Balarama is a Hindu god and the elder brother of Krishna. He is particularly significant in the Jagannath tradition, as one of the triad deities.
Balarama is also known as Baladeva, Balabhadra, Haladhara, and Halayudha. The first two epithets refer to his strength, the last two associates him with Hala (plough) from his strong associations with farming and farmers, as the deity who used farm equipment as weapons when needed.
In ancient Hinduism and Hindu texts, Balarama is an avatar of Abhishek the god of prosperity, and he is replaced by the founder of Buddhism, Buddha, in the list of Dashavatar of Vishnu.
Balarama’s significance in Indian culture has ancient roots. His image in the artwork is dated to around the start of the common era, and in coins dated to the 2nd-century BCE. In Jainism, he is known as Baladeva and has been a historically significant farmer-related deity.
Balarama is an ancient deity, a prominent one by the era of the epic of Indian history as evidenced by archaeological and numismatic evidence. His iconography appears with Naga, a plough and other farm artifacts such as a watering pot, possibly indicating his origins in a bucolic, agricultural culture.
Balarama’s legend appears in many Parva (books) of the Mahabharata. The Book Three (Vana Parva) states about Krishna and him that Balarama is an avatar of Vishnu, while Krishna is the source of all avatars and existence.
In some artworks of the Vijayanagara Empire, temples of Gujarat and elsewhere, for example, Baladeva is the eighth avatar of Vishnu, prior to the Buddha (Buddhism) or Jina (Jainism).
Narratives of Balarama are found in Mahabharata, Harivamsha, Bhagavata Purana, Krishna Charit Manas, and other Puranas. He is classified in the Vyuha avatar Sankarshana where Adishesha and Lakshmana are part of.
The legend of him as the incarnation of Adishesha, the serpent Vishnu rested on, reflects his role and interconnection with Vishnu. However, Balarama’s mythology and his association with the ten avatars of Vishnu are relatively younger, which is post-Vedic though ancient because it is not found in the Vedic texts.
Balarama finds a mention in Kautilya’s Arthashastra (4th to 2nd century BCE), where according to Hudson, his followers are described as “ascetic worshippers” with shaved heads or braided hair.
Balarama, as Baladewa, is an important character in the 11th-century Javanese text Kakawin Bhāratayuddha, the Kakawin poem based on the Mahabharata.
Balarama was the son of Vasudeva. The evil king Kamsa, Vasudeva’s brother-in-law, was intent upon killing the children of his sister Devaki because of a prediction that he would die at the hands of her eighth child.
Evil demon Kamsa had already killed the first six children of Devaki by smashing the newborns on a stone. Vishnu intervened and when Balarama was conceived, state the Hindu legends, his embryo was moved from Devaki’s womb into the womb of Rohini, Vasudeva’s first wife.
In some texts, this movement gives Balarama the epithet Sankarshana (one who was dragged away). Balarama grew up with his younger brother Krishna with foster parents, in the household of the head of cowherds Nanda and his wife Yashoda. Chapter 10 of the Bhagavata Purana describes it as follows:
The Bhagavan as the Self of everything tells the creative power of His unified consciousness (yogamaya) about His plan for His own birth as Balarama and Krishna. He begins with Balarama. The whole of Shesha, which is my abode, will become an embryo in Devaki’s womb which you shall transplant to Rohini’s womb. — Bhagavata Purana
He was named Rama, but because of his great strength, he was called Balarama, Baladeva, or Balabhadra, meaning Strong Rama. He was born on Shraavana Purnima or Raksha Bandhan.
Childhood and marriage
One day, Nanda requested the presence of Sage Gargamuni, his priest, to name the newborn Krishna and Balarama. When the Garga arrived, Nanda received him well and requested the naming ceremony.
Gargamuni then reminded Nanda that Kansa was looking for the son of Devaki and if he performed the ceremony in opulence, it would come to his attention. Nanda, therefore, asked Garga to perform the ceremony in secret and Garga did so:
Because Balarama, the son of Rohini, increases the transcendental bliss of others, his name is Rama and because of his extraordinary strength, he is called Baladeva. He attracts the Yadus to follow his instructions and therefore his name is Sankarshana. — Bhagavata Purana, 10.8.12
When His elder brother, fatigued from playing, would lie down with His head upon the lap of a cowherd boy, Lord Kṛiṣṇa would help Him relax by personally massaging His feet and offering other services — Srimad Bhagavatam
Balarama spent his childhood as a cow herder with his brother Krishna. He killed Dhenuka, an asura sent by Kamsa, as well as Pralamba and Mushtika wrestlers sent by the king. After the evil king died, Balarama and Krishna went to the ashrama of sage Sandipani at Ujjain for study. He married Revati, the daughter of King Kakudmi.
Balarama is the celebrated plougher, one of the pillars of agriculture along with livestock with whom Krishna is associated with. The plough is Balarama’s weapon. In the Bhagavata Purana, he uses it to fight demons, dig away for the Yamuna river to come closer to Vrindavan, and pull the entire capital of Hastinapura into the Ganges river.
Kurukshetra War of Mahabharata
Balarama taught both Duryodhana of the Kauravas and Bhima of the Pandavas the art of fighting with a mace. When war broke between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, Balarama cared for both sides and so remained neutral.
He went for a pilgrimage with his nephew Pradyumna and other Yadavas during the war, and returned on the last day, to watch the fight between his disciples.
