The Bhagavata Purana

by G. V. Tagare | 1950 | 780,972 words | ISBN-10: 8120838203 | ISBN-13: 9788120838208

This page describes Bhagavata Purana with Ten Characteristic Topics which is part 1 of the English translation of the Bhagavata Purana, one of the eighteen major puranas containing roughly 18,000 metrical verses. Topics include ancient Indian history, religion, philosophy, geography, mythology, etc. The text has been interpreted by various schools of philosophy. This is the first part of the Introduction of the Bhagavatapurana.

Part 1 - Bhāgavata Purāṇa with Ten Characteristic Topics

(1) The Term Purāṇa

The term Purāṇa usually occurs in close association with itihāsa in old Sanskrit literature.[1] Originally it connoted simply ‘an old narrative’. The Purāṇas describe this term as ‘that which lives from ancient times’[2] or ‘the records of ancient events’[3]. To convey the same sense, Sanskrit lexicons derive the term Purāṇa grammatically as follows:[4]

(1) Purā (pūrvasmin kāle) bhavam[5] /

(2) purā nīyate iti

As a class of literature Purāṇas existed in Vedic times and are mentioned as such along with Brāhmaṇas, Itihāsa and Nārāśaṃsī gāthā in the AV[6] (Atharva Veda), in Brāhmaṇas[7] and in the Tai. Ār. (Taiṭtirīya Āraṇyaka[8]). By the time of the Chāndogya Upaniṣad, they were accorded the status of ‘the fifth Veda’, and formed a part of the syllabus of Vedic studies[9]. The use of itihāsa and purāṇa in a collective dvandva and in the singular number in these ancient works suggests that, possibly, there was one work or rather tract of literature called Purāṇa—a tradition recorded in the Matsya, Padma and Skanda Purāṇas.[10] As P.V. Kane shows, the Āpastamba Dharma Sūtra twice quotes verses from a Purāṇa and summarized the view of a Bhaviṣyat Purāṇa.[11] The quotations show that Purāṇas in those days were versified compositions in archaic Sanskrit and that even in those times there was a Purāṇa called Bhaviṣyat Purāṇa.

(2) Five characteristics of Purāṇas

It appears that probably due to the pre-eminence of the war between Kauravas and Pāṇḍavas wherein the then contemporary Aryandom participated, the Mahābhārata with all its accretions came to be designated as itihāsa (history) and the rest of the ancient lore purāṇa. But both itihāsas and purāṇas are equally myth and history. It is presumed by scholars like M. Winternitz that ‘similar to the Vedic Saṃhitās there existed one or several collections of Itihāsas and Purāṇas, made up of myths and legends.[12] During the Brāhmaṇa period, ‘the recital of narrative poems formed a part of the religious ceremonies at the sacrificial and domestic festivals. Thus the daily recitation of legends of gods and heroes belonged to the preliminary celebration, which lasted a whole year, of the great horse-sacrifice’.[13]

As shown by S. Bhattacarya[14] it was this sacrificial milieu which led to the formation of the following main topics dealt with in the Purāṇas, viz.

  1. sarga (creation of the universe);
  2. pratisarga (recreation after destruction or deluge);
  3. vaṃśa (genealogy);
  4. manvantara (the great periods of time with Manu as the primal ancestor) and
  5. vaṃśānucarita (the history of the dynasties both the Solar and the Lunar).

These topics formed an integral part of the ‘definition’ of the purāṇas, as given in the Amara Kośa.[15] But as G.V. Devasthali notes, ‘the texts that have come down to us under the title Purāṇa hardly conform to this definition, since they contain either something more or something less than the limitations set by it.’[16] The reasons were obvious. The process of Aryanisation of pre-Aryan masses and assimilation of foreign invaders like Greeks, Scythians, Hunas [Hūṇas] and others in the Hindu fold necessitated the creation of a literature which included non-Aryan beliefs, rituals, customs etc. and could shape the conduct and meet the worldly and spiritual needs of the masses. Hence the conglomeration of legends of gods, and tales of demons and snakedeities, old sages and kings of ancient times in Purāṇas. Some Purāṇas like Agni, Garuḍa and Nārada are ancient encyclopaedias of literature containing abstracts of works in Arts and Sciences, medicine, grammar, dramaturgy, music, astrology etc. Most of them are rich in dharma-śāsṭra material such as ācāra (religious duties), āśrama-dharma (duties pertaining to one’s social class and stage in life), dāna (gifts), prāyaścitta (atonement for sins), Śrāddha (rituals pertaining to the death-anniversary), Tīrtha (holy places) etc.[17] They have amalgamated āgamic Vaiṣṇavism with early (Vedic) Viṣṇuism and āgamic Śaivism with the Vedic traditions. A number of them are rich in historical material, e.g. the Vāyu, Brahmāṇḍa, Bhāgavata. Hence they (the purāṇas) afford us far greater insight into all aspects and phases of Hinduism—its mythology, its idol-worship, its theism, its pantheism, its love of God, its philosophy and its superstition, its festivals and ceremonies and its ethics, than any other work.[18] Pargiter is not exaggerating when he calls Purāṇas as a popular encyclopaedia of ancient and mediaeval Hinduism, religious, philosophical, historical, personal, social and political.[19]

(3) Mahāpurāṇas and the Bhāgavata Purāṇa.

