Purāṇas

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Swami Harshananda

Sometimes transliterated as: Puranas, PurANas, Puraanas


The Vedas are the basic scriptures of the religion. However, modern religious practices are deeply indebted to the purāṇas. Whether it is meditation on God the Absolute or the queer modes of worship of a grotesque idol of a village deity, each religious practices of the religion finds an honorable place in the purāṇas because they have recognized the need for a variety of approaches to God, to suit the bewildering divergence of human temperaments. If the society has sustained the incessant invasions of barbarians or the powerful impacts of Semitic religions or even the periodic internal upheavals by heretics, purāṇas play a significant role in this. They have not only prevented it from disintegrating but on the other hand have strengthened it immensely by imparting it a tenacious resilience, rarely seen in human history. This they have not done by adopting a tough and dogmatic approach by making various internal adjustments keeping the core of the religion intact. There is an additional reason as to why the purāṇas have become the saviors of the religion. It is because they have encompassed all the aspects of human life, whether sacred or secular. This has made them grow to encyclopedic proportions. At a time when the only access to knowledge for the common masses was by listening to the purāṇas, they have executed their duties to the society admirably well.

Antiquity of the Purāṇas

The word ‘purāṇa’ is generally derived in two ways:

  1. Purā bhavam - ancient narratives
  2. Purā api navam - that which was new even in the ancient days

Hence, the purāṇas can be defined as narratives belonging to the ancient period and yet containing materials relevant to all the ages, and so ‘ever new and fresh’. Actually, the purāṇas are of great antiquity. The word ‘purāṇa’ are sometimes associated with the word ‘itihāsa’.[1] It occurs in other ancient works like the Atharvaveda and the Śatapatha Brāhmana and also in some older Upaniṣads like the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and the Chāndogya Upaniṣads.

Attributing the origin of the purāṇas to Mahābhuta[2] or to Brahmā,[3] and their close association with the Vedic sacrifices as ‘akhyānabhāga’ or narrative portion leads us to believe that they are as old as the Vedas or perhaps still more older. This is corroborated by the fact that the kings Divodāsa, Sudāsa, Somaka and others known to the Ṛgveda have been placed very low in the genealogical lists given in the purāṇas. The word ‘purāṇa,’ is the extant class of literature known to us as the purāṇas, which are the only ancient stories and legends. They are often indicated by the words ‘purāṇa’ or ‘purāṇasamhitā’.

General Characteristics of the Purāṇas

A purāṇa is defined as a work having five characteristics describing:

  1. Sarga - creation
  2. Pratisarga - intermediate creation
  3. Vanśa - dynasties of gods and of the patriarchs
  4. Manvantara - the fourteen Manus and their periods
  5. Vamśānucarita - genealogy of the kings of the solar and the lunar race

Sometimes a few more are added such as :

  1. Rakṣā - protection of the world by the avatāras or incarnations
  2. Samsthā - pralaya or dissolution of the world
  3. Hetu - the cause of creation viz., the jīva and its karma
  4. Vṛtti - modes of subsistence
  5. Apāśraya - the refuge or Brahman

Except the Viṣṇupurāṇa, none of the others exhibit all the five characteristics. On the other hand, many other subjects like śrāddha,[4] duties of the varṇas, the āśramas, dānas,[5] tīrthas[6] and images and their worship find a prominent place in the purāṇas.

Few purāṇas contain a lot of material aimed at the propagation of a particular sect. A lot of information regarding other secular areas of the knowledge like Ayurveda,[7] architecture and town-planning, prognostication through omens and astrology is also found in the purāṇas since they were the sole means of educating the masses during those days.

Evolution of the Purāṇas

Though it is conceded that the purāṇas are of hoary antiquity, extreme paucity of information leaves us in complete darkness with regard to their character or contents, none of which seems to have come down to us in the original form. No doubt that the tradition attributes the authorship of these purāṇas, the eighteen Mahāpurāṇas[8] and the eighteen Upapurāṇas[9] to the sage Kṛṣṇa Dvaipāyana, better known as Vedavyāsa or Vyāsa. However, this cannot be substantiated by the evidence available. The original purāṇa referred to in the Vedic and allied literature was, perhaps a conglomeration of the following:

  1. Ākhyānas - tales
  2. Upākhyānas - anecdotes
  3. Gāthās - metrical songs or proverbial sayings current in the ancient society
  4. Kalpakoṭis - sayings that had come down through the ages

The sage Vedavyāsa might have compiled these into a single literature called as Purāṇasamhitā. His disciples and their disciples as also others in that tradition might have composed more detailed works which gradually took the present form, the eighteen purāṇas as we know them today. This surmise is confirmed by the accounts given in some of the more ancient purāṇas like the Vāyupurāṇa, the Brahmāndapurāṇa and the Viṣṇupurāṇa.

According to them, after compiling the original Purāṇasamhitā, Vyāsa imparted it to his disciple Suta Romaharṣaṇa which is also spelt as Lomaharṣaṇa, who in his turn made it into six versions and taught them to his six disciples. Of these, three disciples viz., Kāśyapa, Sāvarṇi and Śārisapāyana made three separate samhitās which were named after them. These three, along with that of Romaharṣaṇa, are known as ‘mula-samhitās’, the later purāṇas were evolved out of these.

Growth of the Present Mahāpurāṇas

When exactly the original purāṇic material began to give rise to different purāṇas and samhitās, it is difficult to say. Since the Taittiriya Aranyaka and also the law-books of Manu and Yājñavalkya have used the word ‘purāṇāni’[10] it cannot be denied that three or more purāṇas had come into existence long before the beginning of the Christian era. By the time of Apastamba[11] the term ‘purāṇa’ had already become restricted to designate a particular class of books.

