Vishnu and Bhagavata Puranas


The Viṣṇu and the Bhāgavata Purāṇas

1. Historical Importance of Purāṇas

The Viṣṇu Purāṇa and the Bhāgavata are the two most important poetical works, representing a particular type of Sanskrit religious-philosophical literature, known as the Purāṇas.

The Purāṇas together with the great Epics, the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, played a unique role in the cultural amalgamation of the diverse races and tribes and clans and religious sects of ancient and mediaeval India and in the spiritualization of all classes of Indian people.

Pargitar has rightly remarked that “taken collectively, they (the Purāṇas) may be described as a popular encyclopaedia of ancient and mediaeval Hinduism, religious, philosophical, historical, personal, social, and political.”

The Purāṇas do not identify themselves with any particular scholastic system of philosophy or any particular sectarian religion.

They take their stand on the spiritual experiences of all Schools of saints of the highest order

—of the seers of the Vedas and the Upaniṣads as well as the later saints of the āna-mārga (path of knowledge), the bhakti-mārga (path of devotion), and the karma-mārga (path of action)—

and seek to represent and harmonize the views of non-dualism (a-dvaita), dualism (dvaita), dualism-and-non-dualism (dvaita-advaita), qualified non-dualism (viśiṣṭādvaita) and even those of Sāṁkhya and Yoga and Nyāya.

A leaning towards bhakti (devotion) is, however, predominant in all the Purāṇas, and this is very appealing to popular minds and hearts. Their interest lies more in inspiring the lives of men than in establishing any particular metaphysical views.

2. Philosophy of the Viṣṇu Purāṇa

The Viṣṇu Purāṇa is an earlier and simpler work than the Bhāgavata. It has also a representative character. As Winternitz says:

“A more detailed summary of the contents of this Purāṇa will best serve to give the reader an idea of the contents and significance of the Purāṇas altogether.”

The Viṣṇu Purāṇa is presented in the form of a conversation between Maitreya and his teacher, Parāśara, father of Vyāsa.

In reply to the disciple's question as to the ultimate truth about the origin, sustenance, regulation and end of this phenomenal world (Jagat),

Parāśara makes the categorical assertion that:

"the world originated from Viṣṇu; it is in Him that the world exists as a harmonious system (sasthitam); He is the sole sustainer and controller of the world, and in truth, the world is He.”

This may be said to be the sum and substance of the Viṣṇu-Purāṇa and in fact of all the Purāṇas.

Viṣṇu is evidently identical with the one non-­dual absolute Spirit that is spoken of as Brāhman and Paramātman in the Upaniṣads and the Brahma-sūtra.

Parāśara makes it clear in a hymn on Viṣṇu, in which he describes Him as the one, infinite, eternal, changeless, perfect, all-pervading, all transcending supreme spirit (Paramātman)

and proclaims that Hiraṇyagarbha, Hari, Śankara, Vāsudeva, Tārā, Achyuta, Puruṣottama, Nārāyaṇa, Brahma, Śiva, and all such significant divine names are applied to Him and Him alone.

The mention of these names is probably intended to point out the essential unity of all the religious communities.

Parāśara suggests here and elsewhere that Veda-vādins, Vedanta-vādins, Vaiṣṇavas, Śaivas, Pañcarātrins, Ekāntins, Bhāgavatas, Pāśupatas, Yogins, Śabda-Brahma-vādins and all other sects really worship the same supreme Spirit,

who is the absolute ground and lord and self of the universe, though in different names and forms, and that all exclusive­ness and sectarian bigotry and narrowness are born of ignorance.

In order to explain the world-process, which is without beginning or end in time, but which passes through cycles after cycles (kalpas) of creation and development and dissolution, Parāśara starts from the absolute spiritual monism of Vedanta:

He says that the absolute Spirit, which is the sole ground of this world process, is in Itself above the highest concepts of the human understanding (para parāṇām parama),

without any form or colour or any other determinate characteristic, without any special predicate in terms of which It can be positively conceived,

without any temporal qualities such as birth, growth, change, decay and de­struction, and nothing can be said of It except that It eternally exists.

This is obviously the idea of Nir-guṇa Brāhman and, according to Parāśara this is the ultimate nature of Viṣṇu.

