The devotion and worship of Krsna is one of the most influential and widespread series of cults in the Hindu tradition. One of the most important texts regarding this devotion is the Bhagavata Purana. One the most basic level, the Bhagavata Purana concerns the exploits of many of the incarnations of Visnu. In particular, the narrative devotes its longest section to the deeds of the avatar Krsna.
The Bhagavata Purana is said to have been composed by the sage Vyasa. Vyasa is often credited as the author of the Puranas, the Mahabharata, and the Upa-Puranas (Prasad 1). The identity of Vyasa is a controversial subject among scholars, and most modern scholars tend to treat Vyasa as a mythological figure. This is because the sheer amount of writing attributed to him would seem impossible for one man to compose in a lifetime (Prasad 3). Therefore most scholars agree that Vyasa is in fact a number of different authors, however the exact identity of the authors is still subject to debate.
There is also debate among scholars regarding the actual date of composition of the Bhagavata Purana. According to Sheo Shanker Prasad, there are currently three dominant theories regarding the Bhagavata’s date of origin. The first theory is that the famous grammarian Vodadeve composed the Bhagavata sometime in the 13th century CE (Prasad 38). According to Prasad, this theory is declining in favor mainly because there would seem to be direct references and even commentaries written concerning sections of the Bhagavata, which would seem to have been composed prior to the 13th century (Prasad 40). The second theory concerning the composition date of the Bhagavata claims that it was composed sometime during the sixth century CE. This theory is also falling out of favor with scholars, due mainly to the fact that it claims that there are quotations and references to the Bhagavata in other works dating from the seventh and eighth centuries. These claims are currently being debated because some speculate that the passages in question may simply have been later additions to such early texts in order to make them compatible with the Bhagavata narrative (Prasad 41). The more modern consensus seems to be with the third theory expressed by Prasad. This theory speculates that the Bhagavata Purana was composed sometime between 900-1000 CE (Prasad 39). Prasad argues that the Bhagavata must have been composed sometime between the Devi-Bhagavata [c. 950 CE] and Sriharsa’s Naisadhiya-carita [c.1020-1080 CE] and thus had to have been composed sometime between 950-1080 CE (Prasad 43-44). This theory is also supported by a number of modern scholars, including Bimanbehari Majumdar (Majumdar 61-63). Despite the modern shift towards the theory that the Bhagavata was composed during the tenth century, there is still no absolute consensus among scholars as to the actual date of composition, and event the most popular theories rely on a great degree of speculation.
The story contained within the narrative itself opens with a group of rsis who wished to enter heaven. To achieve this, they began performing a complicated and tiring yajna, but due to the nature of the ritual, they were forced to take a break (Sharma 7). While they were resting, the rsis were joined by the great sage Suta, himself also a rsi. The members of the original group performing the yajna wished to learn more about Krsna, and acknowledging Suta as the most knowledgeable concerning the life of Krsna, asked him to teach them (Sharma 7). Suta responded by telling the Bhagavata Purana.
At its most basic level, the Bhagavata Purana is the tale of the deeds of avatars of the god Visnu. Here we find one of the more distinguishing features of the Bhagavata, namely that it describes 24 incarnation of Visnu, whereas other texts tend to only refer to ten incarnations (Sharma 7). Visnu’s avatars described in the Bhagavata Purana are as follows: The first was described as a celibate Brahmin; the second was a wild boar or varaha; the third was the great sage Narada; the forth incarnation was actually two people, Nara and Narayana; the fifth was the sage Kapila; the sixth was Dattatreya, son of the sage Atri and his wife Anusuya; the seventh was Yajna, who “held the title of Indra during the first manvantara” (Sharma 8); the eighth was Rishabha; the ninth was king Prithu; the tenth was a fish; the eleventh was a turtle, named Kurma; the twelfth was Dhanvantari; the thirteenth was a beautiful woman; the fourteenth was a narasima, or half-man half-lion; the fifteenth was a vamana, or dwarf; the sixteenth was Parashurama; the seventeenth was Vedavyasa, whose real name was Krsna Dvaipayana, who received name Vedavyasa because he reorganized the Vedas so that they might be easier understood by man [reorganized into the current four volumes]; the eighteenth was Rama [from the Ramayana]; the nineteenth and twentieth were Baladeva and his younger brother Krsna; and the twenty-first was the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (Sharma 7-9). The twenty-second avatar described by Suta was not yet born, but would be named Kalki (Sharma 9). While Suta claims there are twenty-four incarnations, he only describes twenty-two (Sharma 9). The bulk of the narrative of the Bhagavata Purana is composed of the exploits of the various avatars of Visnu.
