Bhagavata Purana Research Project
Ravi M. Gupta, The College of William and Mary, USA
Kenneth R. Valpey, Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies and Chinese University of Hong Kong
The Bhagavata Purana is one of the most highly regarded and variegated of Hindu sacred texts. Although essentially a work of the puranic genre, the Bhagavata stands out among the Puranas, or sacred histories, in several important ways. Among these are its coherent narrative structure, its high poetic quality, its philosophical sophistication, and its extensive development of bhakti theology. As such, this work of over 14,000 Sanskrit verses ranks, along with the Ramayana and Mahabharata, as central to the contemporary Hindu corpus of sacred texts in the Sanskrit language.
As a work in the literary language of the brahmins, the Bhagavata has enjoyed considerable commentarial attention, yet it has also permeated popular Hinduism, both in India and diaspora communities, through manifold interpretations in temple liturgy and architecture, ritual recitations, dance, drama, and more recently, film. The text serves as a foundation for the religious practice of several major north Indian devotional traditions, as well as schools of dance and drama. Indeed, the contemporary popularity of the text in India is attested by the fact that Gita Press (a north Indian publisher of popular, inexpensive editions of Hindu religious texts) has printed over 400,000 copies of the Bhagavata to date. All major vernacular languages of India have renditions of the Bhagavata, which often become regional classics in their own right. In recent years, the Purana has captured the interest of a broad western readership and a growing Indian diaspora.
A sacred text as significant as the Bhagavata Purana calls for greater attention in the academic world. With the recent resurgence of interest in the Puranic genre of literature, and the surprisingly few academic resources available for the study of the Bhagavata, we feel that the time is right for a broadly representative study of the text (e.g. text-critical questions) and its contexts (e.g. reception history), together with its intellectual scope in relation to both Eastern and Western spheres of discourse. Furthermore, the commentarial tradition, derivative texts, and performative expressions represent a body of religious and cultural knowledge that is more vast than the Bhagavata itself, but which is as yet hardly tapped by students of India.
There is an initial need to assess the current state of Bhagavata studies, and consolidate past scholarship on the text. The Bhagavata Purana has been an important part of the Western encounter with Hinduism since at least the mid-nineteenth century. The earliest translation into a European language was done by the French orientalist Eugene Burnouf, who published the original Sanskrit text with French translation in three folio volumes from 1840 through 1847. Renewed recognition of the Bhagavata’s place among world literature and its continued importance as a sacred text has led to several recent publications by academic publishers aimed at reaching a broader English readership. Many of these books have naturally focused the Bhagavata’s tenth book, which narrates the life of Krishna. Yet some of the most influential and retold narratives of the Bhagavata, such as the churning of the ocean, the great flood, and the appearance of the man-lion Narasimha, come from earlier or later sections of the Bhagavata. It is thus our intention to correct this exclusive focus on the tenth book by making this research project broadly representative of the Bhagavata as a whole.
Phase One: Building Networks and Initial Publications
Phase Two: Collecting Materials and Surveying the Field
Phase Three: Translation and Analysis
Phase Four: Synthesis and Wider Engagement
Outputs during Phase One of the project will include:
- An abridged and annotated translation of the Bhagavata Purana (ca. 1400 verses)
- A volume of original research articles by scholars of the Bhagavata
Both books are under contract with Columbia University Press for use by Hindu studies scholars in research and teaching.
Outputs during later phases of the project may include:
- Conference on Bhagavata studies
- Catalogue of Bhagavata manuscripts
- Bibliography of secondary literature
- Translations of commentaries
- Anthology of research on the Bhagavata
- Comparative studies of the Bhagavata Purana
- Pedagogical applications for university classrooms and continuing education