Parāśara goes on to say that it is this infinite, eternal, changeless, effortless, attributeless absolute Spirit, which manifests Itself in this world of finite temporal ever-changing contingent realities,

which dwells everywhere in all the things of this world and in which everything dwells and which is therefore spoken of as Vāsudeva by wise men—men having insight into the essential truth of this world.

Vāsudeva eternally transcends the world and is eternally immanent in it.

Though eternally one without a second, He also eternally manifests Himself as Puruṣa (the cosmic self as well as the individual selves), pradhāna or prakṛti (the undifferentiated primordial energy, the material cause of all differentiated subtle and gross existences), vyakta (the world of differentiated existences) and kāla (time).

The essential character of Viṣṇu (Viṣṇo paramam padam) is eternally above and unaffected by his diversified manifestations in the forms of puruṣa, pradhāna, vyakta and kāla;

but all the same, such differentiated self-manifestations of Viṣṇu are not unreal and they are the sources of the productions, harmonious operations, systematic changes, developments and destructions, etc., of all finite conditioned derivative realities constituting the world-order.

The self-manifestations of Viṣṇu in all these forms may be likened to the free, motiveless, joyful movements or self-expressions of a playful boy. This is what is called Līlā-vāda, and it is accepted by all the Purāṇas.

Parāśara, then, follows the Sāṁkhya method in tracing the progressive evolution of the cosmic system and also its dissolution in course of time. He thus combines the dualism of the Sāṁkhya with the monism of the Vedānta in explaining the world-order.

He differs from the orthodox Sāṁkhya in emphasizing the necessity of recognizing kāla (time) as a dynamic determining factor in evolution and involution.

Maitreya raises the most puzzling question—how is it possible for the indeterminate (Nir-guṇa) to become determinate (sa-guṇa), that is,

how is it conceivable that the infinite eternal attributeless, changeless, effortless pure spirit, Brāhman, is also the active creator, ruler and destroyer of this material world or manifests Itself in countless orders of finite changing relative phenomena?

It is this question which has divided the Vedāntists into a large number of Schools.

Parāśara does not take the side of any School, for he holds that the question is above human understanding.

He unhesitatingly answers that it is the unique inscrutable power inherent in the nature of the supreme Spirit which makes really possible what appears to be logically impossible to our discursive knowledge.

His argument implied in his assertion is this:

The powers inherent in the nature of things are always inscrutable. They can only be intuited or imagined in the light of the effects produced, without reference to which they cannot be said to have any powers at all.

The absolute Spirit must also be conceived as possessing such a unique power as may adequately account for the origination, sustenance, regulation, destruction, etc., of these existences, without in any way affecting the transcendent character of the Spirit.

On account of this unique power, Brāhman is, says Parāśara, eternally being as well as becoming (asti-jāyate), one as well as many (ekāneka),

unmanifested as well as manifested (vyaktāvyakta), attributeless as well as possessing infinite glorious attributes (nirguṇānantagua), inactive as well as ever-active (ni-kriya-satata-kriya) and so on.

This unique power of the supreme Spirit is spoken of as māyā-śakti.

Since māyā has no separate existence from Brāhman, the non-dual character of Brāhman is in no way contradicted. But as the unique power of Brāhman, māyā, though non-different from Brāhman, furnishes an adequate explanation for the cosmic order.

This is the general Purāṇic conception of Reality.

To satisfy the truth-seeker’s hankering for more and more knowledge about the divine order of the world, Parāśara explains in detail the Purāṇic ideas about the gradual expansion and diversification of inanimate nature,

the evolution of the various species of sub-human creatures, the growth of the human race, the diffusion of intellectual, moral, social and spiritual culture in different sections of the race,

the alternate rise and fall of the divine and the satanic (daiva and asura) forces in the world, the reign of moral law (law of karma) in the cosmic system,

the occasional appearance of outstanding personalities (extraordinary saints and sages and heroes) in the human society, the special manifestations of divine power and wisdom and love in times of crisis in the world-order, and so on.

All these dissertations revolve around the one central truth which is con­stantly stressed, i.e. that the supreme Spirit is at the origin, in all the steps as well as at the end of all these natural, historical, cultural, moral and spiritual processes in the world-order.

