Adaptations in Sanskrit Biographies of Krishna: Reflections on the Meaning of an Omission
Panel:Adaptations of South Asian Narratives Across Time and Space
The Harivamsa (ca. 2nd-3rd century CE), a Sanskrit text appended to the Mahabharata, is the oldest account of the life of the Hindu god Krishna. Two later sources, the Vishnu Purana (ca. 4th-5th century CE) and Bhagavata Purana (ca. 9th-10th) adapt and expand this biography into substantial treatises on the nature of God. In general, each text retains and expands upon the material received from the prior source. In this context, omissions or exclusions of episodes are conspicuous and immediately prompt questions about the text’s purposes, design, theological preoccupations or aesthetic priorities. One such omission occurs with the material of Harivamsa 113 — the final scene of the Krishna biography — wherein Krishna is dissuaded from stealing the cows of Varuna. This is retained neither in the Vishnu nor the Bhagavata Purana, although the latter seems to recuperate some of its dynamics in the story of the lizard Nrga (Bhagavata Purana 10.64). This paper first makes an argument about the function of the Harivamsa 113 episode in the larger setting of that text’s supplementation of the Mahabharata. Secondly, the paper addresses the episode’s omission from the Vishnu and possible reconfiguration in the Bhagavata Purana. Is the Nrga episode a recuperation or reconfiguration of Harivamsa 113? How much — and precisely what — value should be assigned to such editorial decisions as these? Do they always constitute evidence of a tradition engaging creatively with earlier sources of authority? Such questions bring to the problem of the Krishna biographies a larger set of concerns encountered in other forms of narrative adaptation in South Asian narratives.