The Purāṇic literature consists of 18 Mahāpurāṇas and numerous Upapurāṇas. The term Mahāpurāṇa for the 18 principal Purāṇas is of a very late origin, being found only in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa[20] According to the Bhāgavata Purāṇa 12.13.4-8, the following are the names of the Mahāpurāṇas along with the number of ślokas as given below:

S. No. Names of the Purāṇas No. of ślokas
1. Brahma 10,000
2. Padma 55,000
3. Viṣṇu 23,000
4. Vāyu 24,000
5. Bhāgavata 18,000
6. Nārada 25,000
7. Mārkaṇḍeya 9,000
8. Agni 10,500
9. Bhaviṣya 14,500
10. Brahmavaivarta 18,000
11. Liṅga 11,000
12. Varāha 24,000
13. Skanda 81,000
14. Vāmana 10,000
15. Kūrma 17,000
16. Matsya 14,000
17. Garuḍa 19,000
18. Brahmāṇḍa 12,000

As P. V. Kane notes there is considerable divergence about the names of the 18 principal purāṇas. For example, the Matsya-purāṇa (chap.53) enumerates them as follows:—Brahma, Padma, Viṣṇu, Vāyu, Bhāgavata, Nārada, Mārkaṇḍeya, Āgneya, Bhaviṣya, Brahmavaivarta, Liṅga, Varāha, Skanda, Vāmana, Kūrma, Matsya, Garuḍa and Brahmāṇḍa. The Viṣṇupurāṇa (3.6) on the other hand, omits Vāyu from the above list and adds Śiva.1 These Mahāpurāṇas have been classified by the Padma Purāṇa (Uttara-khaṇḍa, 263.81-4) into Sāttvika, rājasa and tāmasa. Viṣṇu, Nārada, Bhāgavata, Garuḍa, Padma and Varāha are Sāttvika; Brahmāṇḍa, Brahmavaivarta, Brahma, Vāmana and Bhaviṣya are rājasa; Matsya, Kūrma, Liṅga, Śiva, Agni and Skanda are tāmasa. The Skanda Purāṇa, however, differs. It states that 10 Purāṇas describe the glory of Śiva, 4 of Brahma and 2 each of Devī and Hari (Kedāra-khaṇḍa 1). The Matsya Purāṇa. (53.68-9) considers that the Agni Purāṇa is Rājasa.

Although the Bhāgavata Purāṇa assigns for itself the fifth position in the list of Mahāpurāṇas,[21] it is acclaimed as the best and most important work by ancient and modern scholars. For example, according to Winternitz, this is indisputably the most famous Purāṇa work. Still it exerts a powerful influence on the life and thought of the innumerable adherents to the sect of the Bhāga-vatas.[22] The last redactor of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa calls it as “the ripe fruit entirely made of ambrosial juice of the wish-yielding tree called the Vedas, fallen from the mouth of a connoisseur (of sweet fruits) like Śuka”.[23] The Padma Purāṇa states that Bhāgavata Purāṇa explains what is actionlessness (naiṣkarmya) synthesized with spiritual knowledge, renunciation and devotion. By listening to it and contemplating on it, and through devotion, a man attains to Liberation.[24] According to Bopadeva, the Vedas, Purāṇa and Kāvya (Poetry) advise us like the Master, friend and beloved respectively. But the Bhāgavata synthesizes the function of these three (and guides us).[25] Numerous quotations can be given from old Indian writers. But it will be enough if it be submitted that eminent commentators belonging to different schools of the Vedānta are vying with each other to show that the Bhāgavata Purāṇa supports their own school of philosophy. To wit, Śrīdhara (Advaita), Gaṅgā Sahāya (Advaita), Vīrarāghava and Sudarśana Sūri (Viśiṣṭādvaita), Vijayadhvaja (Dvaita), Śukadeva, (Bhedābheda or Nimbārka), Vallabha Giridhara (Pūrṇādvaita), Jīva Gosvāmī and Viśvanātha Cakravarti (Caitanya or Bengal School of Vaiṣṇavism) and a number of commentators in Sanskrit and regional languages have written excellent commentaries on the Bhāgavata Purāṇa As Winternitz puts it, the extremely numerous Mss. and printed editions of the text, many commentaries on the work, bear witness to ‘its enormous popularity and extraordinary reputation’ of being the most famous epic in India.[26]

(4) Ten characteristics of a Mahāpurāṇa

As the Bhāgavata Purāṇa is now generally regarded as a Mahāpurāṇa the old academic discussion about the claim of the Devī-bhāgavata as the real Bhāgavata is not taken up here. R.C. Hazra in his paper on Devī-Bhāgavata has already proved that it cannot be the real Bhāgavata, and it is much younger than the latter.[27] Due to the unsatisfactory nature of the pañcalakṣaṇa definition, the Bhāgavata Purāṇa has made another attempt to redefine Purāṇas.

