Krishna Vishvarupa

Historical period(s)
ca. 1740
Bilaspur school
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper
H x W (overall): 19.8 × 11.7 cm (7 13/16 × 4 5/8 in) H x W (painting): 17.4 × 9.5 cm (6 7/8 × 3 3/4 in)
India, Himachal Pradesh state, Bilaspur
Credit Line
Purchase and partial gift from the Catherine and Ralph Benkaim Collection — funds provided by the Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries
Arthur M. Sackler Collection
Accession Number
On View Location
Currently not on view


India, Krishna, Krishna Vishvarupa, Ralph and Catherine Benkaim collection

Prior to 1973
Thomas A. Woods [1]

Sale, London, Christie’s, Islamic, Indian, and South-East Asian Manuscripts, Miniatures and Works of Art, November 24, 1987, lot. 27: “Vishnu Visvarka”

From 1987 to 2018
Catherine Glynn Benkaim, Beverly Hills, California, purchased at auction, “Islamic, Indian, and South-East Asian Manuscripts, Miniatures and Works of Art,” Christie’s, London, November 24, 1987, lot. 27, “Vishnu Visvarka”

From 2018
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, partial gift and purchase from Catherine Glynn Benkaim [4]

[1] Thomas A. Woods is identified as the owner in Stuart C. Welch, A Flower from Every Meadow (New York: 1973), no. 42. It is probable that the painting was in Mr. Woods's collection in the United States in 1972, when planning for the 1973 exhibition and catalogue, A Flower from Every Meadow, would have been well under way.

[2] See Christie's auction catalogue, Islamic, Indian, and South-East Asian Manuscripts, Miniatures and Works of Art, from November 24, 1987.

[3] See note 2. See also the Acquisition Justification Form, object file, Collections Management Office.

[4] See note 3.

Previous Owner(s) and Custodian(s)

Thomas A. Woods
Catherine Glynn Benkaim


The Bhagavad Gita (200 BCE-300 CE) is one of Hinduism's most sacred texts, and Krishna's manifestation as the cosmos is its profound core. The text presents a spectrum of doctrines and practices within a framework of personal devotion (bhakti) to Krishna. The eleventh chapter describes Krishna in his infinite cosmic form, vishvarupa, which encompasses all of time and "the whole world, moving and unmoving," filling "all the horizons," and "brushing the sky."

An eighteenth-century artist from the kingdom of Bilaspur, in the Punjab Hills, sought to evoke the limitless and proliferating universe by extending Krishna's sixty multicolored heads and forty-four pinwheeling arms to the very borders of the painting. Within the golden dhoti that wraps around his waist, a miniaturized mountain landscape conveys--through the juxtaposition of scale--both Krishna's vastness and his supremacy over all other Hindu gods and sages. Four of Krishna's heads, shaded the same lavender-blue as his body, are vertically stacked at the center of his body, and his lowest mouth is "spiky with fangs." The heads probably relate to the god's successive manifestations before his devotee Arjuna, the warrior prince who appears at the painting's lower left, his hands raised in the gesture of worship. As the hair on Arjuna's arms bristles in terror, Krishna abandons his human form and becomes the cosmic creator, universal sovereign, and Kala, who is both time and death.

In the Gita, Krishna's form, which embodies all of time and all phenomena, is overwhelming and terrifying. With its delicate line, luscious sherbet colors, and especially Krishna's gentle expressions as he meets the gaze of his devotees, the painting transcends literal illustration of the Gita's eleventh chapter to convey the broader context of bhakti devotion, in which Krishna's compassion is accessible to all.

Published References
  • Joan Cummins. Vishnu: Hinduism's Blue-Skinned Savior. Exh. cat. no. 131.
  • Stuart Cary Welch, Mark Zebrowski. A Flower from Every Meadow: Indian Paintings from American Collections. Exh. cat. New York, Spring 1973. no. 42, p. 76.
  • Debra Diamond. Yoga: The Art of Transformation. Exh. cat. Washington. no. 10a, pp. 160-161.
Collection Area(s)
South Asian and Himalayan Art
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