When Bhima defeated Duryodhana by striking him in the thigh with his mace, Balarama threatened to kill Bhima. This was prevented when Krishna reminded Balarama of the vow of Bhima—to kill Duryodhana by crushing the thigh he had exposed to Bhima’s wife Draupadi.
In the Bhagavata Purana, it is described that after Balarama took part in the battle causing the destruction of the remainder of the Yadu dynasty and witnessing the disappearance of Krishna, he sat down in a meditative state and departed from this world.
Some scriptures describe a great white snake that left the mouth of Balarama, in reference to his identity as Ananta-Sesha. The place where he departed is situated near Somnath Temple in Gujarat.
The local people of Veraval believe about the cave near the temple place, that the white snake who came out of Balarama’s mouth got into that cave and went back to Paatal Lok.
In the Hindu traditions, Balarama has been a farmer’s patron deity, signifying as one who is “harbinger of knowledge“, of agricultural tools and prosperity.
He is almost always shown and described with Krishna, such as in stealing butter, playing childhood pranks, complaining to Yashoda that his baby brother Krishna had eaten dirt, playing in cow pens, studying together at the school of guru Sandipani, and fighting evil wrestlers sent in by Kamsa to kill the two brothers.
He was the constant companion of Krishna, ever watchful, leading to the epithet “Luk Luk Dauji” (or Luk Luk Daubaba) in the Pustimarga tradition of Vaishnavism. He is a creative store of knowledge for the agriculturists: the knowledge that dug a water channel to bring Yamuna water to Vrindavan; that restored groves, farms and forests; that produced goods and drinks.
In Hindu texts, Balarama almost always supports Krishna in form and spirit. However, there are occasions where the dialogues between Balarama and Krishna present different viewpoints, with Krishna’s wisdom establishing him to be the ultimate divinity. Balarama’s constant symbolic association with Krishna makes him the protector and supporter of dharma.
The Jain Puranas, notably, the Triṣaṣṭiśalākāpuruṣacarita of Hemachandra, narrate hagiographical accounts of nine Baladevas or Balabhadras who are believed to be śalākāpuruṣas (literally torch-bearers, great personalities).
Balarama was the ninth one. Balarama along with Krishna are considered as cousins of the revered Tirthankara Neminatha (Aristanemi) by Jains.
The Jainism tradition lists 63 Śalākāpuruṣa or notable figures which, amongst others, includes the twenty-four Tirthankaras and nine sets of triads. One of these triads is Krishna as the Vasudeva, Balarama as the Baladeva, and Jarasandha as the Prati-Vasudeva. In each age of the Jain cyclic time is born a Vasudeva with an elder brother termed the Baladeva.
Between the triads, Baladeva upholds the principle of non-violence, a central idea of Jainism. The villain is the Prati-Vasudeva, who attempts to destroy the world. To save the world, Vasudeva-Krishna has to forsake the non-violence principle and kill the Prati-Vasudeva.
The stories of these triads can be found in the Harivamsa Purana (8th century CE) of Jinasena (not be confused with its namesake, the addendum to Mahābhārata) and the Trishashti-shalakapurusha-charita of Hemachandra.
The story of Krishna’s life in the Puranas of Jainism follows the same general outline as those in the Hindu texts, but in details they are very different: they include Jain Tirthankaras as characters in the story, and generally are polemically critical of Krishna, unlike the versions found in the Mahabharata, the Bhagavata Purana, and the Vishnu Purana.
For example, Krishna loses battles in the Jain versions, and his gopis and his clan of Yadavas die in a fire created by an ascetic named Dvaipayana. Similarly, after dying from the hunter Jara’s arrow, the Jaina texts state Krishna goes to the third hell in Jain cosmology, while Balarama is said to go to the sixth heaven.
In other Jain texts, Krishna and Baladeva are stated to be a cousin of the twenty-second Tirthankara, Neminatha. The Jain texts state that Naminatha taught Krishna all the wisdom that he later gave to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita.
According to Jeffery D. Long, a professor of Religion known for his publications on Jainism, this connection between Krishna and Neminatha has been a historic reason for Jains to accept, read, and cite the Bhagavad Gita as a spiritually important text, celebrate Krishna-related festivals, and intermingle with Hindus as spiritual cousins.
Evidence related to early Jainism, states Patrick Olivelle and other scholars, suggests Balarama had been a significant farmer deity in Jain tradition in parts of the Indian subcontinent such as near the Mathura region.
Jain texts such as the Kalpasutra describe the same idea of embryo transfer, as in Hindu texts for Balarama, for the 24th Tirthankara Mahavira; in the latter case, the embryo of a Brahmin woman is moved into the womb of a Kshatriya woman.
Balarama, states Pratapaditya Pal, was one of the historic deities revered in Jainism along with Ambika, Lakshmi, and others. As with the Hindu farmers, state Paul Dundas, and other scholars, it is likely that Balarama was the patron deity of Jain farmers in the early centuries of the common era because a large number of Balarama images have been found in early Jain arts.
Balarama images have been discovered in central Indian Buddhist sites, such as with Sanchi stupas at Andher, Mehgaon, and Chandna. These are dated to around the start of the common era.
The Ghata Jataka, one of the Jataka Tales that form part of Buddhist scriptures, depicts Balarama as a previous birth of Lord Gautama Buddha and has Krishna depicted as the previous birth of Buddha’s disciple Sariputta.