As per Bhāgavata Purāṇa 2.10.1, the following are the 10 characteristics of a Purāṇa:[28]

(1) subtle creation (sarga); (2) gross creation (visarga); (3) law and order—ensured by God (sthāna); (4) protection—welfare of all (poṣaṇa); (5) material lust for karmas (ūti); (6) the periods of Manus and history of that epoch (manvantara); (7) accounts of the deeds of the Lord (īśānukathā); (8) physical annihilation (nirodha); (9) liberation (mukti); (10) the last resort of the universe or the ultimate reality (āśraya). These characteristics occur with some variations in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa 12.7.9-10. According to Bhāvārtha Dīpikā’s commentary on these verses, the terms vṛtti and rakṣā are used for poṣaṇa above; vaṃśānucarita stands for īśānukathā; saṃsthā includes nirodha and mukti of the second Skandha; hetu is substituted for ūti and apāśraya for āśraya. These ten characteristics constitute a Mahāpurāṇa.[29]

This is nothing but an elaboration of the original five characteristic topics of Purāṇas.

Thus, creation upto the formation of the cosmic egg was regarded as subtle and retained the old term sarga, while the gross creation of the fourteen worlds was called visarga [vi-sarga]. The old term Pratisarga presuming dissolution of the universe, in eludes the new terms nirodha (the periodic physical annihilation), and mukti (liberation) where from the point of jīva, it is the absolute annihilation of saṃsāra. Hetu i.e. jīva and ūti i.e. the material lust for karmas, are the cause of sarga, and can be included under sarga. For the protection and law and order (poṣaṇa and sthāna or vṛtti and rakṣā) of the world, God incarnates in the world in some family. Thus (īśānukathā, poṣaṇa and rakṣā form a part of Vaṃśānucarita.[30] The object of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa is to lead the jīva or Hetu to the realization of Brahman, who is the ultimate Reality, and the last resort (āśraya or apāśraya) of all. All the nine topics of the Purāṇa are meant for and lead to the tenth topic, viz., God-realization (āśraya/apāśraya).[31] The elaboration of the five topics to ten as found in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, suggests the orientation of the Purāṇa literature from their mundane character to high metaphysics.[32]

(5) The Bhāgavata Purāṇa and its ten characteristic topics

Traditionally, the Skandha-wise distribution of these topics is made as follows:

Name of the characteristic topic No. of the Skandha No. of Chapters in the Skandha
1. Sarga III 33
2. Visarga IV 31
3. Sthāna V 26
4. Poṣaṇa VI 19
5. Ūti VII 15
6. Manvantara VIII 24
7. Īśānucarita IX 24
8. Nirodha X 90
9. Mukti XI 31
10. Āśraya XII 13

This distribution is supported by eminent authors like Bopadeva in his Harilīlāmṛta, Vallabha in his Nibandha (Saprakāśa-Tattvārtha-dīpa-nibandha) and old commentators like Śrīdhara, Vīra-Rāghava, Vijayadhvaja and others. They have left out the Skandhas I and II. These traditional writers attach special significance even to the number of chapters in each Skandha.

Before criticizing the scheme, the traditional viewpoint is briefly stated:

[Skandha-wise distribution of the Characteristic topics of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa.]

(i) Sarga

‘Sarga’ is the (subtle) creation of the five elements (bhūtas), the objects of senses, sense organs and the mind, the ego and the principle of cosmic intelligence (mahat), due to the disturbance of the equilibrium of attributes (guṇas)[33]. Elsewhere, it is described as ‘the evolution of the mahat through the disturbance of the equilibrium of the three guṇas constituting the Unmanifest (avyākṛta i.e. the primordial matter), of the threefold Ahaṃkāra (egoism from the Mahat) and (from the threefold Ahaṃkāra) of the five subtle elements, the (eleven) sense-organs (viz. the cognitive and conative organs and the internal organ—the mind), and the objects of these senses’.[34] This process of creation is described in various places in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa (e.g. 2.5.20 ff), but traditionally the III Skandha is regarded to delineate creation. Creation is two-fold: (A) alaukika (Divine), (B) laukika (Worldly). (A) The Divine (alaukika) creation consists of 33 gods, whom the Lord in the form of Yajña-Varāha created for the protection of the world. The description of the Lord’s Boar incarnation (in which he killed the demon Hiraṇyākṣa) is meant for this, and it represents the Karma-Mārga (Path of action). (B) The worldly (laukika) creation describes the evolution of the universe from the twenty-eight elements, the four subtle bhūtas and time. This teaching of Kapila (and his life) represents the Path of knowledge. The total No. of chapters in this Skandha is 33, which corresponds to the number of gods in the divine creation and number of principles (tattvas) in the worldly creation.[35]