As previously stated, the largest individual section of the Bhagavata Purana concerns the exploits of the avatar Krsna. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of this section of the Bhagavata is that is perhaps the earliest Sanskrit text concerning the childhood of Krsna (Sharma 6). This section describes the birth of Krsna and his older brother Baladeva as the result of Brahma’s prayers to Visnu that he might end evil’s hold on the world (Sharma 15). In this tale, Kamsa, king of the Yodvas, forces Krsna into hiding as a child. It describes his youthful exploits playing with cow herders and playing the flute (Sharma 15-16). The Bhagavata also describes Krsna’s return to Mathura and his slaying of Kamsa, as well as other divine acts [such as lifting a mountain with one finger] (Sharma 16). The story of Krsna is often seen as the most important part of the Bhagavata and is consequently one of the most studied sections.
One such study was composed by Vallabhacarya sometime in the late 15th or early 16th century CE. In his introduction to his translation of Vallabhacarya’s work, James D. Redington notes that chapters 29-35 of book ten of the Bhagavata were of particular interest to Vallabhacarya and others due to the aesthetic implications of Krsna’s “love games” with women of the cow herder caste (Redington 1). Vallabhacarya notes the implication of Krsna as the ideal male, as well as the aesthetic implications of the Gopis [cow herder women with whom Krsna played his games] as examples of ideal feminine beauty (Redington 2).
A more modern study by Richa Pauranik Clements argues for the social importance of the Krsna tales in the Bhagavata. Clements, like Vallabhacarya, found importance in the “love games” of Krsna and the Gopis, and claims that the Bhagavata sometimes implies a reversal of common Hindu dharmic ranking, namely that the narrative often seems to place the dharmic duties of the Sudra class [that “of service and devotion” (Clements 26)] as the most favored (Clements 26). However the author also notes that the narrative retains traditional varna distinctions as well. This is demonstrated, according to Clements, by the fact that while Krsna has sexual intercourse with women of the Sudra class, he can only marry a member of his own (Kshatriya) class [it is also worth noting, according to Clements, that Krsna does not seduce a member of the higher Brahmin class] (Clements 26).
The Bhagavata Purana is an intricate and expansive work that describes the deeds of the avatars of one of the chief Hindu deities, Visnu. For this reason alone it could be seen as significant, however, it has proven to also be one of the most important texts in regards to the worship of one particular avatar, Krsna.
References and Further Recommended Reading
Shastri, J.L. ed. (1970) Ancient Indian Tradition & Mythology: (Puranas in translation). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Clements, Richa Pauranik (2002) “Embodied Morality and Spiritual Destiny in the Bhagavata Purana.” International Journal of Hindu Studies Vol. 6 No. 2, p. 111-145.
Majumdar, Bimanbehari (1969) Krsna in History and Legend. Calcutta: University of Calcutta Press.
Prasad, Sheo Shanker (1984) The Bhagavata Purana: A Literary Study. Delhi: Capital Publishing House.
Preciado-Solis, Benjamin (1984) The Krsna Cycle in the Puranas: Themes and Motifs in a Heroic Saga. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Sharma, P.R.P. (2007) Encyclopedia of Puranas. New Delhi: Anmol Publications Pvt. Ltd.
Vallabhacarya (1479-1531?) Vallabhacarya on the Love Games of Krsna. James D. Redington, trans (1983). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
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Article written by Daniel Lavigne (Spring 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.