The BHAGVATA focusses on Bhagavan or God who engages with the world ; it establishes Krishna as avatar of Vishnu. The Mahabharata focusses on the quarrels of the Bharatas, another name for the Kuru clan, to which the Kauravas and Pandavas belong. God engages with the world as Krishna through the quarrels of the Bharatas. The Bhagavata is a chronicle on the life of Krishna till he meets the Pandavas, and the Mahabharata is a chronicle of Krishna’s life after he meets the Pandavas.
The Bhagavata focusses on Krishna’s life as a cowherd in a rural landscape, whereas is about Krishna’s life as a warrior and strategist in an urban landscape. The Bhagavata is a lot about emotions (bhakti marga), while the Mahabharata focusses on reconciling karma or action with jnana or ideas ——– karma marga and jnana marga.
The same idea in the Gita is presented in a dramatically different way in the Bhagavata through Krishna’s raas-lila. After describing the events of Krishna’s childhood, the Purana goes into the realm of romance. Every full moon night, Krishna goes into the fragrant wods of tulsi shrubs and plays the flute. Thus the forest (vana) turns into a delightful Madhuvana. This creation of the circle of delight (rasa-mandala) is the raas-lila.
The contrast between the battle-field of Kurukshetra and the dance in Madhuvana is stark. By overturning established notions of righteousness related to property in the Mahabharata and related to fidelity in the Bhagavata, Krishna draws attention to an underlying Vedic theme, of how the mind perceives information differently, depending on the level of wisdom. Since there are infinite levels of wisdom, there are infinite ways of seeing the same thing. Only the expanded mind (brah-mana) can see infinity (an-anta).
Further, Bhagavata speaks of Krishna’s mothers : Devaki, who gives birth to him and Yashoda, who raises him. It speaks of Krishna’s lovers : Radha, who is left behind in Gokul, and Yamuna, who follows him to Dwarka. It speaks of Krishna’s wives : Satyabhama, rich and demanding, and Rukmini, poor and docile. Krishna may be the great strategist, warrior and teacher, but he is also someone’s son, lover, husband, even someone’s brother, not always perfect, and often quite exasperating. This makes Bhagavata a very feminine narrative, whereas Mahabharata is a masculine one, bringing God from grand things outside the home to simple things inside.