The Harivamsha (also Harivamsa; Sanskrit Harivaṃśa हरिवंश "the lineage of Hari (Vishnu)") is an important work of Sanskrit literature, containing 16,374 verses, mostly in Anustubh metre. The text is also known as the Harivamsha Purana. This text is believed to be a khila (appendix or supplement) to the Mahabharata and is traditionally ascribed to Veda Vyasa. The most celebrated commentary of the Mahabharata by Neelakantha Chaturdhara, the Bharata Bhava Deepa also covers the Harivamsha. According to a tradition mentioned in the Mahabharata (Adi Parva, II. 69,233), the Harivamsha is divided into two parvas or books; they are also known here as puranas and are included in the eighteen Mahapuranas of the Mahabharata, the Harivamsha Purana and the Bhavishya Purana. The available text also includes the Vishnu Purana. The first book describes the creation of the cosmos and the legendary history of the kings of the Solar and Lunar dynasties leading up to the birth of Krishna. The next book recounts the history of Krishna up to the events prior to the Mahabharata. The last section provides a list of future kings and a description of Kaliyuga. Thus the book provides a sort of universal history of the Hindus. While the Harivamsha has been regarded as an important source of information on the origin of Visnu's incarnation Krishna, there has been speculation as to whether this text was derived from an earlier text and what its relationship is to the Brahma Purana, another text that deals with the origins of Krishna.
The bulk of the text is derived from two traditions, the pañcalakṣaṇa tradition, that is, the "five marks" of the Purana corpus one of which is vaṃśa "genealogy", and stories about the life of Krishna as a herdsman. The latter portion presents the earliest source of Krishna's early life among the cowherds (apart from the Buddhist Ghata Jataka) and his affairs with the gopis, presenting him as a tribal hero.
The text is complex, containing layers that may go back to the 1st or 2nd centuries BCE. The origin of this appendix is not precisely known but it is apparent that it was a part of the Mahabharata by the 1st century CE because "the poet Ashvaghosha quotes a couple of verses, attributing them to the Mahabharata, which are now only found in the Harivamsa" (Datta 1858).
Hopkins considers Harivaṃśa the latest parva of Mahabharata. Hazra has dated the Purana to the 4th century CE on the basis of the description of Rasa lila in it. According to him, the Visnu Purana and the Bhagavata Purana belong to the 5th century CE and 6th century CE respectively. According to Dikshit, the date of Matsya Purana is the 3rd century CE. When we compare the biography of Krishna, the account of Raji and some other episodes as depicted in the Harivaṃśa, it appears to be anterior to the former. Therefore the Viṣṇu parva and the Bhaviṣya parva can be dated to at least the 3rd century CE.
By its style and contents, the Harivaṃśa parva appears to be anterior to the Viṣṇu parva and Bhaviṣya parva. The verses quoted by Asvaghosa belong to this parva. On this basis, we can safely assume the Harivaṃśa parva (except for the later interpolations) to be at least as old as the 1st century CE.
The Harivaṃśa is available in two editions. The vulgate text of the Harivaṃśa has total 271 adhyāyas (chapters), divided into three parvas, Harivaṃśa parva (55 chapters), Viṣṇu parva (81 chapters) and Bhaviṣya parva (135 chapters). The Critical Edition or CE (1969–71, Ed. P.L.Vaidya) is around a third (118 chapters in 6073 slokas) of this vulgate edition. Like the vulgate, the chapters in the CE are divided into three parvas, Harivaṃśa parva (chapters 1-45), Viṣṇu parva (chapters 46-113) and Bhaviṣya parva (chapters 114 -118). Vaidya suggests that even the CE represents an expanded text and proposes that the oldest form of Harivaṃśa probably began with chapter 20 (which is where Agni Purana 12 places its start) and must have ended with chapter 98 of his text.
