In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Harivaṃśa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Harivaṃśa’s Relationship to the Mahābhārata
  • Reference Works
  • Dating
  • The Harivaṃśa and Kuṣāṇa Arts
  • Other Gods
  • Goddesses
  • Other Characters
  • Buddhist Harivaṃśas

Hinduism Harivaṃśa
Simon Brodbeck
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0037


The Harivaṃśa collectively designates three books that the Sanskrit Mahābhārata calls khilas (supplements, complements, or appendices). These are said to have been composed by Vyāsa, and are among the one hundred books of the Mahābhārata. The Harivaṃśa has often been treated separately from the Mahābhārata and grouped with the puranas, several of which contain similar stories and sections. The notion of what the Harivaṃśa is was powerfully affected in 1969–1971 by the publication of P. L. Vaidya’s critical edition, which reconstituted a text that is much shorter than the previously known versions. The following synopsis follows the Harivaṃśa as critically reconstituted by Vaidya, who omits many passages on account of their comparatively poor manuscript support. The Harivaṃśa resumes the Mahābhārata’s framing dialogue between Śaunaka and Ugraśravas. Śaunaka asks to hear more about the Vrishnis (Skt. Vṛṣṇis) and Andhakas, and Ugraśravas relates what Vaiśaṃpāyana told King Janamejaya in response to his question on the same topic. The Harivaṃśaparvan (Book of the Line of Hari) follows, containing details of the creation of the cosmos, Pṛthu Vainya the first king, the scheme of successive Manus, the tradition of ancestor worship, and the solar and lunar royal dynasties, including that of the Vrishnis. Janamejaya then asks about Vishnu (Skt. Viṣṇu) Nārāyaṇa’s appearances within the world, and especially about his appearance as Krishna (Skt. Kṛṣṇa) Vāsudeva. Vaiśaṃpāyana describes the battle between gods and demons, explains why Vishnu took form as Krishna, and narrates Krishna’s life in detail. The Viṣṇuparvan (Book of Vishnu) or Āścaryaparvan (Book of the Marvel) consists largely of that narration, presenting Krishna in his own family context (rather than that of his Pāṇḍava cousins) and narrating his birth, his and his brother Balarāma’s childhood exploits among the cowherders, his defeat of King Kaṃsa, his role within the Vrishni clan, who moved from Mathurā to Dvārakā, and his role in his sons’ and grandsons’ affairs. The Bhaviṣyatparvan (Book of the Future) reverts to the Śaunaka–Ugraśravas dialogue: Ugraśravas gives details of Janamejaya’s descendants, and of his horse sacrifice. The critically reconstituted Bhaviṣyatparvan is only five chapters long, but in the manuscript versions the Bhaviṣyatparvan, in particular, is usually enlarged by a wide range of additions, including further cosmogonic material (Appendix 41) and details of some of Vishnu’s other incarnations (Appendix 42). As is the case with the Mahābhārata, the Harivaṃśa’s originary context is little understood, with scholarly pronouncements often overdependent on methodological preconceptions.

General Overviews

The Harivaṃśa has been approached by scholars in many different ways, so the sources collected under this heading give rather varied perspectives on the text. Ingalls 1968 is probably the most well-known paper on the Harivaṃśa, situating it in the context of the Sanskrit literary tradition. Hein 1986 views the text in the context of religious history. Vaidya 1969 is based on a survey of the editions and surviving manuscripts of the Harivaṃśa, and Lorenz 2007 is based on a translation of four key chapters. Pāṇḍe 1960, in Hindi, is the most extensive modern overview, while Brockington 1998 is the most complete overview in English. Winternitz 1977 gives a summary of contents.

  • Brockington, John. The Sanskrit Epics. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1998.

    Compendious handbook of the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa, with a chapter (pp. 313–344) on the Harivaṃśa. Discusses the text in its literary and academic context, with sections on the critical edition, the text’s language and style, its growth and development, and its cultural and religious aspects.

  • Hein, Norvin. “A Revolution in Kṛṣṇaism: the Cult of Gopāla.” History of Religions 25.4 (1986): 296–317.

    DOI: 10.1086/463051

    Provides a grand historical construction of religious developments. Argues that the Harivaṃśa was a postscript to an otherwise finished Mahābhārata, and that its tales of the cowherd Krishna bear witness to “a mutation . . . in Vaiṣṇava mythology in which the ideals of Kṛṣṇa worshipers were turned upside down” (p. 296), in the 4th century CE, under the Guptas.

  • Ingalls, Daniel H. H. “The Harivaṃśa as a Mahākāvya.” In Mélanges d‘Indianisme à la mémoire de Louis Renou. Edited by Louis Renou, 381–394. Paris: Éditions de Boccard, 1968.

    Urges the appreciation of the Harivaṃśa’s (particularly its Kṛṣṇacarita’s) literary merits, seeking to remedy a situation of perceived neglect. Contrasts its direct style to that of the Viṣṇu Purāṇa and the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. Retells the story of Kaṃsa’s demise, then discusses the Harivaṃśa’s poetic tendencies, with attention to descriptions, lists, and metaphors.

  • Lorenz, Ekkehard. “The Harivamsa: the Dynasty of Krishna.” In Krishna: a Sourcebook. Edited by Edwin Bryant, 95–109. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    A plain four-page introduction, followed by translations of four emblematic scenes from the Kṛṣṇacarita (the breaking of the Arjuna trees, the conjuring of the wolves, the move to Vrindavan, and the cowgirl love-games; i.e., Hv 51–53 and 63).

  • Pāṇḍe, Vīṇāpāṇi. Harivaṃśapurāṇa kā sāṃskṛtikā vivecana. Lucknow, India: Hindī Samiti Granthamālā, 1960.

    A summarial commentary in Hindi, with some footnotes in English. Contains chapters on the text’s genre status, the Krishna story (comparing purana versions), the text’s likely date, its ethical teachings, its connections with the theatre, the historicity of its genealogies, and its philosophical content. With thirty-eight pages of genealogies.

  • Vaidya, Parashuram Lakshman. “Introduction.” In The Harivaṁśa: being the Khila or Supplement to the Mahābhārata, for the First Time Critically Edited. Vol. 1. Edited by Parashuram Lakshman Vaidya, ix–lvi. Pune, India: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1969.

    Introduces the thirty-seven manuscripts used to produce Vaidya’s critical edition. Comments in particular on the text’s growth through time, mostly with reference to the manuscripts (which tend to contain many episodes found only in certain branches of the tradition), and sometimes with reference to hypothetical bardic tradition. Includes concordance (pp. li–lvi).

  • Winternitz, Maurice. “The Harivamśa, an Appendix to the Mahābhārata.” In A History of Indian Literature. Vol. 1. By Maurice Winternitz. Translated by S. Ketkar, 443–454. Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corporation, 1977.

    Extract from Winternitz’s classic History. Skeptical concerning the Harivaṃśa’s connection to the Mahābhārata and rather deprecating about the text in general, this nonetheless gives a thorough overview of the text’s contents. Translation first published Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1927. German original first published Leipzig, 1908.

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