Bhagavata Purana: An Overview Of The Sacred Text + Each Of The 12 Cantos

One of the principal texts of Vaishnavism & with Bhakti at the heart.

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Bhagavata Purana (not to be confused with the Bhagavad Gita!) is one of the most important Hindu texts. Also known as Srimad Bhagavatam, it is one of the 18 Puranas.

The book is credited to Veda Vyasa and encourages bhakti or devotion towards Krishna who is an avatar of Vishnu.

A painting of the Bhagavata Purana

Bhagavata Purana: Significance

The Bhagavata Purana is one of the principal texts of Vaishnavism, the worship of the god Vishnu.

This text, written in India, presents a religion that opposes the traditional ideas of the Vedas, saying bhakti is the path that leads to self-knowledge, realization, salvation, and bliss. The avatar of Krishna, or god in human form is described in detail.

Many devotees believe the text is Krishna himself in written form.

The text is one of the most influential Puranas, and is sometimes called the Fifth Veda. It is the source of many stories of Krishna’s pastimes.

In the text it is said:

“The Srimad Bhagavatam is the very essence of all the Vedanta literature. One who has enjoyed the nectar of its rasa never has any desire for anything else.”

As one of the greatest Puranas, the Sanskrit text has influenced a variety of aspects of Indian culture and religion:

  • Festivals: some of the legends written in Bhagavata Purana are themes for some annual festivals like Diwali and Holi. 
  • Vaishnavism: Bhagavata Purana had an important role in Vaishnavism, Hindu movement which worships Vishnu as the supreme Godhead.
  • Buddhism and Jainism: the text describes Rishabha, one of the gods in Jainism, and Buddha is also mentioned as an avatar of Vishnu.
  • Arts: Bhagavata Purana had a huge impact on Indian arts. Many theatre plays, songs, paintings, poems, and dances have been created to portray its stories. 
A carving of the Bhagavata Purana

Bhagavata Purana: An Overview Of The 12 Cantos

The Bhagavata Purana has 12 skands, which means section or chapter, and they are also called the cantos. 

Each skand or cantos is an individual unit and focuses on a specific aspect of philosophy, mythology, and theology.

Through the 12 skands a huge variety of topics is presented, from detailed descriptions of stories of many gods and goddesses to teachings about cosmology, creation, devotional practices, and more. 

First Canto

The first canto consists of 19 chapters and starts with an invocation of Krishna, and asserts Bhagavata Purana is sufficient for one to realize god.

It presents Krishna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead and describes the dependence of a devoote on Krishna. 

The narration starts at the beginning of Kali Yuga through a conversation between a group of sages and Sukadeva Gosvami, who is the son of Vyasadeva. 

Some of the stories covered are:

  • The birth of King Pariksit.
  • Appearance of Narada who instructs Vyasadeva on how to compose Bhagavata Purana.
  • Vyasadeva teaches his son Sukadeva Gosvami the ideas and stories of Bhagavata.
  • The disappearance of Krishna resulted in the beginning of Kali Yuga.
  • Retirement of Pandava brothers which leads to Pariksit becoming a king.
  • Pariksit attempts to use the influence of the goddess Kali, before he is cursed by a Brahmin child to die within a week. 
  • Pariksit’s decision to fast until his death as devotion to Krishna, and the arrival of sages and Sukadeva Gosvami to Pariksit. 
A sculpture of goddess kali

Second Canto

There are 10 chapters in the second canto and it also begins with an invocation of Krishna.

The narration begins as a conversation between Pariksit and Sukadeva Gosvami. The canto further develops the idea that bhakti yoga is the supreme path, and compares it with other processes from the Vedas.

10 main topics of Bhagavatam are also presented.

In his dialogue, Sukadeva Gosvami speaks of:

  • The supreme, transcendental, perpetual, and pure nature of Krishna. 
  • The Virat-Rupa and Maha-Vishnu manifestations of Krishna.
  • The creation and annihilation of the universe.
  • Bhakti yoga, the realization of God, and devotional duties, particularly highlighting the necessity of having a Guru, and understanding Vedic knowledge.
  • Faith vs atheism and different castes and religious paths. 
A statue of a guru and his disciples

Third Canto

The third canto has 33 chapters and still covers the conversation between Sukadeva Gosvami and Pariksit.

The main protagonist of the canto is Vidura, a Krishna devotee.

It describes the creation of the universe and speaks of Krishna as the source and sustenance of everything that exists.

Some of the topics covered in the third canto are: 

  • Krishna’s kingdom, qualities, and pastimes. 
  • The Virat Rupa form & incarnations of Vishnu.
  • How Brahma emerged from Vishnu, his prayers to Krishna, and how he created living beings and manifested the Vedas.
  • Jaya and Vijaya were cursed by the Four Kamaras, which led them to be incarnated as demons.
  • Varaha avatar of Vishnu appears to elevate earth out of the cosmic ocean and to destroy the demon Hiranyaksa.
  • Kapila avatar appears to establish Krishna bhakti yoga.
  • The three gunas of the material nature.
A graphic of the three gunas

Fourth Canto

There are 31 chapters in the fourth canto. It shows dialogues between Sukadeva Gosvami, Uddhava, and Maitreya. 

It further establishes the process of Bhakti yoga is above karma and jnana. 

The main topics are:

  • Genealogy of daughters of Dhruva and Vayambhuva Manu.
  • Hostility between Shiva (Siva) and Daksha, Sati’s self-destruction, and Shiva attacking Daksha’s ritual (Sati is Shiva’s wife and Daksha’s daughter)
  • Enlightenment of a child-guru Dhruva, and his battles with Yaksas.
  • Brahmins killing King Vena, and the arrival of Prthu avatar.
  • Characteristics and description of King Puranjana
  • Further descriptions of qualities of Krishna, Bhakti Yoga, soul, and materialistic life. 

