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Devotion in the Bhāgavata Purāna and Christian Love: Bhakti, Agape, Eros

  • Daniel P. Sheridan (a1)


The Bhāgavata Purāna, a ninth century encyclopedic Hindu text, combines Vedantic non-dualism and Vaiṣṇava devotionalism or love of God. Its non-dualism accommodates the reality of the universe with its individual selves in the all-encompassing reality of God. The BhP has two forms of devotion: one is a meditation which absorbs the devotee within the unity of God's reality; the other is an ecstasy which glories in separation from God in order to love God more. The Eros-Agape motif is used to compare this tradition of the love of God with those of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. Like them, the BhP stresses the personhood of God; unlike them, it stresses an ontological, not a mystical or spiritual, union of Deity and devotee.



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1 The Bhāgavata Purāṇa (hereafter cited as BhP) was redacted around the end of the 9th century A.D. The writing of the BhP was probably done within a group of learned ascetics, most likely Brahmans, who, while remaining steadfast to their tradition of devotion to Kṛṣṇa, were attempting to legitimize that devotion within the broader Hindu tradition. Their choice of Purāṇic genre indicates that the narration of Kṛṣṇa's story was important to them while at the same time the genre enabled them to collate their complex traditions. It also indicates that their teaching had not yet reached the stage where a systematics was possible, for example, in a commentary on the Brahma Sūtras. The BhP was later the primary scripture for such theologians as Madhva, Vallabha, and the school of Caitanya.

2 Non-dualism, or advaita, basically is the teaching that Ultimate Reality is one, not two. Once this is affirmed, the question becomes: What is the relation of that one Ultimate Reality to the world of multiplicity? Further, does it make sense to speak of it as personal?

3 This paper is based on the research and translation done for my dissertation, The Religious Structure of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, Fordham University, 1976.

4 The word “Purāṇa” means “ancient.” Theseare a class of non-Vedic scriptures, encyclopedic in scope, whose characteristics are a treatment of creation, the genealogy of the gods and sages, the reign of the progenitors of humanity, the cycles of the universe, and the legends of the dynasties. Written in the first millenium A.D., they actually are dialogues in which all known material from a given religious perspective is included.

5 Madhurya from the Sanskrit term for honey or sweetness includes within its meaning sexual desire and love.

6 Vaiṣṇavism, the broader movement, is the theism of the god Viṣṇu. Kṛṣṇa was one of Viṣṇu's appearances. Vaiṣṇavism developed into Kṛṣṇaism when that appearance overshadowed Giṣṇu and was itself considered the primary dimension of the Godhead. Some of the names of Kṛṣṇa used in this paper are Viṣṇa, Hari, Wide Strider, Govinda, Acyuta, Brahmā, Prahrada, and Kapila.

7 Vedānta is the school of Hindu thought which considered the Upaniṣads, the last section of the Vedas, as the foremost revelation. Vedānta was usually non-dualist in orientation.

8 The Sanskrit word translated God is bhagavān, Blessed Lord or Blessed One.

9 The translation is in many instances mine and in others is an adaptation of that by G. L. Soswami and M. A. Sastri. This and all following references to the BhP will be by number alone, canto, chapter, verse: III.25.34.

10 See III.25.32-33a.

11 The term Vedic refers to an earlier phase of Hinduism which emphasized the correct performance of rituals enjoined in the Vedas.

12 III.29.11-12.

13 I.4. 12.

14 VII.9.44b.

15 I.7.9.

16 I.7.10.

17 XI.2.45.

18 XI.2.48.

19 XI.2.53.

20 Ibid.

21 The term “immanent worldly qualities” translates the Sanskrit term guṇas which are the first three aspects of evolutes from the non-dual Ultimate Reality.

22 III.29.8,10.

23 I.11.38.

24 III.32.36b.

25 VII.12.10.

26 The tenth canto is the BhP's longest and narrates the story of Kṛṣṇa. The influence of the BhP on later thinkers and devotees is due to this canto. Note that the BhP is aware at every point of the narration that Kṛṣṇa is God.

27 X.22.4.

28 X.29.8.

29 X.29.10.

30 X.29.27.

31 X.29.32.

32 X.29.35.

33 X.29.46.

34 X.30.35.

35 X.31.14.

36 X.32.11-12.

37 X.33.3.

38 X.33.17.

39 X.33.20.

40 Madhva later worked with a text of the BhP from which this story was deleted.

41 The Viṣṇu Purāṇa was an earlier Vaiṣṇava Purāṇa.

42 XI.12.13.

43 X.29.12a.

44 X.29.14.

45 X.47.13a.

46 X.47.59.

47 Cf. X.29.10-11.

48 X.29.23.

49 X.29.40.

50 X.33.32.

51 X.33.36.

52 X.33.40.

53 X.32.10.

54 Ibid.

55 X.32.26.

56 X.47.10.

57 X.47.34.

58 Śaṃkara taught a non-dualism in which all multiplicity was due to transcendental illusion. Thus really there could be no distinctions within or without Ultimate Reality. This view has attracted much attention in the West and has come to have an undue monopoly on the term non-dualism.

59 II.10.36.

60 Unlike its commentators, the BhP seems unaware of the existence of Śaṃkara's thought. Thus there is no polemic against it.

61 III.9.31.

62 V.47.30-31a.

63 Bhaṭṭācārya, Siddheśvara, The Philosophy of the Śrīmad Bhāgavata (Calcutta: Ranajit Ray, 19601962), II, 156.

64 Nygren, Anders, Agape and Eros (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).

65 This satkārya view of causality maintains that the effect is implicitly contained in the cause. Thus the cause is the material of the effect.

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