An objective study of the Bhagavatam reveals that there are, and have been, variant editions in circulation. In his translation of Sanatana Goswami’s Sri Brihad Bhagavatamrita, Gopiparanadhana dasa lists a number of variations found in different manuscripts of both theBhagavatam and the Bhagavatamrta. Therein he writes, “For some verses of Srimad-Bhagavatam, Srila Sanatana Goswami’s commentary gives a text that varies from the one given in the Bhagavatam edition published by the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.” He lists thirty-two verses that appear differently, explaining that these differences almost never significantly change the meaning of the text.
Variations may be attributed to language, geography, and the influence of time (ancient India had numerous independent kingdoms and hundreds of different languages). However, more importantly the very nature of the Puranic texts such as Srimad-Bhagavatamlends itself to variation over time. As opposed to the Vedas (sruti), which are considered to be directly manifest from God without human authorship, the Puranas (smrti) acknowledge human agency.
For example, in the opinion of Jiva Goswami, Vyasa composed the Bhagavatam twice, once in the context of compiling all of the Puranas and a second time after being inspired by Narada to emphasizebhakti, by which Narada rightly concluded Vyasa’s heart would be satisfied. In the present-day edition of the Bhagavata, we find that it was spoken by Sukadeva and at a later date by Suta. The text also reveals that it was spoken at another time by Sankarsana to the Kumaras. Such is the nature of the Puranic literature. While sacred and authoritative, adjustments that are made in consideration of time and circumstance are not viewed as deviant. The Puranas, after all, are literature that seeks to present the essence of the Veda in an easily understandable format. To accomplish this task, the Puranic literature must be fluid. Such fluidity, however, does not amount to interpolation, but rather attests to the ongoing nature of revelation. This also explains why it is particularly difficult to assign a date to the authorship of the Bhagavatam. When was it written? The correct answer is perhaps that it is not finished yet.
An example of this fluidity is Sri Vrndavana dasa Thakura’s hagiography on Sri Caitanya, heralded by the Gaudiya community as the “Caitanya Bhagavata.” By naming Vrndavana dasa’s work such, the Gaudiyas acknowledged that while the Bhagavata was compiled thousands of years earlier, it was nonetheless an ongoing narrative concerning the esoteric life of Sri Krishna. This narrative had in essence been continued by Vrndavana dasa to describe Sri Krishna’s appearance as Sri Caitanya.
As opposed to ongoing revelation, interpolation refers to deliberately and anonymously inserting text into a book to suit one’s purpose. Some Vaishnava sects believe that chapters 12 through 14 of the 10th canto of the Bhagavatam are examples of interpolation because these chapters do not conform to certain aspects of their understanding of the Bhagavata‘s theology. To Gaudiya Vaisnavas these chapters are particularly important as they establish within the context of the narrative of Krishna lila a pivotal point:krsnas tu bhagavan svayam, “Krishna is the origin of the Godhead.” (SB 1.3.28)
Needless to say, we Gaudiyas do not find the arguments of these sects to be convincing. Sri Jiva Goswami refutes them by pointing out that the chapters in question conform to the overall ontology of theBhagavatam and have already been accepted by ancient renowned Bhagavatam commentator Sridhara Swami, as well as other great acaryas. In his treatise Krishna-sandarbha, Sri Jiva cites over three hundred points, primarily from the Bhagavatam itself, confirming the Gaudiya interpretation of krsnas tu bhagavan svayam.
Near the turn of the previous century, Thakura Bhaktivinoda encountered academic opinions about theBhagavata that did not conform to the teachings of the tradition. While not dismissing these opinions altogether, he emphasized that regardless of their merit, the essential philosophy and theology of theBhagavata represented the crown jewel of spiritual insight. Why? Because we see that those who embrace its message wholeheartedly attain the rare jewel of prema, which is the prayojana (goal) of the text.
Furthermore, careful study of Bhagavatam commentaries reveals that today’s manuscripts do not differ significantly from the manuscript that Gadadhara Pandit showered with his tears of love as he read and commented on the text for the pleasure of Sri Caitanya. Among the Gaudiya commentaries, the seminal commentary of Sri Sanatana Goswami reveals that the Bhagavata itself acknowledges Sri Caitanya to be Krishna reappearing in the present age. Thus if one studies the manuscript Sri Caitanya himself embraced, one need not be concerned with interpolation.
It is also important to note that Gaudiya Vaisnavas acknowledge two Bhagavatas: the book Bhagavataand the devotee Bhagavata. Sri Krsnadasa Kaviraja describes them as follows: “The two brothers (Sri Caitanya and Prabhu Nityananda) dissipate the darkness of one’s heart by arranging for one to meet twoBhagavatas. One Bhagavata is the Bhagavata sastra (Srimad Bhagavatam) and the other is the devotee absorbed in bhakti-rasa. These two Bhagavatas then open the door of one’s heart to bhakti-rasa, and thus the Lord, in the heart of his devotee, comes under the control of the devotee’s love.”
Pujyapada B. R. Sridhara Maharaja liked to refer to the person Bhagavata as the active agent of divinity and the book Bhagavata as the passive agent of divinity. While the two are invariably intertwined, the person Bhagavata is arguably more important than the book Bhagavata because he or she exemplifies the ideal of the Bhagavatam. Alone, the book Bhagavata is insufficient for the sadhaka, as guidance from the person Bhagavata is essential to fully understand the deep meaning of the text. Thus, even if there is interpolation in the book Bhagavata, one cannot add to or subtract from the devotee Bhagavata, who is the principal agent of divinity in our lives.
It is important to underscore that, like the Goswamis, we are concerned with the essence of theBhagavatam. This essence is delineated in Sri Caitanya-caritamrta and has little to do with ancient social customs and dated cosmology, but everything to do with the metaphysic of acintya-bhedabheda(inconceivable, simultaneous oneness and difference), the primacy of Krishna among the Visnu avataras, Radha’s love for Krishna, and so on. The Srimad-Bhagavatam tells us how to live by way of telling us how to die. It speaks to us with a sense of urgency and demands our complete attention, nityam bhagavata sevaya. Those who truly understand the essence of the Bhagavata will die an ego death to live forever in love.