In my childhood I was told that Lord Krishna is an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. I grew up with that in mind. Most people in India may have the same experience. It is almost established that Lord Rama, Lord Krishna and other such forms of God are originated from Lord Vishnu who resides in Vaikuntha with His eternal consort Srimati Lakshmi Devi. We also hear of Dashavatar, the 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu. Even the western scholars describe Krishna as a Hindu God and an incarnation of Vishnu.
Then why do some people say that Lord Krishna is the source of Lord Vishnu? Some others strongly oppose this and opine that it is offensive to say such a thing. What is the truth and how to ascertain it? And why did Lord Chaitanya, who is, according to Vedic texts, none other than Krishna Himself, teach that Krishna is the origin of Vishnu? Who is or what is Vishnu after all?
It’s almost 33+ years now when I first read that Lord Krishna is the origin of all Vishnus, including Lord Balaram. It was then when I read that there are innumerable Vishnus and not only one. It sounded not only startling but revealing. It was only then when my brain started thinking in that direction, and as I began studying and analyzing the science of Vishnu tattva, many things emerged clearer.
The answer lies in understanding Vishnu tattva. When I say tattva, I do not refer to the philosophical jargon that scholars and philosophers refer to as a thing or phenomena by which one can understand absolute truth. Tattva here refers to the class of living beings with distinct qualities and characteristics. For example, human beings, animal beings and all other mortal beings we see in this world are jiva tattvas, or, to be more specific, baddha jivas. They all roam in the material word and keep reincarnating until the time when they are liberated from the cycle of birth and death.
In the world above the mundane sphere lies another world which is indestructible and immortal. To some this may sound like an imagination but to those who know higher science, it is a reality which can be experienced and lived in. The jivas residing in that world are either liberated souls from this world, meaning those who have attained moksha, and those residing there eternally who never fell into this world of Maya. Such jivas are known as nitya siddhas, meaning they are always liberated, even when they come to this world.
If the above is clear then read further, or else go back and read it again as making it clear will make the following easy to follow.
We live in a multi-universe multi-dimension environment. Each universe has its own planetary system. Ours has a fourteen planetary system with six above the bhu-mandala, wherein the planet Earth is situated, and seven below it. The laws of science here are not necessarily the same as in other universes. In fact they are not the same even on all planets within this universe. This is one reason why modern scientists often end up making mistakes in ascertaining the behavior of other planets and galaxies.
Each universe, or brahmanda, has a chief, who is known as Lord Brahma. All the universes together make the material world described in Brahma-samhita as Devi dham, or the area which is presided over by Devi Durga. Although the core ingredients of every universe, the pancha mahabhuta, namely earth, water, fire, air and ether are eternal in nature, they keep manifesting and unmanifesting making this world temporary in nature. This is also referred to as vyakta and avyakta. Srila Prabhupada explains in his purport to Srimad Bhagavatam (1.10.21) how and why this world becomes vyakta and avyakta periodically.
“There are two types of dissolution of the manifested cosmos. At the end of every 4,320,000,000 solar years, when Brahmā, the lord of one particular universe, goes to sleep, there is one annihilation. And at the end of Lord Brahmā’s life, which takes place at the end of Brahmā’s one hundred years of age, in our calculation at the end of 8,640,000,000 x 30 x 12 x 100 solar years, there is complete annihilation of the entire universe, and in both the periods both the material energy called the mahat-tattva and the marginal energy called jīva-tattva merge in the person of the Supreme Lord. The living beings remain asleep within the body of the Lord until there is another creation of the material world, and that is the way of the creation, maintenance and annihilation of the material manifestation.” SB 1.10.21)
In other words, the core ingredients remain there but they become unmanifest, or avyakta, to us. The Supreme Lord mentioned inhere refers to Lord Maha-Vishnu. Srila Prabhpada explains that this Maha-Vishnu is lying on the Causal Ocean and by His breathing only all the universes are generated in seeds and gradually develop into gigantic forms with innumerable planets within each and every universe. The seeds of universes develop into gigantic forms in the way seeds of a banyan tree develop into numberless banyan trees. This is why the Vedas say that the Supreme Lord existed before the creation.
