It is believed by all Indians that Shrimad Bhagavatam consisting of eighteen thousand verses was authored by Vyas Dev in ancient India. Earlier Vyasa Dev had also composed the great saga of Mahabharata. It is said that after completion of writing the great epic Mahabharata, the author somehow felt greatly discontented and was advised by the sage Narad to write the epic Bhagavatam. It tells the stories of Lord Vishnu (Vasudev) in His various incarnations and contains the gist of almost all the great epics of India. It is regarded as the foremost epic among the eighteen great epics. After finishing scripting the epic, it is said, the author felt highly satisfied. Bhagavatam is read and discussed all over the country and the practice of reciting, reading and discussing the sacred literature varies from region to region and the people all over the country look upon the composition with a high sense of reverence. It is written in Sanskrit and has been rendered into many regional languages in later periods.
Poet Jagannath Das in Orissa translated it into Oriya in 16th century. It is said that the Brahmins recited the Sanskrit verses of the Bhagavatam in the Jagannath temple of Puri as a matter of tradition in worshipping the deities. The poet’s mother who was a devotee of Lord Jagannath had some difficulties in following the Sanskrit verses for which her son took up the challenge and completed the translation work which later became highly popular through out the Oriya speaking tract of India. People in the villages had special houses called “Bhagavat Gadi” in the middle of their villages and recited the Oriya verses with their traditional musical instruments. People made special efforts to follow the morals contained in the book in their day-to-day life and spent their evenings in this devotional work. The tradition still exists in a large number of villages though the advent of modernism keeps the youths away from it.
In bigger places such as in towns and cities people engage a Brahmin to hear him reading all the verses to them within a week’s time. The epic says that Raja Parikshit, the successor of the Pandavas of Mahabharata, was the first listener of the epic. Sukadev, the son of Vyas Dev who was a great seer came to his rescue when the Raja came to know that he was to die within seven days because of a curse wrought on him for his misdeeds. He had a peaceful death after he listened to the mentor . This tradition is a living phenomenon in many parts of India.
People in Orissa recite the verses as a part of worship to Lord Vishnu throughout the month of Kartik (which starts from 5th October and ends on 2nd November during current year). People in towns and cities organize big religious congregations and listen to the verses and discourses with their friends and relations.
Generally, it is held by the scholars that the Puranas in India were composed in the 4th century AD in the Gupta Age which saw the resurrection of Brahminism. However, it is universally admitted that the composition of the Puranas (epics) followed the compilation of the Vedas, the Upanishad, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Shrimad Bhagavatam is regarded as the sun among the epics. There are evidences to prove that the epic may be of more ancient composition. It is based on the cult of Krishan-Vasudev who is regarded as all pervasive and powerful. Even the famous Indian Grammarian Panini makes a reference to Vasudev in the 4th century B.C. in his works.
Contemporary Greek writers referred to Vasudev or Krisn as “Heracles”. It is mentioned in the accounts of Megasthenes, the Greek traveler to India, that people belonging to a tribe called Sourasenai in the plains of Central India worshipped Heracles. His accounts give references of two cities such as Methora Mathura?) and Klesobora (Krishnpur) and one river Yabora (Yamuna?) that flew across the plains. Curtius also wrote about Puru, the Indian Prince who was a follower of Vasudev Cult and carried an idol of the presiding deity of his kingdom in his war against Alexander in the 4th century B.C.
There are evidences in the form of epigraphy which suggest that people outside India were also influenced by the Cult. Greek ambassador Heliodorus in the 2nd century B.C. referred to Vasudev as the “God of all Gods”. The thrust of the epic is on love and devotion to God.
The epic has twelve cantos. The first one is a continuation of the story of the Mahabharata. It deals with the later happenings after the Great War. When Lord Krishna left for his supreme heavenly abode, the five Pandavas and their mother Kunti were deeply mournful and Kunti died instantly. They handed over their kingdom to Raja Parikshit, the son of Abhimanyu and the grandson of Arjun, and left their kingdom for the Himalayas and finally passed away. Raja Parikshit was a powerful ruler and took care of his people very well. However, for one mistake committed by him in showing disrespect to a seer he was cursed to death within seven days. He was deeply grief-stricken and thought of a way out. Suka dev arrived and narrated the Bhagavatam to him.
In the second canto Suka dev explains to Parikshit that when death is imminent, one should concentrate on God and relinquish all earthly desires. He also explains how death occurs and the nature of the world of delusion. The third canto deals with the nature of conflict between good and evil and also talks of Vidur, the minister of the Kauravas who left for meditation in order to avoid his participation in the Mahabharata war. There are also accounts of several incarnations of Lord Vishnu. The fourth canto has reference to Lord Shiva who destroyed the Yajna performed by his father-in-law Daksha, following the self-immolation by Sati. Fifth canto talks of seven oceans and seven islands of the earth. Among the seven islands, Jammudwipa that is Bharat, is the best according to the epic. It tells the story of Raja Bharat from which the country derives its name.
The stories of the monster Brutra and the king Chitraketu are presented in the sixth canto. It contains the story of sacrifice of Dadhichi who donated his bones to the gods to make weapons for killing the monster Brutra. The seventh canto tells the story of Jay and Vijay who were attendants of Lord Visnu but cursed to take the births of monsters as Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu, Ravana and Kumbhakarna and Shishupal and Dantabaktra respectively and killed by Vishnu in his three different incarnations. The origins of Lakshmi and amrit (nectar) from the ocean and two other incarnations of Vishnu are described in eighth canto. The stories of some great devotees and the descent of the river Ganga to the earth are narrated in the ninth canto. The tenth canto is considered very important since it narrates the story of the birth of Krishna in Mathura and his activities in the Gokul and in Dwarka, a city which he built for himself as His abode. The eleventh canto is deeply philosophical and most popular among the devotees. The subject matter of the canto relates to Dhyana Yoga, Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Jnyan Yoga. In Bhagavad-Gita Krishna imparted knowledge to Arjun on all these Yogas in the battle field and in Bhagavatam Uddhab was the listener. The twelfth canto is the last part of the epic in which the shapes of things which are likely to come in Kaliyuga are described. Raja Parikshit leaves his mortal frame with full contentment.
In brief, the essence of Bhagavatam is love and devotion to the Supreme Being. Besides giving chronological accounts of the various ruling dynasties, presenting various anecdotes and geographical features of India, the epic stresses on inculcating certain living values in day-to-day life of people. It prescribes a code of conduct for all. The tradition it has left since the days of yore is a living one.