Rāma and Kṛṣṇa (the most prominent of the incarnations of Viṣṇu-Nārāyaṇa), Śiva and Devī, form the four main pillars upon which the edifice of Hindu theism rests. The two epics, Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata, as also the vast paurāṇika literature, form the basis for the various cults and sects that have woven the texture of the variegated Hindu fabric. Among the various purāṇas, however, it is the Bhāgavata that has earned a pre-eminent place for itself, not only for its philosophical content and devotional fervour but also for its exquisite literary beauty. Though basically a text of the Bhāgavata school preaching the Viṣṇu-Nārāyaṇa-Kṛṣṇa cult, it is remarkably catholic in its outlook and has successfully harmonized Advaita philosophy as also the Śaiva cults with its basic tenets. While a study of this work is definitely fascinating and highly rewarding, it has also been considered as a test of one’s scholarship.
The Bhāgavata has been classed among the purāṇas. Hence a few words about them will not be out of place here. Since early Vedic literature like the Atharvaveda, Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, Gopatha Brāhmaṇa and Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad mention the word purāṇa (in singular), it may be inferred that the purāṇa was a branch of Vedic learning. The earliest beginnings of the purāṇa literature have been traced to the Pāri-plava Ākhyānas or narrations, commemorating the genealogies of great kingly lines and allied subjects, recited during periods of intervals in sacrifices. In course of time, recitation of the purāṇa seems to have been relegated to the sūtas (members of a mixed caste) since it was not integral to the sacrifices. This bifurcation helped in the development of a number of purāṇas and upapurāṇas (minor purāṇas) under the leadership of eminent sūtas like Lomaharṣaṇa who was a disciple of Vyāsa. It is very likely that Vyāsa compiled the original Purāṇa-saṁhitā which was expanded and divided by Lomaharṣaṇa and his disciples, resulting in course of time, in eighteen purāṇas and eighteen upapurāṇas as extant now. In the light of this, it is understandable how Vyāsa has been taken to be the author of all these purāṇas and upapurāṇas.
There has been a controversy whether the ‘Bhāgavata’ included in the list of the eighteen purāṇas (also called sometimes, as mahāpurāṇas) is Devībhāgavata or this (Viṣṇu) Bhāgavata. Many scholars opine in favour of the latter.
With several unknown or variable factors involved, fixing the dates of ancient Hindu scriptures, has always been a difficult exercise. The Bhāgavata is no exception to this. The internal evidence of the work, viz., Śuka teaching it to king Parīkṣit, takes the date to the beginning of the Kali-yuga, around 3000 B.C. This is the opinion of the orthodox groups. Another view, that poet Bopadeva (13th cent.) was the author, has been thoroughly discounted by several scholars. A few are of the conviction that the core of the purāṇa is very old. However, it was given the shape of a mahāpurāṇa in the early Christian era and further expanded by the Tamil saints of South India, contemporaneous with the Āḷvārs (5th-8th cent. A. D.) Thus, there has been a three-phase development of the text.
Though tradition ascribes the authorship to the sage Vedavyāsa, who was the author of the core of the work, those responsible for the second and third phases of development have remained unknown.
The Bhāgavata as available today, has been divided into 12 skandhas or books, further divided into 335 adhyāyas or chapters, containing in all, a little more than 14,000 ślokas or verses. However, tradition has always put it at 18,000 verses.
A brief synopsis of the contents may now be given here:
This skandha, though introductory in form, is the final section added to complete the narration of Kṛṣṇa’s story and glory. In this sense, it may perhaps be considered as a supplement to the tenth skandha. The famous line ‘Kṛṣṇastu bhagavān svayam’ occurring here (3.28) also signifies the finale to the development of the Bhāgavata literature. It also describes how the Bhāgavata came to be written.
