Srimad-Bhagavatam: The Book Form of Lord Krishna

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A brief outline of the twelve cantos of the Bhagavatam, which represent the bodily limbs of Lord Krishna and present ten transcendental topics.

Of all the sacred Vaishnava scriptures, Srimad-Bhagavatam is considered the topmost. Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu hailed the Bhagavatam as the spotless authority (pramanam amalam) amongst the Vedic literatures. Srila Rupa Goswami, in his Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, declared that hearing Srimad-Bhagavatam is one of the five most potent forms of bhakti-yoga. Srila Prabhupada regarded Srimad-Bhagavatam, which is the sound representation of Lord Krishna, as the postgraduate study of the science of Godhead.

Srimad-Bhagavatam was compiled by Srila Vyasadeva, the literary incarnation of Godhead, in the maturity of his knowledge. The Bhagavatam gave complete satisfaction to its author, who was not satisfied with his earlier works, including various other Puranas and the Mahabharata. All the Vedic scriptures together are compared to a desire-fulfilling tree, and Srimad-Bhagavatam is the ripened fruit of that tree, the essence of all scriptures (akhila-shruti-saram).

The Bhagavatam’s Cantos Are Krishna’s Limbs

Srimad-Bhagavatam is nondifferent from the Supreme Personality of Godhead Lord Krishna. It is the granthavatara, or book incarnation of Lord Krishna, narrating the pastimes of His various avatars. After His time on earth, Krishna returned in the form of this book to shed light on the misdirected civilization of Kali-yuga.

Srimad-Bhagavatam’s twelve cantos represent the limbs of Lord Sri Krishna’s transcendental body, according to the following verses of the Padma Purana.

padau yadiyau prathama-dvitiyau
tritiya-turyau kathitau yad-uru
nabhis tatha panchama eva shashtho
bhujantaram dor-yugalam tathanyau

kanthas tu rajan navamo yadiyo
mukharavindam dashamah praphullam
ekadasho yasya lalata-pattam
shiro’pi tu dvadasha eva bhati

tam adidevam karuna-nidhanam
tamala-varnam suhitavataram
apara-samsara-samudra-setum
bhajamahe bhagavata-svarupam

“The First and Second Cantos of the Bhagavatam are Sri Krishna’s lotus feet. The Third and Fourth Cantos are His thighs. The Fifth Canto is His navel. The Sixth Canto is His chest. The Seventh and Eighth Cantos are His arms. The Ninth Canto is His throat. The Tenth Canto is His beautiful lotus face. The Eleventh Canto is His forehead. The Twelfth Canto is His head. I bow down to that Lord, the ocean of mercy whose color is like that of a tamala tree and who appears in this world for the welfare of all. I worship Him as the bridge for crossing the unfathomable ocean of material existence. The Bhagavatam has appeared as His very Self.”

To view the deity of Krishna in the temple, we are advised to begin at  His lotus feet and gradually rise to His lotus face. Similarly, because the Bhagavatam is nondifferent from Lord Krishna, one should study it step by step from the first canto to the last. Srila Prabhupada emphasizes, “The only qualification one needs to study this great book of transcendental knowledge is to proceed step by step cautiously and not jump forward haphazardly as with an ordinary book. It should be gone through chapter by chapter, one after another.” (Preface to Srimad-Bhagavatam)

The Ten Topics of Srimad-Bhagavatam

Glorified as a maha-purana, or “great Purana,” Srimad-Bhagavatam contains ten subjects, as described in this verse 2.10.1:

atra sargo visargash cha
sthanam poshanam utayah
manvantareshanukatha
nirodho muktir ashrayah

  1. Sarga: universal creation by the Supreme Lord
  2. Visarga: secondary creation by Lord Brahma
  3. Sthanam: positioning of living entities in various planetary systems
  4. Poshanam: protection of the devotees by the Lord
  5. Uti: inclination to act
  6. Manvantara: the reign of Manus
  7. Ishanukatha: the topics of the Lord’s incarnations and devotees
  8. Nirodha: annihilation
  9. Mukti: liberation
  10. Ashraya: the supreme shelter, Lord Krishna.

