Transformations over history
Bhagavata lore reached people in different ways in different ages. It spoke of the world as going through cycles, each death and rebirth marked by a great flood (pralaya), each cycle (kalpa) having four eras (yuga), the end of each marked by a mortal form of bhagavan who seeks to restore order (dharma): Parashurama, Ram, Krishna and, finally, Kalki.
Many people consider this traditional lore as proto-history, confirmed by astrological data. They insist that the last ice age, which took place 10,000 years ago, was pralaya, that Ram lived 7000 years ago and Krishna lived 5000 years ago. So Bhagavata lore is at least over 5000 years old, and the Vedas older still, defying human notions of time.
Those who prefer the scientific method recognise that Vedic scriptures started to be composed around 3500 years, in the Indus plains, reaching their most refined form 3000 years ago, in the Gangetic plains. The earliest textual reference to Krishna comes from the Rig Veda (1.22.18), where Vishnu is described as a cowherd. In the Chandogya Upanishad, Krishna is referred to as Devaki’s son, and in the Aitreya Aryanyaka as a member of the Vrishni clan. Yaksha’s book of etymology and Panini’s book of grammar refer to incidents in Krishna’s life over 2500 years ago. But the occurrence of names and plots does not necessarily mean the prevalence of associated Bhagavata philosophy.
The Bhagavata, as we know it today, where philosophy mingles with story, most likely began as a counter force to the monastic ways of Buddhists and Jains, around 2500 years ago. While monastic orders sought withdrawal from the world (moksha), Hindu epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata valued participation in the world (dharma) and success of kings (artha).
In the “Narayaniyam” section of the Mahabharata, we see the earliest attempts to equate Narayana with the supreme form of the divine who manifests in various ways to solve earthly problems. In the Pancharatra, the transcendental or other-worldly (para) is gradually made part of this mundane world (apara) through five human forms (vyuha): Vasudeva (lord of the world) and his brother, Samkarshana (he who draws people to him), his two sons, Pradyumna and Samba, and his grandson, Aniruddha, whose stories are found in the Harivamsa, an appendix of the Mahabharata. This early form of Vaishnava theism is known as Bhagavatism.
The Sangam literature of Tamilakam refers to Vedic rituals, to Vishnu as Mayon, Perumal and Thirumal, and to Bhagavatas as Mukkol Bhagavars, suggesting that these ideas spread across the continent 2000 years ago.
By the time of the Vishnu Purana, around 1500 years ago, the idea of descents (avatars) consolidates itself, and we learn how Narayana wakes up to become the infinite Vishnu who then manifests in various finite forms to enable the liberation (moksha) of those who venerate him. This marks the transformation of Bhagavatism into Vaishnavism. Shortly thereafter, when the Bhagavata Purana reaches its most refined form, Vaishnavism transforms into Krishanism, where Krishna dominates, overshadowing even Vishnu, and we find immense value placed on aesthetic appreciation (rasa) and sensual delight (kama).
If tensions between worldly Vedism and monastic Buddhism gave rise to stories of a heroic and worldly Krishna who places great emphasis on emotions (bhava) of affection (vatsalya), romance (madhurya) and eroticism (shringara), then 1000 years ago, in the shadow of Islam, tensions arose between the sensuous Tantra and restrained Vedanta. The result was the bhakti movement characterised by the chanting of the name of Krishna (nama-japa), singing his praise (kirtana), and discussions on whether attention should be given to Krishna’s body (saguni) or to the idea he embodied (nirguni), if Radha was his (svakiya) or another’s (parakiya), if this play (leela) was to be seen literally or metaphorically. By the time the Brahmavaivarta Purana is composed 500 years ago, Radha is goddess, the divine female, and together with Krishna, the divine male, she creates the world.
It is important to note that texts that tell us the story of Krishna’s life do not emerge chronologically. The 2000-year-old Mahabharata tells the story of Krishna’s adult life and death; his childhood stories are found in the 1700-year-old Harivamsa; his circular dance is first mentioned in portions of the 1000-year-old Bhagavata Purana; his love for Radha is clearly articulated only in the 800-year-old Gita Govinda; and the two become a celestial pair, creators of the cosmos, only in the 500-year-old Brahmavaivarta Purana.
Transformations over geography
Even though the events of Krishna’s life are restricted to north India, the eastern Gangetic plains (Mathura) and the western sea coast (Dwaraka), it is quite possible that major structuring of Bhagavatism as we know it happened south of the Vindhyas, in Tamilakam, in the plains watered by the Kaveri river. In fact, the south played a key role in transforming the older ritualistic Hinduism (Vedic, Nigama, Shrauta) into later theistic Hinduism (Puranic, Agama, Smarta), wherein gods were enshrined in temples, and evoked through stories and song.
It is in 2000-year-old Tamil Sangam literature, even before the Harivamsa, that we first hear of the dark lord Mayon, his dalliances with Napinnai, his love for bulls and cows, and his association with the mullai or forests of bamboo and sandalwood. It is also from the south that the earliest bhakti poetry emerges as the Alvars sing of being immersed in the cow-loving Perumal, about 1000 years ago. The first villages and cities designed around temple complexes that enshrine Vishnu, where song and dance were being refined as a medium to appreciate the divine, were established in the south.
Most importantly, acharyas from south India, such as Shankara who hailed from Kerala (eighth century), Ramanuja who hailed from Tamil Nadu (twelfth century) and Madhva who hailed from Karnataka (thirteenth century), consciously established links between Puranic lore and Upanishadic lore, with Krishna being seen as the embodiment of the cosmic soul – param-atma. It is to the south that we trace the gradual trend to translate Sanskrit works into regional languages, from Kamban’s Tamil translation of the Ramayana (ninth century) to Dyaneshwara’s Marathi translation of the Bhagavad Gita (thirteenth century) to Sarala Das’s Odia translation of the Mahabharata (fifteenth century) to Annamaya’s Telugu sankirtana (praise hymns) composed for Venkateshwara Balaji of Tirumala around same time.
When these ideas spread in the north, thanks to Nimbarka (thirteenth century), Ramananda (fourteenth century) and Vallabha (sixteenth century) a whole body of highly emotive literature came into being, in which Krishna is addressed in the most intimate of terms as child and lover, friend and teacher, in every local language.
Krishna worship in the south continues to be different from Krishna worship in the north. In the south, though addressed as the cowherd (Govinda), Krishna is imagined as Vishnu, either standing, sitting or reclining, as we note in Tirupati and Srirangam. The line between Vishnu and his avatars, Ram and Krishna, is blurred. In Jagannatha Puri too, the deity is both Vishnu (avatari) and Krishna (avatar). In the north, however, Vishnu fades into the background, and there is much debate on who the more venerable avatar is – Ram, the king, or Krishna, the cowherd, charioteer and kingmaker.
The erotic aspects of Krishna’s stories can be traced to the east where Tantra flourished. In Odisha, we find circular temples of yoginis and their Bhairava that may have been precursors of Krishna’s rasa-mandala. Many of the women in Krishna’s household, such as his wife Rukmini and his granddaughter-in-law Usha, as well as his enemies, such as Paundra, Naraka and Bana, are believed to be from north-east India. Thus we see a complex pan-Indian contribution to the making of Bhagavata lore.
Excerpted with permission from Shyam: An Illustrated Retelling Of The Bhagavata, Devdutt Pattanaik, Penguin Books.