The Vedas are the basic scriptures of Hinduism. However, modern Hindu religious practices, as they obtain today, 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, everyone of the religious practices of Hinduism finds an honourable place in the purāṇas. This is because they have recognized the need for a variety of approaches to God, to suit the bewildering divergence of human temperaments. If the Hindu society has not been swept off its feet by the incessant invasions of barbarians or the powerful impacts of semitic religions or even the periodic internal upheavals by heretics, it is not a little due to the purāṇas. 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 done, not by adopting a tough and dogmatic approach, but by making various internal adjustments, keeping however, the core of the religion intact.
There is an additional reason as to why the purāṇas have become the saviours of Hinduism. It is because they have encompassed all aspects of human life, whether sacred or secular. This has naturally made them grow to encyclopaedic proportions. At a time when the only access to knowledge for the common masses was by listening to the purāṇas, they have discharged their duties to the society admirably well.
The word ‘purāṇa’ is generally derived in two ways: purā bhavaṁ (‘ancient narratives’) and 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 ages, and so, ‘ever new and fresh’. Actually, the purāṇas are of great antiquity. The word ‘purāṇa’—sometimes in association with the word ‘itihāsa’ (epic)—occurs in other ancient works like the Atharvaveda and the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa as also in some older Upaniṣads like the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and the Chāndogya. Attributing the origin of the purāṇas to Mahābhūta (‘the Great Being’ or God) or to Brahmā (the Creator), 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, older still. 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. Of course, by the word ‘purāṇa,’ the extant class of literature known to us as the purāṇas, is not meant, but only ancient stories and legends. They are often indicated by the words ‘purāṇa’ or ‘purāṇasaṁhitā’.
A purāṇa is defined as a work having five characteristics describing: sarga (creation), pratisarga (intermediate creation), vaṁśa (dynasties of gods and of the patriarchs), manvantara (the fourteen Manus and their periods) and vaṁśānucarita (genealogy of the kings of the solar and the lunar race). Sometimes a few more are added such as rakṣā (protection of the world by the avatāras or incarnations), saṁsthā (pralaya or dissolution of the world), hetu (the cause of creation viz., the jīva and its karma), vṛtti (modes of subsistence) and apāśraya (the refuge or Brahman).
Except the Viṣṇupurāṇa, none of the others exhibits all the five characteristics. On the other hand, many other subjects like śrāddha (obsequial rites), duties of the varṇas and the āśramas, dānas (gifts), tīrthas (places of pilgrimage), and images and their worship find a prominent place in the purāṇas. Quite a few purāṇas contain a lot of material aimed at the propagation of a particular cult (e.g., Śaivism or Vaiṣṇavism). A lot of information regarding other areas—mostly secular—of knowledge like Āyurveda (the science of health), architecture and town-planning, prognostication through omens and astro-logy is also found in the purāṇas since they were the sole means of educating the masses during those days.
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 Hindu tradition attributes the authorship of these purāṇas—the eighteen Mahāpurāṇas (the main purāṇas) and the eighteen Upapurāṇas (the subsidiary purāṇas)—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 ākhyānas (tales), upākhyānas (anecdotes), gāthās (metrical songs or proverbial sayings current in the ancient society) and Kalpakoṭis (sayings that had come down through the ages). The sage Vedavyāsa might have compiled these into one Purāṇasaṁhitā. 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 Brahmāṇḍapurāṇa and the Viṣṇupurāṇa. According to them, after compiling the original Purāṇasaṁhitā, Vyāsa imparted it to his disciple Sūta Romaharṣaṇa (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 Śāṁsapāyana made three separate saṁhitās which were named after them. These three, along with that of Romaharṣaṇa, are known as ‘mūlasaṁhitās’. The later purāṇas were evolved out of these.
When exactly the original purānic material began to give rise to different purāṇasaṁhitās, it is difficult to say. Since the Taittirīya Āraṇyaka as also the law-books of Manu and Yājñavalkya have used the word ‘purāṇāni’ (the ‘purāṇas,’ in plural number) 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 Āpastamba (450-350 B. C.) 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 Kūrma purāṇas as also some other Sanskrit works, we can safely assume that by A. D. 700, the evolution into eighteen Mahā-purāṇas 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:
|Srl. No.||Name of the Purāṇa||Number of Ślokas||Period of Composition|
The number of ślokas mentioned here is based on the Vāyu and the Matsya purāṇas, generally considered as the oldest. The period of compilation is very approximate.
