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August 2014

Divine Skin

Author Affiliations
  • 1Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • 2Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland
  • 3private practice
JAMA Dermatol. 2014;150(8):835. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2014.220

Variation in skin color around the world is a prime example of divergent evolution in humans, with darker skin serving a greater benefit around the equator and lighter skin providing an advantage closer to the poles. Although latitude may roughly correlate with skin pigmentation in our species, the color of the gods we worship is a different discussion entirely!

Hinduism encompasses a tremendous diversity of regional beliefs and interpretations of God, but some physical and iconographic features are widely accepted. The god Vishnu is described in early texts, such as the Kurma Purana, as red-eyed and colorless, but later texts portray him as blue. Rama and Krishna are the 2 most frequently described avatars (incarnations) of Vishnu, and they inherit his blue skin in various scriptures and epics. These descriptions are carried forth literally by most modern Hindu artwork and poetry, which illustrate Vishnu, Rama, and Krishna with light blue skin that is likened to the color of the sky or ocean. But many believe the color blue is simply a euphemism for dark skin,1 a common characteristic in the Indian subcontinent. In fact, the word “Krishna” translates from Sanskrit to “dark” or “black.”

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