Krishna as avatarin?

Edwin Bryant ebryant at FAS.HARVARD.EDU
Fri Jun 16 09:17:28 UTC 2000

On Thu, 15 Jun 2000, Martin Gansten wrote:

> The Bhagavata does not support this particular Krishnaite claim (despite
> strained exegeses on 1.3.28); nor, to my knowledge, do any other Puranas.
> Bhagavata 1.3.3-5 describes the source of all avataras
> (naanaavataaraa.naa.m nidhaanam) -- including Krishna -- as a particular
> form (bhagavato ruupa.m vizuddha.m sattvam) endowed with thousands of
> limbs, etc (sahasrapaadorubhujaananaadbhutam). The 10th skandha dealing
> with Krishna's life also explicitly portrays him as an avatara of Vishnu
> (10.1.2: a.mzenaavatiir.nasya, etc).

It really seems quite significant that in the entirety of the 18,000
verses of the Bhagavatam, the primary (and often exclusive) text of the
Krishnaite schools, there is only that one line (1.3.28) that clearly
pronounces that Krishna is the source of other aMSas, as opposed to being
an aMSa himself (I'm not sure I agree that this would be a strained
reading of this particular verse, at least, although no doubt Madhva and
the post-Ramanujans would have their own way of accounting for it -- do
you have any of their commentaries on hand?)

Elsewhere, an unstrained reading of the text would seem to point to Vishnu
as the supreme.  The first 9 cantos, all of which deal with the stories of
other incarnations, does not, to my knowledge, refer to them as Krishna's
incarnations, but seems to connect them to Narayana/Visnu.  Even in the
10th, the frequent eulogies to Krishna invariably bring in the fact that
he is Naryana, the Supreme Person.

What is of interest is the several references in the 10th to Krishna as
BhagavAn coming as aMSena.  The instrumental case of the latter could be
taken to mean he is BhagavAn coming *by means of* his aMSa in the form of
Krishna, viz, that Krishna is the aMSa of BhagavAn (NArAyaNa), or it could
mean Krishna is BhagavAn coming *accompanied by* his aMSa, which is taken
by the Krishnaite commentators (including the pre-Gaudiya Sridhar, by the
way, who is clearly advaitic in places) to refer to SaNkarSaNa --

To my mind the former -- that Krishna is the aMSa of NArAyaNa, seems just
as likely a reading, if not more so.  What would be useful would be a
compilation of other places in the Bh.P as well as in other texts where
the instrumental of aMSa is used (ie in contexts not connected with
Krishna and sectarian sensitivities) to see whether it is ever used in the
latter sense. I am translating the 10th and am now curious to check back
and see if the term aMSa is ever even explicitly connected with SaNkarSaNa
at all.

But what is just as significant is the tension in the Krishnaite
commentaries accounting for the term aMSa.  The wide variety of differing
interpretations offered to account for it while preserving Krishna's
supremacy as aMSin, in itself shows discomfort (even, on occasion, as with
Jiva and Vishvanath, construing it as if it were aMSin which is not what
the text says!).  See Noel Sheth's "KRSNa as a Portion of the Supreme" in
PurANa, vol XXIV.1.

All in all, and despite the erudition of the Vallabha, Nimbaraka and
Chaitanya exegetes, the Bh.P texts itself shows surprisingly little
grounds for considering Krishna to be the Supreme, as opposed to an
incarnation of the supreme. The Gita makes a better case.

On the other hand, Dennis Hudson seems to think the Vasudeva School is the
older one, so I need to revisit his work.

Edwin Bryant

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