A brief survey of the contents of these eighteen purāṇas, traditionally called the Mahāpurāṇas, may now be taken up here.
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 cult of Viṣṇu also, especially to the description of his incarnations as Rāma and Kṛṣṇa.
The contents of this purāṇa are of an encyclopaedic 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, the science of medicine, toxicology, principles of dramaturgy, human physiology, figures of speech and so on.
By far, the most well-known of all the purāṇas, the Bhāgavata, also called Srīmad 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 Śuka (son of Vyāsa) 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 age in which we are now living.
The Bhāgavata has many Sanskrit commentaries which are very useful in understanding it.
The printed texts of this purāṇa comprise two parts: Pūrvārdha and Utta-rārdha. However, many scholars consider the latter half as an independent treatise and call it as Bhaviṣyottarapurāṇa.
The Bhaviṣyapurāṇa is a veritable storehouse of several topics normally dealt with in the dharmaśāstras. The following is the list of some selected topics: the sixteen saṁskāras or sacraments like nāmakaraṇa and upanayana; 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 Sūrya, 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 Śākadvīpa 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 Hindu society. Sun-worship in India got a boost because of them.
This purāṇa has been called Bhaviṣyapurāṇa, purāṇa predicting future events, probably because it gives the genealogy of the kings who will come in future and the way they rule the country.
The Brahmapurāṇa that is now available in print, seems to be more a compilation of chapters taken from some other works like the Mahābhārata, Viṣṇupurāṇa, Mārkaṇḍeyapurāṇa and Vāyupurāṇa, though it does contain original material also, dealing chiefly with the praise of the shrines and holy places in the Puruṣottama-kṣetra (Puri in Orissa), Koṇarka (Konārak), Ekāmra-kṣetra (Bhubaneswar) and others.
Its contents may be summarised 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-kṣetra, including the temple of Jagannātha and its images; descent of the river Gaṅgā; descriptions of several other holy places; story of Śrīkṛṣṇa in detail; descriptions of some avatāras of Viṣṇu like Varāha and Narasiṁha; the paths of Sāṅkhya and Yoga.
The Brahmāṇḍapurāṇa is divided into four pādas or parts: Prakriyāpāda, Anuṣaṅgapāda, Upodghātapāda and Upasaṁhārapāda. 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 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 aspects of śrāddha (after-death rites), of Paraśurāma’s exploits, descent of Gaṅgā by the efforts of Bhagīratha, the story of Dhanvantari receiving the Āyurveda (the science of health and longevity) and so on.
The fourth section deals with the future Manus, the Kalpa-pralaya (final dissolution at the end of a cycle), a description of the fourteen worlds as also the various types of hells. There is also a beautiful philosophical disquisition of Brahman or Paramātman (God) who is beyond all logic and reasoning.
Lalitopākhyāna contains the famous Lalitāsahasranāma, a hymn endowed with mystical powers.
Sometimes, the well-known Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa is stated to be a part of this Brahmāṇḍapurāṇa.
Hundreds of verses of this purāṇa are found in the Vāyupurāṇa also. Hence scholars sometimes surmise that the two purāṇas were originally one—called Vāyavīya-brahmāṇḍa-purāṇa—and might have got separated around A. D. 400.
A Balineese translation of this purāṇa has been found in the Bali island of Indonesia.
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 Brahmakhaṇḍa, the first section, traces the evolution of the universe from the four-faced Brahmā who is also Śrīkṛṣṇa himself. The Prakṛtikhaṇḍa, the second, describes the emanations of Durgā, Lakṣmī, Sarasvatī, Sāvitrī and Rādhā from the Mūlaprakṛti, as per the command of Śrīkṛṣṇa. The Gaṇeśakhaṇḍa describes in detail, the birth and exploits of Gaṇeśa and Ṣaṇmukha, the two sons of Śiva and Pārvatī. The last section, the Śrīkṛṣṇa-janmakhaṇḍa 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. To mention only a few: Āyurveda or the science of health and longevity; the sandhyā ritual; importance of śālagrāma and its worship; description of the Kaliyuga (Iron Age); the merits of taking bath in the Gaṅgā river on auspicious days; greatness of the tulasī leaves (holy basil); story of Sāvitrī and Satyavān; story of Manasādevī, the goddess of snakes; Durgāpūjā; prognostication through dreams; code of conduct for married women and widows; greatness of Bhāratadeśa or India; some instructions regarding building construction.
Though some scholars feel that this is a spurious Vaiṣṇava work, probably composed in the tenth century, it is held in high esteem even now. Its recitation, especially during the performance of the death and after-death ceremonies is consi-dered 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 Garuḍapurāṇa 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 encyclopaedic 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 (the god of death and hell) and liberation through devotion to Lord Viṣṇu.
The present Kūrmapurāṇa comprising two parts claims to be the first section—called Brāhmīsaṁhitā—of a much bigger work consisting of four saṁhitās or sections viz., Brāhmī, Bhāgavatī, Saurī and Vaiṣṇavī. However the last three seem to have been lost.
This purāṇa was, perhaps, a pāñca-rātra work which was later recast by the pāśupatas during the eighth century A. D.
Lord Viṣṇu taught this purāṇa in his incarnation as Kūrma or tortoise, to the sages like Nārada. Hence the name Kūrmapurāṇa.
A brief synopsis of the contents may now be presented here: the duties of the four varṇas and the four āśramas; evolution of the prakṛti (primeval nature) into the world; story of Svāyambhuva Manu and his wife Śatarūpā; story of Dakṣa; story of Vāmana and Bali; genealogies of some ṛṣis and kings; description of the yaduvaṁśa (the lineage of the king Yadu); greatness of Kāśī and Prayāga, the two well-known pilgrim centres; description of the physical features of the world and of Jambūdvīpa which contains Bhāratavarṣa; division of the Vedas; the famous Īśvaragītā; on śrāddhas or after-death rites; on prāyaścittas or expiations for sins; pralaya or destruction of the created world.
This purāṇa mainly aims at the propagation of the cult of Śiva and his worship through the liṅga, the rounded surface emblem commonly worshipped even now.
It deals with a number of subjects, the more important ones being: the manifestation of the five aspects of Śiva viz., Sadyojāta, Vāmadeva, Tatpuruṣa, Aghora and Īśāna; Śiva appearing as a huge pillar of fire to Brahmā and Viṣṇu; Vyāsa and his disciples; stories of the sages Dadhīci and Śilāda; about the four yugas or epochs; Nandi and his worship; descriptions of the well-known Sūryavaṁśa and Candra-vaṁśa, 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 (aṣṭa-mūrtis); various dānas or gifts and their fruits; how to establish the Śivaliṅgas; the mṛtyuñjaya-mantra and its usage.
Several subsidiary religious works like Pañcākṣara-māhātmya, Rāmasahasra-nāma and Rudrākṣa-māhātmya have originated from this purāṇa.
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 Krauṣṭuki. The well-known and extremely popular work, the Devīmāhātmya (also called Caṇḍī and Durgāsaptaśatī), forms an integral part of this purāṇa.
The Mārkaṇḍeyapurāṇa is remarkably non-sectarian in character. The Vedic deities, Indra, Brahmā, Agni and Sūrya, as also the sun-myths, get greater coverage than Viṣṇu or Śiva. There is a clear trend towards popularising 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: legends of Hariścandra, Kārtavīrya and also of the queen Madālasā; descriptions of hell, karma and its fructification; some aspects of yoga; geographical description of Bhārata and śrāddhas.
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 conglome-ration 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 worshippers 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 and so on.
A remarkable feature of this purāṇa is that the last chapter (ch. 290) beautifully summarises all the subjects dealt within it, without omitting any.
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. The first part incorporates the entire work, known as Bṛhan-nāradīya-purāṇa. 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 (grammar), chandas (prosody) and jyotiṣa (astronomy); greatness of Prayāga, the famous place of pilgrimage; ritualistic worship; greatness and importance of fasting on ekādaśī days and so on.
Another remarkable feature of this purāṇa is that it deals with a number of mantras and the methods of repeating them, which is a speciality 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 Brahmāṇḍapurāṇa.
This is a voluminous work in five parts: Sṛṣṭikhaṇḍa, Bhūmikhaṇḍa, Svargakhaṇḍa, Pātālakhaṇḍa and Uttara-khaṇḍa.
Primarily a scripture of the Vaiṣṇa-vas, it 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, only a few of which may be mentioned here: stories of Brahmā’s sacrifice; legends connected with the sage Dadhīci, Vṛtra, Nahuṣa, Yayāti, Śakuntalā 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 as 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.