It is not known how many purāṇas existed during Āpastamba’s time and how they went on growing in number. But we do find a tradition recorded in almost all the extant purāṇas and other allied works, that the purāṇas, or rather the Mahāpurāṇas, are eighteen in number. The names of these eighteen purāṇas as given in different purāṇic works, are more or less the same as those of the works now extant under the general title ‘Mahāpurāṇa’. Based on the evidence of the Matsya and the Kurma purāṇas and some other Sanskrit works, we can safely assume that by A.D. 700, the evolution into eighteen Mahāpurāṇas had become complete and the number got rigidly fixed there.

The following table gives an idea of these eighteen Mahāpurāṇas as known to us now:

Sr.No. Name of the Purāṇa Number of Ślokas Period of Composition
1. Agnipurāṇa 16,000 A.D. 800
2. Bhāgavatapurāṇa 18,000 A.D. 600
3. Bhaviṣyapurāṇa 14,500 A.D. 500-900
4. Brahmapurāṇa 10,000 A.D. 1300
5. Brahmāndapurāṇa 12,000 A.D. 400
6. Brahmavaivartapurāṇa 18,000 A.D. 1000
7. Garudapurāṇa 18,000 A.D. 900
8. Kurmapurāṇa 18,000 A.D. 500
9. Liñgapurāṇa 11,000 A.D. 600-1000
10. Markandeyapurāṇa 9,000 A.D. 300
11. Matsyapurāṇa 14,000 A.D. 300
12. Naradiyapurāṇa 25,000 A.D. 900-1600
13. Padmapurāṇa 55,000 A.D. 800
14. Skandapurāṇa 81,000 A.D. 700-900
15. Vamanapurāṇa 10,000 A.D. 900
16. Varahapurāṇa 24,000 A.D. 800-1100
17. Vāyupurāṇa 24,000 A.D. 200
18. Viṣṇupurāṇa 23,000 A.D. 300

The number of ślokas mentioned here is based on the Vāyu and the Matsyapurāṇas, generally considered as the oldest. The period of compilation is very approximate.

A Brief Survey of the Mahāpurāṇas

A brief survey of the contents of these eighteen purāṇas, traditionally called the Mahāpurāṇas, is as follows:

Agnipurāṇa

Agni, the god of fire, is said to have communicated this purāṇa to the sage Vasiṣṭha. Though it is essentially a śaivite work, a large part of it has been devoted to the sect of Viṣṇu also, especially to the description of his incarnations as Rāma and Kṛṣṇa. The contents of this purāṇa are of an encyclopedic character. Some of the subjects dealt with are:

  • The ten incarnations of Viṣṇu
  • The stories of Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata
  • Rules regarding the worship of various deities
  • Installation of images in temples
  • Astrology
  • Architecture and sculpture
  • Science of medicine
  • Toxicology
  • Principles of dramaturgy
  • Human physiology
  • Figures of speech
  • Others

Bhāgvatapurāṇa

By far, the most well-known of all the purāṇas, the Bhāgavata, also called as Śrimad Bhāgavata, is considered as the most authoritative text dealing with Śrīkṛṣṇa’s life and doings. The book, however, deals extensively with the stories of other incarnations of Viṣṇu also. The work is in the form of a narration by the young sage Suka[12] to the king Parīkṣit, at his request to listen to the glories of Lord Kṛṣṇa-Vāsudeva. This purāṇa deals with the following topics:

  • Story of the king Parīkṣit and the beginning of the narration of the Bhāgavata
  • The cosmic form of God and creation of the world
  • Curse incurred by Jaya and Vijaya, the attendants of Lord Viṣṇu as also the story of Hiraṇyakaśipu and the child-devotee Prahlāda
  • Story of the great sage Kapila
  • Story of the destruction of Dakṣa’s sacrifice by Rudra
  • Story of another child-devotee Dhruva
  • Story of Jaḍabharata
  • The descent of the river Gaṅgā to the earth
  • The destruction of Tripura or the three cities by Śiva
  • The story of the churning of the ocean and of Vāmana

The tenth book contains the story of Śrīkṛṣṇa in detail. The eleventh book contains the famous Uddhavagītā. The work ends with a long list of the kings that ruled after Kṛṣṇa’s ascension and a graphic description of Kaliyuga, the present age. The Bhāgavata has many Sanskrit commentaries which are very useful in understanding it.

Bhaviṣyapurāṇa

The printed texts of this purāṇa comprise of two parts:

  1. Purvārdha
  2. Uttarārdha

However, many scholars consider the latter half as an independent treatise and call it as Bhavisyottarapurāṇa. The Bhavisyapurāṇa is a veritable storehouse of several topics normally dealt with in the dharmaśāstras. The following is the list of some selected topics:

  • The sixteen sanskāras or sacraments like nāmakaraṇa and upanyāna
  • Rules concerning the study of the Vedas
  • Some aspects of varṇāśrama-dharma
  • A good number of vratas or religious observances slated for certain days
  • Snakes and their worship
  • Praise and worship of Surya, the sun-god
  • Creation of this world and a description of this earth
  • Several types of dāna or giving gifts ceremonially
  • Description of good conduct

A very interesting aspect of this purāṇa is the bringing of the Maga brāhmaṇas from the Sākadvīpa into our country by Sāmba, son of Śrīkṛṣṇa and getting them settled on the banks of the river Candrabhāgā. They were Zoroastrians from Persia. They gradually integrated themselves into the society. Sun-worship in India got a boost because of them. This purāṇa has been called Bhavisyapurāṇa, purāṇa predicting future events, probably because it gives the genealogy of the kings who will come in future and the way they will rule the country.