Fifth Canto

The fifth canto consists of 26 chapters. Sukadeva Gosvami keeps conversing with Pariksit and speaks of the universe, its geography, and the positions of various planets. 

He establishes a human cannot comprehend the majesty of God’s creation, and encourages one to pursue spirituality. 

The main topics covered in this canto are: 

  • Arrival and life of avatar Rsabha, the first teacher of Jainism.
  • Hayagriva appears to return Vedic knowledge to Brahma.
  • Descriptions and teachings of King Bharata and his liberation (moksha).
  • Descriptions of King Priyavrata whose chariot carries the oceans and continents.
  • Descriptions of the universe and heavenly and hellish realms.
The universe

Sixth Canto

Through the 19 chapters of the sixth canto, Sukadeva Gosvami talks about how Krishna protects his devotees.

He speaks about how devotees keep making mistakes, and how God always forgives them and helps them to purify. 

The main topics are:

  • Ajamila, a Brahmin who lost his liberation due to sexual desire, but was liberated upon his death.
  • Yamaraja’s instructions about chanting, devotion to Krishna, justice and punishment.
  • Daksa curses Narada, and stories of Daksa’s daughters.
  • Indra offending Brhaspati, Vrtrasura arriving to attack demigods, and his death.
  • Stories of King Chiraketu.
  • Diti vows to kill Indra, and her purification through bhakti.

Seventh Canto

The seventh canto has 15 chapters, and the main story revolves around Lord Nrsimha and his devotee Prahlada.

It describes varṇāśrama dharma, the duties of the four castes in Indian society. 

The main topics are:

  • Demon king Hiranyaksipu vowed to destroy Vishnu.
  • The story and teachings of devotee Prahlada.
  • Nrsimha avatar arrives to kill Hiranyaksipu.
  • Four social and spiritual classes form a perfect society. 
  • How a good person should behave and what family life should look like.
  • Presenting Krishna as the absolute truth, and the master of all.
A dharma wheel

Eighth Canto

Eight canto has 24 chapters and the main topic is the different manus, or periods. It emphasizes the protective aspect of God. 

The canto describes:

  • Details of fourteen manus of current Brahma day.
  • An elephant Gajendera was rescued by Vishnu from a crocodile Makara.
  • Battles between demons and demigods and Vishnu leading them to a truce.
  • Kurma, Dhanvantari, Ajita, Mohini, Vamana, Matsya, and Lakshmi avatars.
  • Indra destroying the demons. 
  • Lord Shiva is presented as a ruler of the universe and a refugee for all beings. 

Ninth Canto

The ninth canto has 24 chapters and further establishes devotional service with an honest heart as being the only important asset and the only way to reach the Lord.

The main focus is on different kings and dynasties, and the main topics are:

  • Pastimes and stories of Rama avatar of Vishnu.
  • Parashurama’s avatar appears to destroy the corrupt Kshatriya class.
  • Story of Saubhari Muni.
  • Stories of King Yayati, King Pururava, and many other kings. 
  • Short descriptions of Krishna’s genealogy, pastimes, and character. 
An open sanskrit book

Tenth Canto

With 90 chapters, the tenth canto is the largest and most studied part of the scripture. 

The main idea of the canto is that surrendering to the love of Krishna is his ultimate gift to devotees. There are many lilas (divine plays), and stories of Krishna.

The main topics are:

  • Krishna’s parents were imprisoned, his siblings were killed, and various demons attempted to kill Krishna too.
  • Gopaas fostered Krishna and his brother Balarama.
  • Yashoda sees the universal form of god in Krishna’s mouth.
  • A detailed description of Raas Leela, the dance of Krishna and gopis.
  • The final defeat of many demons.
  • Many other stories and experiences of Krishna.

Eleventh Canto

The eleventh canto has 31 chapters and is also known as the Hamsa Gita. It shows the teachings of  Krishna to Uddhava, a devotee. 

Hamsa has many meanings, it means swan or spirit, it symbolizes Brahman, and is the name of the tenth Krishna’s avatar. 

The main topics are:

  • Destruction of Yadu Dynasty to restore harmony on earth.
  • Hamsa (swan) avatar of Krishna appears to answer questions to Brahma’s sons.
  • Final teachings of Krishna to his devotee Uddhava.
  • Krishna disappeared after being shot in the foot.
  • Destruction of Dvarka. 

Twelfth Canto

The final canto of Bhagavata Purana has 13 chapters.

The idea of the book is that our experiences in the material world (including death) are unimportant in the grand scheme of things. It also speaks of Kali Yuga. 

The main topics are:

  • Symptoms of Kali Yuga, such as degradation of royals, and atheism.
  • Sukadeva Gosvami’s final words to Pariksit and Pariksit’s death.
  • Stories of sage Markandeya and him being glorified by Shiva and Uma.
  • Four aspects of annihilation of the universe.
  • Kalki avatar arriving to destroy evil and end Kali Yuga.
  • Summary of Bhagavata Purana

If you are interested in other spiritual texts of Hinduism, you might like these articles:

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Sara lives in Croatia, near the sea, with her dog. She enjoys exploring nature, and making art. She is currently developing a series of children’s/YA stories and comics in her native language, which she feels complements her work and allows her to live her dream life – having yoga, writing, art, and nature in her every day.

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