(ii) Visarga

In the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, Visarga is the gross creation produced by the Virāṭ Puruṣa.[36] Elsewhere it is described as ‘the name of the collective creation, both mobile and immobile, of the above-mentioned causal principles fecundated by the Supreme Person, and brought about by the effects of past karmas of countless jīvas, proceeding from seed to seed.[37] Visarga is thus creation as proceeding from Brahmā. The contents of the IV Skandha deal with Manvantaras—the Svāyambhuva Manu and his genealogy—the sacrifice of Dakṣa (Chs 2-7), the Dhruva legend (Chs 8-11), and the allegorical story of Purañjana (Chs 13-29), and the Prācetas brothers. But a great authority like Bopadeva states ‘the 4th Skandha of 29 chapters is called Visarga which is the production of effects (kārya-sambhūtiḥ).[38] This Skandha is divided in four parts (1) pertaining to a woman, viz. Satī (Śiva’s consort), (2) about a child, viz. Dhruva, (3) concerning an adult, viz. King Pṛthu and (4) relating to the old persons who are to perform penance. This refers to Prācīnabarhiṣ. It is in this way that the IV Skandha is regarded as dealing with Visarga.

(iii) Sthiti

Sthiti is the triumph of the Lord in the maintenance of the (divine) law and order.[39] Elsewhere, it is called Vṛtti, and it implies professions or means that men adopt to maintain themselves. The means which men adopt are the result of their own nature and inherent tendencies due to the law of Karma.[40] As that law comes under God’s influence, Vṛtti or Sthāna or Sthiti is the preservation of the created beings in their own states and moral laws by the Lord. The V Skandha gives the description of the terrestrial globe as the support of the entire creation, both mobile and immobile, and thus represents the characteristic Sthiti. Bopadtva in his Harilīlāmṛta, V Skandha, and his able commentator, Madhusūdana Saras-vatī take pains to show how the contents of the V Skandha demonstrate the characteristic Sthāna or the ‘observation of limitations.[41] A Modem reader, however, wonders how legends of Priyavrata, Nābhi, Ṛṣabha and Bharata (Ghs 1-15) followed by the geography of different mythological continents, the different heavenly bodies, and the Śiśumāra cakra, and different hells form an organic whole to be included under one characteristic called Sthiti or Vṛtti.

(iv) Poṣaṇa

Poṣaṇa is the protection and welfare of all by the Lord’s grace.[42] It is called Rakṣā in Skandha XII,[43] and consists of the exploits of the incarnations of Lord Viṣṇu, appearing in every age according to the needs, in the form of birds, beasts, human beings, sages and gods, and in these incarnations, the enemies of the Vedas are killed. As usual Bopadeva staunchly supports the view that the contents of Skandha VI constitute the characteristic Poṣaṇa or rakṣā of a Mahā Purāṇa. Puṣṭi is Hari’s grace towards His fallen devotees. The efficacy of Lord’s name is illustrated by the liberation of Ajāmila, despite his sinful life (Chs 1-3), Indra-Vṛtra legend—Vṛtra, though a demon, was an ardent devotee of Viṣṇu in his former birth as Citraketu (Ghs 7-17). The Skandha ends with the birth of Marut gods from Diti (Chs 18-19).[44]

The point at issue is, why this particular Skandha is to be called Poṣaṇa when legends showing the grace of the Lord abound all over the rest of the Skandhas of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa The liberation of the king-elephant from the alligator in Skandha VIII, is a concrete example of such overlapping.

(v) Ūti

Ūti is the desire for action (directed by) tendencies resulting from past karmas.[45] These tendencies are (1) evil, (2) good and (3) mixed in nature. Skandha VII is regarded as representing this characteristic. The evil tendencies are illustrated in Chs 1-5 wherein Hiraṇyakaśipu rules wickedly over the world, and maltreats his saintly son Prahlāda. The good tendencies are evinced in Chapters 6-10 where the pious life of Prahlāda, his advice to his Asura boy-friends, and the death of Hiraṇyakaśipu at the hands of Nṛsiṃha, and Prahlāda’s praise of the Lord, are described. The mixed tendencies of human beings are to be controlled as per instructions given in the Smṛti-like Chapters 11-15, the last describing the previous birth of Nārada.[46]

As pointed out by Bhāvārtha Dīpikā on 12.7.9, ūti corresponds to hetu. Jīva is doer of actions prompted by ignorance, which is the result of his past actions. He is, thus, the cause of the phenomenal world[47].