Brahmapurāṇa

The Brahmapurāṇa that is now available in print, seems to be a compilation of chapters taken from some other works like the Mahābhārata, Viṣṇu-purāṇa, Mārkandeyapurāṇa and Vāyupurāṇa, though it does contain original material also, dealing chiefly with the praise of the shrines and holy places in the Purusottama-ksetra[13] Koṇarka,[14] Ekāmra-kṣetra[15] and others. Summary of its contents is as follows:

  • Creation of the world including the gods and human beings
  • Geographical details of this world as comprising the seven dvīpas or island-continents
  • The story of Dakṣa’s sacrifice
  • Descriptions of some well-known places of pilgrimage
  • Detailed treatment of the Puruṣottama-ksetra, including the temple of Jagannātha and its images
  • Descent of the river Gaṅgā
  • Descriptions of several other holy places
  • Story of Srīkṛṣṇa in detail
  • Descriptions of some avatāras of Viṣṇu like Varāha and Narasimha
  • The paths of Sāṅkhya and Yoga

Brahmānandapurāṇa

The Brahmāndapurāṇa is divided into four pādas or parts:

  1. Prakriyāpāda
  2. Anusañgapāda
  3. Upodghātapāda
  4. Upasamhārapāda

This is followed by Lalitopākhyāna in 40 chapters. It is said to have been taught by Brahmā himself to the sages engaged in a Sattrayāga in the Naimiṣa forest. The further delineation is as follows:

  • The first two parts deal with the subjects of creation from the brahmāṇḍa or the cosmic egg, the geography of the earth and of Bhāratavarṣa, the manvantaras, pupils of Vyāsa and the distribution of the Vedic śākhās.
  • The third section deals with all the aspects of śrāddha,[16] of Paraśurāma’s exploits, descent of Gaṅgā by the efforts of Bhagīratha, the story of Dhanvantari receiving the Ayurveda[17] and so on.
  • The fourth section deals with the future Manus, the Kalpa-pralaya,[18] a description of the fourteen worlds as also the various types of hells. There is also a beautiful philosophical disquisition of Brahman or Paramātman[19] who is beyond all logic and reasoning.

Lalitopākhyāna contains the famous Lalitāsahasranāma, a hymn endowed with mystical powers. Sometimes, the well-known Adhyātma Rāmāyana is stated to be a part of this Brahmāndapurāṇa. Hundreds of verses of this purāṇa are found in the Vāyupurāṇa also. Hence scholars sometimes surmise that the two purāṇas were originally one called Vāyaviya-brahmānda-purāṇa and might have got separated around A. D. 400. A Balinese translation of this purāṇa has been found in the Bali island of Indonesia.

Brahmavaivartapurāṇa

The original Brahmavaivartapurāṇa might have been a more ancient work, earlier than A. D. 300, since the Viṣṇupurāṇa has mentioned it among the Mahāpurāṇas. The text now available in print may have been evolved during the period A. D. 800-1600. Since the original cause of the universe has been depicted here as a ‘vivarta’ or ‘appearance’ of Brahman, this purāṇa has been designated as Brahmavaivartapurāṇa.

  • The Brahmakhanda, the first section, traces the evolution of the universe from the four-faced Brahmā who himself is Śrikṛṣṇa.
  • The Prakrtikhanda, second section, describes the emanations of Durgā, Laksmī, Sarasvatī, Sāvitrī and Rādhā from the Mulaprakrti, as per the command of Srīkṛṣṇa.
  • The Ganeśakhanda describes in detail, the birth and exploits of Gaṇeśa and Saṇmukha, the two sons of Śiva and Pārvatī.
  • The last section, the Srīkrsna-janmakhanda deals with the story of Śrīkṛṣṇa and his divine consort Rādhā. This section is almost as big as the other three sections put together.

A good number of interesting topics have been dealt with in this purāṇa. Few of them are delineated as follows:

  • Ayurveda or the science of health and longevity
  • The sandhyā ritual
  • Importance of śālagrāma and its worship
  • Description of the Kali-yuga[20]
  • The merits of taking bath in the Gaṅgā river on auspicious days
  • Greatness of the tulasī leaves[21]
  • Story of Sāvitrī and Satyavān
  • Story of Manasādevī, the goddess of snakes
  • Durgāpujā
  • Prognostication through dreams
  • Code of conduct for married women and widows
  • Greatness of Bhāratadeśa or India
  • Some instructions regarding building construction

Garudapurāṇa

Though some scholars feel that this is a spurious Vaiṣṇava work, probably composed in the tenth century, it is held in high esteem till now. Its recitation, especially during the performance of the death and after-death ceremonies is considered auspicious, since it deals with the topic of eschatology in great detail. The number of verses attributed to this purāṇa seems to vary from about 8000 to 19,000. The name Garudapurāṇa has been derived from the fact that it was taught by Lord Viṣṇu to his eagle-mount Garuḍa.

The first part of this work, like the Agnipurāṇa, is encyclopedic in character, dealing with several topics such as the contents of the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, cosmography, astronomy, astrology, omens and portents, medicine and knowledge of precious stones. The second part, called Pretakalpa deals in great detail with death, the journey of the jīva after death to its next destination, the various rites to be performed at death and after death, torments of hell, encounter with pretas or spirits of the dead, the Yamaloka or the world of Yama[22] and liberation through devotion to Lord Viṣṇu.