After an introduction through the story of Śaunaka and other sages performing a Sattra-yāga (a long-drawn fire sacrifice), the book expatiates the glory of the Bhāgavata Dharma or the life of devotion to the Lord, which can be cultivated through the study of the Bhāgavata and the teachings of Kṛṣṇa who lives in it. This is followed by a narration of how the Bhāgavata came to be composed by Vyāsa, on the advice of the sage Nārada, to get peace of mind.
The book covers the last part of the story of the Pāṇḍavas including the incident of king Parīkṣit being cursed by a sage, to die of snake-bite. When the king has resigned himself to his fate, the sage Śuka, the son of Vyāsa, arrives there and starts narrating the story of the Bhāgavata for his spiritual good.
Smallest of the twelve skandhas, this book may probably be the nucleus of the original Bhāgavata.
Meditation on the Virāṭpuruṣa or the Cosmic Divinity, the ascent of the soul of yogi to the Brahmaloka, a description of the devotion to the Lord, Śuka’s prayer to the Supreme Lord, glory of Lord Nārāyaṇa and his incarnations as also a brief account of the cosmic theories and theological doctrines of Bhāgavata form the subject-matter of this skandha.
The well-known Catuśślokī-Bhāga-vata forms an integral part of the ninth chapter of this book.
This consists of two long quotations by Śuka, of dialogues that took place bet-ween Uddhava and Vidura, and between Vidura and Maitreya. It is sometimes interspersed with hymns and remarks by Parīkṣit and Śuka.
The story of mutual fighting among the Yādavas and their destruction, the ascension of Kṛṣṇa to his Abode, Kṛṣṇa’s message to Vidura through Uddhava, Vidura’s seeking Self-knowledge from the sage Maitreya and the latter’s teaching containing the philosophy of jñāna and bhakti (knowledge and devotion) as taught by Kapila to his mother Devahūti—are the other contents of this book.
This skandha deals mainly with the stories of the daughters of Svāyambhuva Manu (a progenitor of mankind) and their lineage.
The story of destruction of Dakṣa’s sacrifice due to the wrath of Rudra who had been antagonized by Dakṣa and the episode of the child devotee Dhruva who retires to the forest and performs auste-rities to gain the grace of Lord Viṣṇu are the main contents of this book.
A considerable part of this skandha is in prose.
A schematic description of Brahmāṇḍa or the universe and detailed description of the earth form an important part of this book. The purpose seems to be to help the devotee to meditate on the physical universe as the body of the Lord.
This skandha also contains the stories of great devotee-kings like Priyavrata, Ṛṣabha, Bharata and others.
There is also an interesting description of twenty eight kinds of narakas or purgatories.
This skandha starts with the story of Ajāmila, a sinner who was saved by uttering the word ‘Nārāyaṇa’ on his death-bed, thereby revealing the mysterious power inherent in the divine name.
Another episode dealt with in detail is that of Vṛtrāsura, a fiend who fought with Indra, but was defeated and killed by him. Vṛtrāsura was a great devotee of Lord Viṣṇu. Actually he was a devotee king Citraketu born as a fiend due to a curse.
Misbehaviour provoking the dis-pleasure of holy persons, results in downfall. On the other hand, pleasing them through devoted service can lead to spiritual evolution. This is the theme developed in this skandha.
The examples given are those of Nārada, Jaya and Vijaya. Nārada had to be reborn as a servant boy of low birth.
Jaya and Vijaya, attendants of Lord Viṣṇu at his abode Vaikuṇṭha, were reborn as the demons Hiraṇyākṣa and Hiraṇya-kaśipu. The story of Hiraṇyakaśipu also contains a detailed account of his son Prahlāda, one of the greatest exemplars of divine love. Prahlāda survives all the attempts of his father to kill him, due to the protection afforded by the Lord Viṣṇu to whom he had totally surrendered himself. The discourses of Prahlāda on the cult of bhakti, known as the Bhāgavata-dharma are an important part of this skandha.
There is also a nice description of varṇāśrama-dharmas, ideals of the social system according to castes and stages of life.
