Śrīmad Bhāgavata—Foremost of the Purāṇas

The following article is part of the introduction to our upcoming translation of the first canto of Śrīmad Bhāgavata.

Śrīmad Bhāgavata Purāṇa is the fountainhead of Gauḍīya theology and practice. It is one among the eighteen Purāṇas composed by Bādarāyaṇa Vyāsa. The name Bhāgavata Purāṇa can be understood to mean “the Purāṇa spoken by Bhagavān” (bhagavatā proktam), or “the Purāṇa that delineates the character of Bhagavān’s exclusive devotees” (bhāgavatānāṁ purāṇam), or “the Purāṇa that describes the nature and divine acts of Bhagavān and His devotees” (bhagavataḥ bhāgavatānāñ ca purāṇam).

As is evident from the story related in the fourth to seventh chapters of the First Canto, the Bhāgavata is Vyāsa’s last work. Up to that point, he had already rendered tremendous service to humanity by dividing the one Veda into four and then teaching these different branches to his four prominent disciples for the perpetuation of Vedic dharma. He also wrote the Purāṇas as well as his magnum opus, the Mahābhārata, to disclose the meaning of the Vedas to all. Moreover, having directly intuited the truth of the self and Brahman, Vyāsa composed the Vedānta Sūtra to synthesize and codify the essential teachings of the entire corpus of the Upaniṣads. In spite of these prodigious and selfless accomplishments, however, he remained unfulfilled at heart.

It was only on being instructed by sage Nārada and then bringing forth Śrīmad Bhāgavata from out of his samādhi vision that he finally attained complete inner fulfillment. From this, it can be concluded that the Bhāgavata Purāṇa is of paramount importance among all his works. Befittingly, the Bhāgavata is qualified by the word śrīmat, meaning, “that which by its essential nature is intrinsically endowed with śrī.” The word śrī means “beauty” as well as “opulence.” Śrīmad Bhāgavata is beautiful as a poetic composition, especially in its various prayers (stuti) and songs (gītam). At the same time, it contains the divine opulence of the highest wisdom of Vedānta, as proclaimed by Sūta Gosvāmī:

“This Śrīmad Bhāgavata is the essence of all Vedānta philosophy because its subject matter is the one nondual Absolute Existent (advitīyam vastu), characterized by the constitutional oneness of being [in love] of the individual self (ātmā) with Brahman. Moreover, it has for its one and only intended aim (prayojana) the state of unconditional liberation (kaivalya) [which finds its ultimate repose in divine love alone (prītāv eva viśrāntiḥ)].” (SB 12.13.12) 

And a few verses later, he adds:

“Śrīmad Bhāgavata is indeed celebrated as the essence of all Vedānta [i.e., the Upaniṣads]. To one who is enraptured by the immortal nectar of its aesthetic relish (rasa), attraction for any other literature simply does not arise.” (SB 12.13.15)

Earlier, Sūta declared Śrīmad Bhāgavata as “the essence of all the Vedas and Itihāsas”:

Thereafter, Vyāsa imparted this Mahā Purāṇa, Śrīmad Bhāgavata, which is the condensed essence extracted from all of the Vedas and Itihāsas, to his son [Śrī Śukadeva], the foremost of all those established in immediate realization of the Self. (SB 1.3.41)

According to Skanda Purāṇa, each verse of Śrīmad Bhāgavata is more potent than all the other Purāṇas combined:

“A person who intentfully recites one verse of Śrīmad Bhāgavata daily, O sage, attains the fruit of reading the eighteen Purāṇas.” (Skanda Purāṇa, Viṣṇu-khaṇḍa 5.16.33)

The superiority of Śrīmad Bhāgavata is also understood from its defining characteristics. A Purāṇa generally has five defining characteristics, as stated in Matsya Purāṇa:

“A Purāṇa is characterized by the following five topics—sarga (cosmic evolution), pratisarga (cosmic dissolution), vaṁśa (genealogy), manvantara (the dharmic reign of the Manus), and vaṁśānucarita (narrations of the various dynasties of religious kings and enlightened sages).” (Matsya Purāṇa 53.65) 

