Canto one depicts the circumstances in which the emperor of the world, Pariksit, is cursed to die. Upon receiving news of his impending death, the emperor relinquishes his kingdom and travels to the bank of the river Ganges, determined to fast until his death. Great sages and yogis from all over the universe come to visit him. Taking advantage of their presence, he asks them six questions about what is the most important thing to do when a person is about to die. These six questions form the basis of the entire Bhagavatam. In the first canto, the topics of the Bhagavatam are introduced, the Absolute Truth is defined and the principles of creation are described.
The second canto describes the post-creation cosmic manifestation. It explains the process of creation, the different planetary systems of the universe, and the ultimate controller behind this universal, phenomenal manifestation. There are ten chapters in this canto, and in these ten chapters the purpose of Shrimad Bhagavatam is narrated. The second canto also introduces the spiritual reality beyond this vast material universe.
This canto provides an analytical understanding of the constituents of the material world culminating in a detailed explanation of the difference between matter and spirit. The third canto also explains the dynamics of male-female relationships and how the living beings get entangled in the cycle of repeated birth and death. We also learn that bhakti-yoga, the highest rung on the yoga ladder, is both the means to liberation and the eternal activity of liberated souls.
The highlight of the fourth canto is a profound allegory describing the existential situation of the living being in the material universe. The allegory is delivered by Narada Muni, the revered cosmic sage of the Vedic tradition. He presents a sophisticated model of who we are: a particle of pure consciousness covered over by gross and subtle layers of matter. He also describes the process of dissolving our material coverings and regaining our original spiritual form.
The fifth canto follows a highly elevated bhakti-yogi named Jada Bharata through the course of three lives; first a king, then a deer and then a liberated saint. Through his journey, the Bhagavatam teaches about the subtleties of karma and the process of reincarnation. The fifth canto also gives a detailed account of the structure of our universe, as well as a description of the different kinds of living beings who inhabit different planetary systems.
In the sixth canto we come across Ajamila, a pious, spiritually-minded intellectual who in the association of a prostitute turned into a rogue. Despite performing heinous criminal activities throughout his life, Ajamila was saved from the karmic consequences of his actions. This canto describes how and why Ajamila was saved. Through this description we learn about the inconceivable potency of spiritual sound vibrations and the process to become liberated from desires to control and enjoy matter.
In the seventh canto we encounter the famous boy-sage Prahlada. A supremely adept bhakti-yogi, Prahlada gives unsurpassable insights into the futility of trying to improve one’s material situation. After having thoroughly negated the value of all materialistic goals, Prahlada then offers the positive alternative: one should utilize every moment of one’s life for spiritual advancement. In this canto we also find detailed instructions on how civilized human beings should lead their lives. This includes a systematic description of efficient social organization, the duties of laborers, businessmen, kings and intellectuals, and the regulative principles of the four spiritual orders of life.
The eighth canto describes intergalactic battles fought between pious celestial beings and their eternal foes: corrupt, selfish and extremely powerful beings known as asuras. We learn more about higher planetary systems and the principles governing universal management. This canto also describes the unique activities of Vamanadeva, an incarnation of the Absolute Truth who came to teach that without contentment one cannot be happy even if one possesses the entire universe.
This canto describes great kings and yogis who faces different challenges in their quest for liberation. For example, there is the yogi Durvasa, who for egotistical reasons, tries to use his formidable yogic power to kill the exalted king Ambarisha, an exemplary bhakti-yogi. Through these narrations, we learn that yoga is a technology that can be used to progress towards enlightenment or it can be misused for selfish purposes to dominate and exploit others. The ninth canto also briefly describes the appearance and activities of Rama, another famous incarnation of the Absolute Truth.
This canto introduces us to the pinnacle of Vedic wisdom: the inconceivable Supreme Person, Krishna. We learn about Krishna’s form which is eternal, full of bliss and knowledge. This canto also describes how Krishna includes everything, how Krishna is the ultimate source of all there is, both material and spiritual, and how all energies emanate from Krishna. Finally, this canto gives elaborate accounts of Krishna’s inimitably attractive and enigmatic activities when he appeared on Earth and played like a human being.
This canto is famous for containing the Uddhava Gita, a conversation between Krishna and his dear disciple and devotee, Uddhava. Considered the crest jewel of philosophical wisdom, this conversation answers the greatest questions in existence. Topics include: the purpose behind the universe, the nature of karma, renunciation, the different yogic paths, the nature of consciousness, the three influences that affect all interactions between matter and consciousness, the process of creation and a scrupulous analysis of material nature.
In this canto, we witness the great emperor Pariksit relinquishing his mortal coil and going back to the spiritual realm. We hear Sukadeva Goswami, Pariksit’s spiritual master, offer his final instructions to the cursed king. Through the king, Sukadeva instructs us all that the actual self, the soul, is distinct from the material body and mind it observes. He reminds us that the unborn and immortal soul is intimately related to the Supreme Soul, the source and sustainer of all of existence. The true goal of yoga is to enable us to revive our eternal loving relationship with the Supreme Soul. This canto also provides a glimpse into the conditions of Kali-yuga, the present era of earthly history, an era characterized by a predominance of cheating, hypocrisy, greed, sloth, violence, depression, lamentation, bewilderment, fear, poverty and ignorance.