Kurmapurāṇa

The present Kurmapurāṇa comprising two parts claims to be the first section called Brāhmisamhitā of a much bigger work consisting of four samhitās or sections viz.:

  1. Brāhmi
  2. Bhāgavati
  3. Sauri
  4. Vaiṣnavi

However the last three seem to have been lost. This purāṇa was a pāñcarātra work which was later recast by the pāśupatas during the eighth century A.D. Lord Viṣṇu taught this purāṇa in his incarnation as Kurma or tortoise, to the sages like Nārada. Hence the name Kurmapurāṇa. A brief synopsis of the contents is:

  • The duties of the four varṇas and the four āśramas
  • Evolution of the prakṛti[23] into the world
  • Story of Svāyambhuva Manu and his wife Śatarupā
  • Story of Dakṣa
  • Story of Vāmana and Bali
  • Genealogies of some ṛṣis and kings
  • Description of the yaduvanśa[24]
  • Greatness of Kāśī and Prayāga, the two well-known pilgrim centers
  • Description of the physical features of the world and of Jambudvīpa which contains Bhāratavarṣa
  • Division of the Vedas; the famous īśvaragltā
  • On śrāddhas or after-death rites
  • On prāyaścittas or expiations for sins
  • Pralaya or destruction of the created world

Lingapurāṇa

This purāṇa mainly aims at the propagation of the sect of Śiva and his worship through the liṅga, the rounded surface emblem commonly worshiped even now. It deals with a number of subjects, the more important ones being:

  • The manifestation of the five aspects of Śiva viz.:
  1. Sadyojāta
  2. Vāmadeva
  3. Tatpuruṣa
  4. Aghora and īśāna
  5. Śiva appearing as a huge pillar of fire to Brahmā and Viṣṇu
  • Vyāsa and his disciples
  • Stories of the sages Dadhīci and Silāda
  • About the four yugas or epochs
  • Nandi and his worship
  • Descriptions of the well-known Suryavanśa and Candravanśa, the dynasties originating from the sun and the moon
  • Worship of Śiva and description of some vratas
  • Detailed account of the famous Śivapañcākṣarī-mantra and its use in meditation
  • An account of the places of pilgrimage like Kāśī
  • On music and its propagation
  • Manifestation of Śiva in eight forms[25]
  • Various dānas or gifts and their fruits
  • How to establish the Śivaliṅgas
  • The mṛtyuñjaya-mantra and its usage

Several subsidiary religious works like Pañcāksara-māhātmya, Rāmasahasranāma and Rudrākṣamāhātmya have originated from this purāṇa.

Mārkandeyapurāṇa

This is one of the few purāṇas that have retained much of the more ancient material, composed probably around A. D. 300. Though this work is said to contain 9000 verses, the printed texts available now fall short of it by nearly 2000 verses. The purāṇa starts with the questions posed by Jaimini to the sage Mārkaṇḍeya who directs him to the four caṭaka birds living in the Vindhyācala range of hills. The birds later on refer to the teachings of Mārkaṇḍeya given to Krauṣtuki. The well-known and extremely popular work, the Devimāhātmya,[26] forms an integral part of this purāṇa.

The Mārkandeyapurāṇa is remarkably non-sectarian in character. The Vedic deities, Indra, Brahmā, Agni and Surya and also the sun-myths, get greater coverage than Viṣṇu or Śiva. There is a clear trend towards popularizing the śrauta and the smārta rites which had already begun to be neglected by the people. Apart from the usual subjects of creation, dissolution, the manvantaras and genealogies, this purāṇa has also dealt with the following topics:

Matsyapurāṇa

Said to have been taught by Lord Viṣṇu in his incarnation as Matsya or fish, this purāṇa though containing ancient material, seems to be a conglomeration of chapters taken from various sources, especially the Vāyu and the Viṣṇudharmottara purāṇas. Some scholars feel that it was originally a Vaiṣṇava work, later on modified by the Śaivas. In addition to dealing with the usual topics of the ancient purāṇas like creation, dissolution and genealogies of ṛṣis and kings, this purāṇa contributes substantially to the other areas of knowledge also. Some of the topics delineated are:

  • The stories of Kaca, Devayānī, Yayāti and Puru
  • Genealogies of the brāhmaṇas who were worshipers of fire
  • Various vratas or religious vows
  • Some dānas or gifts and their fruits
  • Greatness of the holy places Prayāga, Vārāṇasī and the river Narmadā
  • Duties of a king
  • On omens
  • Some aspects of iconography
  • Building construction
  • Etc.

A remarkable feature of this purāṇa is that the last chapter[27] beautifully summarizes all the subjects dealt within it, without omitting any of them.

Nāradīyapurāṇa

The utility of this purāṇa lies in the fact that it gives the synopsis of all the other purāṇas also. It is in two parts.

  1. The first part incorporates the entire work, known as Brhan-nāradiya-purāna.
  2. The second part appears more like an independent treatise.

It comprises the teachings given to Nārada by Sanaka and others. The subjects touched upon are of a very wide range. They include:

  • The vratas or religious observances of the whole year
  • Devotion to Viṣṇu
  • Creation of the world
  • Duties of the people of various varṇas and āśramas
  • The six Vedāṅgas like vyākaraṇa,[28] chandas[29] and jyotiṣa[30]
  • Greatness of Prayāga, the famous place of pilgrimage
  • Ritualistic worship
  • Greatness and importance of fasting on ekādaśī days
  • Etc.

Another remarkable feature of this purāṇa is that it deals with a number of mantras and the methods of repeating them, which is a specialty of the Tantras and the Āgamas. There is one Lalitāsahasranāma given in the 89th chapter of the first half. This, however, is entirely different from the one that is now commonly chanted, which is a part of the Brahmāndapurāṇa.