All aspects of knowledge important for human beings, summarized in the above ten categories, are described with various degrees of emphasis and analysis throughout the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Although all these topics are spread throughout the Bhagavatam, each is more vividly described in specific cantos.

The ultimate purpose of the first nine topics is to help us understand the tenth topic, ashraya-tattva. The first nine topics deal with the Supreme Lord Krishna’s various energies, expansions, majesty, and greatness. Understanding them helps us better appreciate His personal attributes and His activities with His dearest devotees as described in the Tenth Canto. Without studying the first nine topics, one might perceive the pastimes of Krishna in the Tenth Canto as ordinary.

Srimad-Bhagavatam in a Nutshell

The First and Second Cantos of the Bhagavatam are considered the lotus feet of Lord Krishna. They form a perfect prelude to the rest of the Bhagavatam by introducing the reader to its key philosophical concepts and prominent characters. They also emphatically, categorically, and conclusively declare Lord Krishna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead (krishnas tu bhagavan svayam) and bhakti-yoga as the topmost spiritual path. In the First Canto, Suta Goswami describes to the Naimisharanya sages the history of the Bhagavatam; the birth and activities of Parikshit Maharaja, who even chastised Kali, the personification of the current degraded age; and the exclusive dependence on Lord Krishna by devotees like Uttara, the Pandavas, Kunti, and Bhishma and Krishna’s reciprocation with them.

In the Second Canto, Shukadeva Goswami describes the supremacy of krishna-bhakti while presenting various other processes on the Vedic landscape, such as demigod worship and, as a part of ashtanga yoga, meditation on the universal form (virat-rupa) and the Supersoul (Paramatma). He also explains the catuh-shloki (the four seed verses of the Bhagavatam) and finally defines the ten topics of the Bhagavatam.

The Third and Fourth Cantos correspond to Lord Krishna’s thighs and predominantly describe the topics of sarga and visarga through the conversation of Vidura and Maitreya. The Third Canto also describes time, embryology, family life, Sankhya, bhakti-yoga, ashtanga-yoga, jnana-yoga, karma, and the spiritual and material worlds. We read the pastimes of Lord Varaha, a descrip­tion of Vaikuntha, the narration of the household life of Kardama Muni and Devahuti, and the teachings of Lord Kapila.

The Fourth Canto is very rich in its con­tents. It unveils inspiring and instructive stories of admired personalities like Lord Shiva, Suniti, Dhruva, Narada, Anga, Prithu, and the Pracetas, who all showed extraordinary examples of bhakti. We also learn about unfavorable attitudes in bhakti from the mistakes of characters like Daksha, Suruci, Vena, Indra, and Pracinabarhi. We get to witness how the positive transformation undergone by many of these personalities, mainly due the intervention of devotees, adds to the glory of bhakti. Furthermore, the prayers of pure devotees like Dhruva, Prithu, and the Pracetas uncover the highest aspiration of a devotee – to hear krishna-katha in the association of devotees.

The Fifth Canto corresponds to the lotus navel of the Supreme Lord. In this canto, Shukadeva Goswami continues the topic of visarga and describes the dynasty of Priyavrata, the second son of Manu. Priyavrata’s dynasty consists of several notable personalities, such as Agnidhra, Nabhi, Lord Rishabhadeva, and Bharata in his three lives as a king, a deer, and a brahmana. All these episodes culminate in the glorification of bhakti. The latter half of this canto discusses sthanam, the positioning of various planetary systems within the structure of the universe for the inhabitation of various living entities. The canto concludes with a description of hellish planets. The majesty and grandeur of the Lord’s creation is unfathomable for an ordinary human being. It is recommended that one faithfully adhere to the teachings of the scriptures and pursue the spiritual path.