With the help of interesting illustrative tales it is sought to be proved that in the world-scheme the moral law is superior to the physical law and that the law of love and compassion is superior even to the moral law or the law of justice.

Among the incarnations (Vibhūtis and avatāras) Kṛṣṇa is represented as the most perfect self-expression of the supreme Spirit in human form and hence his life story is most elaborately described.

This is in short the philosophy of the Viṣu Purāṇa and it is repre­sentative of the spiritual outlook of the Purāṇas in general.

3. Philosophy of the Bhāgavata

The metaphysical viewpoint of the Bhāgavata is the same as that of the Viṣṇu Purāṇa. The Bhāgavata clearly states that:

“the ultimate Reality is one eternal non-dual consciousness (jñānam advayam) and that it is the same one Spirit that is called Brāhman, Paramātman and Bhāgavat.

The Bhāgavata, like the Viṇu Purāṇa, accepts equally the Nir-guṇa and the sa-guṇa aspects of the supreme Spirit.

In one famous śloka, Bhāgavat thus reveals His true character to Brāhma:

“In the beginning (before My self-manifestation as the cosmic order) I alone existed in and by Myself and there was nothing other than Myself, whether in a manifested or in an unmanifested form.

After the creation of diversities also I alone exist (because all these are My self-manifestations and nothing has exis­tence independent of and separate from Mine).

After the destruction of all these diversities also I alone will exist (because all My temporal self­-manifestations will be dissolved in time in Me).

Conceived in His all-transcending attributeless aspect, He is called Brāhman; as the all-originating, all-sustaining, all-regulating dynamic self of the universe, He is called Paramātman;

but when He is conceived with all His infinite glorious powers and attributes, manifested in relation to the cosmic order, He is called—Bhāgavat.

It is as Bhāgavat that He is the supreme object of admiration, reverence, devotion, meditation and love for all human beings, who are His relatively self-determining, self-conscious intelligent, finite self-manifestations in His cosmic system.

The Bhāgavata is specially interested in singing the various glories of Bhāgavat displayed in relation to the various orders of His self-manifestations.

His inconceiv­able power and wisdom and splendour are revealed in the order and harmony and complexity of the cosmic system;

but His higher spiritual attributes such as love and compassion, beauty and sweetness, are specially revealed in relation to the higher orders of His self-manifesta­tions; the highest of all in relation to His highest order of devotees.

The Bhāgavata follows the Viṣṇu-Purāṇa in having resort to the doctrine of Bhāgavat's māyā for the reconciliation of all the apparent logical contradictions in His perfect spiritual nature (seyam Bhāgavato māyā yan-nyāyena virudhyate).

Like the Viṣṇu Purāṇa it also assimilates the Sāṁkhya process of the evolution and involution of the cosmic order from and in prakṛti with its own view of Bhāgavat being the efficient as well as the material cause of all the diversities.

It goes even one step farther inasmuch as it not only gives a consistent theistic interpretation of the Sāṁkhya, but also accepts Kapila as one of the avatāras of Bhāgavat and presents him as one of the greatest teachers of bhakti-yoga.

Moreover, māyā being of the nature of a unique power of the supreme Spirit, the śakti-doctrine of the Śaivite Schools is also assimilated to it. The law of karma is subordinate to and one of the forms of operation of this unique inscrutable power.

What is most interesting in the philosophy of the Bhāgavata is its most artistic attempt to assimilate the māyā-doctrine of the Vedānta, the prakṛti-doctrine of the Sāṁkhya, the śakti-doctrine of Śaivites and the karma-doctrine of the Mimāṅsā and other Schools, into the Purāṇic- doctrine of divine Līlā (sportive self-expression of the supreme Spirit).

The conception of Līlā which is elaborated and illustrated throughout the entire book, implies a radical transformation of man's outlook on all the phenomena of the world-order.

The world-order is ultimately neither the product of a natural evolution out of some insentient primordial energy, nor an illusory appearance of an inert existence-consciousness through the inexplicable operation of māyā,

nor the product of any motive or desire or voluntary action or involuntary movement on the part of an active personality, nor the product of the karma of the individual spirits.

The best way to understand the causal relation of this world system to Him is, according to the Bhāgavata, to conceive it according to the analogy of sport.

Sport or play (when not contaminated by any ulterior motive or by any compulsion) is the free self-expression of the internal dynamic consciousness of joy and beauty and fullness of the player.