(vi) Manvantara

Manvantara consists of the account of the righteous path followed by Manus who observe the duty of protecting their subjects.[48] According to the Bhāgavata Purāṇa 12.7.15, the period over which a six-fold group, viz., Manu, his sons, gods, Indra, the seven sages and an incarnation (partial manifestation) of Lord Hari, preside, is called Manvantara.[49] As Bhāvārtha Dīpikā states in the introductory verses to Skandha VIII, this Skandha is devoted to the description, how in each Kalpa, this six-fold group headed by Manu practised and propagated the moral and spiritual order, and sustained the universe for the period of a kalpa. Hence Saddharma (True path of righteousness) is the characteristic of the Manvantara.[50] We find here the history of all the fourteen Manus, even though the current Manvantara is the seventh.

Skandha VIII is alternatively called dharma. It follows ūti VII or karma-vāsanā, as it is dharma that eradicates the impression left by karma (vāsanā). Four topics of dharma are delineated here:

  1. Remembrance of Lord Hari. It is illustrated by the story of the Liberation of King-elephant-Gajendra (Chs 1-4)
  2. Gifts (dāna)—the distribution of the valuable finds emerged from churning of the sea, is an example of dāna (Chs 5-14).
  3. Self-dedication—as illustrated by the legend of Bali—(Chs 15-23).
  4. Propagation of dharma done by Lord Viṣṇu in His Fish incarnation—(Ch. 24).

Hence it is aptly called Saddharma-Skandha (the Skandha dealing with the path of righteousness).

The inclusion of dharma is not extraneous. Jaya Maṅgalā on Kauṭalīya Arthaśāstra (1-5) quotes an old definition of Purāṇa according to which dharma is an integral part of Purāṇas[51].

(vii) Īśānukathā

Īśānukathā is the life accounts of various manifestations of Hari, as well as those of His devotees.[52] It is called vaṃśānucarita in Bhāgavata Purāṇa 12.7.16. Vaṃśa is the race extending over all the three divisions of time (viz. the past, present and future), of Kings of pure descent (from god Brahmā). A connected account of such kings and their descendants is denoted here as Vaṃśānucarita.[53] This supplements the characteristic called poṣaṇa above. As a matter of fact the whole Bhāgavata Purāṇa consists of stories which can be labelled as īśānukathā.

In the introduction to Skandha IX, Bhāvārtha Dīpikā states that this Skandha describes the genealogy of the 7th Manu Śrāddhadeva under two heads: (1) The Solar Race and (2) the Lunar Race. Śrāddhadeva Manu was the son of Vivasvān Āditya (identified with the physical Sun) and his sons and their male descendants from the Sūrya vaṃśa (the Solar race) and is described in Chs 1-13 of Skandha IX. Śrāddhadeva’s daughter Ilā, was married to Budha, the son of Soma and the genealogy of the sons of Ilā is recorded in Chs 14 to 24. Rāma was born in the Solar race, and Lord Kṛṣṇa, in the Lunar race, though both are regarded as the descents of Viṣṇu, the Bhāgavata Purāṇa being mainly concerned with Lord Kṛṣṇa, the traditional history from the earliest times to the birth of Kṛṣṇa, in Skandha IX is only a background for the full-fledged biography of Lord Kṛṣṇa in Skandha X.

(viii) Saṃsthā or Pralaya

Saṃsthā or Pralaya is of four types: naimittika, prākṛtika, nitya and ātyantika. The first three are included in Nirodha while the last comes under Mokṣa. According to Bhāvārtha Dīpikā, Skandha X constitutes āśraya as it deals with the life of Kṛṣṇa. Although described variously elsewhere, nirodha i.e. the destruction of wicked kings who caused decline of religion, is detailed in Skandha X, for spreading the great glory of Kṛṣṇa. The nine characteristics of a Mahā-purāṇa (such as Sarga, visarga) are contributory to the last characteristic, viz., āśraya (the last resort of the universe or the ultimate Reality). The embodiment of āśraya is Lord Kṛṣṇa whose life is described in Skandha X. The Skandha consists of 90 chapters. After description of Kṛṣṇa’s incarnation in response to god Brahmā’s prayer, the various līlās (sportive activities) of Kṛṣṇa mainly at Gokula, Mathura and Dvārakā are described here. The first 35 chapters, extol Kṛṣṇa’s līlās while he stayed at Gokula and Vṛndāvana. After the deputation of Akrūra to bring Rāma and Kṛṣṇa to Mathura, 11 chapters are devoted to His līlās at Mathura. The rest of the chapters are concerned with founding of Dvārakā and Kṛṣṇa’s līlās there.