This skandha contains three important incidents: the story of Gajendra, the elephant king; the churning of the ocean of milk and the obtaining of amṛta or nectar by the gods; the story of Mahābali, the king of the asuras being vanquished by Lord Viṣṇu as Vāmana (the Dwarf).
This skandha also gives the details of the manvantaras or epochs of Manus (patriarchs endowed with divine powers).
The last part of skandha deals with naimittika-pralaya (intermediary deluge) that occurs at the end of a day of Brahmā, the Creator and the Matsyāvatāra (Fish-incarnation).
Dealing mainly with genealogies of the great kingly and priestly lines, this skandha also gives accounts of some eminent personalities from among them.
First comes the story of the sage Cyavana, his marriage with Sukanyā (daughter of king Śaryāti), her devoted service to the old sage and the blessings of the twin gods Aśvins upon the couple.
Then comes the story of king Ambarīṣa, a great devotee of Lord Viṣṇu, how the sage Durvāsas wanted to harm him and how he was protected by the Sudarśana-cakra, the Discus of the Lord Viṣṇu.
Another notable episode is that of the king Rantideva who had gifted away everything and was living a very austere life. Once, after a long period of religious fasting when he was about to take his food, he readily parted with it to feed hungry guests.
The stories of the kings Yayāti, Duṣyanta and his wife Śakuntalā as also the story of the Pāṇḍavas are the other episodes that appear in this section.
This is the biggest book of the Bhāgavata and is generally divided into two parts: the Pūrvārdha (the first part) consisting of 49 chapters and 2005 verses; the Uttarārdha (the second part) comprising 31 chapters and 1941 verses. It deals with the story of Śrī Kṛṣṇa in great detail.
The birth, childish pranks and exploits of Lord Kṛṣṇa during his childhood days, his play with the gopīs of Vṛndāvan, his journey to Mathurā along with his elder brother Balarāma, his killing of the tyrant Kaṁsa, the ruler of Mathurā, his education under the sage Sāndīpani, his marriages with several princesses, his innumerable conquests as also his helping the Pāṇḍavas in various ways have been dealt with in detail.
The main topic of discourse in this skandha which is the concluding part of the Kṛṣṇa saga, is mokṣa or liberation from transmigratory existence. The teachings of the Navayogīs or the nine sages to Vasudeva containing the Bhāgavata-dharma and Kṛṣṇa’s long discourse to Uddhava, now well-known as the Uddhavagītā, are the main contents of this book. The Uddhavagītā deals mainly with spiritual values like holy association, supremacy of devotion and details of the four yogas or paths to enlightenment.
The book ends with the mutual destruction of the Yādavas and the exit of Kṛṣṇa from this world.
This is practically the prologue to the whole work.
The genealogy of kingly lines that ruled after Kṛṣṇa’s ascension, the importance of devotion to God in Kaliyuga and the last part of the story of Parīkṣit are the main contents of this book. A synopsis of the whole Bhāgavata and the ceremonial way of studying it have been added at the end.
Sage Vyāsa composed the Bhāgavata solely to express his devotion to the Lord by describing his glory through the Kṛṣṇa incarnation. Hence no study of the book can be complete without touching upon Kṛṣṇa, the person and the personality, his doings and sayings.
The Bhāgavata declares that Kṛṣṇa is God himself, ‘kṛṣṇastu bhagavān svayam’ (1.3.28). Since God is perfect, Kṛṣṇa, his human manifestation, too is perfect. His physical form and beauty are highly bewitching. His speech is exceedingly sweet. His intellect and wisdom, shrewdness and farsightedness, are matchless. His strength and power, valour and heroism are simply awesome. But, he is not a tyrant, though tyrants quake on hearing his very name. His heart is as soft as the butter he loves to consume in liberal quantities. A friend of the lowly and the meek, compassion incarnate, he is the first to rush to protect those in distress. Destroyer of demons, conqueror of emperors, he makes and unmakes kings, himself never accepting a throne. Wealth and power come rolling to his feet unasked, but he is most detached towards them.
