The Poetics of Pretext - Krishna's Names in the Bhagavad Gita

Article of the Month - Dec 2007

This article by Nitin Kumar

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Once Shri Krishna knocked at Shrimati Maharani's door and the following conversation took place:

Radharani: Who is it?

Krishna: I am Hari.

Since the word Hari in Sanskrit also means a lion, she replied:

Radharani: There are no suitable animals of prey here, so why have you come?

Krishna: I am Madhava don't you know me?

The word Madhava, other than being a name of Krishna also means the season of spring, so came the reply:

Radharani: This is not the time for spring to come.

Krishna: I am Janardana, surely you know me?

The word Janardana holds within itself many meanings, two of which are contrary to each other. It means both - one who causes distress to society and also one who destroys the wicked. Obviously, Shrimati Radha chose the former meaning:

Radharani: Persons like you should stay in the forest where there are no other people you can cause distress to.

Krishna: Open the door young lady, I am Madhusudana.

The word Madhusudana means both the 'killer of the demon named Madhu,' and also means the honeybee, which drinks honey (madhu) from various flowers. Thus she said:

Radharani: Now I understand, you a dvirepha.

Dvirepha means both a honeybee and also an outcaste. Thus does Radharani suggest that since Krishna has the habit of fluttering towards various gopis like the honeybee, he has been banned from her house.

Madhava Delivering the Discourse of Gita to Arjuna
Madhava Delivering the Discourse of Gita to Arjuna



In this light banter Krishna introduced himself with various names, the meanings of which were taken differently by Radharani than that intended by him. Many of these names also occur in the sacred conversation between Krishna and Arjuna, the Bhagavad Gita, in which context still other meanings are intended.



In the Bhagavad Gita there are forty different names used by Arjuna to call upon Shri Krishna. Each of these names describes an attribute or quality of god, reverberating with the potentiality of an inner, philosophical echo, leading to a realization of the deeper meaning of the dialogue between the two.

Srimad Bhagavad Gita (The Scripture of Mankind): Sanskrit Text, Transliteration,Word-to-Word Meaning, Translation and Detailed Notes
Srimad Bhagavad Gita (The Scripture of Mankind): Sanskrit Text, Transliteration,Word-to-Word Meaning, Translation and Detailed Notes

The different epithets used by Arjuna to address Krishna are not just there for the sake of variety but meaningful to the context. This is one of the enriching features which make the study of Gita a relishable exercise rather than it being a mere pursuit of a dry philosophical treatise.

As the major part of the Bhagavad Gita is but a dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna, with the former calling upon the latter to relieve his distress, we see a gradual shift in Arjuna's position as Krishna provides him relief, reflected in the tone and demeanor of his address. For example, his first call to Krishna in the text is but a command given by a warrior to his charioteer. Arjuna says:

"O Achyuta, place my chariot in between the two armies." (Bhagavad Gita 1.21)

Here Arjuna addresses Krishna as "Achyuta," which means "one who never falls from his position." This implies that Krishna, even though he is the supreme lord, has out of affection for his devotee Arjuna reduced himself to the status of a charioteer. However this in no way compromises his supreme position. This is akin perhaps to the situation of a Supreme Court judge, who diligently orders out punishments and rewards in his courtroom; but the same person, when he comes back home, is content to play around with his grandson and take orders from the child.

Indeed it is the nature of the supremely compassionate Krishna to take on the slightest job for his devotees. When Arjuna's elder brother Yudhishtra performed the great sacrifice (yajna) known as Rajasuya, each member of the family was assigned a different responsibility; and what did Shri Krishna volunteer to do? The great lord took it upon himself to wash the feet of each and every guest who came to the yajna. Thus Yudhishtra says in the Bhagavata Purana:

"Just as the brilliance of the sun is neither enhanced nor diminished with the ascent or decline of the sun, even so your actions in no way exalt or detract your glory." (10.74.4)

Obeying Arjuna's command, Krishna drove the chariot in between the two armies. We all know what happened next. Seeing his near and dear ones arrayed opposite him, ready to lay down their lives, Arjuna was awash with a flood of sentimentality, leading to emotional exhaustion, and he found his heart sinking to never before depths of turmoil.

With his limbs shaking, Arjuna said:

"O Madhusudana, I do not wish to kill these my relatives, even though they may kill me."(Bhagavad Gita 1.35)

The Slaying of Madhu and Kaitabh
The Slaying of Madhu and Kaitabh


The epithet Madhusudana means the slayer of the demon named "Madhu." It refers to the annihilation of this villain by the lord just before the creation of this world. The word "madhu" in its turn means 'honey,' and thus the demon Madhu represents attachment (raag) to this world, which seems sweet to us. Hereby, Arjuna reminds Krishna that just as he had killed the demon of attachment before, similarly should he do so in the present circumstances.