The last chapter of the text gives a brief description of the subjects narrated in it as follows:
|1-3||Janamejaya asks Vaisampayana to narrate the genealogy of the Vrisni race from the beginning. Vaisampayana begins with the description of the origin of the creation.|
|4-6||The story of Prithu, the son of Vena|
|7-8||The description of the reigns of Manus|
|9-10||Origin of the dynasty of Vaivasvata|
|11||The history of Dhundumara|
|12||The story of Galava|
|13-15||The history of the family of Ikshvaku and Sagara|
|16-24||Pitrkalpa (the beatification of the manes); includes the story of Brahmadatta and his seven sons|
|25-27||The story of Soma, Budha and Pururava|
|27-28||The dynasty of Amavasu and Raji|
|29||The race of Kshatravriddha and the legend of Divodasa|
|30||The legend of Yayati|
|31-32||The family of Puru|
|33-39||The history of the Yadavas; includes the tale of the Syamantaka gem (Chapters 38-39)|
|40-41||The history of the incarnations of Visnu|
|42-48||The Tarakamaya battle between the gods & the titans|
|49-52||The plea of Brahma and Goddess Earth|
|53-55||The partial incarnation of the gods|
|1||Narada’s warning to Kamsa|
|2-3||Kamsa gives orders to guard Devaki and kill all children born to her|
|4-5||The birth of Krishna and his exchange for the daughter of Nanda and Yashoda; description of the cowherds’ camp|
|6-7||The overturning of the cart; killing of Putana; uprooting of the two arjuna trees|
|8-10||Migration to Vrindavana|
|11-12||The victory over Kaliya|
|13-14||The slaying of Dhenuka the donkey and Pralamba|
|15-19||The lifting of Mount Govardhana in defiance of Indra|
|20||The Rasa dance|
|21||The slaying of Arishta the bull|
|22-23||The Council of Kamsa|
|24||The slaying of Keshi the steed|
|25-28||The journey of Krishna and Samkarsana to Kamsa’s court accompanied by Akrura|
|29-30||The death of the elephant Kuvalayapida; the slaying of Chanura and Andhra; the death of Kamsa|
|31-32||The lament of Kamsa’s wives; the funeral of Kamsa and the consecration of Ugrasena on the throne of Mathura|
|33||The education of Krishna and Balarama under Sandipani and the rescue of his children|
|34-36||The attack on Mathura by the Jarasandha of Magadha and his defeat|
|37-38||The discourse of Vikadru|
|39-42||The meeting of Krishna and Balarama with Parasurama; the ascension on Mount Gomanta; the burning of Gomanta|
|43-44||The end of Srigala|
|45||The return to Mathura|
|46||Samkarsana dragging the Yamuna river with his ploughshare|
|47-54||The swayamvara of Rukmini and the conspiracy of Jarasandha and his allies|
|55-56||The migration from Mathura to Dwarka|
|57||Kalayavana’s attack on Krishna and his death|
|58||The foundation of Dwarka|
|59-61||Krishna’s abduction of and marriage with Rukmini and their progeny|
|62||The exploits of Balarama|
|63-64||The slaying of Naraka|
|65-76||The stealing of Parijata tree from Indra’s heaven|
|77-81†||On the observance of Punyakavidhi, i.e. ceremonies, celebrations and vows by means of which a wife can make her body pleasant to her husband and ensure his favor to herself|
|82-85†||The slaying of the demons of Shatpura|
|86-87†||The slaying of Andhaka by Mahadeva|
|88-89†||The sports of the Yadavas in ocean|
|90†||The abduction of Bhanumati|
|91-97†||The marriage of Pradyumna and Prabhavati.|
|98-100||The rebuilding of Dwarka; the entry into Dwarka; the entry into the hall|
|101-102||The discourse of Narada|
|101-102||The tradition of the dynasty of Vrishnis|
|104-109||The legend of Pradyumna and the slaying of Sambara|
|110||The tale of Samba|
|111-115||Krishna recovers the four dead sons of a brahman|
|111-115||Krishna’s fight with Bana and the marriage of Bana’s daughter, Usa with Aniruddha, the grandson of Krishna|
† These pieces definitely appear to be interpolations into the text.
