Some scholars believe he was a Kuladevata, an ethnic and family god of a confederation of Rajput clans. He was also probably a ‘Patron God of the Pandavas’. Others believe that Krishna was not a God in the ‘original’ Mahabharata or in the parts generally thought to be its earliest versions : his godly aspects are later interpolations with the rise of the devotional worship of Krishna.
It seems to me the question – man or God – is posed incorrectly. One must accept Krishna as he appears in the epic. The epic is clear that Krishna is God, Vishnu’s incarnation. The historical or theological truth matters less than the dramatic truth within the epic.
One must accept both sides of Krishna, no matter how paradoxical or contrary. Despite his faults, the characters in the epic admire him. For two thousand years Indians have known of these contradictions and have continued to worship him. If anything, his popularity has grown. I must confess I am drawn to the Krishna who gets thirsty and hungry; who gets tired and old with time; who is surprised and upset when Arjuna will not shoot at Bhishma; and who is not sure quite how the war will end. This is the same Krishna who is accidently killed by a hunter in the forest at the end of the epic. It seems to me that it is impossible to separate this human and ‘original’ Krishna from the impressive legends that were later built around him. The other Krishna is, of course, the superhero, who makes Draupadi’s sari go on and on indefinitely; who creates an illusion that made his enemy think that the sun had set, and who shows Arjuna his divine form at the beginning of the war.
My father used to believe that the Mahabhara’s purpose was to advocate bhakti, “devotion”, to Krishna. According to him, Krishna teaches that an action which is free from selfish desires and is performed in the name of God, is true moral action. Hence, the epic’s morality is subordinate to Krishna the God. Krishna’s ambiguous nature says something about the Mahabharata’s and the ‘Hindu’ conception of the divine, which is so different from the one in Christianity and Islam. Although this Krishna is able to pull a few strings, he is obviously not able to bring easy victory to the Pandavas.
Another way to think about Krishna’s mystery is to imagine that it illustrates the elusive nature of the divine presence in human life. Human beings seem to require a divine actor to resolve the dilemmas of day-to-day life and to give their lives coherence. Krishna, in this sense, is not a mystery to be solved. One of the Mahabharata’s objectives is to represent the divine mystery in narrative form. The epic’s search for a dharma is grounded in Krishna’s divine presence and Krishna’s complexity lies in the human struggle to ask many different things of God. His mystery is thus a commentary on the human condition.
[Published with permission from Penguin Random House India, from the book "The Difficulty of Being Good", by Gurcharan Das]