This Maha-Vishnu is gigantic beyond our imagination. No surprise people with poor fund of knowledge call Him a mythological character.
The following verse spoken by Lord Brahma while praying to Lord Krishna gives an idea of Maha-Vishnu’s transcendental position. What is to be noted is, Lord Maha-Vishnu is described as a plenary portion of Lord Krishna.
yasyaika-niśvasita-kālam athāvalambya jīvanti loma-vilajā jagad-aṇḍa-nāthāḥ
viṣṇur mahān sa iha yasya kalā-viśeṣo govindam ādi-puruṣaṁ tam ahaṁ bhajāmi
“Let me offer my respectful obeisances unto the original Personality of Godhead, Govinda, whose plenary portion is the Mahā-Viṣṇu. All the Brahmās, the heads of the universes, live only for the period of His exhaling, after the universes are generated from the pores of His transcendental body.” (Brhma Samhita 5.48)
Undoubtedly there are many quotes in the Vedas and Puranas where Lord Vishnu is described as the origin of everything that exists. In fact majority of the verses mention Vishnu, not Krishna. This can be confusing but the key is to remember that apart from the four handed forms of Lord Vishnu, there are innumerable forms of Vishnu and all of Them are Vishnu tattvas, and so is Lord Krishna. The difference, however, is that Lord Krishna is the origin of all of Them as explained below.
Just as in our universe Brahma loka is the topmost planet and Lord Brahma is the chief jiva, or chief living entity, Lord Krishna’s abode Goloka is the topmost among all Vaikuntha planets and He is the chief Vishnu among all Vishnus. This is unambiguously said by Lord Brahma in the same scripture. We will soon come to it.
Is Krishna a Vishnu incarnation?
First of all the word “incarnation” does not correctly describe an avatar. Avatar is one who does avatarana, or descends. God does not have to accept a material body to descend. He descends from His eternal abode in His transcendental, sat-chit-ananda body although He may appear to be accepting material body and leaving it. The word incarnation is generally used to point out that the same person has reappeared.
So far who is whose source, without speculating and interpreting Vedic text as per our own grasp, we need to hear it straight from the chief living entity, Lord Brahma.
This is what he said after having a vision of the spiritual world:
dīpārchir eva hi daśāntaram abhyupetya dīpāyate vivṛta-hetu-samāna-dharmā
yas tādṛg eva hi cha viṣhṇutayā vibhāti govindam ādi-puruṣaṁ tam ahaṁ bhajāmi
Translation: 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 who exhibits Himself equally in the same mobile manner in His various manifestations. (Brahma-saṁhitā 5.46)
This is a perfect example which removes all confusions. Krishna is like the first candle that ignited the other candles. In other words, He is the original Vishnu who expands Himself into many Vishnu forms. Srila Prabhupada explains how every burning candle has the full potential candlepower and yet there is the distinction that one of them is the first candle which ignites the other candles. As such there is no difference between the immediate expansion of the Lord and His secondary expansion. They all are Vishnu manifestations of the one Supreme Lord.
A question may be raised as to why we quote Brahma Samhita and, in specific, Srimad Bhagavatam extensively and not other scriptures like Vishnu Purana and so on wherein Lord Narayana is described as the source of all incarnations. We quote Brahma samhita because it is spoken by Lord Brahma himself who is the chief and the senior most living being in this universe. He is also the father and spiritual master of Narada muni, who is the spiritual master of Srila Vyasa dev, the compiler of the Vedas. And we quote Srimad Bhagavatam because it is a natural commentary on Vedanta sutra, the summum bonum of Vedic knowledge, by the very author of the Vedanta sutra, Srila Vyasa dev.
