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The Bhagavata Purana

by Jyotsna Kamat

First Online: May 27, 2004 in Amma's Column
Page Last Updated: April 04, 2014

After the four vedas, the Puranas form the most sacred of the texts for devout Hindus. They are eighteen puranas in number. Brahma, Padma, Vishnu, Siva, Garuda, Narada, Bhagavata, Agni, Skanda, Bhavishya, Brahmavaivarta, Markandeya, Vamana, Varaha, Matsya, Kurma and Brahmanda Puranas.

The word purana means "narrative of olden times". Composed during early centuries of Christian era, they deal with anecdotes, genelogies of kings and sages, traditions and back ground of vedic rituals and at times historical events as well. The highest philosophy of monism as found in vedas and upanishads was difficult for commoners to understand. Hence oldest purana, which was recited at the time of sacrifices became popular. As time passed, came on the scene, different puranas dealing with different deities.

Recitation from puranas developed into a fine art. A Puranik (reciter), many times a non-Brahmin, became essential part of village life. The surname "Bhagvat", came to be associated with a family who took to Bhagavata Purana - recitation as profession.

Bhagavata is the most popular among puranas. It deals mainly with innumerable exploits of Krishna, an avatar or incarnation of Vishnu and stresses on Bhakti or devotion, as way to salvation (mukti).

As generally believed, goals of human life are four in number. They are dharma (morality), rrtha (acquiring wealth), kama (pleasure) and moksha (liberation or salvation). Bhagavata adds one more i.e. devotion or divine service. Narrated in story-form its style is simple, lyrical and picturesque. It became acceptable to all sects though dealing with God Vishnu. Again Bhagavan (God) was declared Supreme though in idol-form.

Bhagavata raises and answers fundamental questions about which humans were puzzled over ages like what is life?, what is a human being's role in life?, what is meant by cycle of birth and death?, what is the relation between God and man?, what are ways of propitiating God? etc.

The impact of Bhagavata on Indian life over ages cannot be measured easily. It paved way to various schools of Bhakti (see: Bhakti Movement). It influenced cultural life like literature, music, dance, folk-theatre arts and crafts immensely. Dealing with exploits of Lord Krishna from childhood to Mahabharata battle, anecdotes and stories figure in one form or other in Vaishnava temple sculptures. Kaliya mardana, Gopika Vastraharana, Gajendra moksha, Bhasmasura, lifting Goverdhan mountain are only few events which have kindled imagination of artistes and craftsmen through ages. Bhagavata became a subject of study for artisan class as well. All the important dance schools, Bharatanatya, Kathak, Kathakkali, Yakshagana, Odissi and Manipuri have themes from Bhagavata. Traditional painting-schools, are also indebted to Bhagavata Purana. Like Pasholi, Rajasthani and Basholi.

© K. L. Kamat
Krishna Milking a Cow
Bhagavata Purana has Inspired Much of Hindu Art

Bhagavata is considered essence of Hindu mythology like Geeta being considered as essence of upanishads. Scenes of Bhagavata anecdotes make favourable theme with painters - ancient and modern. Many traditional paintings show child Krishna milking a cow depicting a popular prayer: 'Sarvopanishado gavo, dogdha Gopalanandanah'. All Upanishads are like cows; Gopala is the milcher.

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