The Sixth Canto represents the chest of Lord Krishna. It is primarily centred on the theme of poshanam, or protection offered by the Lord to His devotees, even if they sometimes transgress the laws of dharma accidentally. This canto begins with glorification of the Lord’s holy names through the episode of Ajamila. Later Shukadeva Goswami resumes the topic of visarga and describes the living entities generated through the sixty daughters of Daksha. As a part of those descriptions, Indra’s offenses and struggles are described along with the glories of the pure devotee Vritrasura. Vritrasura’s previous life as King Citraketu reveals the insubstantial nature of material relationships, the compassion of a devotee in uplifting a struggling soul, the care needed in dealing with devotees, and the Supreme Lord’s eagerness to reclaim His devotees. The canto concludes with the transformation of Diti and Indra by devotional service.

The Seventh and Eighth Cantos represent the arms of the Supreme Lord. The Seventh Canto describes uti, or inclination, which is of two types – auspicious and inauspicious. The auspicious and inauspicious inclinations of the jivas lead them to perform pious and impious acts, which cause their future happiness and distress in various births. The Seventh Canto presents two types of bhakti: shuddha-bhakti, or pure devotional service, as shown by Prahlada (for whom Lord Nrisimhadeva appeared and killed the demon Hiranyakashipu), described in the first ten chapters, and mishra-bhakti, or mixed devotional service done by varnashriama followers, described in the last five chapters. In mishra-bhakti, bhakti is mixed with karma or jnana as a major or minor element.

The Eighth Canto vividly presents the theme of manvantara, or the reign of the Manus, the chief administrators of the universe, appointed by the Supreme Lord. Fourteen Manus rule in one kalpa, or day of Lord Brahma, which spans one thousand catur-yugas (the four yugas Satya, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali). Thus each Manu rules for about seventy-one catur-yugas. In every manvantara six kinds of personalities manage various functions of the universe: Manu, the sons of Manu, the demigods, Indra, the seven great sages, and the manvantara avatar of the Lord. In this canto, Shukadeva describes the six types of main persons in each of the fourteen manvantaras (past, present, and future) in the current day of Brahma, and elaborates selected pastimes of the Lord in some manvantaras. Thus we hear the episodes of Gajendra, the churning of the milk ocean, Bali Maharaja’s deliverance by Lord Vamanadeva, and the pastimes of Matsya avatar. In all these episodes the Lord’s protection aspect is vividly described.

The Ninth Canto represents the throat of Lord Krishna and predominantly presents the topic of ishanukatha, or the topics of the Lord and His devotees. This canto tells the stories of various devotees and the Lord’s incarnations in the sun dynasty and the moon dynasty. Some prominent kings of the sun dynasty were Sudyumna, Ambarisha, Sagara, Ikshvaku, and Lord Ramachandra. And the moon dynasty has kings like Pururava, Yayati, and Yadu, and Lord Krishna appeared in this dynasty. However glorious a dynasty may be, none of its kings or members forever enjoy its opulence. Only the devotional service one has rendered with a sincere heart remains with the self as a permanent asset.

The Tenth Canto represents the beautiful lotus face of Lord Krishna and vividly describes the topic of ashraya, or the supreme shelter, Sri Krishna. Shukadeva Goswami ecstatically describes in this longest canto the appearance and pastimes of Lord Krishna in Vrindavan, Mathura, Dwarka, Hastinapura, and other places. This canto’s descriptions of Krishna’s unlimited transcendental attributes, His amazing reciprocations of the love of His devotees, and His compassionate deliverance of those inimical to Him are the worthiest subjects for one’s contemplation. They constitute the most precious gift for the devotees to absorb themselves in Lord Krishna’s glories.

The Eleventh Canto corresponds to the forehead of Krishna and prominently describes the topic of mukti, or liberation. This canto mainly deals with the disappearance of Lord Krishna and the enigmatic destruction of His Yadu dynasty by the curse of the sages. It contains the highly philosophical conversations between King Nimi and the nava-yogendras and between Lord Krishna and Uddhava (Uddhava-gita) that enlighten us on the deeper truth of this universe, various spiritual paths, and the supreme spiritual path of bhakti-yoga.

