A discussion of the relative positions of the four-armed creator and the playful, flute-playing cowherd of Vrindavan.

When I speak to college students or professors, a particular question often arises: Who is prior, Vishnu or Krishna? Most of my educated friends know that Vishnu and Krishna are names for two distinct manifestations of the same Personality of Godhead. They further know that Vishnu is generally seen as God while Krishna is considered His incarnation. Most dictionaries refer to Them in that way, with Vishnu taking the prior position. Consequently, the tradition that considers Krishna and Vishnu supreme is usually referred to as Vaishnavism, as opposed to the less common Krishnaism.

The very question of “who came first” is problematic, given that God is beyond time. For this reason, the chicken-or-egg logic simply does not apply. Vishnu and Krishna exist eternally, though it might be said that one is the source of the other, much like the sun and its rays: The sun globe is “prior” in the sense that its rays emanate from it, and not the other way around. But they both exist simultaneously: As soon as there is a sun, there are sunrays. The question, then, becomes this: In the case of Vishnu and Krishna, who is the sun and who the rays?

Historically, it makes sense to assume that Vishnu is prior. After all, the scriptures inform us that He is the source of the creation, while Krishna descended to earth some five thousand years ago. In addition, Vishnu lives in regal opulence in Vaikuntha, evoking awe and reverence as one would expect of God whereas Krishna appears as a simple cowherd boy in Vrindavan, ensconced in sweetness and simplicity.

Even though Vishnu came first in terms of the cosmic creation, visibility in the manifested world doesn’t necessarily correspond to ontological truth (tattva). Let me offer a practical example: If you meet me before you meet my mother, does that mean I am prior to her? In fact, one’s mother is always prior; one would not be here if not for her.

Another example: If you ask a child where water comes from, he might answer by referring to the tap, and he’ll prove it by turning on the tap water. As he grows older he acknowledges that water comes from the clouds as rain, and he’ll learn that there is a reservoir, a municipal water board, and a labyrinth of pipes that bring water to people’s homes. He understands the complicated process with study and growing awareness.

Similarly, scripture bears out that Krishna is the source of Vishnu, even if Vishnu appears in this world before Krishna does.

Polymorphic Monotheism

The confusion partly arises because, unlike most religious traditions, Vaishnavism acknowledges a form of polymorphic monotheism. That is to say, it holds that there is one God who appears in numerous manifestations, each distinct and unique. These manifestations, moreover, are considered equal and yet hierarchical as well. They are one, and yet different.

Indeed, it may be said that all forms of God are one, as in the following quote from Srila Prabhupada:

In the category of Vishnu-tattva there is no loss of power from one expansion to the next, any more than there is a loss of illumination as one candle kindles another. Thousands may be kindled by an original candle, and all will have the same candle power. In this way it is to be understood that although all the Vishnu-tattvas, from Krishna and Lord Chaitanya to Rama, Narasimha, Varaha, and so on, appear with different features in different ages, all are equally invested with supreme potency. (Chaitanya-caritamrta, adi 3.71, Purport)

Prabhupada’s candle analogy draws on a traditional example found in the Brahma-samhita (5.46), objectively establishing Krishna as supreme among manifestations of the Lord: “The light of one candle being communicated to other candles, although it burns separately in them, is the same in its quality. I adore the primeval Lord Govinda [Krishna], who exhibits Himself equally in the same mobile manner in His various manifestations.”

Brahma states this even more directly earlier in that same work (5.1): “Krishna, who is known as Govinda, is the Supreme Godhead. He has an eternal blissful spiritual body. He is the origin of all. He has no other origin, and He is the prime cause of all causes.”

And then again (5.39): “I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, who by His various plenary portions appeared in the world in different forms and incarnations, such as Lord Rama, but who personally appears in His supreme original form as Lord Krishna.”