This conception of play furnishes the nearest approach to the nature of the unique power (māyā) of the supreme Spirit.

The whole world-order is the play of the supreme Spirit (divine Līlā)—the free unmotivated self- expression in a spatio-temporal order of His supra-spatial, supra-temporal perfect self-enjoyment.

Now this viewpoint of Līlā, if comprehensively realized, turns the phenomenal universe with all its diversities into a beautiful and magni­ficent work of art.

It is an embodiment of the perfect beauty and glory and joy of the divine nature. Brāhman is truth and wisdom and goodness and beauty and bliss—says the Upaniṣadic Ṛṣi.

Everything in this world must therefore be a free, but unmotivated, sportive self-expression of truth and wisdom, goodness and beauty, perfection and bliss. It is the Infinite and Eternal that plays everywhere as finite and transitory.

The phenomena which appear to our imperfect understanding as untrue or unwise, evil or ugly, sources of bondage or suffering, have their proper places in this great work of art, contributing to the beauty of the whole system, and they also are the self-expressions of the perfect player.

The ignorance and imperfect understanding, apparently vicious tendencies, the rivalries and hatreds and hostilities, the oppressions and depressions prevailing in the human society, change their colours, when viewed as the sportive self-expressions of the supreme Spirit.

An enlightened person who learns to look upon all things from the standpoint of the divine Līlā, is not horrified by the actualities of the world, does not want to fly away from it, does not seek deliverance in losing himself in the undifferentiated unity of the supreme Spirit.

He finds the supreme Spirit everywhere in the world, loves and embraces and courageously faces all the apparently repulsive things as the playful embodiments of his infinite eternal absolute beloved.

He sees and loves and serves the supreme Spirit within himself as well as in all persons and animals and things and forces of the world.

Līlā-vāda is closely related to avatāra-vāda upon which the Bhāgavata lays great emphasises

Avatāra literally means descent, coming down.

The supreme Spirit, by virtue of his unique power, mā, sportively descends from the plane of the absolute unity to the plane of the relative plurality,

from the plane of infinity and eternity to the plane of time and space, from the plane of non-dual changeless existence-consciousness-bliss to the plane of the diversities of changing conscious and unconscious imperfect existences, without in any way losing Its transcendent essential character.

While eternally enjoying the perfection of Its non-dual self in the supra- cosmic plane, It gives expression to Its transcendent perfection quite freely in a cosmic system of time, space and relativity, enters into all the parts of this system as their true selves, and enjoys the infinite glories of Its nature in and through them.

This conception of avatāra or the descent of the supreme Spirit into the plane of change, finitude and relativity is implied in the very idea of the Spirit being the ground and self of the cosmic system and all the diversities within it, as revealed in the spiritual experiences of the seers of the Upaniṣads and the saints of all ages.

The Bhāgavata has amplified and illustrated this conception:

The first avatāra of Bhāgavat is, the Bhāgavata says, His appearance in the form of Puruṣa or Person, the soul of the cosmos, the Spirit as immanent in the universe as a whole.

This puruṣā- vatāra is identified with Nārāyaṇa (which term also means the self and support of all naras or finite beings, the cosmic self) and is regarded as the inexhaustible seed and refuge of all the various forms of avatāras..

 From this point of view, all the diverse orders of beings in the world may in a general sense be spoken of as incarnations (avatāras) of the supreme Being.

But the term avatāra is used ordinarily in a special sense.

All the apparently finite beings of the universe are undoubtedly self-manifesta­tions of the supreme Spirit. To view them as essentially separate realities and different from the one absolute Spirit is avidya or ignorance.

But the mā of this absolute Spirit presents Its self-manifestations in various orders of relations to It.

Many of Its self-manifestations are of such forms that the spiritual character of the immanent Self is completely veiled in them. They appear as purely material things or material forces.

In the lowest species of living beings, the spiritual character of the self is only slightly unveiled in the form of an unconscious life-power.

In the higher and higher orders of beings the spiritual character of the Self is gradually more and more unveiled and appears as higher and higher forms of con­scious self-determining life.

