Are scriptural descriptions of Krishna literal?

When we hear the descriptions of Krishna given in scripture — for example, his complexion is bluish-black — we may wonder: Are such descriptions literal?

If we use the word literal to mean material, then no; Krishna is not like a person in this world with a pigment discoloration that renders their skin bluish-black. Nothing about him is material; his form and complexion are all transcendental. Then, are such descriptions metaphorical? No, they aren’t just stand-ins for some other reality. Those descriptions are real, even if some metaphorical meanings are occasionally derived from them.  

Then, how do descriptions of Krishna relate with him? To understand, consider the literary device called metonymy. Therein, a thing is described by referring to one of its features. For example, the US government is referred to as the White House. A white-colored building does exist, and it is the place where many government decisions are made. Yet, if the White House declares war on Iraq, the agency intending to attack is not that building; it is the US government whose scope includes that building but also extends far beyond it. 

When we see scriptural descriptions of Krishna as metonymical, we understand twin truths: first, what is described is reality; therefore, we appreciate those descriptions as precious resources for helping us remember Krishna. Second, reality is more than what is described; therefore, we eagerly aspire to realize him better, knowing that Krishna is far sweeter than the sweetest descriptions about him. In fact, a combination of appreciation and aspiration characterizes the mood of enlightened souls. Though they know Krishna (Bhagavad-gita 10.08), they keep learning more about him by describing their realizations to each other and thereby relish ever-increasing love for him (10.09). 

One-sentence summary: 

See scriptural descriptions of Krishna as neither just literal nor merely metaphorical, but as metonymical. 

Think it over:

  • If we consider scriptural descriptions of Krishna literal, what’s wrong with that?
  • What’s wrong with considering those descriptions metaphorical?
  • How can seeing those descriptions as metonymical help us to cultivate the mood of the enlightened? 


10.09: The thoughts of My pure devotees dwell in Me, their lives are fully devoted to My service, and they derive great satisfaction and bliss from always enlightening one another and conversing about Me.

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