The above summary of Bhāvārtha Dīpikā’s introduction to Skandha X clarifies the following points:

(1) Skandha X mainly demonstrates the āśraya characteristic, though nirodha is also found in Kṛṣṇa’s destruction of wicked kings.

(2) All the other Skandhas, including Skandha XI, which represents the characteristic called mukti or Liberation, are subservient to Skandha X—even though Kṛṣṇa Himself teaches the spiritual path to Udḍhava, in Skandha XL

(3) Nirodha is also interpreted as control, and one masters it either by Yoga or by listening to the nectar-like līlās of Kṛṣṇa. As this Skandha extols the līlās of Kṛṣṇa, this demonstrates the characteristic called nirodha. As a result of this nirodha, one attains to liberation (mukti) which characteristic is found in Skandha XI. Skandhas X and XI thus bear close causal relation.

(ix) Mukti (Liberation)

Skandha XI constitutes the topic mukti or Liberation. It is the next stage after nirodha, so ably illustrated in Skandha X. Mukti or Mokṣa (Liberation) consists in abandoning the unreal form and staying established in the essential nature of Brahman.[54] Mukti and nirodha of Skandha 2.10.6 correspond to Saṃsthā in Bhāgavata Purāṇa 12.7.17. Liberation is both of jīva and of God. When jīva becomes one with Brahman, it is the liberation of jīva. When God lays aside His roles in various incarnations etc., and becomes established in His own essential form, it is the liberation of God.

There are four groups of chapters. The 1 st group of five adhyāyas is Written to inspire one with aversion to the worldly life. The introductory story of the creation of iron pestle q the curse of sages like Viśvāmitra is intended to create that aversion. Nārada teaches the Bhāgavata dharma to Vasudeva, by reporting to him the conversation between Janaka and the nine sages. It contains all the topics concerning the nine-fold bhakti, its variations in different Yugas, God’s incarnations, Draviḍa-deśa being a stronghold of bhakti.

The next part called Jīva-sāyujya-Prakaraṇa, consists of 24 chapters (Chs 6-29). It contains the dialogue between Kṛṣṇa and Uddhava, and is the kernal of this Skandha. We learn here the different ‘teachers’ of Dattātreya, the details of bhakti, its philosophy and technique, the different manifestations of the Lord, the duties of different social classes in different stages of life (varṇāśrama-dharma), discussions of different Yogas including bhakti, the Sāṅkhya Philosophy, the technical details of the worship of God and importance of complete submission to Lord; and how bhakti is superior even to Liberation (mukti).

After teaching the Bhāgavata dharma, Kṛṣṇa deputes Uddhava to Badarikāśrama.

The 3rd part called Brahma-mukti-Prakaraṇa consists of two chapters. It deals with Kṛṣṇa’s retirement from this world, and Arjuna’s arrival to attend the funeral of all Yādava heroes and their wives; and Dvārakā is submerged in the sea.

(x) Āśraya or Apāśraya

Āśraya or Apāśraya is the final resort which is nothing but the absolute Brahman. Bhāgavata Purāṇa 2.10.7 describes āśraya (asylum, resort) as ‘that from which creation and dissolution (of the universe) are definitely known to emerge. It is also called the Supreme Brahman or the Supreme Soul’.[55] Elsewhere in Skandha XII. 7.19-20 it is called apāśraya (the ground). ‘It stands for the (absolute) Brahman which is present in all the three states undergone by a jīva viz. wakefulness, dream and deep sleep, as well as in all substances which are the products of Māyā. It is also distinct from them. It runs through all the (nine) stages undergone by living organism, from entry into the womb in the form of a seed to death (as their substratum), and is also distinct from them (as their witness) even like the material of which substances are made or as a bare existence underlying names and forms’.[56]

In the introḍuction to Skandha XII, Bhāvārtha Dīpikā states that this Skandha deals with the topic āśraya which is God. Out of the 13 chapters, chapters 1-6 give Śuka’s narration to Parīkṣit and the rest form SūtaṆ discourse to the sages like Śaunaka. After recounting ‘future’ history of India of post-Kṛṣṇa period upto the ascension of Āndhras, and predicting the rule of Śūdra and Mleccha kings in future, Śuka prepares the mind of Parīkṣit to face death fearlessly. After discussing the Kali age, he assures him that if one concentrates on the Lord at the time of death, the Lord, the asylum of all (Sarvasaṃśraya [sarvasaṃśrayaḥ]) absorbs him in Himself.[57] In Ch.4, he describes the four kinds of dissolutions of the universe (pralayas)—out of which the ultimate one is Mokṣa or Liberation—and emphasizes that the Lord is the boat which can ferry one across the ocean of Saṃsāra and that the Lord’s episodes are the panacea to all miseries.[58] It is the 5th chapter which seems to have given the name āśraya to this Skandha. In this Śuka briefly enunciates Brahmavidyā to Parīkṣit, and removes from him completely the fear of death. Parīkṣit was so much convinced that, in the beginning of the next (6th) chapter, he tells Śuka that he has accomplished his purpose in life,[59] and that he is not afraid of death as he has entered the fearless and all blissful state of one-ness with Brahman.[60]