Vishnu Lakshmi - The Divine Couple
Vishnu Lakshmi - The Divine Couple

Next Arjuna queries:

"O Madhava, how can we be happy by killing our own relatives?" (1.36)

"Ma" means Goddess Lakshmi and "dhav" means husband. Thus the perplexed Arjuna wants to point out that since Krishna is the lord of the goddess of fortune, he should point out the way which would save their (Arjuna's) clan from the impending misfortune.

As the narrative proceeds, Krishna discourses Arjuna that the only way to gain peace is through equanimity of the mind, prompting the latter to say:

"The mind is restless, turbulent, obstinate and very strong. To subdue it is, O Krishna, more difficult than controlling the wind." (6.34)




The Slaying of Madhu and Kaitabh

Actually Indian Philosophy is pretty clear on the issue that it is extremely difficult to control the mind. However, one does not need to do so, there being a much easier way to salvation. Since the mind is not independent, but like a prostitute goes to any object which gains its fancy, the solution lies in wedding it to one divine husband. Truly, Krishna is the ultimate attraction, and like a magnet drawing iron files towards it, he too naturally attracts his devotees. Indeed, the first letter in his name is symbolic of his 'grip' over his devotees, because of the hook-like shape in its lower half.

Thus Arjuna in this verse, revealing the position of each of us, acknowledges that he is unable to divert his restless mind towards the feet of Krishna and instead implores Krishna to do so.

Krishna gradually builds up his discourse, starting off with bold exhortations and then gradually going on to more abstract formulations. However, the accent always is on a partnership between man and deity. Thus Krishna says:

"Those who attempt to liberate themselves from old age and death by taking refuge in me, they realize the Supreme Reality (Brahman)." (7.29)

Arjuna then questions:

"Purshottama, what is the Supreme Reality?" (8.1)

Purshottama means the "Supreme Person," obviously he is the only one who can grant the knowledge of the Supreme Reality.

The lord then instructs Arjuna that the Supreme Reality is none other than himself, who pervades each and every aspect of the manifested existence. This prompts Arjuna to say:

"O Keshava, I totally believe whatever you have told me as true. Neither the gods, nor the demons, O Bhagvan, can understand you." (10.14)

Here there are two modes of addressing Krishna: Keshava and Bhagvan, both of which are loaded with spiritual and contextual relevance. According to Shri Shankaracharya's commentary on the Vishnu Sahasranama, the word Keshava is made up of the following:

1). "K" meaning Lord Brahma.

2). "A" meaning Lord Vishnu.

3). "Ish" meaning Lord Shiva

4). "Va" meaning form (vapu in Sanskrit).

The Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesha
The Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesha

Therefore, by calling upon god as Keshava, Arjuna communicates his realization of the fact that it is the 'One Supreme Reality' which takes form as these three principal gods, and thus by implication of the entire world.

The epithet Bhagvan too signifies Krishna's supremely abundant status, since "Bhagvan" is a technical term indicating 'One who possesses the six kinds of splendors (shad-aishvarya)', namely:

a). Complete Prosperity

b). Dharma

c). Yasha (fame)

d). Shri (fortune)

e). Jnana (Knowledge)

f). Vairagya (Detachment)

In the next verse, Arjuna refers to Krishna with no less than five names, expressing his wonder and reverence:

"O Supreme Person (Purushottama), Origin of all beings (Bhuta-bhavan), Lord of all beings (Bhutesh), God of all gods (Deva-deva) and Ruler of the world (Jagatpati)." (10.15)

However, Arjuna is not satisfied with the lord's abstract formulation, and asks Krishna to expand his discourse with easily understandable examples:

"O Janardana, my thirst for your nectar-like speech is not quenched. Therefore, kindly describe again your attributes in detail." (10.18)

The name Janardana is composed of two parts - 'jana' meaning the veil of ignorance (avidya) and 'ardana' meaning the one who annihilates it.

Krishna then proceeds to explain in detail, with examples taken from the physical world, that the whole manifested existence is but his manifestation. This forms the majority of the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavad Gita.