The Twelfth Canto corresponds to the head of Lord Krishna and describes the topic of nirodha, or destruction. There are four types of destruction (pralaya), namely nitya pralaya, the constant deterioration of material objects that happens at every moment; naimittika pralaya, the destruction of planets at the end of Brahma’s day; prakritika pralaya, destruction of universe at the end of Brahma’s life; and atyantika pralaya, the final destruction of the conditioned soul’s false ego, thus causing the soul’s liberation. In comparison to these great destructions or changes, the small losses we experience in the material world, including death, are insignificant.

The Supreme Scripture

Thus Srimad-Bhagavatam concisely and categorically presents spiritually rich topics of Supreme Lord Krishna, His various incarnations and devotees, and the process of loving devotional service (bhakti-yoga) unto Him. The Bhagavatam ends with verses about its own unparalleled glories, of which the following (12.13.11–12) are an example.

adi-madhyavasaneshu
vairagyakhyana-samyutam
hari-lila-katha-vrata-
mritanandita-sat-suram

sarva-vedanta-saram yad
brahmatmaikatva-lakshanam
vastv advitiyam tan-nishtham
kaivalyaika-prayojanam

“From beginning to end, the Srimad-Bhagavatam is full of narrations that encourage renunciation of material life, as well as nectarean accounts of Lord Hari’s transcendental pastimes, which give ecstasy to the saintly devotees and demigods. This Bhagavatam is the essence of all Vedanta philosophy because its subject matter is the Absolute Truth, which, while nondifferent from the spirit soul, is the ultimate reality, one without a second. The goal of this literature is exclusive devotional service unto that Supreme Truth.”

The authenticity and supremacy of the Bhagavatam are acknowledged in other Puranas as well. For instance, the Padma Purana (Uttara-khanda 193.3) states:

puraneshu tu sarveshu
shrimad-bhagavatam param
yatra pratipadam krishno
giyate bahudharshibhih

“The Srimad-Bhagavatam, in whose every word Lord Krishna is praised in many ways by the sages, is the topmost among all Puranas.”

And the Garuda Purana says:

artho ’yam brahma-sutranam
bharatartha-vinirnaya
gayatri-bhashya-rupo ’sau
vedartha-paribrimhita

purananam sama-rupa
sakshad bhagavatodita
dvadasha-skandha-yukto ’yam
shata-viccheda-samyuta

grantho ’shtadasha-sahasram
shri-bhagavatabhidha

“This [Bhagavata-Purana] is perfectly complete. It is the purport of the Vedanta-sutra, establishes the meaning of the Mahabharata, is a commentary on Gayatri, and completes the message of the Vedas. It is the Sama Veda among the Puranas, spoken directly by an incarnation of God [Vyasa]. This work, consisting of twelve cantos, hundreds of chapters, and eighteen thousand verses, is called Srimad-Bhagavatam.”

The expanse and depth of the Bhagavatam is better appreciated from the commentaries of great acharyas, or spiritual teachers like Srila Prabhupada, Srila Jiva Goswami, Srila Sanatana Goswami, Srila Vishvanatha Chakravarti, and many other distinguished scholars after the time of Lord Chaitanya. The study of the Bhagavatam done in line with the explanations of bona fide Vaishnava acharyas gives the sincere reader an unparalleled understanding of the Absolute Truth, which is not possible by one’s own speculative efforts. In fact, it is Lord Krishna Himself who speaks through the disciplic succession to enlighten the serious students of the Bhagavatam. Fortunate are those people who effectively use their valuable time to relish this condensed nectar even slightly.

sarva-vedanta-saram hi
shri-bhagavatam ishyate
tad-rasamrita-triptasya
nanyatra syad ratih kvachit

Srimad-Bhagavatam is declared to be the essence of all Vedanta philosophy. One who has felt satisfaction from its nectarean mellow will never be attracted to any other literature.” (Bhagavatam 12.13.15)

About the Author: 

Gauranga Darshana Dasa

Gauranga Darshana Dasa, a disciple of His Holiness Radhanath Swami, is dean of the Bhaktivedanta Vidyapitha at ISKCON Govardhan Eco Village (GEV), outside Mumbai. He has written study guides, including, Bhagavata Subodhini, and Chaitanya Subodhini, and teaches Bhagavatam courses at several places in India. He also oversees the deity worship at GEV.