Brahma reiterates this point in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (10.14.14) after seeing Krishna produce innumerable Vishnu forms from His transcendental body. Addressing Krishna, Brahma says, “Are You not the original Narayana [Vishnu], O supreme controller, since You are the Soul of every embodied being and the eternal witness of all created realms? Indeed, Lord Narayana is Your expansion, and He is called Narayana because He is the generating source of the primeval water of the universe. He is real, not a product of Your illusory Maya.”

So, while full manifestations of God are all equal, there is a sense in which one comes from the other, with Krishna existing at the very beginning. In this capacity He is known as avatari the source of all incarnations as opposed to avatara. Krishna and His full incarnations are the same Supreme Person in different guises for distinct purposes, ranging from accepting the regal worship of His servitors in the spiritual world to intimate exchanges with His confidential devotees in Vrindavan.

God at Home

Krishna’s various forms perfectly accommodate His interactions with His devotees. This can be understood by way of analogy: President Obama, as chief executive at the White House, has a formal role with weighty national duties. But at home he is father to his children, and his wife might even scold him for being late for dinner. Similarly, Vishnu is God in a more formal capacity, while Krishna is “at home” as a loving cowherd boy who revels in intimacy with His various associates. An ordinary living entity, like the President, enacts his various roles using only one body, but God exists simultaneously in innumerable forms for each purpose and action.

According to tradition, the oneness of God’s many forms exists in the realm of tattva, or philosophical truth. But there is a higher principle in Vaishnavism, known as rasa, or the ecstatic interactions of the spiritual realm. And in this latter category of knowledge, distinction reigns supreme.

It is true that several Vaishnava lines, such as the Sri Sampradaya, see Vishnu, also known as Narayana, as the highest manifestation of God. That is their prerogative, and devotees of Krishna, understanding the common identity of Krishna and Vishnu, respect the devotion of Vishnu’s devotees. When Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu met with members of this lineage, for example, He was pleased to see how devoted they were to Vishnu. Similarly, in Sanatana Goswami’s Brhad-bhagavatamrta (2.4.99–107) we learn that the residents of Vaikuntha, the majestic kingdom of God, prefer Vishnu to Krishna. Sanatana Goswami reveals this to be their particular bhava, or emotion, and it is pleasing to God that His devotees in Vaikuntha see Him in that way.

But those who come in the line of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who revealed an esoteric side of the Vaishnava tradition, see Krishna as supreme, knowing Him to be the original Personality of Godhead. While this was certainly the bhava taught by Mahaprabhu, it can also be demonstrated objectively with texts such as the Srimad- Bhagavatam and the Brahma-samhita, as mentioned earlier.

It is the Bhagavatam, in fact, that makes the most famous declarative statement about Krishna’s primary position:

ete camsa-kalah pumsah
Krishnas tu bhagavan svayam

“All of the above-mentioned incarnations are either plenary portions or portions of the plenary portions of the Lord, but Lord Sri Krishna is the original Personality of Godhead.” (Bhag. 1.3.28) Actually, the First Canto’s entire Third Chapter serves to prove our point: Its first four verses glorify the Vishnus who appear in the beginning of creation, and then it lists a number of important incarnations, including Krishna Himself. It is only at the end of the list that we find the words Krishnas tu bhagavan svayam “Krishna is God Himself” words that ring loudest for the Bhagavatam’s traditional commentators.

Prabhupada’s commentary on that text is clear: “In this particular stanza Lord Sri Krishna, the Personality of Godhead, is distinguished from other incarnations.” And later in that purport: “According to Srila Jiva Goswami’s statement, in accordance with authoritative sources, Lord Krishna is the source of all other incarnations. It is not that Lord Krishna has any source of incarnation.”

According to Sri Jiva Goswami, one of the patriarchs of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, this verse (Krishnas tu bhagavan svayam) is the paribhasa-sutra of the entire 18,000-verse Bhagavatam. A paribhasa-sutra states the central theme of a literary work. In his Krishna-sandarbha (Anuccheda 73), Sri Jiva elaborates, writing that the many verses of the Bhagavatam might be compared to an army, with this verse the monarch who commands that army. He further shows that, according to this verse and many others, Krishna is the original form of God and the ideal object of pure devotional service.