Kṛṣṇa is as great a spiritual preceptor as he is a warrior. Lord of Yoga and goal of the yogīs, his teachings as given to the gopīs or Uddhava, reveal the rarest of insights, but are intensely practical.
Kṛṣṇa’s dealings with the gopīs of Vṛndāvan are often cavilled at, without a careful scrutiny. The king Parīkṣit himself raises serious doubts about Kṛṣṇa’s (appa-rently) unwholesome doings. Śuka’s reply which sets his doubts at rest, runs on these lines: Even the sages who have gone beyond the bonds of karma due to spiritual enlightenment got by meditating upon the feet of the Lord, are beyond the dos and don’ts of dharma. Then what to speak of him who is born out of his free will to save mankind? Sometimes these great ones act, transgressing dharma, but with a higher purpose. In such cases their words, and not actions, should be emulated. For instance, Śiva drank the deadly poison hālāhala to save the worlds. We cannot do so. Agni or fire can consume anything that is cast into it. We cannot.
In whichever way the devotees approached Kṛṣṇa, in the same way did he respond. He knew that the gopīs’s love was tainted with sex-passion. Like an expert psychiatrist he responded to it, in order to draw it out from the subconscious levels and destroy it, himself remaining all the while unaffected (vide 10.33.26). That this technique worked, is shown by the fact of their realizing him as their very Self (10.47.53).
Born in a prison, he liberates others from prisons and bondage. Brought up by the cowherds he is highly admired and respected even by great sages and mighty kings. Though subjected to all kinds of tyranny, he frees others from tyranny and fear. He is an ideal householder, an ideal man of renunciation, a hero of thousand battles who knows no defeat, the terror of despots and hypocrites, a master statesman, a consummate man of action, a friend of the lowly ones including the untouchables—he is all things to all persons and hence, ‘Puruṣottama,’ the Best of Men.
The Bhāgavata is a gospel of divine life and love, and not a treatise of philosophy. It is based upon vijñāna, the direct experience of the Reality but includes jñāna (rational philosophy built on it) also.
According to it, Brahman or Ātman is the only absolute Reality. The whole universe is only an expression in name and form of this Reality. Other terms used to indicate it are: Paramātman, Pratya-gātman, Puruṣottama, Akṣara, Turīya, Bhūman and so on, as in the Upaniṣads. But the Bhāgavata calls it also by such other names as Kṛṣṇa, Vāsudeva, Nārāyaṇa, Hari and so on. It is however pure consciousness, beyond words and thought and free from all limitations.
The Bhāgavata accepts four pramāṇas or valid sources of knowledge: pratyakṣa (direct perception), anumāna (inference), āptavākya (tradition of spiritual experience of saints) and śruti (Vedas). However, all these can only point to Brahman, but cannot give direct experience.
The work describes Brahman as an impersonal Super-person, the creator, sustainer and final refuge of the world of matter and mind. He is present in every atom of the universe in all his glory. Māyā is the infinite power he wields. He takes whatever form his devotees desire to worship him in, continuing to remain formless too. The emphasis in the text is more on personal God with form, as more suited to love, devotion and worship. And, Kṛṣṇa is God himself; or, rather, God is Kṛṣṇa himself !
‘Bhagavat’ is one of the central concepts of the text. The word ‘Bhagavān’ frequently used both for the personal God and the Absolute, means the ‘gracious Lord,’ ‘the Adorable One’. It is also used as a term of respect while referring to saints and holy men.
Then comes the concept of ‘avatāra,’ God come down (avatāraṇa = coming down) as a living being, in order to help mankind to rise to divine levels by restoring the spiritual equilibrium. The Bhāgavata refers to several avatāras, there being no uniformity in the number or sequence, which varies from ten to forty.