Padmapurāṇa

This is a voluminous work in five parts:

  1. Srstikhanda
  2. Bhumikhanda
  3. Svargakhanda
  4. Pātālakhanda
  5. Uttara-khanda

It is primarily a scripture of the Vaiṣṇavas, which has two distinct recensions, the Bengal and the South-Indian. It is only the latter that is available in print. Like some of the other purāṇas this one also deals with a variety of subjects. Overview of the topics is as follows:

  • Stories of Brahmā’s sacrifice
  • Legends connected with the sage Dadhīci, Vṛtra, Nahuṣa, Yayāti, Sakuntalā and others
  • Greatness of sacred rivers like Gaṅgā and holy places like Prayāga, Kāśī and Gayā
  • Description of the various worlds of goblins, gandharvas, heaven and so on
  • Varṇāśrama-dharmas
  • Vratas or religious vows
  • Śrāddhas of various types
  • Ritualistic worship of Viṣṇu and Śiva
  • Importance of Sahasranāmas like those of Viṣṇu and Rāma
  • Karma and its result

It is obvious that it contains compositions of various persons written during various periods of time.

Skandapurāṇa

Skandapurāṇa is the biggest of the extant purāṇas. It is found in two forms, one being divided into seven khaṇḍas and the other into six samhitās. The seven khaṇḍas are:

  1. Māheśvarakhanda
  2. Vaisnavakhanda
  3. Brāhmakhanda
  4. Kāśīkhanda
  5. Āvantyakhanda
  6. Nāgarakhanda
  7. Prabhāsakhanda

There are 81,000 ślokas or verses spread over 1671 chapters.

The six samhitās are:

  1. Sanatkumāra-samhitā
  2. Sutasamhitā
  3. Śañkarasamhitā
  4. Vaisnavasamhitā
  5. Brāhmasamhitā
  6. Saurasamhitā

The total number of verses in this series also comes to 81,000. Of these, only the first three samhitās are available now in print, whereas all the seven khaṇḍas of the former have been printed. This purāṇa is said to have been taught by Śiva to Pārvatī, Pārvatī to Skanda,[31] Skanda to Nandi, Nandi to Atri and Atri to Vyāsa. The number of subjects dealt with in this work is legion. It contains numerous upākhyānas or stories, detailed descriptions of several places of pilgrimage of which Kāśī, Purī and Ujjayinī get the pride of place, Advaita Vedānta, various aspects of Lord Śiva, his liṅgas and methods of meditation and also worship and varṇāśrama-dharmas. Another interesting feature is the geographical details it gives of ancient India. The Satyanārāyaṇa-vrata which is very common and popular now, gets a prominent place in the Revākhanda part of the Āvantyakhanda. This purāṇa has been the source of several minor works like:

  1. Sahyādrikhanda
  2. Kāśmirakhanda
  3. Ambikāmāhātmya
  4. Arundhatīvratakathā
  5. Others

Vāmanapurāṇa

Said to have been taught by the sage Pulastya to Nārada, this purāṇa is primarily a Vaiṣṇava work. Though the ten avatāras of Viṣṇu, especially the Vāmanāvatāra, get the pride of place, it has liberal views and deals with other deities also such as Śiva, Gaṇapati and Surya. It is stated to consist of two parts, the second part being sometimes called Bṛhad-vāmanapurāṇa. Now, only the first part is available in print.

Some of the topics dealt with in this are:

  • The birth and exploits of Gaṇeśa and Kārttikeya
  • Greatness of Śiva
  • Importance of the river Gaṅgā
  • Certain vratas or religious observances
  • Doctrine of karma
  • Legends of Brahmā, Prahlāda, Bali and Sukrācārya
  • Liberation of Gajendra[32]

Varāhapurāṇa

The printed text of the Varāhapurāṇa has only 10,000 verses against the 24,000 mentioned in other purāṇas like the Matsyapurāṇa. Perhaps this purāṇa was in two parts and only one of them has been recovered so far. Lord Viṣṇu in his incarnation as Varāha[33] is said to have given this teaching to Bhudevī[34] at her request. There are two recensions of this purāṇa:

  1. The Gaudīya
  2. The Dākṣiṇātya

They differ from each other in quite a few places. This purāṇa deals with most of the general topics of the dharmaśāstras such as:

Two episodes of this purāṇa are well-known. They are:

  1. The Madhurākhyāna
  2. The Nāciketopā-khyāna

The latter contains detailed descriptions of heaven and hell.

Vāyupurāṇa

Whether the Vāyupurāṇa has to be listed among the eighteen Mahāpurāṇas or the Śivapurāṇa, has been a moot point. If some scholars opine that the two purāṇas are one and the same called by different names, there are others who feel that the former is a part of the latter. However, all of them agree that the core content of this purāṇa is quite ancient. It has four sections, designated as ‘pādas’, as follows:

  1. Prakriyāpāda
  2. Anusañgapāda
  3. Upodghātapāda
  4. Upasamhārapāda

This purāṇa is clearly a śaiva-pāśupata work. Some of the topics dealt with in this are:

  • Detailed geographical descriptions of places
  • Manvantaras or the periods of Manu
  • Importance and the greatness of Gayā,[38]
  • Genealogies of some kings and sages
  • Several details of śrāddha ceremonies
  • Science of music

Viṣṇupurāṇa

It is one of the oldest purāṇas. The Viṣṇupurāṇa conforms fairly strictly to the characteristics generally ascribed to the purāṇas. Detailed treatment of the vratas or tīrthas, which find a prominent place in the other purāṇas, is conspicuous by its absence. Spread over six sections called as anśas and written in a mellifluous language, the work deals with the usual topics like creation of this world and of the deities and the manes, the stories of Dhruva, Prahlāda, Jaḍabharata, and Srī Rāma, the Vedas, the four varṇas and the four āśramas, the impact of Kali[39] and so on. The story of Śrī Kṛṣṇa, a precursor to the Bhāgavatis, given in detail.