In his commentary on the Vedanta sutra, Srila Vyasa dev makes one point precisely clear, that all Vishnu incarnations he has described in the book are either portion or portion of the portion of the Supreme Lord, but Krishna is the Supreme Lord Himself.
ete chāṁśa-kalāḥ puṁsaḥ kṛishnas tu bhagavān svayam
indrāri-vyākulaṁ lokaṁ mṛḍayanti yuge yuge
“All the lists of the incarnations of Godhead submitted herewith are either plenary expansions or parts of the plenary expansions of the Supreme Godhead, but Kṛṣṇa is the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself.” (SB 1.3.28)
These points are highlighted here just in order to explain who Lord Vishnu is and what a Vishna tattva is. In conclusion, the answer to the question whether Krishna is a Vishnu incarnation is, Yes, He is a Vishnu incarnation if we understand, 1) what an incarnation is, and 2) what and who Lord Vishnu and Vishnu tattva is. Lord Rama is also a Vishnu tattva and so is Lord Vamana, Lord Nrsimha and other innumerable forms of the Lord. But the answer is a distinct No if we think that the four handed form of Lord Vishnu or Narayana is the origin of Lord Krishna. Rather it is the other way around as shown above.
As mentioned earlier, both Lord Narayana and Lord Krishna are Vishnu tattva but Lord Krishna is the chief Vishnu tattva, who exhibits all godly opulences in full. This is the reason Lord Krishna is known as the Purna Purushottam Bhagavan. To put end to all speculations, in Bhagavad Gita Lord Krishna has unequivocally declared- mattah parataram nanyat – that there is no truth superior to Me (Lord Krishna). He said it to help us understand Him better.
For technical brains, in Srimad Bhgavatam (3.21.32) purport it is explained that “Lord Krishna expands Himself into two different expansions, one called kalā and the other vibhinnāṁśa. Ordinary living entities are called vibhinnāṁśa expansions, and the unlimited expansions of viṣṇu-tattva, such as Vāmana, Govinda, Nārāyaṇa, Pradyumna, Vāsudeva and Ananta, are called svāṁśa-kalā. Svāṁśa refers to a direct expansion, and kalā denotes an expansion from the expansion of the original Lord. Baladeva is an expansion of Kṛṣṇa, and from Baladeva the next expansion is Saṅkarṣaṇa; thus Saṅkarṣaṇa is kalā, but Baladeva is svāṁśa. There is no difference, however, among Them.”
It is to be noted that while Lord Vishnu descends in every yuga (sambhaami yuge yuge), svayam bhagavan Krishna descends only once in a day of Lord Brahma, which is a combination of 1000 divya yugas.
Surely these are very complex subject matters and without going deeper into it, and more importantly, without the mercy of a bona fide guru and the Lord Himself, it is not possible to assimilate it satisfactorily.
For those who want to see more references from Vedic scriptures following are a few that I came across and may help you. Some of them we have already covered.
Purusha Sukta (5) claims the Supreme Personality, Krishna, to be the origin of an auxiliary Personality of Godhead, Lord Vishnu: “From Him appeared the Universal Form which sustained the mortal world. Making this Form as the substratum another celestial being appeared, who is known as Vishnu. As soon as He appeared, He multiplied Himself into each of the universes. Later, He created this earth and the bodies of the living beings.”
Brahma vaivarta Purana (Brahma Khanda, chapter 13) mentions the word of Lord Shiva in which Shiva reveals the original position of the Original Personality. Here Lord Shiva tells a a brahmana, “Lord Krishna who is eternally present in the Supreme Planet Goloka which is self illuminating and benefactor of all devotional moods, is also residing in Vaikuntha (as Vaikuntha Narayana) and at Swetadwipa (as Kshirodakshayi Vishnu). Just as there is no difference between fire and its spark, similarly there is no difference between Amshi (the origin of expansions, Lord Krishna) and Amsha (the expansion, Lord Vishnu).”
Shrimad-Bhagavatam (10.85.31) describes Devaki’s prayer and confirms the related statement:“My dear Krishna, I know that Maha-Vishnu, who is lying in the causal ocean of the cosmic manifestation, and who is the source of this whole creation, is simply an expansion of Your plenary portion. Creation, maintenance, and annihilation of this cosmic manifestation are being effected only by Your plenary portion. I am, therefore, taking shelter of You without any reservation.”
