The Srimad Bhagavatam is one of the ‘Puranas’. These are ancient Sanskrit texts that document events that took place in ‘ancient times’. The Sanskrit word ‘Purana’ means “a thing or event of the past, an ancient tale or legend, old traditional history”. There are eighteen Puranas known to mankind as of today and together, they contain a complete narrative of the history of the Universe from creation to destruction, genealogies of great kings, noble heroes and demigods, and descriptions of cosmology and geography.
The three chief Gods described in the Puranas are ‘Brahma – the creator’, ‘Vishnu-the sustainer and creator of Brahma’, and ‘Shiva – the destroyer’.
The eighteen Puranas are:
- Bhagavata Purana
- Vishnu Purana
- Naradiya Purana
- Vamana Purana
- Matsya Purana
- Garuda Purana
- Brahma Purana
- Bhavishya Purana
- Agni Purana
- Brahma Vaivarta Purana
- Brahmananda Purana
- Padma Purana
- Shiva Purana
- Linga Purana
- Kurma Purana
- Markandeya Purana
- Varaha Purana
- Skanda Purana
It is believed that sage Vyasa (He is also sometimes called Krishna Dvaipāyana) is the original compiler of the Puranas. He is also the author of the ‘Mahabharata’ and he is also the one who divided the Vedas into four parts – Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda.
The eighteen Puranas contain around 400,000 verses or shlokas and consist of the largest body of writing in Sanskrit.
The Bhagavata Purana is also known as the Srimad Bhagavatam. The Srimad Bhagavatam is considered to contain the essence of all the Vedanta literature. Among other things, the Srimad Bhagavatam teaches nine primary forms of bhakti:
- śravaṇa (“listening” to the scriptural stories of God and His incarnations)
- kīrtana (“Singing in praise of the Lord”)
- smaraṇa (“remembering” or fixing the mind on God)
- pāda-sevana (being of service to the lotus feet of the Lord)
- archana (worshipping His image/form)
- vandana (paying homage to the Lord)
- dāsya (selfless and total remembrance and service to the Lord)
- sākhya (considering the Lord to be your true friend)
- ātma-nivedana (complete surrender of the self to the Lord)
The Srimad Bhagavatam is about Lord Vishnu and itself consists of 10 books or volumes containing a total of around 18,000 shlokas. The first nine books of the Srimad Bhagavatam discusses all the major incarnations prior to Lord Krishna and the tenth book which comprises of 4000 shlokas is dedicated exclusively to Lord Krishna.
The Vedas are the oldest preserved Sanskrit literature of India and their contents were fixed. They have been passed on from generation to generation without any modification. The Vedas are considered to be ‘Sruti’s which mean ‘that which is heard’. So the belief is that the Vedas are sacred texts passed on by God to divine entities who in turn passed them on to our most ancient sages and so on, without ever being modified.
On the other hand, the Puranas are considered to be ‘Smriti’s which mean ‘that which is remembered’. There has been some flexibility with regards to who remembered what and as a result, we can see slightly different interpretations and renditions of the same Purana by different people.
Although the Puranas may seem to sound inferior to Vedas because of them being ‘smriti’s, they have a big advantage over the Vedas. The Puranas were meant for the common population and have room for adjustments based on the time and place. The Puranas also claim to expand upon and explain various aspects of the Vedas which are otherwise cryptic (at least for humans in the current age). Thus in fact, a number of Puranas are actually considered to be superior to even the Vedas.
One interesting thing to note is that in ancient times (Satyuga through Dwapara yuga), humans had remarkable ability to remember things and so the Puranas were always passed on verbally from generation to generation. Only during the beginning of Kalyuga did human memory start becoming inferior and too corrupted to be able to remember such vast amounts of text accurately. Thus, it was only a few hundred years ago that the first documented versions of the Puranas were found, although their origins are many thousands of years ago.
The word “Bhagavan” means one who possesses ‘bhaga’ (prosperity, dignity, power, beauty and all such good things). Lord Krishna was referred to as “Bhagavan” and the Srimad Bhagavatam or the “Bhagavata Purana” is believed to be named after Him.
As described earlier, the first nine books of the Srimad Bhagavatam teach various aspects of ‘bhakti yoga’ or yoga of devotion and are supposed to prepare the reader for the full revelation of God’s personal nature that is disclosed in the tenth book. The tenth book itself is divided into two distinct and equal sections: the childhood pastimes of Lord Krishna in Vrndavana while the second section covers His adulthood activities, battles, heroic exploits, statesmanship, etc.
The current and popular interpretation of Srimad Bhagavatam is made by Sri Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and consists of a total of 30 cantos (books divided into sections). It is an ocean of knowledge and information although it is not ‘light reading’ by any means. Even if you dedicated few hours every day to diligently go through 20-30 pages, you will still require approximately 3 years to finish just reading all the 30 books. Complete understanding and implementation of the teachings may take an entire lifetime or more. It is no easy task and can be completed only by the mercy of the Lord and under the guidance of a learned guru.
The way I look at it, the Bhagavad Gita is a condensed nectar of information that we should first read and understand. It will prepare you for the Srimad Bhagavatam. I have published a distilled version of the Bhagavad Gita based on the interpretations of great scholars and I hope it helps you understand the Bhagavad Gita quickly and correctly and prepare you to embark upon your holy journey of reading the Srimad Bhagavatam.
Once you are ready for the Srimad Bhagavatam, the very first chapter provides assurance of spiritual success for those studying this scriptures.
Completely rejecting all religious activities which are materially motivated, this Bhagavata Purana propounds the highest truth, which is understandable by those devotees who are pure in heart. The highest truth is reality distinguished from illusion for the welfare of all. Such truth uproots the threefold miseries. This beautiful Bhagavatam, compiled by the great sage Sri Vyasadeva, is sufficient in itself for God realization. As soon as one attentively and submissively hears the message of Bhagavatam, he becomes attached to the Supreme Lord.