Among all the cosmic self-manifestations of the divine Spirit, the spiritual character is most unveiled in the human beings, in whom there is a display of relative freedom of thought and emotion and will,

and there is a possibility of the realization of the Infinite and Eternal in the finite and temporal, of the spiritual in the material, of the bliss of perfect freedom in this world of bondage.

The Bhāgavata warmly commends the merits of human birth and tries to make men conscious of its infinite possibilities in all possible ways. The human life is eulogized as superior even to the lives of the heavenly beings, of the gods and goddesses.

In the human species again, the divine characteristics are more prominently displayed in the extraordinary lives of great saints and sages, great heroes and philanthropists (great jñānins, bhaktas, karmins, premins).

These are spoken of as embodiments of Vibhūtis (special glories) of the supreme Spirit.

The Bhāgavata teaches the truth-seekers to respect all orders of beings in this world as the manifestations or embodiments of the supreme Spirit.

But it seeks to draw their special attention to a special order of revelations of the supreme Spirit which occasionally appear in the world with special missions, particularly in the human society for the worldly good and spiritual enlightenment of Its creatures.

He is believed to come down in times of crisis into His world with finite bodies, but with super-ordinary divine powers, for some special actions which substantially contribute to the moral and spiritual elevation of the world, particularly of the human society.

Such special appearances (āvirbhāva) of Bhāgavat in finite forms with super­human parts to play in the world are called avatāras in the restrictedsense of the term.

The question as to why the Lord should have to come down and take bodily forms for accomplishing any purpose which He might have done by a mere act of effortless will or even by a change in the constitution of the cosmic order is altogether irrelevant.

He is not under any compulsion to adopt this course or that course for accomplishing anything.

We might raise a similar fruitless question as to why the order of the world is what it is or why the eternally transcendent absolute Spirit should come down to the plane of space, time and relativity and manifest Itself as a compli­cated cosmic system at all.

All this is Bhāgavat's play; all this is the free self-expression of His eternally self-enjoying spiritual nature.

We have to study and reflect upon the diverse modes of His sportive self- expressions in the cosmic system with admiration, reverence and love, and not to raise irrelevant fruitless questions.

Accepting what Bhāgavat has said in the Gītā with regard to the purpose of His avatāra-Līlā, the Bhāgavata adds that it is His love and compassion for His creatures (particularly His human manifestations) which brings Him down and makes Him assume bodily forms (particularly human).

In such forms He plays such roles as are very attractive to people's minds and hearts:

Even by hearing descriptions of them people become devoted to Him. In every action of His, there is the visible expression of His beauty and goodness, love and mercy, purity and playfulness.

In His incarnation (avatāra-Līlā) He offers to His devotees visible demon­strations of the practicability of the cultivation of a state of consciousness, in which one may be divine and human at the same time,

in which one may perform actions as finite beings without losing the bliss of -perfection in the innermost experience,

in which one may concern oneself with all the intricate affairs of the world and at the same time remain wholly unattached to them and enjoy everything as sweet play.

Through the agency of His avatāras, the supreme Spirit humanizes Himself and comes very close to the human minds and hearts, and thereby draws the human beings towards His divine character and seeks to divinize them.

The gulf of difference between divinity and humanity is bridged over by avatāras. The spiritual self-fulfilment of men is made very easy by this kind of divine play.

The Bhāgavata says that avatāras are countless; just as thousands and thousands of streams may flow out from an inexhaustible lake in different directions, so from Hari, the eternal source of all existences, innumerable avatāras descend into the earth.

Among the avatāras, however, the Bhāgavata recognizes differences on the ground of different degrees of manifestations of divinity:

Those in whom divinity is most brilliantly revealed are called pūra-avatāras; those in whom it is revealed only in particular aspects are called Amśa-avatāras; those in whom it is still less manifested are called kalā-avatāras. And so on.

The Bhāgavata mentions a good many avatāras: Nārada, Kapila, Dattātreya, Prithu (an ideal king), Vyāsa, the Buddha, are, amongst others, included in the list.

Of all the avatāras, Kṛṣṇa is regarded as the most perfect and he is spoken of as the supreme Spirit Itself—(Bhagavān svayam).