|1-2||The genealogy of Janamejaya and his performance of an aswamedha|
|3-4||The characteristics of Kaliyuga|
|5||The reconciliation between Janamejaya and his queen, following Indra’s intervention in the aswamedha|
|6||The formal benediction†|
|7-28||The origin of creation from the lotus|
|29-72||The account of the boar, the man-lion and the dwarf incarnations of Visnu|
|73-90||Krishna’s journey to Kailasa|
|91-102||The slaying of Paundraka|
|103-129||The tale of Hamsa and Dimbhaka|
|130-131||Krishna meets the cowherds of Vrindavana on Mount Govardhana and returns to Dwaraka|
|132||The religious merit of reading the Mahabharata and the Harivaṃśa|
|133||The legend of the destruction of the three heavenly fortresses of the demons by Shiva|
|134||A short summary of the contents of Harivaṃśa|
|135||An enumeration of the religious merits that one acquires by hearing this Purana|
† This suggests that at some point of time this chapter used to close the text (which is what the CE does, i.e. the narrative comes to an end at this chapter).
There are also Jaina Harivamsas in various languages that present Jaina traditions of the Krishna story. One of the earliest of these is the Harivaṃśapurāṇa (783 AD) of Jinasena. It is divided into 66 cantos and contains 12,000 slokas. The book aims to narrate the life of Arishtanemi, the twenty-second Tirthankara of the Jainas. According to the Jaina sources, Arishtanemi is the first cousin of Krishna. Therefore, Krishna’s adventures too occupy a significant portion of the book. An outline of Jinasena’s work is as follows.
The description of the dynasty of the Yadus is spread over the cantos 19-63. The 32nd canto contains the description of Balarama. The tale of the birth of Krishna begins from canto 35. The description of the youthful exploits of Krishna is similar to the Hindu lore. There follows the description of the slaying of Kansa at the festival of consecration of the bow. Then Jarasandha sends his brother and his son to attack Mathura, both of them killed by Krishna. The birth of Arishtanemi takes place in Sauryapura amidst great celebrations. Jarasandha then lays siege of Mathura resulting in the migration of Krishna and his kinsmen to Dwarka. The marriage with Rukmini and the birth and abduction of Pradyumna follows. Then the account of the Pandavas is narrated which bears significant differences from the Hindu accounts. The reunion of Krishna and Pradyumna is narrated next. The text then describes the final combat between Jarasandha and Krishna with the Kauravas acting as allies to the former while the Pandavas to the latter. The war ends with the death of Jarasandha and the deification of Krishna as Narayana. Thereafter the Pandavas retreat to south to establish Pandu Mathura (modern Madurai). This is followed by the account of the attainment of arhathood by Arishtanemi, the destruction of Dwarka by Krishna Dwaipayana’s curse, the demise of Krishna and Balarama and the ascent of the Pandavas to the heavens. The book closes with and account of the dynasty of Yadu propagated by Jaratkumara.
- The Mahabharata in Sanskrit: Book I: Chapter 2 in sacred-texts.com website
- Ruben 115.
- [Harivaṃśa 1969-71: 785, XXX and 795]
- Translations of the Harivamsa
- Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 410
- Winternitz, Maurice (1981) History of Indian Literature Vol. I. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
- Ruben, Walter (1941) "The Krsnacarita in the Harivamsa and Certain Puranas.” Journal of American Oriental Society. Vol. 61, No.3. pp. 115–127.
- Lorenz, Ekkehard (2007) The Harivamsa: The Dynasty of Krishna, in Edwin F. Bryant (ed.), Krishna, A Source Book, Oxford University Press.
- Shastri, Rajendra Muni, Jaina Sahitya mein Sri Krishna Charita, Jaipur, Prakrit Bharati Akademi, 1991.
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