The Bhāgavata also refers to the four ‘Vyūhas’ or emanations from Lord Viṣṇu. They are sometimes classed under avatāras though considered as different from avatāras that arise as a response to certain cosmic situations. They are: Vāsudeva, Saṅkarṣaṇa Pradyumna and Aniruddha. They are different aspects of manifestation of the six qualities known as ‘bhaga’ (like jñāna or knowledge, bala or power, aiśvarya or lordship and so on). While vāsudeva has all the six qualities in full measure, the other three have two each in greater measure than the others.
The Ṛgvedic concept of ‘Puruṣa’ also can be seen here. He is the Cosmic Person manifesting himself objectively as the individual and the universe. He is also called ‘Puruṣottama’ and Kṛṣṇa is Puruṣottama.
Then comes māyā, the power of God. It has three guṇas or strands, sattva, rajas and tamas. The whole universe is a product of the permutation and combination of these three when their equilibrium is disturbed by the will of God, who himself remains inactive like a magnet, itself at rest, inducing movement in iron filings.
The world process appears to the devotees of the Lord as only his ‘līlā’ or sport. He takes pleasure in it, the redemption of the struggling souls being its main purpose.
The most important aspect of the teachings of the Bhāgavata is the mode of sādhanā it prescribes for attaining perfection. Bhakti, love or devotion, has been given the pride of place, though jñāna (knowledge), yoga (contemplation) and karma (right activities) too find an important place in its scheme. Bhakti has been advocated as a more natural and hence an easier, path to perfection.
Bhakti has two aspects. When undertaken as the preliminary discipline, it is called ‘sādhanā-bhakti’ or ‘vaidhī-bhakti.’ It is more of the nature of karma or activities like worship or chanting or singing the divine names or other rituals. This ripens into ‘aikāntikī’ or ‘ahaitukī’ or ‘ātyantikī’ (intense, single-pointed) bhakti, wherein love flows unobstructed towards God even as a river flows into the ocean. It is also termed as ‘nirguṇā bhakti.’ One who has attained to this state of intense devotion is called a ‘mahābhāgavata’ (a great devotee of God) or ‘bhāgavatottama’ (the best of devotees).
The object of bhakti may be the personal God or an avatāra, or the whole universe. Of these, bhakti towards an avatāra is the easiest and the sweetest. This bhakti can take several forms depen-ding upon the relationship that the devotee cultivates towards the Deity: śānta (peaceful contemplation), dāsya (servitude), vātsalya (parental love), sakhya (friendship) and kānta or mādhurya (conjugal love).
Sometimes, even hatred and fear of God have been included within the orbit of bhakti by the text, since the intense concentration brought about by them on God can purify and liberate them that do so.
Since love naturally expresses itself as service of the loved ones, the Bhāgavata lays great stress on service of the Personal God or saints or even the beings of the world as God’s manifestation. Service to the poor, the needy and the suffering is especially advocated.
Another peculiar feature of the work is the special reverence it advises one to cultivate towards the mother-land. Bhāratavarṣa, named after the great rājarṣi (sagely king) Bharata, is not a mere geographical unit but the mother of civilization and, the very embodiment of moral and spiritual culture.
There is a fairly detailed treatment of the subject of varṇāśrama-dharma (scheme of duties according to castes and stages of life) which is a vindication of man’s right to grow to the heights of spiritual realization. Character and conduct, rather than birth, are recognized as the sine qua non of greatness. It is also stressed that devotion helps one to transcend the limitations. imposed by birth.
Religious emotion leads to reverence which expresses itself as worship. The Bhāgavata deals with ritualistic worship also as a part of the practice of devotion. Worship of pratimās (icons) and pratīkas (symbols), the sun, holy rivers like the Gaṅgā and the Himālaya mountains are mentioned as aids to devotion. It is also stressed that the devotee should never pray to God for anything for himself since the omniscient God knows what is best for him.
The highest goal of life is called mukti. It is a state of freedom from all bondage and getting back one’s natural state of divinity or bliss. Bhakti and japa (repetition of God’s name) are the most efficacious means of purifying the mind leading ultimately to mukti.