Quite a few philosophical ideas of the Vedas are reflected in this purāṇa. The description of the Kaliyuga, the age in which we are living now, seems to be astonishingly accurate. Though Viṣṇu has been given prominence, he is not one of the Trinity, but the origin of all the three, Brahman Himself. Bhakti or devotion has been propagated as the main sādhana or means of attaining liberation. It is a highly readable purāṇa which has been quite popular and has attracted the attention of many scholars who have written commentaries on it.

Recurrent Topics of the Purānas

Though most of the purāṇas are encyclopedic in the character some subjects, like creation of this world, seem to recur frequently. These subjects may now be taken up for a brief exposition.

Creation

Creation of this world is a topic that often engages the attention of the purāṇas. The Vedāntic doctrine that Brahman, the One without a second, is the ultimate Truth is accepted by all the purāṇas though the sectarian deities like Śiva or Viṣṇu are sometimes identified with it. Evolution of the world takes place from Prakṛti or primeval matter[40] the order of evolution being the same as expounded by the Sāṅkhya and the Vedānta philosophies:

  1. Prakrti-mahat-ahañkāra - ego sense
  2. Manas - mind
  3. Jñānendriyas - organs of knowledge
  4. Karmendriyas - organs of action
  5. Pañcabhutas - the five primordial elements

These, the first evolutes are made up the Brahmāṇḍa or the Cosmic Egg, also called Hiraṇyagarbha. Brahman enters into it and causes further evolution to a blade of grass, the whole process being guided by the residual karma or deserts of the un-redeemed jīvas[41] carried over from the previous cycle of creation.

Different types and methods of creation are also given in some of the purāṇas. Creation is accepted to be cyclic,[42] having no specific beginning or end. Unlike the world that we see and know, this earth and the galaxies, the creation envisaged by the purāṇas has fourteen lokas or worlds, seven subterranean and seven above. Unlike the modern view, all the thirteen worlds different from ours are inhabited by conscious living beings, acclimatized to the particular vibrations of those regions and endowed with suitable sensory receivers.

The Earth

The paurāṇic geography and astronomy are quite enigmatic to the modern mind. An account of the earth, as detailed in some purāṇas like the Bhāgavata, depicts it as a circular body, with seven concentric circles or belts called dvīpas[43] arranged one within the other, with oceans of different liquids surrounding each belt like moats. Each continent is described as having its own mountain and river-system. In the central continent called Jambudvīpa stands Mahāmeru, the axis of the whole world systems, along the fringe of the outermost continent runs the Lokāloka mountain. The single-wheeled chariot of Surya[44] circles along this mountain, creating day and night. The whole description is evidently a schematic and symbolic representation for meditative purposes, to draw our attention from the gross to the subtle spirit pervading nature.

Time

Another concept of the purāṇas that boggles our mind is that of time as connected with creation. Mahāviṣṇu, the Supreme Being, conducts the work of creation through Brahmā the intermediary instrument. A cycle of creation is a day-time of Brahmā and the dissolution is his night. This dissolution is ‘naimittika-pralaya,’ quasi-dissolution only, of the worlds up to Satyaloka. They manifest again during the day-time of Brahmā. One year of Brahmā consists of 360 such days and his life-span is 100 such years. The immensity of this is realized only if it is converted in terms of human years. One year of human beings is one day of the celestials. Twelve-thousand such celestial years form one caturyuga.[45] Two thousand such caturyugas constitute one day including the night-time of Brahmā. The total duration of Brahmā’s lifetime in terms of human years, comes to a little more than three lakh billion years.

Each day-time of Brahmā of one thousand caturyugas is divided into fourteen Manvantaras or Epochs of Manus or Patriarchs. These Manus like Svāyambhuva, Svārociṣa, Auttami and others maintain the world-order and progress, under the directions of divine incarnations. Every Manvantara consists of about seventy-six caturyugas, each of which is marked by retrogression from the perfection of the Kṛta to the degradation of the Kali. The Lord will restore the balance at the end of the Caturyuga.

Genealogies

The purāṇas abound in long lists of genealogies of kings and sages. Since some names and their chronological order seem to be common, it may safely be assumed that these ancient personalities did exist. However, the details being scant, they do not enlighten us in any way to know our ancient history. One of the traits found in these lists is the tendency to trace the different dynasties to a common ancestor, Vaivasvata Manu, son of Surya.[46] Four of his nine sons named Ikṣvāku, Nābhānediṣṭha, Śaryāti and Nābhāga were responsible for establishing four well-known dynasties:

  1. Aikṣvāku
  2. Vaiśāla
  3. Sāryāta
  4. Rāthitara

They were all a part of the Suryavanśa or the Solar dynasty. The Candravanśa or the lunar dynasty was founded by Pururavas Aila. Then, there are the genealogies of the sages, the Saptarṣis[47] and others like Gautama, Bharadvāja, Atri, Kaśyapa and so on. These lists are also quite long. As regards these genealogical lists, this much can be said that they point to the great antiquity of our civilization.

Purānas as Ancient Historical Tradition

It is to be kept in mind that the paurāṇic concept of time is cyclic, based on the theory that creation, sustenance and destruction[48] takes place in a cyclic order, having no specific beginning or end. Since modern history is based on the linear concept of time, the historical traditions of the purāṇas may appear to be enigmatic.

