Bhagavatam Historiography

Question: Could it be considered that the ācāryas composed a ‘mythic’ (pseudo-historical) narrative, to present a set of esoteric teachings that were their main concern?

In the first book of Sanātana Gosvāmī’s Bṛhad-Bhāgavatamṛta, he ‘composes’ a genealogy for the tales he is about to present, for the sake of anchoring them in the Smṛti (Purāṇic) genre.  He tells us that Parikṣit, just before dying, was approached by his mother Uttarā, who asked him to explain the essence of the Bhāgavata to him. His reply to her, Sanātana says, is the Bṛhad-Bhāgavatamṛta.

Further, he says that two narratives Parikṣit relates to his mother (the stories of Nārada and Gopakumāra) were originally taught by Jaimini to Janamejaya when Janamejaya was not satisfied by learning the entire Mahābhārata from Vyāsa.

He makes absolutely no effort to defend these huge claims.

Vrindavan Research InstituteAnyone could very easily point out no other text anywhere in the Indian tradition makes any mention of these two recensions of his story, but Sanātana shows no concern about that.  Nor does he make any effort to explain how tales secretly survived the thousands of years from their original telling to his retelling of them in the 16th century. He doesn’t take the opportunity to use the historiographical trump card of saying that Sri Caitanya revealed it all to him. He also doesn’t explain why Parikṣit would compose an entirely different narrative to explain the essence of the Bhagavata when he had just finished hearing the Bhagavata, which presents itself as the essence of all the Vedas, from Śukadeva Gosvāmī. Nor does he explain how Parikṣit managed to tell these long stories to his mother, when his seven days were already expired.

The tale itself seems unabashed about mixing into one timeline Purāṇic and Itihāsa narratives that span vastly different historical epochs.

Thus, can we not conclude that the main concern of Vaishnava authors is not to narrate history but to impart rasa, as the Bhāgavata itself states in its opening verses?

Answer: To fully do justice to your question I would have write a whole paper, but my brief comment is below.

Different books are in different genres. Books like Bṛhad-Bhāgavatamṛta are in the genre of kāvya. For want of a better translation I translate kāvya as, “poetry,” but it is better to just use the Sanskrit word itself.

There is saying about kāvya:

apāre kavya-saṁsāre kavireva prajāpatiḥ

yathāsmai rocate viśvam tathaiva parivartate

“In the unlimited world of kāvya the poet is the sole creator, and he creates his literary world as he likes.”

Lord Shiva / Vrindavan Research InstituteBrahma is the prajāpati of the manifest world. He creates the world, which has its history, genealogy, and so on. An author of kāvya, however, is the prajāpati of the world he creates in his writing, and the history and genealogy of that world may contradict the history of Brahma’s creation.

To study Brahma’s world we have various departments of science, history, biology, anthropology, etc. To study the literary world of authors one also needs various sciences, detailed in textbooks which include Kāvya-prakāśa, Sahitya-darpaṇa, Dhvanyaloka, Nātya-śāstra, Alaṅkāra-kaustubha (which we will study in our next Bhakti Tirtha course starting in October), Abhinava-bhārati, Vakrokti-jīvitam, etc.

The “real” world and the “literary” world are different realms and there are two different approaches to studying them.  There may be some overlap but to try to exactly map one onto another will never work.

The purpose of studying the two is also different. Empirical study of the world and its history has some purpose, which experts in those fields would be better suited to explain than I am. Study of the literary worlds of great authors is also purposeful. One important purpose is to give the reader inspiration to behave like the heroes of the stories, and not like the villians. This is illustrated by the saying, rāmādivat vartitvyam na to rāvaṇādivat – “Be a Rāma, not a Rāvana.”

Another purpose is to illustrate how to achieve goals. For example, there is a saying, vartitvyam samicchadbhi bhaktavat na tu krsnavat – If you want to become a devotee, behave like the devotees, not like Kṛṣṇa.”

Sanātana Gosvāmī was not a historian. His Bṛhad-Bhāgavatamṛta is a poetic, not a historical narration. He uses historical figures as players in a story he has conceived. Through them, he presents the theology of Bhāgavatam as he received it from Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu.

The larger handwriting in blue is a Bhagavatam commentary by Sri Gadadhar Pandit. The smaller writing in black, above and below, is purportedly the comments of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu

4 thoughts on “Bhagavatam Historiography”

  1. Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is an original interweaving of veda, purāṇa, and kāvya essences. So it is imperative to learn certain disciplines to correctly and fully access its pārokṣa-kathita, which are the result of Vyāsadeva’s samādhi-darśana! But is it possible for a mūrkha such as myself to apprehend the subtle meaning of that complex interlacing of knowledge, history, and poetry and thus reach the ajāta-ruci-rāgānuga-bhakti stage? Why does it sometimes seem that a śāstra-jña does not have the proper vaidika or rasika sensivity and behaves like a bāliśa?

  2. Namaskara, I know historiography is study of the methods of historians in developing history. Do we have any historiography or method of writing puranas?

  3. Thank you for giving a basic information about Brhad bhagavatamrta as text classified under kavya section. Just one observation and I request you to clarify that – The opening verses state :

    shR^iNvantu vaiShNavAH shAstram idaM bhAgavatAmR^itam |
    sugopyaM prAha yat premNA jaiminir janamejayam

    it appears the author calls it as idam sastram than kavyam. Please kindly clarify.

    1. Śāstra is a general term which can be used for any book of knowledge. The word shastra can also mean a theory, a principle, or an injunction. Therefore we use words i.e,. Nyāya Shastra, Alankara Shastra, Vedanta shastra.

      In the verse cited by you Sri Sanatana Gosvami is using the word shastra on the sense of book of knowledge. This does not mean that it cannot be kavya.

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