Students often ask: “Why is Vishnu blue? Why is Krishna blue?” There are a variety of responses that can be found in the diverse literature and art of South Asia which can help us begin to answer these questions. Here are a few popular understandings for representations of divine “blueness”:
Vishnu has a blue or dark complexion because he reflects the color of the cosmos. Vishnu’s complexion is also understood to be the color of dark storm clouds and the color of the moon. Some scholars believe that Vishnu’s “blueness” is a result of Krishna’s dark complexion, as Krishna is an avatar of Vishnu. In other words, it may be that Krishna’s “blueness” came first.
Krishna is known as “the dark one” and his name translates as “black” or “dark” in Sanskrit (also spelled Kṛṣṇa).
According to Hinduism, Vishnu (and by extension Krishna) is the cosmic or divine power of the “Dark Age” or Kali Yuga. Some believe that Vishnu previously appeared in different forms (and with different complexions) during previous ages (yugas) of the universe: white in Krita Yuga, yellow in Dwaparaa Yuga, red in Treta Yuga, and black in Kali Yuga. Accordingly, Vishnu’s (and Krishna’s) appearance during the Kali Yuga is “black” in complexion.
In artistic renderings—whether on paper, stone, or cloth—Krishna’s “dark” skin appears in a variety of shades from pale silvery blue to midnight black. In fact, different artists interpreted the exact hue of Krishna’s complexion in different ways, depending on region and time period.
Some stories describe Krishna’s birth occurring at night and during the late August / early September monsoon storm season. So, Krishna’s dark skin reflects both the time of his birth and the color of monsoon clouds.
Krishna’s physical appearance reflects the geography of his hometown of Brindaban and the region where he grew up, a place known as Braj. Accordingly, his body is the color of the landscape of Braj, dark like the surrounding mountains.
Krishna’s complexion may also be related to moments during his life when he drank poison as an attempt to vanquish evil forces or purify the world. One story related to Krishna as a baby describes him sucking the poisoned milk from a bird-demoness who disguised herself as a beautiful woman and visited the baby soon after he was born, in an attempt to kill him. Some believe the poison caused his skin to turn dark or blue.
Rama, the protagonist of the epic story the Ramayana, similarly appears in artistic renderings and textual descriptions as having a dark complexion. Rama’s dark skin (often depicted as blue) connects him to the divinity of Vishnu.
In addition to Vishnu (and his avatars including Krishna and Rama), many divine figures in Hinduism are depicted with dark complexions. For example the fierce form of the mother goddess known as Kali (a name which translates as “black”) often appears with jet black skin. The god Shiva often appears with ashy blue-gray skin, perhaps a result of his ascetic nature and spending time at cremation grounds. The Princess Draupadi (an important female character in the Mahabharata) is described as having skin the color of a “blue lotus” and is sometimes referred to as the “dark beauty.” The author of the Mahabharata, the sage Vyasa, is also described as having a dark (“krishna-like”) complexion.
Blue minerals and pigments—such as aquamarine, indigo, and lapis lazuli—have long been culturally and commercially valuable materials, not only in South Asia, but also around the world. The choice to depict Krishna as blue (rather than black) may have been a result of the availability and popularity of these materials.
While we don’t necessarily know what the term Kṛṣṇa meant to early artists (“black,” “dark blue,” “green-blue” etc.), it is clear that specific colors have been used for centuries in South Asia to convey information about artistic and religious subjects. Whether creating objects and depictions for use in Hinduism, Esoteric Buddhism, or Jainism, artists were conscious and intentional about which colors to use when depicting divine and sacred figures.
Jenny Balfour-Paul, Indigo (British Museum Press, 1999).
Banerjee, The Life of Krishna in Indian Art (National Museum New Delhi, 1978).
Jonah Blank, Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God: Retracing the Ramayana through India (Grove Press, 2000).
Pawan Deshpande, “Changes of Skin Color Preferences in India: An Analysis from the Ancient to the Modern”, unpublished manuscript (available on Academia.edu), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), May 2006.
Jinah Kim, Garland of Visions: Color, Tantra, and a Material History of Indian Painting (University of California Press, 2021).
Barbara Stoler Miller, Love Song of the Dark Lord: Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda (Columbia University Press, 1977).
Cynthia Packert, The Art of Loving Krishna: Ornamentation and Devotion (Indiana University Press, 2010).