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The best-known Purāṇa, and one of the most popular and influential of all Hindu texts, the Bhāgavata is a Vaiṣṇava work produced in South India in the 9th or early 10th century ce. It is probably the work of a single author, who recast the basic narrative of the Viṣṇu Purāṇa in a form of Sanskrit that, despite the date of its composition, deliberately echoes the pre-classical language of the Vedas. The fact that it draws on much non-Vedic material, notably the devotional poetry of the Āḻvārs, and is saturated with bhakti, makes this attempt to legitimize itself as part of the older, orthodox tradition all the more necessary. The ‘Bhagavān’ of the title is Kṛṣṇa; Book 10, a quarter of the Purāṇa, and its clear focal point, is taken up with the narratives of Kṛṣṇa's early life and his ‘pastime’ or ‘divine play’ (līlā/ rāsa līlā) among the gopīs, the wives of the cowherds in Vṛndāvana (Braj/Vraj). Amongst the other cosmic and mythic concerns of a Purāṇa, the previous nine books deal, in a general bhakti context, with Viṣṇu's avatāras prior to Kṛṣṇa. In what becomes the foundational statement for the theology of the later Kṛṣṇa sects, however, these incarnations are said to be merely ‘partial’ (aṃśa), whereas Kṛṣṇa is Bhagavān himself (1.3.28).

The Bhāgavata's underlying theology is that of Advaita Vedānta: the sole reality is brahman (neut.), here viewed as identical to Kṛṣṇa. The general perspective, however, is that of ecstatic devotion to God through the medium of viraha bhakti, ‘love in separation’—a devotion evoked through the erotic yearning of the gopīs, during the famous rāsa līlā (‘dance pastime’), for the unaccountably absent Kṛṣṇa. The high poetry in which this is presented relies on a novel combination of Tamil devotional idiom and content (translations or paraphrases of the poetry of the Āḻvārs), and the techniques of Sanskrit love poetry.

The Bhāgavata Purāṇa's role in the development of medieval and subsequent Hinduism is difficult to exaggerate. Through its influence on such teachers as Caitanya and Vallabha, whose ecstatic bhakti it anticipates, the Bhāgavata was instrumental in transmitting the devotionalism of the Ālvārs to northern India, where it became an authoritative source for the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition. In tandem with its other roles, the Bhāgavata Purāṇa has also been a major resource for devotional art: subjects such as Kṛṣṇa's lifting of Mount Govardhana, his stealing the gopīs' clothes, and the rāsa līla have all been drawn, directly or indirectly, from the Bhāgavata. In time, the text accrued over 80 extant commentaries in Sanskrit (including one by Madhva), and was the source of multiple translations into all the other major Indian languages. Its influence (especially the theological pre-eminence of Book 10) is clearly evident in the teaching and related practices of more recent Vaiṣṇava movements such as the Svāminārāyaṇas and ISKCON, popularly known as the Hare Krishna movement. ISKCON's devotional translation of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa into English (known as the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam) has been the principal vehicle of its attempt to convey the Kṛṣṇa-bhakti of Caitanya to a Western audience. Perhaps because of misunderstandings about the erotic and ‘adulterous’ nature of Kṛṣṇa's relationship with the gopīs, in marked contrast to the Bhagavadgītā other translations into English have been few and far between. The first translation into a European language was made by the French Orientalist Eugéne Burnouf in the mid 19th century.


Subjects: Religion

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