Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller
The Bhagavata Purana, often called the Bhagavatam by Hare Krishna devotees, details the earthly pastimes of Krishna, and as such is a source of multiple sacred narratives. Most of the text focuses on the various avatars, or earthly incarnations, that Krishna has taken. (For other Hindus, the text describes the avatars of Vishnu. Only Gaudiya Vaishnavas understand Krishna as the true nature of Vishnu.) These include numerous different avatar forms as described in the Puranas, ranging from cosmic animals such as Varaha, a boar who lifted the earth out of the sea, to quasi-mythic figures, such as Narasimha, a man-lion, to historical personages, such as the Buddha. Most ISKCON devotees read these stories as entirely literal and accurate depictions of past events, though some Hare Krishnas accept more symbolic readings of some of these sacred narratives.
Of the many important narratives found in the Bhagavata Purana, the most central for actual ISKCON practice and belief are those that detail the pastimes (lila) of Krishna during the period in which he took an avatar using his own personality and name. Devotees particularly look to the narratives about his youth spent in the land of Vrindavan as a prince. One story describes Krishna stealing butter from his mother, an episode often read as a metaphor for God's mischievous love for humanity. Another set of tales describes Krishna's amorous activities with the gopis, the female cowherds, who abandon their posts and sometimes their husbands to frolic with Krishna in the fields. Most ISKCON devotees read this narrative as a symbol of the intimate relationship that Krishna seeks with his devotees.
Owing to its origin in Hinduism, numerous other sacred narratives exist within ISKCON. Those that involve Krishna, Vishnu, or one of the other Vishnu avatars are most central. The narrative of the Ramayana offers one example. This epic describes the saga of the King Rama's quest to rescue his wife Sita from a demon king. ISKCON, like Hinduism more broadly, understands Rama as an avatar of the divine, and in their particular case, Hare Krishna devotees look to Rama as a form of Krishna. ISKCON accepts the Hindu sacred narratives describing other deities, such as Shiva or Ganesha, but subordinates them to those of Krishna/Vishnu.
1. What is ISKCON's sacred narrative?
2. What are the implications of living within the Kali Yuga?
3. How are the Vedas used by ISKCON members?
4. Why are the Bhagavadgita and the Bhagavata Purana considered to be the most important sacred narratives?