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Tales for the Dying

The Death Narrative of the Bhagavata-Purana

E. H. Rick Jarow

Publication Year: 2003

Tales for the Dying explores the centrality of death and dying in the narrative of the Bhaµgavata-Puraµn|a, India’s great text of devotional theism, canonized as an integral part of the Vais|n|ava bhakti tradition. The text grapples with death through an imaginative meditation, one that works through the presence and power of narrative. The story of the Bhaµgavata-Puraµn|a is spoken to a king who is about to die, and it enables him to come to terms with his own passing. The work does not isolate dying as an issue; it treats it on many levels. This book discusses how images of dying in the Bhaµgavata-Puraµn|a relate to issues of language and love in the religious imagination of India. Drawing on insights from studies in myth, literary semiotics, and depth psychology, as well as from Indian commentarial and aesthetic traditions, the author examines the power of myth and narrative (storytelling or hari kathaµ) and shows how a detailed awareness of the Puraµn|ic imagination may lead to a revisioning of some long-held presuppositions around Indian religious attitudes toward dying. By casting Vais|n|ava bhakti traditions and Puraµn|ic narrative in a fresh light, the mythic imagination of the Puraµn|as takes its place on the stage of contemporary discourse on comparative mythology and literature.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii

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pp. ix

There are many faces and places that arise in association with gratitude for the growth and development of this volume: Harvard Square, where I had my first darshan of Krishna and of Vaishnava dharma from A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami; Vrindaban, where Anna McDowel and Asim...

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A Note on Translation and Transliteration

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pp. xi

Translations of passages in this volume are credited either with endnote references or in parentheses immediately following the text. When no translator is indicated, these are my own, original translations. Since there is no critical edition of the Bhāgavata-Purāṇa, I consulted...


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pp. xiii

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pp. 1-16

In a citation from the Satyricon of Petronius at the opening of T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land, the Sibyl—who has received a “gift” of immortality from Apollo and has thus been cursed to age forever, despairingly declares, “I want to die.” One might read this as a variant of the futility of the ego’s project of self-preservation, but there is a particular gruesomeness in the ...

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1. Examinations of the Past

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pp. 17-28

Purāṇas participate in a similar mythological universe to epic and kāvya (poetic) works. However, they are structured as exhaustive compendiums of the Epic lore seen through particular (one may say “sectarian”) perspectives. The word purāṇa means “ancient,” and a good deal of its oral lore may have been coexistent with the Veda itself, sharing the nebulous ground of a most extensive oral...

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2. The Semiotics of Separation

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pp. 29-40

The Bhāgavata-Purāṇa combines its own version of Epic narrative with the aesthetic sensibility of poetry (kāvya) and dance (nṛtya). Its theology is thus imbued with an aesthetic as well as narrative “logic” that operates around the centrality of absence. In discussing “many ways of dying” and the pastiche-like nature of the Purāṇic narrative, I have emphasized the complex of dying, the multifaceted...

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3. Narratives of Absence

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pp. 41-50

The Bhāgavata-Purāṇa, like the Mahābhārata, features narratives followed by their own metanarratives, forming successive layers constellated around a major theme. Within these laminated-like structures one finds the unifying motif of bhakti appearing through various characters in modes of both union and separation. This particular devotional element distinguishes the...

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4. The Dominion of Death

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pp. 51-75

The aesthetic aspects of the Bhāgavata-Purāṇa strongly resonate with Ānandavardhana’s discussion of Vālmīki’s “first poetic verse” in the Rāmāyaṇa. In both instances sorrow (śoka) is transformed into verse (śloka), and poetic utterance is motivated by loss. More often than not in the Purāṇa, such loss is irrevocable, even when literal death is not involved. Accounts where...

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5. Strī Naraka Dvāra— Woman as the Gateway to Hell

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pp. 77-90

Many Western “students of the East” from Denis de Rougemont to Alan Watts seem to have cherished a naive hope that there would be no spirit/flesh dichotomy in an idealized “East,” which included India.1 The Bhāgavata-Purāṇa more often than not, however, upholds the “normative ideology,” be it dvaita or advaita, that considers...

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6. The Rāsa Dance and the Gateway to Heaven

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pp. 91-119

As it expanded into the many alcoves of Indian life, the narrative and attendant imagery of the rāsa-līlā, the story of Kṛṣṇa’s dancing with the cowherd women of Vṛndāvana, nourished a wide variety of genres of poetry and drama. Indeed, the perspectives, commentaries, and off-shoots of this narrative have been innumerable, and it is not within the...

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7. Final Partings

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pp. 121-139

Separation and union manifest not only as different sensibilities of loving, but also as different poses in the face of dying. Union corresponds to the “great peace which passeth all understanding,” sānta-rasa. William James might have seen its workings as a hallmark of the “healthy soul” sheltered in “the pure calm of infinity.”1 (According to de Rougemont, “. . . if the soul...


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pp. 141-177


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pp. 179-189


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pp. 191-200

E-ISBN-13: 9780791487457
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791456095
Print-ISBN-10: 0791456099

Page Count: 214
Publication Year: 2003

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Puranas. Bhāgavatapurāṇa -- Criticism, interpretation, etc.
  • Death -- Religious aspects -- Hinduism.
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