Jayadeva Goswami’s Gita Govinda (circa twelth century) also proclaims Lord Krishna’s primary position among incarnations, reinforcing the teaching of the Bhagavatam. After listing ten prominent incarnations of Vishnu in the book’s first chapter, Jayadeva concludes by stating that Krishna is their source. In fact, Jayadeva implies Krishna’s preeminence throughout the Gita Govinda and states it explicitly in Act 1, Verse 16 (dasakrti-krte krsnaya tubhyam namah): “O Krishna, I offer my obeisances unto You, who assume these ten spiritual forms.”

Krishna’s Unique Qualities

In the Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu, Rupa Goswami lists sixty-four characteristics or qualities exhibited by living beings. Fifty of these, he writes, can be found in an ordinary soul (jiva) in minute proportion, while Lord Brahma, Lord Shiva, and other demigods may possess as many as fifty-five. Vishnu, he continues, displays up to sixty of these qualities. But the remaining four are found only in Krishna, escaping all other manifestations of the Supreme. The four qualities unique to Krishna are as follows:

1. Lila-madhurya: He exhibits numerous wonderful pastimes for the pleasure of His devotees.
2. Bhakta-madhurya: He interacts with loving devotees in intimate ways.
3. Venu-madhurya: He plays on His divine flute, thus attracting all souls.
4. Rupa-madhurya: His beautiful form is incomparable, unrivaled in all of existence.

Embedded in these scriptural explanations of Krishna’s supreme position is something more fundamental: Krishna’s supremacy underscores the superiority of love over power, sweetness over opulence.

Bhaktivinoda Thakura writes in the Navadvipa Bhava Taranga (118): “As much as my Sri Krishna is endowed with utmost sweetness [madhurya], similarly the Lord of Vaikuntha is endowed with absolute opulence and grandeur [aisvarya]. Lord Krishna as Vrajendra-nandana [the darling of the king of Vraja] never gives up this same opulence, but such aspects of His spiritual grandeur are considered unimportant by His pure devotees.”

In other words, while Krishna sometimes reveals an opulent side that parallels that of Vishnu, as, for instance, when He enacts His kingly pastimes in Dwarka, Vishnu never displays the sweetness associated with Krishna and His associates. Therefore, it can be said that Krishna has something not found in Vishnu pastimes of intimate, familiar love.

Most concepts of God, even in the Vaishnava tradition, naturally evoke awe and reverence, but Krishna evokes intimacy and personal loving relationship. It is this, beyond all else, that distinguishes Him among manifestations of the Supreme. And love, as we all know, is the highest phenomenon in all of existence. After all, when confronted with a choice between power and love, who would choose the former?

In conclusion, the Gaudiya Vaishnava vision of the divine is that all forms of Godhead are equal since there is only one God but Krishna enjoys a special position as the “candle who lights the other candles.” In addition to His onto logically prior position as the source of all Vishnu manifestations of the Supreme, He exudes a sweetness and intimacy that eclipses the power and majesty of other divine forms. In fact, His all attractive nature (Krishna means “the all-attractive one”) even attracts other manifestations of the Lord. Srila Prabhupada explains that Krishna is known as Madana mohana because He conquers the mind of Cupid (Madana). When He stands in a three-curved way, He attracts all living entities, including the demigods. Indeed, He even attracts the Narayana form presiding in every Vaikuntha planet.

Srila Prabhupada writes in Chapter Ten of Teachings of Lord Chaitanya: “There is no beauty to compare with that of Krishna, who is the origin of Narayana and all other incarnations, for no one possesses beauty equal to or greater than Krishna’s. Otherwise, why would the goddess of fortune, the constant companion of Narayana, give up His association and engage herself in penance to gain the association of Krishna? Such is the super-excellent beauty of Krishna, the everlasting mine of all beauty. It is from that beauty that all other beautiful things emanate.”

Satyaraja Dasa, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, is a BTG associate editor and founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies. He has written more than thirty books on Krishna consciousness and lives near New York City.