Finally he requests Śuka:

“Give me permission; I shall dedicate my speech (and other senses) to Lord Adhokṣaja. Having established in the Supreme Lord my mind which is rid of desires and other kindred tendencies, I shall give up life”.

“My nescience has been removed through firm insight into jñāna and vijñāna (the knowledge of the Supreme Reality and its realization). You have shown to me the highest nature of the Almighty Lord, the safest asylum.”[61]

He worshipped Śuka who left. After Śuka’s departure, Parīkṣit fixed his mind firmly on the Pratyagātman and contemplated on the Supreme Spirit, remaining breathless like (the trunk of) a tree.[62] It was in this stage that Takṣaka bit him.

In the remaining chapters, Sūta tells how Vyāsa arranged the Vedas and composed the 18 Purāṇas. In chapters 8,9,10, he recounts the life of the sage Mārkaṇḍeya. Ch. 12 gives a recapitulation of the 12 Skandhas of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa The last chapter enumerates the number of verses in each Mahāpurāṇa and concludes with glory of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa.

It will thus be found that the importance of Chapters 3 to 6 has led these old commentators to designate the whole Skandha as āśraya.

The above traditional application of the 10 characteristics of a Mahāpurāṇa to Skandhas III to XII is broadly justifiable. But it leaves out the first two Skandhas though they are designated as Adhikāra and Dharma respectively by some writers. A cursory glance at the contents of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa shows that there is so much overlapping and repetition of these topics beyond the Skandhas which are supposed to represent them. Thus we find Īśānukathā is spread over Skandhas II, III, V, VII, VIII, X, XI. The same can be said of Poṣaṇa or Manvantara, while Skandha II is an epitome of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa with all its characteristics.

(6) Concluding remarks

In fact the Bhāgavata Purāṇa is an epic of growth where such repetition, overlapping, looseness in organization of material is inevitable. To judge it as a scientific work preplanned and executed by one single author, is to show one’s ignorance about the history and development of this form of literature. The Bhāgavata Purāṇa itself states that there were three authors of the text—Vyāsa, Śuka and Sūta. But as Winternitz notes it, despite its manifold revisions, the Bhāgavata Purāṇa bears the stamp of a unified composition.[63] It has incorporated the best of the Vedic tradition. The metaphysical and spiritual legacy of the Vedas and Upaniṣads is ably synthesized with the āgamic tradition of the Pañcarātrins, and embraced even non-Aryan tribes in its fold. As A.A. Mac-donell[64] and Winternitz[65] state, it has exercised the most powerful influence in India and as such holds indisputably the most prominent position in Indian sacred literature.

But to justify the particular label of a Skandha throughout all its chapters and to attribute special significance even to the number of chapters in that particular Skandha, is stretching an excellent epic on the daśa-lakṣaṇa bed of procrustes.

The claim of the author of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa that it is a Mahāpurāṇa with ten characteristics is perfectly justifiable within the limits of its being an epic of growth.

Footnotes and references:


Baudhāyana Dharma Sūtra; Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa


Vāyu Purāṇa. 1.123.


Matsya Purāṇa. 53.63.


Śabdakalpadruma III. 179, vide also Halāyudha Kośa p.430.


Pāṇini 4.3.23; 2.1.49 or 4.3.105.


AV. XI.7.24; XV.6.11.


Gopatha 1.2.10; Śatapatha


Tai. Ār. 2.10.


Āśvalāyanagṛhyasūtra (3.3.1) states the inclusion of itihāsa and Purāṇas in svādhyāya; Chāndogya Upa. 7.1.7.


Matsya Purāṇa. 53.4; Purāṇam ekam evāsid asmin kalpāntare nṛpa |—Skanda Purāṇa—Revā Māhātmya 1.23.30; Patañjali in Mahābhāsya (I.p.9).


Āpastamba Dh. S. 3;;


History of Indian Literature. Vol. I. 313.


Ibid. Vol. I. 311.


The Philosophy of the Śrīmad Bhāgavata. Vol, I. Intro. iii-v.