Events themselves pass away with their occurrence. However, they survive as memories registered in the psyche of the human beings and can stimulate them for creative activities. A chain of such powerful stimulation gets established as a tradition. The purāṇas are repositories of such traditions from the most ancient times. Their utility lies in contributing to the continuity and betterment of the civilization and culture of a people. Hence, though they may not fit into the framework of ‘history’ as defined by the modern man, they cannot be dismissed as fiction either! They were originally based on facts and hence can help us in reconstructing our history. For instance, the lists of the dynasties of kings, though they mention the originators of the dynasties like Ikṣvāku, also include the dynasties known to the historical period such as:

Ethics of the Purānas

Classification of Dharma as per Purānas

Dharma or duty constitutes the foundation of purāṇic ethics. It embraces all the factors which contribute to the progress and well-being of the individual, the society and the world at large. These factors include the possession of guṇas or virtues and karma or proper discharge of one’s duties. The purāṇas recognize two types of dharmas:

  1. Sādhāraṇa or sāmānya dharma which is accounted to be generic
  2. Viśeṣa dharma or svadharma which is considered to be specific

The individual, being an integral part of the society owes a duty to himself and to the society. Since his rise and fall affect the society, he must endeavor to raise himself to the fullest stature. Hence there is no conflict between the individual and the social duties. Dharma contributes to the welfare and progress of the human society of the whole world. In the puruṣārtha scheme of life, dharma occupies the first place. It is the best kith and kin of the embodied soul not only in life, but also after death. It wanes from its full strength in the Kṛtayuga to only a quarter in the Kaliyuga. The purāṇas have successfully reconciled the sādhāraṇa-dharmas with svadharma.

Whereas the former comprise virtues that impart refinement and culture to an individual, the latter is a practical application of the former within a particular sphere by an individual belonging to a class characterized by certain prominent qualities or guṇas. The scheme of varṇa and āśrama dharmas which the purāṇas unanimously advocate, is based upon the duties of the individuals of a class. It aims at material and spiritual perfection of the society as a whole.

Sādhāraṇa-dharmas

The sādhāraṇa-dharmas are universal in scope and eternal in nature. Though the purāṇas enumerate them generally as ten, a few more virtues are sometimes added, making the list longer. They are:

  1. Ahinsā - non-injury
  2. Satya - truthfulness
  3. Kṣamā or kṣānti - forbearance
  4. Dama or indriyanigraha - self control
  5. Śama - inner peace
  6. Dayā - compassion
  7. Dāna - charity
  8. Śauca - purity
  9. Tapas - austerity
  10. Jñāna - wisdom

Of all the above qualities, satya and ahiṅsā are extolled highly. Sauca,[49] both internal and external, is stressed as an indispensable socio-ethical virtue. Tapas which includes disinterested action is must for achieving anything great in life. Dāna is also eulogized much as a social duty. The purāṇas deal extensively in the topic viśesa-dharmas[50] or varṇāśrama-dharmas.

Varṇāśrama-Dharmas

The varṇa system represents a natural division of the society based on guṇa[51] and karma.[52] The āśrama scheme of life helps an individual to evolve himself from the stage of a novice in pursuit of learning to the stage of a person ever living in God. Both these systems enjoin upon their individual members certain duties.

If a brāhmaṇa is advised to lead an austere life in pursuit of knowledge and spiritual excellence and give that knowledge to others, a kṣattriya is exhorted to protect the society from external aggression and help maintain internal law and order. A vaiśya is to engage himself in the production and distribution of wealth and goods through agriculture, dairy farming and trade. Those incapable of pursuing these three modes of life lived by serving the others and became the śudras. Their duties can be explained in details as follows:

  • Brahmacarya or student-hood comes first. It is the period of study and discipline spent in the house of the guru. Service to the guru is an essential aspect of this life.
  • Gārhasthya or householdership is the next stage of life. Since it offers the largest scope for service and sacrifice, it is considered as the most vital stage. The householder is the refuge and main stay for those in the other three stages of life. Earning his livelihood by right means and performing the pañcayajñas[53] form an integral part of his life.
  • The vānaprastha[54] is the third stage and is only a preparation for the final stage of renunciation. Simple life and contemplation on God are its essential features.
  • Sanyāsa[55] is the last stage where the sanyāsin[56] has to live a life of total detachment from the world, depending solely on God and ever meditating on him. Other ideas that find a place in the purāṇas are the theory of karma and punarjanma,[57] prāyaścittas,[58] vratas[59] and tirthayātrā.[60]

Theory of Karma

‘As you sow, so you reap’ is the principle of the theory of karma. Since actions always produce their corresponding results, human beings are advised to eschew evil and always do good. Effect of sins committed, knowingly or unknowingly, can be got rid of or at least minimized by performing proper expiations prescribed for them. Vratas or religious observances with their stress on fasting and self-control help in self-purification. Even the tirthayātrā or visiting places of pilgrimage, associated with gods or saints is prescribed.

Popular Religion in the Purāṇas

The labyrinth of Vedic sacrifices on one side and the uncompromising way of renunciation as taught by the Upaniṣadic sages on the other, both were beyond the reach of the common masses. It drove the ordinary people, whose hunger for religion was sincere into the arms of Buddhism and Jainism. At this juncture, the purāṇas as we know them today, started evolving. The paths of karma and bhakti, with their various ramifications were gradually introduced into them. Over the centuries they have grown both in quantity and in quality so much that they are now the bed-rock of modern religion.

Temples and temple rituals, domestic worship along with the associated religious rites, vratas[61] and tirthayātrā[62] invariably find a prominent place in the purāṇas. Sometimes, details of construction of the temples and their consecration are also given. Instructions regarding ritualistic worship, both independently and as a part of the vratas, also find a place. They include aspects of austerity associated with them such as fasting and keeping vigil. Of the sixteen sanskāras or sacraments, only śrāddha[63] has been given a pre-eminent place though the others also are dealt with.