All through the book the Bhāgavata tries to give the readers enlightening and charming ideas about the various glorious attributes and powers of the supreme Spirit as exhibited in relation to the different orders of phenomena in its cosmic play,

such as elemental creation, multiplication of creatures, preservation of world order, development of species, dis­pensation of justice, cyclical changes in human history, lives of devotees and seekers of divine mercy,

lives of heroes and saints, dissolution of the world in pralaya, emancipation from worldly bondage through spiritual enlightenment, and so on.

Special aspects of the inscrutable power and glory of God are displayed in connection with special orders of phenomena:

It is in the lives of the sincere and earnest seekers of jñāna, bhakti, mukti, and relief from distress that the supreme player displays Himself as the bestower of true knowledge,

the bestower of love and sweetness, the bestower of tranquillity and bliss, the deliverer from bondage and misery;

and it is in the experiences of such persons that Bhāgavat reveals Himself as infinitely merciful, infinitely loving, infinitely benevolent, infinitely good and beautiful.

Enlightened men regard such moral, spiritual and aesthetic aspects of the divine nature as superior to His creatorship, rulership and destroyership of the world. The Bhāgavata accordingly deals more elaborately with these higher expressions of the divine character.

The life-story of Kṛṣṇa constitutes the most vital part of this Purāṇa. The entire tenth Skandha, consisting of ninety chapters, is especially devoted to it. Many saintly philosophers have written commentaries exclusively on this part of the book.

The narration is as poetically charming as philosophically illuminating. In depicting the life of Kṛṣṇa the Bhāgavata does not deify an extraordinary human personality, but humanizes the supreme Spirit.

It starts with the conception that Kṛṣṇa is the supreme Spirit Itself (Bhagavān svayam), and illustrates by reference to the events of His playful earthly career how divinity can be beautifully manifested in humanity.

He plays excellently the parts of an infant, a child, a boy, a youth, a son, a playmate, a sentimental lover, a warrior, a controller of the forces of evil, an humbler of the Vedic deities, a politician, a social and religious reformer, and what not?

His limitations are self-imposed, and He transcends them whenever He likes. The whole cosmic and supra- cosmic character of the supreme Spirit is visible in its life.

As a mere infant sucking the mother's breast, Kṛṣṇa playfully sucks out the soul of Pūtanā, who came to kill Him in the guise of a mother.

Frightened by His mother’s chastisement, He opens His mouth and shows her the whole cosmic system within it; He shows the boundless space with all its contents within the small cavity of His mouth.

As a boy He per­suades His father to revolt against the long-standing religious practice of Indra-yajña, and when Indra comes to inflict punishment,

He picks up the hill of Govardhana on the tip of His little finger, puts it as an umbrella upon the heads of the inhabitants of Vrindāvana and protects them from Indra’s wrath.

The law of gravity yields to His sportive will, and Indra, the great Vedic Deity, also bows down to this playful Human God.

While playing with the simple boys and girls of Vrindāvana, He devours the forest fire, which was about to burn them to ashes.

Powerful demons appear now and then to create disturbances in His boyish games; and He kills them in various playful methods which only add to the pleasures of His playmates.

All the superhuman powers and skills which are exhibited are parts of His sweet play, self-expressions of His joyful spirit. Vrindāvana, where He played His childlike as well as superhuman games, is depicted as a spiritual and a material world, both at the same time.

The boys and girls of Vrindāvana are depicted as the loving devotees of the highest order, who live for Kṛṣṇa, work for Kṛṣṇa, yearn for eternal union with Kṛṣṇa,

who have no concern with the superhuman or cosmic powers and actions of Kṛṣṇa, but look upon Him as the eternally perfect embodiment of beauty and sweetness and love.

The Bhāgavata shows that in relation to these devotees the most glorious attributes of the divine character are exhibited

and that the kind of love which they cultivated towards Kṛṣṇa is superior in spiritual value even to the attain­ment of mukti through the realization of the identity of the individual self with the absolute Spirit.

Eternal communion with the supreme Spirit through the most intense all-engrossing love is, according to the Bhāgavata, the highest ideal of human life.

Not only the mind and heart, but all the organs of the senses, all the limbs of the body, should be saturated with pure emotional love for the divine;

the infinite beauty of the supreme Spirit should be experienced and enjoyed not only within the inner consciousness, but also in all the diverse expressions of His cosmic and supra-cosmic play, and the entire being of the devotee should thus become perfectly spiritual, loving and beautiful.