Amara Kośa 1.6.5; The Pañcalakṣaṇa verse (with minor variations) is found in a number of Purāṇas such as Agni P. 1.14, Garuḍa P. 1.2.27, Kūrma Purāṇa. I.1.12, Matsya Purāṇa. 53.64, Śiva P.—Vāyavīya saṃhitā 1.41, Vāyu Purāṇa. 4.10.11, Viṣṇu P. 3.6.25.


The History and Culture of the Indian People, Vol. III The Classical Age, p. 292.


For a detailed tabular statement of dharma-śāstra materials in Purāṇas vide P.V. Kane—History of Dharma-Śāstra, Vol. I., pp 164-167.


Winternitz—HIL. 1. 529.


ERE. (Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics), Vol.X., p. 448.


Kane—Hist, of Dharma Śāstra, Vol. I, p. 161.


Cf. Viṣṇu P. 3.6.20, Padma P. Ch. 115 but Devī Bhāgavata 1.3.17 assigns it the last position. Despite the claims of Devī Bhāgavata to be the real Bhāgavata and a Mahā Purāṇa, it is now generally conceded that our Bhāgavata Purāṇa is the Bhāgavata Mahā Purāṇa in the traditional list, and not the Devī Bhāgavata. (H.G. Hazra—JOR XXI, pp. 63-5).


Winternitz—History of Indian Literature (History of Indian Literature) I, 554.


Bh. P. 1.1.3.


Padma P.—Bhāgavata Māhātmya 6.83; cf. Bhāgavata Purāṇa 12. 13. 18.




Winternitz—History of Indian Literature. I. 554-55-


Vide JOR XXI, pp. 49-79-


atra sargo visargas'ca sthānaṃ poṣaṇam ūtayaḥ / manvantare'śānukathā nirodho muktir āśrayaḥ // Bhāgavata Purāṇa2.10.1.


Bhāgavata Purāṇa. 12.7.9-10 A.


Baldeva UpadhyayaPurāṇa-Vimarśa, pp. 137-38.


daśamaṣya viśudhyarthaṃ navānām iha lakṣaṇam /—Bh. P. 2.10.2.


S. Bhattacarya—The Philosophy of the Śrīmad Bhāgavata. Vol. I. vi-vii.


bhūta-mātrendrīya-dhiyāṃ janmasarga udāhṛtaḥ / Bhāgavata Purāṇa. 2.10.3.


Bhāgavata Purāṇa. 12.7.11.


This discussion is based on Bopadeva’s Harilīlāmṛta, and Vallabha’s Nibandha and Krishna-Shankara Shastri’s Introduction to the third Skandha of the Bhagavata, Vidya-peeth Edition of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa


Brahmaṇo guṇa-vaiṣamyād visargaḥ pauruṣaḥ smṛtaḥ /—Bhāgavata Purāṇa. 2.103.


Ibid. 12.7.12,


Harilīlāmṛta 4.1-2.


Bhāgavata Purāṇa. 2.10.4.


Ibid. 12.7.13.


Harilīlā V.


Bhāgavata Purāṇa. 2.10.4.


Ibid. 12.7.14.


For details vide Harilīlāmṛta VI and Madhusūdana Sarasvatī’s commentary on it.


Bhāgavata Purāṇa. 2.10.4.


Based on Krishna-Śaṅkara Śāstrī’s Introduction to Skandha VII of the BH. P., Ahmedabad edition.


heturjīvo'sya sargāder avidyā-karma-kārakaḥ / Bhāgavata Purāṇa. 12.7.18.


Ibid. 2.10.4.


Manoantaraṃ Manur devā Manu-putrāḥ sureśvarāḥ / ṛṣayo'ṃśāvatārās'ca Hareḥ ṣaḍvidham ucyate // Ibid 12.7.15.


Bhāvārtha Dīpikā Intro, to Skandha VIII.


Vide Rajeśvara Śāstrī Dravid, ‘Bhāratīya-rājanītau Purāṇa-pañcalakṣaṇam’, Purāṇa Pairikā 4.1.236-44, July 1964, Varanasi.


Bhāgavata Purāṇa. 2.10.5.


Ibid. 12.7.16.


Muktir hitvā'nyathā rūpaṃ svarūpeṇa vyavasthitiḥ / Bhāgavata Purāṇa. 2.10.6.


Bhāgavata Purāṇa. 2.10.7.


Ibid. 12.7.19-20.


Bhāgavata Purāṇa. 12.3.50.


Ibid. 12.4.37-40.


Ibid. 12.6.2.


Ibid. 12.6.5.


Ibid. 12.6.6-7.


Ibid. 12.6.9.


History of Indian Literature. Vol. I. 556.


A. A. Macdonell—India's Past p. 90.


History of Indian Literature. Vol. I. 554.

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