Bhakti or devotion to God, especially towards the well-known deities of the pantheon, including the avatāras or incarnations, is another subject dealt with in great detail in the purāṇas. They extol the extraordinary powers of the mantras[64] and have also given substantial information about the science of the mantras.[65] However, the general trend is always towards stressing the unity of the Godhead and emphasizing that the various deities are only its aspects. Vilification of some deities and their followers is an exception and may safely be brushed aside as an aberration or as interpolations by fanatics.

Upapurāṇas

Though tradition fixed the number of the Mahāpurāṇas as eighteen, the growth of purāṇa literature went on unabated. Hence those of the purāṇas which did not or could not find a place in that list were accommodated under the title ‘Upapurāṇas’. In course of time, the number of these Upapurāṇas also got fixed at eighteen. They were considered as appendices to the Mahāpurāṇas and hence of lesser importance. However, quite a few of them are large enough in size and important enough in content, that they compel us to treat them with respect. The number also has exceeded eighteen. The lists of these Upapurāṇas, as given in the various Mahāpurāṇas do not tally. Some of the purāṇas listed under the Mahāpurāṇas, for instance, Brahmānḍa or Vāmana, find a place in the lists of Upapurāṇas also. Some of these Upapurāṇas are:

  1. Ādi
  2. Nārasimha
  3. Kāpila
  4. Kālikā
  5. Vāruna
  6. Brhannandi
  7. Ekāmra
  8. Viṣṇudharmottara
  9. Devī-bhāgavata

According to some writers, the Devībhāgavata is the real Bhāgavata and not the Śrimad Bhāgavata or Viṣṇu-bhāgavata which is only an Upapurāṇa. The general content of these Upapurāṇas is identical with those of the Mahāpurāṇas. However, they are more sectarian in character interested in propagating their own sects.

Conclusion

From this brief survey of the purāṇas it can be conceded that they have admirably succeeded in preserving and propagating religion and culture, especially through the critical periods of our history. They have contributed immensely to the growth and the sustenance of the ethos by the following:

  • Their simple exposition of the Vedāntic principles of philosophy
  • Explanation of the various aspects of dharma[66]
  • Inducing people to follow dharma in their life
  • Stress on the performance of svadharma
  • Exhortations of dāna and sevā[67] to mankind to maintain social balance
  • Advice to keep up religious harmony
  • Providing simple and popular modes of worship especially to women and the backward classes

A lot of historical facts, though mixed up with the myths, contained in them can help us to reconstruct the history, freeing it from the distortions and prejudices of the European writers which deserve a far more careful study than has hitherto been devoted to them.

References

  1. Itihāsa means the epic.
  2. Mahābhuta means ‘the Great Being’ or God.
  3. He is the Creator.
  4. It means obsequial rites.
  5. Dānas means gifts.
  6. Tīrthas means the places of pilgrimage.
  7. Ayurveda means the science of health.
  8. Mahāpurāṇas are the main purāṇas.
  9. Upapurāṇas means the subsidiary purāṇas.
  10. It is also the ‘purāṇas,’ in plural number.
  11. He lived in 450-350 B.C.
  12. He was the son of Vyāsa.
  13. It is situated in Puri in Orissa.
  14. It is in Konārak.
  15. It is in Bhubaneswar.
  16. Śrāddha means after-death rites.
  17. Ayurveda means the science of health and longevity.
  18. Kalpa-pralaya means the final dissolution at the end of a cycle.
  19. Paramātman means God.
  20. Kaliyuga means Iron Age.
  21. It's other name is holy basil.
  22. Yama means the god of death and hell.
  23. Prakṛti means primeval nature.
  24. Yaduvanśa means the lineage of the king Yadu.
  25. It is called aṣṭa-murtis.
  26. Devimāhātmya is also called Candi and Durgāsaptaśatī.
  27. Matsyapurāṇa chapter 290
  28. Vyākaraṇa means grammar.
  29. Chandas means prosody.
  30. Jyotiṣa means astronomy.
  31. His other names are Saṇmukha or Kārttikeya or Subrahmaṇya.
  32. Gajendra means the elephant king.
  33. Varāha means the Boar.
  34. Bhudevī means the Earth.
  35. Dāna means gifts.
  36. Aśauca means ceremonial impurity.
  37. Śrāddha is the after-death ceremonies.
  38. Gayā is the famous place of pilgrimage.
  39. Kali is the personification of the Iron Age and of non religious.
  40. It is an aspect of Brahman.
  41. It means an individual souls.
  42. Cyclic means creation-sustenance-destruction-recreation and so on.
  43. Dvīpas means continents.
  44. Surya means the sun.
  45. Caturyuga means the period of four yugas of Kṛta or Satya, Tretā, Dvāpara and Kali.
  46. Sun means Surya.
  47. Saptarṣis means Seven Sages.
  48. Destruction is the sṛṣṭi, sthiti and pralaya.
  49. Sauca means purity.
  50. Viśesa dharmas means svadharma.
  51. Guṇa means nature.
  52. Karma means vocation.
  53. Pañcayajñas means five daily sacrifices like worship of the gods, study of the Vedas and feeding living beings.
  54. Vānaprastha means life of a forest-recluse.
  55. Sanyāsa means the life of a monk.
  56. Sanyāsin means monk.
  57. Punarjanma means transmigration.
  58. Prāyaścittas means expiations for sins.
  59. Vratas means religious observances.
  60. Tirthayātrā means pilgrimage.
  61. Vratas means religious vows and festivals.
  62. Tirthayātrā means pilgrimage.
  63. It means obsequal rites.
  64. Mantras means the divine names.
  65. It is called mantraśāstra.
  66. Dharma means conduct and duties.
  67. Sevā means service.
  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore