Popular Hinduism is firmly based on the purāṇas. They have played an un-enviable part in preserving Hindu religion and culture, especially among the masses. The original stuff of the purāṇas is as old as the Vedas though the extant purāṇas are later productions showing unmistakable signs of compilation, evolution or even manipulation. Some scholars feel that the purāṇas contain much historical material also.
Purāṇas are narratives of ancient events, ‘purā bhavaṁ purāṇam’. Though a purāṇa is said to have pañcalakṣaṇas (five characteristics) like the accounts of creation, dissolution, and geneology of kings, rarely do the purāṇas conform to this pattern. They are practically encyclopaedic in character dealing with every topic under the sun.
Tradition ascribes the authorship of all the purāṇas to Vedavyāsa and divides them into two groups of Mahāpurāṇas (the great or the major ones) and the Upapurāṇas, (the small or the minor ones) each containing 18 works. Agnipurāṇa is usually classed as the eighth among the Mahāpurāṇas.
Whether the extant Agnipurāṇa, now available in print, is the original or a purāṇa by name Vahnipurāṇa (vahni agni) whose manuscript has been discovered, is the original, has been a subject of scholarly disputation. Though scholars like Prof. R. C. Hazra are inclined to accord the latter, the status of the genuine or original purāṇa, it has gone into oblivion for the obvious reason that the former has met the needs of the people to a much greater extent.
This Agnipurāṇa might have taken the present shape during the period A. D. 700-1100. It contains nearly 12,000 verses spread over 383 chapters. It is obviously a Vaiṣṇava work of an all comprehensive character containing almost everything of general interest.
The following are some of the topics dealt with in this work: incarnations of God, creation, worship of Lord Viṣṇu and Agni, initiation, methods of building a temple, characteristics of śālagrāma stones and their worship, consecration of the deity in a newly built temple, greatness of places of pilgrimage and holy rivers like Gaṅgā, descriptions of the various worlds, amulets, mystic formulae, medicines, duties of men of the various āśramas (stages of life), expiations for sins, descriptions of hells, sandhyā ritual and Gāyatrī, consecration of a king and his duties, characteristics of precious stones, the science of archery, prosody, literature and greatness of this purāṇa.
See also PURĀṆAS.