The Political Visions of Bhāgavata Purāṇa

India has always had a rich tradition of political thought. In trying to reconstruct the form of Hindu polity through the ages in his book ‘Hindu Polity’, for example, Dr. K.P. Jaiswal has drawn on sources from all over the vast field of literature – Vedic, Classical, Prākṛta, and especially the few technical treatises that were devoted especially to this area of study, including among other such texts as Arthaśāstra of Kauṭilya, and the Śāntiparva of the Mahābhārata.

Among the texts, it is the political treatises such as Arthaśāstra and the texts of the Dharmaśāstra corpus where most of the attention has been devoted to. Shri Om Prakash notes in his “Political Ideas in the Puranas” that the study of Purāṇas has been largely ignored as a source of political thought because they do not directly deal with the subject and when they do, their ideas are derivative rather than original. He then goes on to make a strong case for why Purāṇas should be seriously studied for their political thought, because both – the Dharmaśāstras and texts such as Arthaśāstra give great importance to their study.

A Political Purāṇa?

In his “Political Thought in the Puranas”, Shri Jagdish Lal Shastri has considered only six Purāṇas to be worthy of attention for the purpose of presenting serious political thought – Agni, Matsya, Markandeya, Kalika and Vishnudharmottara. He chose these texts because they deal directly with political subject matter in certain parts.  But in my opinion, a Purāṇa need not ape a political treatise to be taken seriously for its political thought. A text can be important in a political sense without actually dwelling directly with this subject matter simply for presenting a political vision to the faithful. It is for this reason that texts like the Rāmāyaṇa, the Bible and the Quran have been studied for their political teachings. Without dealing directly with polity as a treatise text does, all of them have huge importance for the subject for inspiring a vision of politics. Rāmāyaṇa for example, presents the vision of an ideal monarch and ideal state in Shri Rama and Ramarajya respectively. To be considered seriously as a political text in this sense, a text must fulfill these basic criterion:

  1. It must present a political vision.
  2. It must have means to communicate this vision.

Of the Puranas, Bhāgavata  deserves special attention because it fulfills the second condition in a way that no other Purana does. Unlike the other Puranas which are mainly accessed as texts, it is a ‘performed’ Purana, accessed through Bhāgavata Kathas – popular narrations of the text carried out over several days. It occupies a central place in the Vaishnava traditions of Hinduism, but is also important to non-sectarian Hindus. In the Hindu consciousness therefore, it is more akin to Ramayana and Mahabharata both of which are complete mediums in themselves. In my opinion, this Purana also fulfills the first condition, with a unique political vision of its own. I shall try to bring that vision out in a series of articles of which this is the first.

The Moment of the Purāṇa

Bhāgavata Purāṇa is originally set as a narration from Sukadeva Muni to Parīkṣit Mahārāj. This is the process through which the Purana came into being. Therefore I locate the critical moment of this Purāṇa in the death of Parīkṣit Mahārāj, which is the event already foretold, towards which the narration of the Purāṇa is in motion. The importance of the personality of Parīkṣit Mahārāj in the Purana is two-fold. One of them is the spiritual dimension, in which he is an excellent devotee and the ideal recipient of the Bhāgavata with Sukadeva Muni being the ideal narrator. The other dimension is how he is represented as a political personality, posited as a model ruler, the ideal monarch. An example of such presentation is the verse below:

 तत: परीक्षिद् द्विजवर्यशिक्षया
महीं महाभागवत: शशास ह ।

tataḥ parīkṣid dvija-varya-śikṣayā
mahīṁ mahā-bhāgavataḥ śaśāsa ha


O learned brāhmaṇas, Mahārāja Parīkṣit then began to rule over the world as a great devotee of the Lord under the instructions of the best of the twice-born brāhmaṇas. (SB 1.16.1)

We notice that due to the great spiritual overtones of this Purana, the political dimension is subsumed in the more fundamental spiritual dimension but is still visible and quite significant for our reading of this text.

The Anxiety of Kali

A very palpable sense of anxiety around the coming of the age of Kali is visible in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. On a meta level, the text calls itself a text of the degenerate age, a light in the Kali.


कृष्णे स्वधामोपगते धर्मज्ञानादिभि: सह ।

कलौ नष्टद‍ृशामेष पुराणार्कोऽधुनोदित: ॥

kṛṣṇe sva-dhāmopagate

dharma-jñānādibhiḥ saha

kalau naṣṭa-dṛśām eṣa

purāṇārko ’dhunoditaḥ

This Bhāgavata Purāṇa is as brilliant as the sun, and it has arisen just after the departure of Lord Kṛṣṇa to His own abode, accompanied by religion, knowledge, etc. Persons who have lost their vision due to the dense darkness of ignorance in the Age of Kali shall get light from this Purāṇa. (SB 1.3.43)

The anxiety is clearly linked to the departure of Lord Kṛṣṇa from earth and then manifests in actions of several important personalities of the Purana, all of whom prepare for the coming age. In this way Kali itself is treated almost like an actor in the unfolding events, before it is eventually quite dramatically anthropomorphised before Parīkṣit Mahārāj.

यदा मुकुन्दो भगवानिमां महीं

जहौ स्वतन्वा श्रवणीयसत्कथ: ।

तदाहरेवाप्रतिबुद्धचेतसा-

मभद्रहेतु: कलिरन्ववर्तत ॥

युधिष्ठिरस्तत्परिसर्पणं बुध:

पुरे च राष्ट्रे च गृहे तथात्मनि ।

विभाव्य लोभानृतजिह्महिंसना-

द्यधर्मचक्रं गमनाय पर्यधात् ॥

yadā mukundo bhagavān imāṁ mahīṁ

jahau sva-tanvā śravaṇīya-sat-kathaḥ

tadāhar evāpratibuddha-cetasām

abhadra-hetuḥ kalir anvavartata

yudhiṣṭhiras tat parisarpaṇaṁ budhaḥ

pure ca rāṣṭre ca gṛhe tathātmani

vibhāvya lobhānṛta-jihma-hiṁsanādy-

adharma-cakraṁ gamanāya paryadhāt

When the Personality of Godhead, Lord Kṛṣṇa, left this earthly planet in His selfsame form, from that very day Kali, who had already partially appeared, became fully manifest to create inauspicious conditions for those who are endowed with a poor fund of knowledge.

Mahārāja Yudhiṣṭhira was intelligent enough to understand the influence of the Age of Kali, characterized by increasing avarice, falsehood, cheating and violence throughout the capital, state, home and among individuals. So he wisely prepared himself to leave home, and he dressed accordingly. (SB 1.15.36,37)

Here too, what is primarily spiritual has important political connotations. So the anxiety of Kali is not merely spiritual, but has a political component in the linked anxiety of order. Parīkṣit’s death would simply be the death of a great King, as many had died before him, if not for the fact that it was directly caused by Kali. It is this critical moment, as I have already noted before, that brings forth the narration of the Bhagavata Purana. But it has huge significance in the political vision of the text because it hints at the continuous degeneration of order following the event. This anxiety of order, linked to the more fundamental spiritual anxiety of Kali is noticed alongside the latter at several places in the text. It is so pervasive that it is present even at the place that actually caused Parīkṣit’s death. Upon coming to know about his son Śṛṅgi’s curse of death on Parīkṣit, Śamīka Ṛṣi’s sorrow consists almost entirely of lamenting about the political ramifications of this act.

तदद्य न: पापमुपैत्यनन्वयं

यन्नष्टनाथस्य वसोर्विलुम्पकात् ।

परस्परं घ्नन्ति शपन्ति वृञ्जते

पशून् स्त्रियोऽर्थान् पुरुदस्यवो जना: ॥

tad adya naḥ pāpam upaity ananvayaṁ

yan naṣṭa-nāthasya vasor vilumpakāt

parasparaṁ ghnanti śapanti vṛñjate

paśūn striyo ’rthān puru-dasyavo janāḥ

Due to the termination of the monarchical regimes and the plundering of the people’s wealth by rogues and thieves, there will be great social disruptions. People will be killed and injured, and animals and women will be stolen. And for all these sins we shall be responsible. (SB 1.18.44)

An event that makes Parīkṣit’s death significant had already occured. After coming across Kali while on a journey, and confronting and then subjugating him, Parīkṣit had banned the Kali age from manifesting naturally in his kingdom and banished him to live in places where gambling, drinking, prostitution and animal slaughter were performed, and upon further request he was allowed to live in gold too. (SB 1.17.38,39)

So King Parīkṣit in his role as a monarch after this event can be thought of as a safety valve who is stopping the full flow of the Kali age, the age of chaos, disorder and degeneracy. And his death is the moment in which that safety is completely lost. That is why it is not surprising that it is his figure around which the anxiety of order manifests repeatedly, as seen in Śamīka Ṛṣi’s words already. Although Kali age had already showed signs of manifestation before him, in the reign of Mahārāja Yudhiṣṭhira, it is ultimately Parīkṣit’s persona that is divided between the two ages, as his death marks the moment for the age of disorder to manifest completely.

Conclusion

In this first part of a series of articles dealing with the political thought of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, we note how it is important to appreciate the political vision of this text owing to its great influence on Hindu consciousness through its popular narrations and presentations in art forms. The political dimension in this text is not completely separate from its spiritual dimension simply because of the setting of the text. This is brought about in two examples – of how the political personality of Parīkṣit Mahārāj is present primarily in its spiritual dimension, that of the ideal recipient of the Bhāgavata, and how the anxiety of Kali also has an underlying political dimension in its manifestation of linked anxiety around the order.

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