The Cosmic Form of Krishna (Vishvarupa from the Bhagavad Gita)
The Cosmic Form of Krishna (Vishvarupa from the Bhagavad Gita)

In the next chapter, Arjuna requests Krishna to show him this Universal Form encompassing the entire world (Vishva Rupa), after seeing which Arjuna says:

"O Lord of the universe (Vishveshvara), O Universal Form (Vishva Rupa), I see in you no beginning, middle or end." (11.16)

Then very aptly does he call Krishna by the name Vishnu, meaning all-pervading:

"O all-reaching Vishnu, with your gaping mouths and glowing eyes you touch the skies." (11.24)

The sky represents the highest point the human eyes can reach, and with his senses thus stretched to the limit, Arjuna becomes terrified and asks Krishna to come back to his usual soothing form. Now at last, having understood the true nature of Krishna does Arjuna acknowledge him as 'Hrishikesha', meaning 'master of the senses.'

"O Master of the senses, the world delights upon hearing your glory." (11.36)

Krishna as Hrishikesha is the "director" of the senses, who now controls the reins of Arjuna's senses, unlike the first instance above when Arjuna "orders" Krishna to take his chariot between the two armies.

Shri Krishna's Gita Upadesha
Shri Krishna's Gita Upadesha

Arjuna now apologizes for having addressed Krishna as a friend rather than venerating him like the god that he truly was:

"For addressing you familiarly as 'O Krishna", O Yadava, O Comrade (sakha), and regarding you merely as a friend, unknowing of this greatness of yours, O Achyuta, O Immeasurable One, I ask for your forgiveness." (11.41-42)

Arjuna was very fond of the name 'Krishna.' He has used this epithet no less than nine times in the Gita, more than any other. The name 'Yadava' indicates that Krishna belonged to the Yadava clan, and Krishna and Arjuna were related to each other as first cousins. Thus Arjuna is reminding Krishna that it was only because they were brothers that he had taken the liberties to address him as above. However, the immeasurable (aprameya) greatness of Krishna makes sure that Arjuna's liberties did not at all affect his exalted status, thus is Krishna (Achyuta), "one who never falls from his position." This name also suggests that since god is unchanging in nature, his affection towards Arjuna is not diminished a bit inspite of any offense committed by the latter (or any of us).


The Divine Name And Its Practice by Hanumanprasad Poddar
The Divine Name And Its Practice by Hanumanprasad Poddar



The 'nameless' has a thousand names and it is through these names that the 'nameless' is to be realized. Just as the forms of the divine are unlimited, so are its attributes, excellencies, glories and the names that express them. All things, all persons, all phenomena, identifiable by their names, are in fact manifestations of the Supreme. Each name signifies an excellence. The purpose of meditating on the god's forms, names and lilas is to get rid of our obsession with the name-and-form world. The world is too much with us. It prevents us from realizing the truth of the non-dual reality which is its basis. As one thinks of the divine forms, and utters the sacred names, one's sense faculties get sublimated.

Between name and form, the former is even superior to and subtler than the latter. While 'form' stands for the physical features of the world of phenomena, 'name' signifies the psychical characteristics, a much more potent tool for creative meditation.




References and Further Reading:

  • Bhola (tr.) Shri Vishnu Sahasranama with the Commentary of Shri Shankaracharya: Gorakhpur, 2004.
  • Chaitanya, Krishna. The Gita for Modern Man (3rd ed.): Delhi, 1992.
  • Chinmayananda, Swami. The Holy Geeta: Mumbai, 2002.
  • Dasa, Purusottama. Sri Krsna's (Krishna's) Names In Bhagavad-Gita With Commentary by the Acaryas Vrindavana, 1996.
  • Goswami, C.L. and Shastri, M.A. Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana (English Translation in Two Volumes) Gorakhpur, 2005.
  • Mahadevan, T.M.P. Visnu Sahasra-Nama: A Study Mumbai, 1998.
  • Pati, Madhusudan. Bhagavad Gita: A Literary Elucidation Mumbai, 1997.
  • Ramsukhdas, Swami. Gita Gyan Praveshika: Gorakhpur, 2004.
  • Ramsukhdas, Swami. Sadhaka Sanjivani Commentary on the Bhagavad Gita (2 vols.) Gorakhpur, 2000.
  • Sankaranarayanan, P. (tr.) Sri Visnusahasranama Stotram (With English Translation of the Commentary by Sri Sankara Bhagavatpada) Mumbai, 1996.
  • Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda (tr). Shrimad Bhagavata Purana (2 Volumes): Gorakhpur, 2004.
  • Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda. Bhagawatamrit (The Elixir of the Bhagwat) Mumbai, 2005.
  • Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda. Shri Vishnu Sahasranama (Partial Commentary). Vrindavan, 2007.
  • Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda. Vibhuti Yoga (Discourses on the 10th chapter) (2nd ed.): Varanasi, 2004.
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