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Balarama: Change and Continuity in an Early Indian Cult

Balarama: Change and Continuity in an Early Indian Cult


Department of Religious Studies, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON L8S 4L8, CANADA.


This thesis studies the evolution of Balarama in vaishnavism through comparative analysis of Balarama stories from selected Hindu puranas: the Harivamsa (HV), the Visnu purana (Vi.pu), the Brahma purana (Br.pu), and the Bhagavata purana (Bh.pu). Through careful analysis of Balarama stories from these texts, I argue that Balarama was a multifaceted deity of considerable importance in early vaishnavism. I will also argue that the modifications introduced in the earliest stories reveal a process whereby Balarama's popularity and status declined and he became a minor deity as Krsna grew in importance. In this process his personality is modified from his association with food, abundance, fertility and protection to that of an ordinary warrior.

I also demonstrate that the early supremacy and personality of Balarama is reflected in the depiction of this deity in select Jain texts: the Vasudevahindi (VH), the Harivamsapurana (HVP), the Cauppannamahapurisacariyam (CMC), and the Trisastisalakapurusacaritra (TSP). A comparison of Hindu and Jain purana stories of Balarama also reveal that the Jain Balarama stories are derived from independent sources other than the Hindu puranas.

My research demonstrates that it is through gradual transformation of a deity and modifications in the stories that a deity is gradually assimilated into an evolving major religious system. This process is marked by establishing different relationships and equations that reshape and redefine the existing features associated with a deity rather than complete annihilation. The analysis of Balarama stories allows us to gain insight into such intermediary processes involved in the long process of evolution of vaishnavism.

A study of the Balarama stories also contributes to current scholarship on the textual history of the Hindu puranas. In the course of this thesis I analyze the stories divided into a series of plots and compare them across the different texts. I demonstrate that changes to these basic plots indicate the evolution of the story. I therefore propose that the more different a story from the basic story the later it must be while the less the different the story the closer contemporary it must be. I take as the basic story that is the HV, which scholars agree is earlier than any of the puranas. My working hypothesis is that the further a puranic story diverges from the HV, the later it is in date. My comparison of the stories indicates that the HV was the source of the Vi.pu, which served as the source for the Br.pu and Bh.pu. A comparison of the latter two texts reveals that the Bh.pu is the latest of the texts while the Br.pu shows a combination of early and late stories. This pattern is consistent with what scholars working on the puranas have described.