"Vedas deal with Dharma in two categories, one for the path of Pravruti (action in mundane life) and the other for the path of Nivruti (redemption from the thralldom of Samsara). These are respectively symbolized by the lives of the two Avatars, Rama and Krishna. The paths of their lives appear to be diametrically opposite to each other; and there is an eloquent lesson in that. A comparative study of the main incidents in the lives of the two great incarnations is very revealing and extremely rewarding and interesting. There are so many incidents in their lives which are in striking contrast.
A few of them are enumerated here under: these are not exhaustive, but only illustrative. Those who search may find many more. It is said, "Live as Rama lived, and learn what Krishna taught."
Rama was born of parents who had to issues for long, were pinning for that, and who had undergone a lot of penance to beget children, while Krishna was the eighth child of his parents who, for that reason and due to the circumstances in which they were placed, were not at all eager to get issues.
Rama was born in broad day light, in a palace, as the eldest Krishna was born in the middle of the night in a prison, and was the youngest.
Rama was very fair in complexion, while Krishna was dark.
Rama enjoyed life in the palace as a prince till his twelfth year, while the life of Krishna till his twelfth year was full of dangers and fights for his survival, as Kamsa had employed so many emissaries and stratagems to do away with this child.
The first victim of Rama was a woman (Tataka) while the first victim of Krishna in regular combat was a man (Kamsa).
Rama's life was Dharma-oriented (Ramo vigrahavan Dharma); while that of Krishna was Karma - oriented. Krishna even said "Sarva Dharmam Parityajaya".
Rama was a man of "Eka Patni Vrata" (devoted only to one woman all his life) while Krishna had "Bahu Bharyatwa", a population of wives, so to say, as the story goes.
Lakshmana, the incarnation of Ananta, was a younger brother of Rama. The same Ananta in his subsequent incarnation as Bala Rama was the elder brother of Krishna.
Rama protected the son of Surya (Sugriva) and killed the son of Indra (Vali) while Krishna did just the opposite. He protected the son of Indra (Arjuna) and killed (caused to be killed) the son of Surya (Karna).
Rama killed Tataka with a poisoned arrow, that is, he emitted poison. Krishna absorbed poison and killed Putana.
Rama was deluded for a time (fainted) in his war with Ravana. Krishna brought back the deluded man, Arjuna, to his full faculties and made him fight to victory.
Rama's wife was forcibly taken by Ravana. Krishna forcibly took away Rukmini and married her.
Rama was the cause for mutilating and deforming a woman, Soorp[anakha. Krishna made the deformed woman, Kubja, straight and beautiful.
Rama was a king in his own right. Krishna was never a king himself, but was a King-maker.
Rama never claimed that he was an incarnation. In fact, he had to be reminded of that at the last stage in his life. Krishna announced that he was the Lord Himself as soon as He was born.
Rama belonged to the Solar dynasty. Krishna belonged to the Lunar dynasty - the Yadava Branch.
Rama represented the perfected Jivatman - (Ramanate asmin Yoginaha iti Rama:), while Krishna was the Paramatman - the God (Krishnaat Krishna).
"Ramayana" means the "goings of Rama". He was leading to the goal. It can also mean "going to Rama", just as "Samudrayan" in the case of the river. Whereas in the case of Krishna, he was the goal. He was always calling unto Himself: "Mamekam saranam vraja".
Rama fought the great battle himself: (Jivatman fighting the battle of samsara). Krishna was the "Sakshi" in the great battle, While others fought.
Rama left behind a prosperous Ayodhya, while Krishna had his city (Dwarka) and his entire Yadava race destroyed before he left.
Even the names of the cities in which they lived held out opposite meanings. "Ayodhya" means a city which is not vulnerable to any kind of wars, which should mean the mental state of the "sthithaprajna", while 'Dwarka', Krishna's city meant the "Door that opens into the Perfect State", one being the Means and the other the End.
While Rama had to weep many a time in his life, Krishna lived throughout as a personification of cheerfulness. Krishna's eyes became moist only once in his whole life; that was when his childhood friend Sudama called on him.
Krishna is accepted as the Poorna-avatara. Rama has not been accepted as such.
Even with only one wife, Rama could not lead a happy and harmonious life with her, while Krishna, with an army of wives, could lead the happiest of lives with no complaint from any of those women that she had been neglected even for one evening.
While in the forest, Rama goes in search of the golden deer to satisfy his wife, meaning that he went in search of Kanchan to satisfy his Kamini. In the attempt he lost both the Kamini and the Kanchan. Krishna went into the forest in search of the jewel "Syamamantaka" and gets also two Kaminis in the bargain - namely Satyabhama and Jambavati, that is Krishna gains both Kamini and Kanchan at one shot.
With the bow and the quiver always hanging on his shoulders, Rama had a warrior's life throughout, upholding and protecting Dharma. Krishna went with a flute in his hands enchanting the world around with his divine music. He too was protecting the righteous and upholding Dharma. While the former did it with his prowess, the latter did it with love.
Rama was ready to take-up arms whenever required. Krishna refused to take up arms even when everybody expected him to do so.
Sita was lost, Rama wandered in search of her, weeping and enquiring of even inanimate objects whether they had seen her. On the other hand, it was Krishna who had been lost, and the Gopis in Brindavan did exactly the same thing as Rama did in Ramayana.
Rama had to go to the forest to fulfill the purpose of his incarnation, whereas for Krishna his mission took him to palaces frequently.
Rama was insulted by his enemy in so far as his wife was kidnapped by his enemy, while we see that Krishna was respected by his enemies (the Kauravas) when he entered their Durbar.
Ram's sons lived independently of him and were finally crowned by Rama himself before his departure. Krishna's sons and grandsons lived under his shadow throughout, but where annihilated by the grand sire himself before his departure.
Rama got a bad name on account of Sita, for which he sent her to the forest when she was in an advanced state of pregnancy. Krishna got a bad name, not on account of a woman but a jewel called Syamantaka. He went to the forest in search of the jewel to vindicate himself and ultimately got the jewel and two women in the bargain.
Rama's name is chanted as "Sitaram" prefixed with that of Sita, his legally wedded wife, whereas, in the case of Krishna, we chant his name as "Radha - Krshna" prefixing his name not with any of his legally wedded wives, but with that of another man's wife, simply on the basis of devotion.
To crown all these, we find a very interesting fact when we compare the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Geeta - which is the essence of the Mahabharata. They appear to approach the subject from exactly opposite directions. In Ramayana, Valmiki narrates to Sage Narda all the qualities of a "Sthithaprajna" and asks him whether there is any person living who satisfies that description, for which Narada answers that Rama, the Scion of the Ikshawaku dynasty, is a standing example for that. But, when we come to the Bhgavad Geeta, Arjuna does just the opposite. He asks the Lord as to what qualities distinguish a "Sthithaprajna", and the Lord recounts those qualities. The purpose is the same, but the approaches are from diametrically opposite directions.
Source: Excerpts from the book on SYMBOLISM IN HINDUISM published by Chinmaynanda Mission