Brahma-samhita (5.48) declares: “The Brahmas and other lords of the mundane worlds appear from the pores of the Maha-Vishnu and remain alive for the duration of His one exhalation. I adore the primeval Lord, Govinda, for Maha-Vishnu is a portion of His plenary portion.“
Shrimad-Bhagavatam, which is Srila Vyasa dev’s commentary on the Veanta sutra, also confirms Narayana as Krishna’s plenary portion:“O Lord of lords, O Lord Krishna, You are the seer of all creation. You are indeed everyone’s dearest life. Are You not, therefore, my father, Narayana? The sacredd name ‘Narayana’ refers to one whose abode is in the water born from Nara (that is Garbhodakashayi Vishnu). Indeed, that Narayana is also Your plenary portion. All Your plenary portions are transcendental. They are absolute and are not creations of Maya.” (10.14.14)
“O Lord Krishna, persons who are unaware of Your inconceivable energy cannot understand that You alone expand Yourself as the creator Brahma, maintainer Vishnu, and annihilator Shiva. Persons who are not in awareness of things as they are contemplate that I, Brahma, am the creator, Vishnu is the maintainer, and Lord Shiva is the annihilator. Actually You are alone everything: creator, maintainer and annihillator.” (10.14.19)
“I offer my respectful obeisances to Lord Krishna, the all-knowing Original Personality of Godhead who, in order to liberate the conditioned souls, accepts the auspicious forms of His many incarnations.” (Narada Muni in 10.87.46)
“Appearing in bodies like those of an ordinary fish, tortoise and hog, You exhibit activities impossible for such creatures to perform: extraordinary, incomparable, transcendental activities of unlimited power and strength. These bodies of Yours, therefore, are not made of material elements, but are incarnations of Your Supreme Personality.” (Spoken by Nalakuvara and Manigriva to Lord Krishna in 10.10.34)
“This son of yours, has many names and appears in different forms according to His transcendental qualities and activities. These are known to me, but people, in general, do not understand them.” (Sri Gargacharya to Nanda Maharaja in 10.8.15)
Brahma samhita (5.12) says “I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, who by His various plenary portions appears in the world in different forms and incarnations such as Lord Rāma, but who personally appears in His supreme original form as Lord Krishna.”
To make things simpler to comprehend take this example. When the prime minister of a nation visits a state the state ministers accompany him and take care of fulfilling various purposes of his visit. Similarly, when Lord Krishna visits this mundane world, Lord Visnhu, who resides in the milk ocean (ksira-sagar), accompanies Him along with prominent demigods and carries out various functions. It is described that while the svayam bhagavan shyam sundar Krishna played various pastimes in Gokul Mathura and later on in Vraja, the acts of annihilating demons were performed by His Vishnu expansion who descended with Him within His transcendental body. Yes these are complex affairs but the management of the cosmic creation is not simple either. It is only expected that the creator and maintainer of the world has extremely complex ways for getting things done.
In every universe there is a Brahma, a Vishnu and a Shiva who takes care of creation maintenance and annihilation of the universe respectively. Lord Krishna does not have to get into all these affairs. Interestingly one identification of God given in the Svetasvatar Upanishad is, He does not have to do anything Himself – na tasya karyam karanam cha vidyate – that the Supreme Lord has no work to do. This does not mean the absolute Truth is inactive. He is the maintainer of the entire cosmic manifestation. Then how does He do it? The next line says, parasya shaktir vividhaiva sruyate svabhaviki jnana bala kriya cha– that all His deeds are automatically performed as a natural sequence by His multifarious potencies.
Indeed, the Supreme Lord has no work to do as such. He simply enjoys with His devotees and keeps them blissful. We see this behavior in the case of Lord Krishna. He played wonderful pastimes with His friends, His transcendental parents and with His best devotes, the gopis of Vraja. All this shows that Lord Krishna is undeniably the Supreme Personality of Godhead and the fountainhead of innumerable Vishnu incarnations. We can go on discussing more about this but no matter how much we say about Krishna, it is always insufficient. It has to be insufficient because Lord Krishna is unlimited and so are His qualities, His pastimes and His incarnations. Hare Krishna