Biggest of the extant purāṇas, the Skandapurāṇa is found in two forms, one being divided into seven khaṇḍas and the other into six saṁhitās.
The seven khaṇḍas are: Māheśvara-khaṇḍa, Vaiṣṇavakhaṇḍa, Brāhma-khaṇḍa, Kāśīkhaṇḍa, Āvantyakhaṇḍa, Nāgarakhaṇḍa and Prabhāsakhaṇḍa. There are 81,000 ślokas or verses spread over 1671 chapters.
The six saṁhitās are: Sanatkumāra-saṁhitā, Sūtasaṁhitā, Śaṅkarasaṁhitā, Vaiṣṇavasaṁhitā, Brāhmasaṁhitā and Saurasaṁhitā. The total number of verses in this series also comes to 81,000.
Of these, only the first three saṁhitās 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 (Ṣaṇmukha or Kārttikeya or Subrahmaṇya), 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 as 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 Revākhaṇḍa part of the Āvantyakhaṇḍa.
This purāṇa has been the source of several minor works like Sahyādrikhaṇḍa, Kāśmīrakhaṇḍa, Ambikāmāhātmya, Arundhatīvratakathā and so on.
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 Vāma-nāvatāra, get the pride of place, it has liberal views and deals with other deities also such as Śiva, Gaṇapati and Sūrya.
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.
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 Śukrācārya, liberation of Gajendra (the elephant king)—these are some of the topics dealt with in this work.
The printed text of the Varāhapurāṇa has only 10,000 verses as 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 (the Boar) is said to have given this teaching to Bhūdevī (the Earth) at her request.
There are two recensions of this purāṇa: the Gauḍīya and 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 vratas, places of pilgrimage, dāna (gifts), images of deities and their worship, aśauca (ceremonial impurity), śrāddha (after-death ceremonies), theory of karma, hells, cosmology, sins and their expiation and so on.
Two episodes of this purāṇa—the Madhurākhyāna and the Nāciketopā-khyāna—are well-known. The latter contains detailed descriptions of heaven and hell.
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: Prakriyāpāda, Anuṣaṅgapāda, Upodghātapāda and Upasaṁhārapāda.
This purāṇa is clearly a śaiva-pāśupata work. Detailed geographical descriptions of places, of manvantaras (or the periods of Manu), the importance and the greatness of Gayā (the famous place of pilgrimage), genealogies of some kings and sages, several details of śrāddha ceremonies and the science of music—are some of the topics dealt with in this purāṇa.
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 aṁśas—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 Śrī Rāma, the Vedas, the four varṇas and the four āśramas, the impact of Kali (personification of the Iron Age, and of irreligiosity) and so on. The story of Śrī Kṛṣṇa—a precursor to the Bhāgavata—is 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. On the whole, 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.
Though most of the purāṇas are encyclopaedic in character, some subjects, like creation of this world, seem to recur frequently. These subjects may now be taken up for a brief exposition.
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 (an aspect of Brahman), the order of evolution being the same as expounded by the Sāṅkhya and the Vedānta philosophies: prakṛti-mahat-ahaṅkāra (ego sense), manas (mind), jñānendriyas (organs of knowledge) and karmendriyas (organs of action) as also the pañcabhūtas (the five primordial elements). These, the first evolutes, make up the Brahmāṇḍa or the Cosmic Egg, also called Hiraṇyagarbha. Brahman enters into it and causes further evolution right up to a blade of grass, the whole process being guided by the residual karma (or deserts) of the unredeemed jīvas (individual souls) 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 (crea-tion-sustenance-destruction-recreation and so on), 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 in the modern view, again, all the thirteen worlds different from ours, are inhabited by conscious living beings, acclimatised to the particular vibrations of those regions and endowed with suitable sensory receivers.
The paurāṇic geography and astro-nomy are, to say the least, quite enigmatic to the modern mind. An account of this earth, as detailed in some purāṇas like the Bhāgavata, depicts it as a circular body, with seven concentric circles or belts called dvīpas (continents) 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 Jambūdvīpa, 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 Sūrya (the sun) 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.
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 of dissolution, 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 realised 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 catur-yuga (the period of four yugas of Kṛta or Satya, Tretā, Dvāpara and Kali). 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 Svāyam-bhuva, 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.
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 Sūrya (sun). Four of his nine sons—Ikṣvāku, Nābhānediṣṭha, Śaryāti and Nābhāga—were responsible for establishing four well-known dynasties: Aikṣvāku, Vaiśāla, Śāryāta and Rāthītara. They were all a part of the Sūryavaṁśa or the Solar dynasty. The Candravaṁśa or the lunar dynasty was founded by Purūravas Aila.
Then, there are the genealogies of the sages, the Saptarṣis (Seven Sages) 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.
It is to be kept in mind that the paurāṇic concept of time is cyclic, based on the theory that creation, sustenance and destruction (sṛṣṭi, sthiti and pralaya) take 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 stimulations 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 civilisation and culture of a people. Hence, though they may not fit into the frame-work 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 Śiśunāgas, Nandas, Mauryas, Guptas, and even the Ābhīras, Yavanas and Hūṇas.
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: sādhāraṇa or sāmānya dharma (generic) and viśeṣa dharma or svadharma (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 endeavour 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, nay, 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 characterised 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.
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: ahiṁsā (non-injury), satya (truthfulness), kṣamā or kṣānti (forbearance), dama or indriyanigraha (self control), śama (inner peace), dayā (compassion), dāna (charity), śauca (purity), tapas (austerity) and jñāna (wisdom).
Of these, satya and ahiṁsā are extolled highly. Śauca (purity), both internal and external, is stressed as an indispensable socio-ethical virtue. Tapas which includes disinterested action is a must for achieving anything great in life. Dāna is also eulogised much as a social duty.
Coming to the viśeṣa-dharmas (svadharma) or varṇāśrama-dharmas, the purāṇas deal with them extensively. The varṇa system represents a natural division of the society based on guṇa (nature) and karma (vocation). 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 know-ledge 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 śūdras.
Coming to the āśramas or the four stages of life, brahmacarya or studenthood 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 (five daily sacrifices like worship of the gods, study of the Vedas and feeding living beings) form an integral part of his life.
The vānaprastha (life of a forest-recluse) 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.
Saṁnyāsa (life of a monk) is the last stage where the saṁnyāsin (monk) 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 (transmigration), prāyaścittas (expiations for sins), vratas (religious observances) and tīrthayātrā (pilgrimage).
‘As you sow, so you reap’ is the principle behind 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 minimised, by performing proper expiations prescribed for them.
Vratas or religious observances with their stress on fasting and self-control help in self-purification. So also tīrthayātrā or visiting places of pilgrimage, associated with gods or saints.
The labyrinth of Vedic sacrifices on one side and the uncompromising way of renunciation as taught by the Upaniṣadic sages on the other, both of which were beyond the reach of the common masses, drove the ordinary people, whose hunger for religion was no less sincere, into the arms of Buddhism and Jainism. It was at this juncture that 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 so, that they are now the bed-rock of modern Hinduism.
Temples and temple rituals, domestic worship along with the associated religious rites, vratas (religious vows and festivals) and tīrthayātrā (pilgrimage) invariably find a prominent place in the purāṇas. Sometimes, details of construction of 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 saṁskāras or sacraments, only śrāddha (obsequial rites) 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 Hindu 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 (divine names) and have also given substantial information about the science of the mantras (mantraśāstra). However, the general trend is always towards stressing the unity of the Godhead and emphasising 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.
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, as for instance, Brahmāṇda or Vāmana, find a place in the lists of Upapurāṇas also. Some of these Upapurāṇas are: Ādi, Nārasiṁha, Kāpila, Kālikā, Vāruṇa, Bṛhannandi, Ekāmra, Viṣṇudharmottara and Devī-bhāgavata.
According to some writers, the Devībhāgavata is the real Bhāgavata and not the Śrīmad 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 cults.
From this brief survey of the purāṇas it can safely be conceded that they have admirably succeeded in preserving and propagating Hindu religion and culture, especially through the critical periods of our history. Their simple exposition of the Vedāntic principles of philosophy, explanation of the various aspects of dharma (conduct and duties) and inducing people to follow dharma in their life, stress on the performance of svadharma, exhortations as to dāna (gifts) and sevā (service) to mankind to maintain social balance, advice to keep up religious harmony, their providing simple and popular modes of worship, especially to women and the backward classes, have contributed immensely to the growth and the sustenance of the Hindu ethos. A lot of historical facts, though mixed up with myths, contained in them can help us to reconstruct Indian history, freeing it from the distortions and prejudices of the European writers and Anglicised Indians.
They therefore deserve a far more careful study than has hitherto been devoted to them.