It is interesting to note that the work considers bhakti as the fifth puruṣārtha or value of life, beyond the other four, including even mokṣa or liberation. Bhakti is not merely the purifying agency, a means for a higher end, as in the view of many monistic thinkers, but, as its highest, is the acme of life, transcending mukti.
Though several varieties or aspects of mukti such a sārūpya (having a form similar to that of the Lord) or sālokya (living in the world of God, viz., Vaikuṇṭha) are described, Bhāgavata is more inclined towards parābhakti, the highest or the most intense love of God, as the goal of life, wherein a semblance of the duality between the devotee and the Deity is kept up.
Following the usual traditions of the purāṇas, the Bhāgavata also deals with many concepts involving immense time-periods and almost boundless regions of space in its narrations about creation. They become intelligible and meaningful only when it is recognized that the purāṇas trace the origin of the universe to the Supreme Being and accept the cyclic theory of creation, preservation and withdrawal as against the linear theory held by the modern scientists. Thus, they deal with cosmic history and geography.
The Bhāgavata is also a work of exceptional literary merit. It is as graceful as it is tough. Whether it is a description of nature (10.20) or of places like Mathurā and Dvārakā (10.41; 10.37) or depiction of the well-known navarasas (nine poetic sentiments—10.29; 10.60; 10.37; 10.8; 10.80, 81), Bhāgavata excels in every way. No wonder then, that the community of scholars have, for centuries, accepted it as a touchstone of their erudition.
For this very reason, the Bhāgavata has attracted the attention of several scholars who have composed commentaries on it. As many as 44 commentaries are known to exist.
By far, the Bhāvārthadīpikā of Śrīdharasvāmin (14th cent.) seems to be the most popular of these commentaries. Brevity and clarity, a rather difficult combination, are its chief characteristics. It has also steered clear of controversies. Dīpinī is sub-commentary on this work by Rādhāramaṇadāsa Gosvāmin. Since Śrīdhara was a monk of the Advaita school of Vedānta, the other two schools—Viśiṣṭādvaita and Dvaita—did not want to lag behind. The Bhāgavata-candrikā of Vīrarāghavācarya and the Padaratnāvalī of Vijayadhavaja-tīrtha are the commenta-ries, respectively, of these two schools. The other well-known commentaries still holding their sway among the followers of the respective cults are: Subodhinī of Vallabhācārya (A. D. 1473-1531); Siddhānta-pradīpa of Nimbārkā-cārya (12th cent.); Kramasandarbha of Jīvagosvāmin (15th cent.) and Sārārtha-darśinī of Viśvanātha-cakravartin (17th cent.). Sanātana Gosvāmin (15th cent.) has chosen to comment only on the tenth skandha. This work, Bṛhad-vaiṣṇava-toṣiṇī, is highly venerated by the followers of the Caitanya school.
The Bhāgavata is essentially a devotional text. Much of the metaphysics found in it is theological in nature, supporting the devotional doctrines. The metaphysics, however, is that of Vedānta. Hence, the ideas stated in the Upaniṣads are often found here, sometimes using the very words or expressions. Though the work leans heavily towards advaita, the supre-macy of the Personal God, especially as Nārāyaṇa or Mahāviṣṇu or Kṛṣṇa, is always upheld; so also bhakti or devotion to him as the best means of achieving anything in life.
However, the bhakti advocated here is not sentimentalism. It is upāsanā or meditation brought about by vairāgya (renunciation) and jñāna (knowledge of the Reality). Even sentimental devotion can help since it is directed towards the Lord, who knows how to react, correct, lead and guide his devotees.
Attempts have also been made in the work to reconcile the Śiva and the Viṣṇu cults, at loggerheads with each other at that time.
Synthesis of the paths of jñāna, bhakti and karma is another feature noticed here.
But the greatest achievement of the Bhāgavata is the projection of the Kṛṣṇa saga and the Kṛṣṇa personality in the most poetical, and yet, powerful and graceful language. If Kṛṣṇa remains as the darling of millions of Hindu hearts even today, it is not a little due to this matchless work.