Himalayan Art Resources

Subject: Krishna, Krishnacharin & Kanha

Krishna, Krishnacharin & Kanha | Confusions Main Page

Deity Figures:
- Krishna (Vaishnava Tradition)
- Krishna Jambhala
- Krishna Manjushri
- Krishna Yamari
- Others...

The word 'krishna' in Buddhist Sanskrit uses means 'black' or 'dark'.


Mahasiddha Figures:
- Kanha
- Kanha of the East
- Kala
- Kala Virupa
- Krishna
- Krishnacharin
- Krishnacharya
- Others...
Kanha Name Confusions (Sep 25, 2010)

Virupa and Kanha (Tibetan: nal jor wang chug bir wa pa. Nag po pa shar chog pa). This painting, number two in a series of lineage compositions, belongs to a larger set of paintings depicting the lineage of teachers for the Path together with the Result (Sanskrit: margapala. Tibetan: Lamdre) teaching originating with the mahasiddha Virupa. The Indian adept of the 9/10th century, Virupa, had two main students, Kanha and Dombhi Heruka. Virupa taught both of them the Lamdre (Margapala) system, The Path Together with the Result, based significantly but not exclusively on the Hevajra Tantra. Kanha, meaning black, was the principal student in the Lamdre lineage following after Virupa. In Western texts and Tibetan translated material this and similar names can appear in Sanskrit as Kanha, Kanhapa, Kanhavajra, Krishna, Krishnapa, Krishnavajra, Krishnacharin, Krishnacharya and Kala Virupa. All of these terms are Sanskrit and relate essentially to the colour black. The Tibetan word for Kanha as a persons name is 'nag po pa' which means the 'black one.'

There are two very popular and well documented systems of listing the names and biographies of the Eighty-four Great Mahasiddhas of India. They are the Vajrasana and the Abhayadatta systems. Both of these were translated into the Tibetan language. Also, in both of these systerms there are several siddhas with the name Nagpopa along with various associated spellings.

Why is this important and why does it matter? It matters because there is another mahasiddha with the Sanskrit name of Krishnacharin (Nagpopa Chopa, or Nagpo Chopa) associated with the Chakrasamvara Cycle of Tantras. His name is also translated into Tibetan as Nagpopa. Here arises the confusion. Like the Indian siddha of the Lamdre lineage, Kanha, this other siddha, Krishnacharin is very important and more well known to a greater number of Tibetan Buddhist Tantric Traditions. This second siddha, Krishnacharin, is also represented in both the Vajrasana and Abhayadatta Systems of the Eighty-four Mahasiddhas. Kanha, also known as Kanha of the East, of the Sakya Lamdre Lineage is found only in the Vajrasana System.

Both of these siddhas, Kanha and Krishnacharin, have their own stories and unique hagiographies. For the purposes of Art History, Iconography and Religious Studies it is important to be able to name and differentiate the various siddhas and teachers in the important lineages that appear in the registers of paintings and wall murals. That is why this subject of the two 'Nagpopas' is important.

How do we know what to call these siddhas? Basically we can only rely on common convention over time. However, we do have early writings from teachers such as Chogyal Pagpa where he refers to the 'black' student of Virupa as 'Kanha' using the Sanskrit term. This is how we know that there is early precedent in the Sakya Tradition for distinguishing between these two 'black ones,' Kanha and Krishna. There is less confusion generally with Krishnacharin because he is represented in all of the New Schools of Tibetan Buddhism and associated so strongly with the Chakrasamvara Tantra traditions. He also has a very lively and interesting biography (hagiography). So, it is really only the Lamdre Lineage siddha by the name of Nagpopa (Kanha) that has become confused. This is because essentially he is only known in the Sakya Lamdre Tradition and the subsequent Pagmodrupa Lineage of Lamdre. In general there are many different lineages of Hevajra descending from Indian roots and many different siddhas. Whereas in the Chakrasamvara system Krishnacharin is prominent and very well known.

For individuals and scholars interested in this subject ultimately what is important is to know that there are two different mahasiddha figures with names that have often been used interchangeably. This has not been a Tibetan problem. In the Tibetan language the two siddhas are very clearly distinguished as Nagpopa (Kanha) and Nagpo Chopa (Krishnacharin). This is a modern Western academic problem in reading the Tibetan translated names for the early Indian Teachers and then interpreting what the original Sanskrit word and spelling would be and then back translating.

In conclusion, there are two Indian siddhas with similar Tibetan names one belongs to the Lamdre Lineage (Kanha) and the other belongs to the Chakrasamava Lineage (Krishnacharin). (News Post: September 25th, 2010).

Jeff Watt [updated 9-2019]