is a numerological link between Krishna and Judeo-Christianity. Krishna is the eighth incarnation of Vishnu. Eight in numerology is associated with new beginnings. Physical circumcision is performed on the eighth day and is associated with circumcision of the heart as a result of receiving the Holy Spirit. Eight is obtained by adding up the numerical values of the letters in the Hebrew word for rainbow, which is a sign of new beginnings and redemption. The eighth day after Jesus was seen out of his tomb, he appeared to the disciples and Thomas was persuaded to believe in the resurrection. Jesus then ascended on that day.
Seven in numerology is the number of completion. God rested from creation on the seventh day. Eight is new beginnings and redemption. Nine is enlightenment. The Hindu consider Buddha, whose name means “The Enlightened One” to be the ninth incarnation of Vishnu. A tenth incarnation of Vishnu is expected towards the end of this present age of decline, as a person on earth seated on a white horse. Sounds like the triumphant return of Christ in Revelations.
Getting back to Krishna, as mentioned we know about his personal life from the Bhagavata-Purana (Great Story of the Lord). We know more about his role as a spiritual guide to mankind in the epic poem “Mahabharata”, which means “The Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty.”
The Mahabharata is the longest epic in Hindu literature, and in its many volumes it contains the popular 700-verse poem “Bhagavad Gita”, meaning “Great Song of the Adored One”. The Mahabharata is about two large family tribes wrestling for control of a city on the Ganges River called “The City of Elephants”. Krishna appears as a human being who is a cousin of a military captain for one of the tribes, and assigned to him as a consort. It is revealed in the epic that Krishna was actually born from a mystical union of the protector god Vishnu and a virgin mother (sound familiar?). It has been foretold publically that Krishna will be the undoing of the city’s evil ruler, so his mother hides him from the ruler by giving him to foster parents.
Depicted in the picture is Krishna leading the horses of Captain Arjuna’s chariot. The Bhagavad Gita is both a concise treatise on how Hindu spirituality should be applied in everyday life and a call to selflessness. In the picture Krishna is persuading the reluctant captain of the army into battle against the opposing family tribe. Krishna is more interested in Arjuna’s spiritual development, particularly his responsibility and devotion, than winning the battle. As part of his persuasion, he reveals his divinity and expounds on the core values of the Hindu religion. These include the four aspects of the Dharma (the way of righteousness by following sacred principals): austerity, purity, compassion and truthfulness. In this epic, Arjuna’s tribe represents those who follow Dharma. Good Dharma brings good Karma. The other tribe follows the opposite of Dharma and are taken in by vices such as pride and intoxication. Krishna explains about death in battle:
“One believes he is the slayer, another believes he is the slain. Both are ignorant; there is neither slayer nor slain. You were never born; you will never die. You have never changed; you can never change. Unborn, eternal, immutable, immemorial, you do not die when the body dies.” (Bhagavad Gita 2:19-20)
Krishna also explains about attachment:
Neither agitated by grief nor hankering after pleasure, they live free from lust and fear and anger. Established in meditation, they are truly wise. Fettered no more by selfish attachments, they are neither elated by good fortune nor depressed by bad. Such are the seers.” (Bhagavad Gita 2:56-57)
Thinking of objects, attachment to them is formed in a man. From attachment longing, and from longing anger grows. From anger comes delusion, and from delusion loss of memory. From loss of memory comes the ruin of understanding, and from the ruin of understanding he perishes. (Bhagavad Gita 2:62-63).
Ironically, as a final moral lesson, the incarnate Krishna dies when his family backslides and has a drunken brawl. He then dissolves back into his divine form.
The chariot that Arjuna drives into battle is symbolic of his actions. The horses represents the passions and desires that drive his actions. Krishna, representing the Christ consciousness within us, takes control of the horses to direct them instead of allowing them to drive the chariot directly.
The Baghavad Gita (Great Song of the Adored One) is a concise summary of Hindu religion and is applied by them in the same manner that the New Testament is applied by Christians. There are many parallels. A messenger comes from the realm beyond, sent by the divine protector to correct mankind from wavering from the right path. The protector is also created by the messenger who has a double role as the source of all things (“In the beginning was The Word”). The messenger incarnates through a special women and has to be hidden from the enemy. He grows up and enlightens those who are trying to follow the path but are holding back. As part of the enlightenment he reveals himself in all his glory. The messenger eventually dies as a result of the wavering from Dharma amidst his own tribal family. The messenger is thus hero, teacher, resurrected savior, and embodiment of the divine potential within each of us.