In contrast, however, Śrīmad Bhāgavata has ten defining characteristics, as stated by Śukadeva:

“In this book, ten subjects are discussed—sarga (the primary evolution of primordial nature as a whole), visarga (the secondary evolution of life forms and living beings), sthāna (the sustenance of living beings), poṣaṇa (the grace displayed by Bhagavān in nurturing His devotees), ūti (the subconscious imprints and desires that promote engagement in goal-oriented action), manvantara (the religious path enacted by the Manus), īśānukathā (narrations of Īśvara and His devotees), nirodha (cosmic dissolution), mukti (liberation), and āśraya (the ultimate ground and refuge of all being).” (SB 2.10.1)

On this basis, Sūta rightly declares Śrīmad Bhāgavata to be the foremost among the Purāṇas:

“As the Gaṅgā is supreme among rivers, Acyuta among the devas, and Śiva among Vaiṣṇavas, so too this [Śrīmad Bhāgavata] is supreme among the Purāṇas.” (SB 12.13.16)

This conclusion is substantiated by the Padma Purāṇa:

“Among all the Purāṇas, Śrīmad Bhāgavata is supreme. In each of its words, Kṛṣṇa is sung about in various ways by the sages.” (Padma Purāṇa, Uttara-khaṇḍa 193.3)

The superiority of the Bhāgavata is further established on the basis of its incomparable speaker, Śrī Śukadeva. He was Brahman-realized from birth and thus priorly situated in the state of freedom from all attachment. He left home immediately after his birth, without even undergoing any Vedic rituals, and did not heed his father’s request to remain at home (SB 1.2.2). He was so absorbed in the immediate awareness of Brahman that he remained indifferent to his own personal care. He had transcended altogether the duality of male and female (SB 1.4.4-5).

The Bhāgavata’s eminence is also due to the illustrious status of its original audience headed by King Parīkṣit. When he was cursed to die in seven days, he renounced his kingdom and sat on the bank of Gaṅgā with a vow to fast until death. At that time, great sages from different regions of the universe assembled to bless the king. This event is described by Sūta:

“At that time, many sages endowed with extraordinary spiritual power, who purify the entire world, arrived there, accompanied by their disciples. Generally, on the plea of visiting the sacred places of pilgrimage, the sages sanctify those holy places merely by their presence. [The great sages who arrived there included] Atri, Vasiṣṭha, Cyavana, Śaradvān, Ariṣṭanemi, Bhṛgu, Aṅgirā, Parāśara, Viśvāmitra, Paraśurāma, Utathya, Indrapramada, Idhmabāhu, Medhātithi, Devala, Ārṣṭiṣeṇa, Bhāradvāja, Gautama, Pippalāda, Maitreya, Aurva, Kavaṣa, Kumbhayoni (Agastya), Dvaipāyana, and the illustrious Nārada. Many other sages also arrived there, including the foremost of the celestial sages, the brāhmaṇa sages, and the royal sages, as well as other sages who preside over particular branches of the Vedas, such as Aruṇa.” (SB 1.19.8-11)

This most august assembly of sages included three avatāras, namely, Paraśurāma, Vyāsa, and Nārada. When Śukadeva arrived in the assembly, everyone stood to honor him (SB 1.19.28). He was unanimously selected as the right person to answer the query of King Parīkṣit. When he accepted the seat of honor, his eminence was described as follows:

“While installed upon that seat of honor, surrounded by groups of brāhmaṇa sages, royal sages, and celestial sages, the illustrious Śukadeva, greatest even among the great, appeared extraordinarily resplendent, like the moon encircled by clusters of planets, constellations, and stars.” (SB 1.19.30)

Finally, the supremacy of the Bhāgavata is understood because of its supreme message: 

In this Śrīmad Bhāgavata, the supreme dharma is disclosed, utterly devoid of all deception and compromise. (SB 1.2.2)

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