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Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Bhagavata Purana book review: Of times and tales past

An exhaustive but accessible translation of a crucial mythological text

Written by Arshia Sattar | Published: May 4, 2019 1:11:49 am
Of times and tales past The Bhagavata Purana, 3 vols
Translated by Bibek Debroy
Penguin Modern Classics
500 pages
Rs 599

After conquering the critical editions of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Harivamsha, Bibek Debroy now presents us with a translation of the Bhagavata Purana, continuing his project to translate Sanskrit’s longest mythological texts into English. Debroy takes these texts head on — no abridgements, no editing and very little by way of commentary and context. As he says in his introduction, “the attempt has been to provide a word-for-word translation, so that if one were to hold up the Sanskrit text, there would be a perfect match.” With regard to that intention, he has succeeded admirably.

Among the 18 designated mahapuranas, the Bhagavata holds a special place for scholars and believers. Depending on how you date it (as early as the 5th century CE or as late as the 10th century CE), it is either the source for or the culmination of a full-blown, rich and complex Vaishnava theology. The Bhagavata tells the stories of all Vishnu’s avataras but none more lovingly and fully than those of Krishna and so, more accurately, it is a text that formulates the tenets of Krishna bhakti within the Vaishnava tradition.

The Bhagavata consists of 12 skandhas which together consist of 16,000-18,000 verses, depending on which Sanskrit text you regard as most authentic, given that this Purana, like all the others, was compiled over centuries. The Bhagavata is, however, dominated by the 10th skandha which holds within it the stories of Krishna — mischievous and unknowable child, mysterious and irresistible lover and beyond all of that, master of lila who joyously plays in the world that he has created. Hugely popular, the Bhagavata appears in almost all Indian languages and typically, the versions of the avatara myths that we know best are those that are found here.

More than in any other text of its genre, the Puranas, the Bhagavata revels in the exploration and articulation of how a human being might attain liberation. The answer it provides is eloquent in its simplicity: complete devotion to Krishna will lead to moksha, which, in the bhakti universe, is union with the divine. The Bhagavata draws on the modalities of bhakti that are nascent in the Bhagavad Gita and carries them to their logical conclusion. And because it is more fully a sectarian religious text than the other Puranas, it is often referred to with the appellation ‘Shrimad’.

Given all that the Bhagavata contains within itself, the later date of the 10th century CE is a more likely one for its composition. Scholars suggest that the Puranas (in the main, composed after the epic period between the third and 10th centuries CE) combine two distinct but intertwined oral traditions — one, of the practices and values of the Vedic priests and the other, of the heroic deeds and aspirations of kshatriya kings. The Bhagavata fully represents both these narrative strands. Many of the narrators and characters that we encounter here are familiar from stories in the Mahabharata. Vyasa hovers in the margins as the putative author of this compilation, called (like other texts of the period) the ‘fifth Veda.’ Saunaka, Lomaharshana and Prithu inhabit its pages but we also meet Uddhava, Vasudeva and Yashodhara from the Harivamsha. Hiranyakashipu and Narasimha are here as is a full description of a Manavantara, there is even a “prediction”, as it were, of the yuga in which we now live. Apart from the sophisticated, highly developed and well-rounded myths that the Bhagavata recounts, it also carries an extensive exegesis of both Advaita and Dvaita schools as well as a full and expansive exposition of Sankhya philosophy.

But the Bhagavata also reaches further back in time and absorbs the corpus of the Vedas into Krishna himself — Krishna is the Vedas, in both his inner nature and in his outward being. Unlike the other Puranas, all of which include stories about the Vedic gods (such as Indra, Vayu, Prajapati and others) in radically reduced versions of themselves, the Bhagavata transforms the Vedas from smriti as a remembered source of religious experience into the living embodiment of divinity in the person of Krishna. In doing so, the Bhagavata becomes a cornerstone in the edifice of Hinduism presented as an unbroken religious tradition.

It would not be out of place to recall that most of the Puranas were compiled at a time when Buddhism was an active force in northern India. Hinduism’s older and newer gods were pitted against a radically different way of being and believing, its so-called fundamental philosophical positions were being refined and restated in the face of real intellectual challenges. It is not surprising then, that the Bhagavata, coming as late in the classical period as it does, seeks to combine many disparate ideas that nestled in the co-mingled traditions from which it had sprung.  For Vaishnavas, the Bhagavata is able to provide a coherent and compelling theology that leads to liberation from endless rebirths. For scholars, the Bhagavata is a template for how a religion grows in time and place. Debroy tells us that his translation is neither for the sectarian nor for the academic reader. His audience is the “ordinary reader who seeks a faithful rendering of the Sanskrit text.” He has certainly brought this multi-layered text within our reach, but I think even the least curious of us would have been grateful for an Index of names and characters.

The writer has translated Valmiki’s Ramayana and the Kathasaritsagara into English and is a founder of Sangam House

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