So How Did Krishna Come to Marry 16,000 Women?
Not a word about massive polygamy is mentioned in the Baghavad Gita. That angle is treated in the aforementioned Bhagavata-Purana (The Great Story of the Lord). In the later part Krishna already had 8 wives in his adult life. This was your normal (normal?) form of polygamy in those days. But after the evil demon Naraka kidnapped 16,000 or so daughters of cow herders, Krishna along with one of his eight wives attacked and killed Naraka and then released the women. When Krishna asked them to return to their houses, they refused. They were aware that the society of that age would not take back those who were taken by another man. So they were left with nowhere to go. When Krishna asked them what they wanted to do, they all wanted Krishna to marry them.
Krishna married them individually at the same time by assuming the existence of 16,000 manifestations of himself. I wonder how much 16,000 weddings cost. What a party that was? Anyway, each women could thus gain the status of married women and live in the society with honor again, each with their individual manifestation of Krishna as their husband. He constructed a palace for each of them with huge gardens full of colorful flowers, and there his manifestations lived with each of the women happily ever after, raising their children.
Why the number 16,000? Well it is divisible by eight which is a number that seems to be popping up in this post. Later versions of this story claim the accurate number is 16,108. The added 108 is a number that has a lot of significance in Southeast Asian culture. It is their number of completion. There are 108 forms of meditation. People from all over this region use rosaries with 108 beads. There are 108 mortal sins. There are many, many applications of this number. No one knows the true origin of how it became so popular. Mysteriously, the diameter of the pre-historic Stonehenge site in England is 108 feet. The emergency phone number in India is 108. The number gets around; it is the number of suitors In Homer‘s Odyssey coveting Penelope, wife of Odysseus. I personally did not think much of any of this until a passage I imported into this post from a website ended up not having the same spacing between lines as the rest of the normal script. When I adjusted it I discovered the default spacing of the normal script I use for writing, Calibri 11, is designated “multiple at 1.08”.
The story of Krishna’s wives helped establish, first for the cow herders, and then spreading to the rest of Hindu society, the aspect of divinity being personal, individually available, and all encompassing. This is similar to the concept of a universal Christ. The devotion aspect of Hindu religion is also enhanced by this story of masses of common people wanting to marry their head deity. Again, this is similar to the Christian pattern where Christ’s followers become united to him in devotion as the bride of Christ.
In trying to understand who Krishna is, we have found many parallels with Christ. In the sense that they both refer to the potential for divinity within us, what we refer to as the Christ within, Krishna and Christ are identical. As far as the actual stories of each, we discovered each is an incarnation of a divine protector, appearing as human through birth to a virgin figure. But at the same time they were the Logos that existed at the beginning of creation. They were both hidden as children from an evil ruler who wanted to destroy them. They both did amazing deeds and taught us a spiritual path. They manifest their full glory at a strategic time. They both died as a result of corruption in their own family tribes. They both attempt to draw the human soul beyond the limitations of the material world.
Some differences are that the story of Jesus from the New Testament portrays him as set apart at the beginning of a very well-defined ministry, fulfilling countless prophesies as the chosen one, literally written about in the Hebrew Scriptures long before his appearance on earth. He is also the Lamb of God, the substitutionary atonement to take away the sins of the world. His suffering on the cross is a symbol for crucifying our lower self-centered nature. The bible never mentions the word “ego” because this concept was not as clearly understood as it was by Hindu culture and by us today. Jesus is considered a historical figure by mainstream Christianity and the Gospels as eye witnesses to actual events, whereas the stories about Krishna are accepted as mythical legend. Meditation and its techniques are either not described in the bible or mentioned without enough clarification to understand exactly how it might have been practiced. The New Testament is silent about reincarnation and karma. Jesus is considered the “once and for all” only incarnation of divinity, whereas Krishna is the eighth. Indian culture is traced back much earlier (30,000 BCE) than biblical culture. The story about Krishna is supposed to have taken place several millennia BCE, but was written in its present form in the period 400 BCE to 200 CE, so that its actual writing is more or less contemporary with the New Testament.
The question still remains, did one culture borrow the spiritual metaphors of another, or did similar messages trickle down simultaneously from the realm beyond, and in somewhat separate interpretations which each culture could understand? Perhaps the 16,000 wives of Krishna are more equivalent to the bride of Christ than might seem apparent to mainstream Christians, who may find themselves eating curried chicken at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb?