Veda, Upanishad, Purana, Mahabharata, Vedanta-Sutra and… Srimad Bhagavatam?
A friend kindly asked me, “Srimad Bhagvatam is what? Veda or Purana or Upanishad?”
In reply, I wrote this:
The Veda is a unified body of knowledge with billions of verses worth of content. In every kalpa, however, humans, sages, and even the gods gradually lose their ability to comprehend the Veda, and by the end of each Dvāpara Yuga there is a great, great deal of confusion. So at that time a “Vyāsa” always comes forward to edit, organize, and restructure the Veda so that it becomes clear once again.
The general editing strategy is always similar: the Veda is mainly about “sacrifice” (i.e. how to live in such a way that one fulfills ones ambitions without causing undue harm and without degrading oneself entirely by unrestricted selfishness). There are four parts to sacrifice (preparation, ritual, song, and consummation), so the editor, Vyāsa, always separates these four themes into four distinct books (Ṛg, Yajur, Sāma, and Atharva respectively). Then he edits the material describing the philosophical significance of the sacrifices, and uses this to produce the Upaniṣads and similar appendices to the Four Veda.
After this edit, one billion verses remained unincluded and unsummarized in the four Vedas. What is the content of these verses? These are the sections of the original Veda which do not deal with sacrifices (karma) nor with the philosophical meanings of sacrifices (jñāna) but directly with material that inspires loving devotion towards divinity, and ultimately towards the Supreme Bhagavān.
Vyāsa summarizes them into 500,000. He takes 100,000 of these verses to create the Mahābhārata. The remaining 400,000 he divides into 18 Purāṇas. [It should be noted that the verse-counts given above represent the Veda as it exists in Satya-loka. Human beings currently have access to only a fragment of this content.]
Still Vyāsa feels less than perfectly satisfied with his work. This is often the case for an editor, it almost always takes several passes at a text before one achieves a really successful edit. So, Vyāsa was not satisfied with his first edit. Primarily he felt he failed to condense it sufficiently and present only the relevant material. So, to make amends, he created the Brahma-Sūtra (aka Vedānta Sūtra), in which the entire gist of all of the original unified Veda is given in a very short, direct series of concise codes.
But even after forming these Sūtra he wasn’t perfectly satisfied, mainly because the Sūtra were too difficult to understand and too open to interpretive manipulation. He did not know what to do, so Nārada advised him that he not only needs to make everything concise, he needs to make it very clear and only focus on the truly essential topics.
We should note at this point that not every Dvāpara Yuga is the same. Specifically there is one Dvāpara Yuga in every day of Brahma (every 1000 kalpas) in which Krishna appears in our world, in Vrindavana, with Radharani and the gopis. That is a very special Yuga. The Vyāsa in charge of editing the Vedas at this very important yuga is an avatāra of Viṣṇu who appeared as the son of Satyavatī and Parāśara by the name Kṛṣṇa-Dvaipayana. When speaking of the conversation between Nārada and Vyāsa we are specifically speaking about this Kṛṣṇa-Dvaipayana-Vyāsa. He was specifically advised by Nārada that he has to make the nature of Vrindavana Krishna very clear.
Receiving this instruction, Vyāsa re-compiled the Bhāgavata Purāṇa by explaining the Gāyatrī, Mahābhārata and Brahma-Sūtra with a very clear focus on Krishna-bhakti. He instructed the essence of this Purāṇa to his son, Śuka.
So the Bhāgavatam is a Purāṇa, but in this kalpa it is a unique Purāṇa. In every kalpa it is a sattvika purāṇa (6 of the 18 are sattvik, 6 are rajasik, and 6 are tamasik), and in every kalpa it is based on the narration of Bhagavān to Brahmā. (One of the reasons it is called Bhāgavata is because the original speaker is Bhagavān). But in this Kalpa the 10th canto is vastly elaborated and it is delivered through the narrations of Śuka to Parikṣit and Sūta to Śaunaka (all of them very ecstatic Krishna-bhaktas), so that the pure vision of Krishna bhakti becomes exceedingly clear throughout all 12 divisions.
The uniqueness of the Bhāgavatam, which make it more than an ordinary Purāṇa:
(1) It elaborates upon the meaning of Ṛg Veda and all the Veda, which is encapsulated into the Brahma-gāyatrī. The Bhāgavatam is Vyāsa’s explanation of the full meaning of Brahma-gāyatrī.
(2) It elaborates on the essence of Mahābhārata, which is Krishna-kathā.
(3) It expands and explains the meaning of the terse Brahma-sūtra, and is superior to other commentaries on Brahma-sūtra because it is written by the same author.
(4) It is the most purely sattvik of all the sattvik purāṇa.
Purāṇa are called Purāṇa because they make the Veda “Pūrṇa” (complete). Therefore when we identify the Bhāgavatam as the cream of the Purāṇas we simultaneously identify it as the cream of the Upaniṣads and Vedas.
Purāṇa are very similar to Upaniṣads, which seek to complete and explain the Veda. The specialty of the Purāṇa however, is that their linguistic structure is simple and flexible (unlike the Veda), and they deliver their message with more drama and flair, so they are very accessible to anyone and everyone.
For a more careful and detailed study of this, with elaborate references from śāstra, I advise a study of Śrī Jīva’s Tattva-Sandarbha. I am putting together notes on the Tattva-Sandarbha currently, very likely I will release or publish them sooner or later. Śrī Satyanārāyaṇa dās has translated and explained it super-excellently (published by JIVA). It is already published and a revised edition will be published soon.
Tattva-Sandarbha thoroughly explains why the Gauḍiya Vaiṣṇava school of thought distinguishes itself from other schools by wholeheartedly accepting the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam as the ultimate authority in Veda.