Hinduism/The Puranas

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The Goddess Ambika or Durga Leading the Eight Matrikas in Battle Against the Demon Raktabija, Folio from Devi Mahatmya, Markandeya Purana.

The Puranas (Sanskrit: पुराण purāṇa, "of ancient times") are Hindu religious texts. They contain narratives about the history of the Universe from creation to destruction and the genealogies of kings, heroes, sages, and deities. Some of the Puranas are discourses on cosmology, geography and Hindu philosophy. They are usually written in the form of a dialogue. The Puranas, along with the Smritis, were composed to elucidate the principles of vedanta and in form of stories for easy understanding of common folks and also to inculcate to ethical values.  

Vyasa, the narrator of the Mahabharata, is traditionally considered the compiler of the Puranas.[1] The earliest written versions were compiled during the time of the Gupta Empire (4 - 6 century CE) and much of the material may be dated, through historical references and comparative studies, to this period and the succeeding centuries. The texts were collected from all over India and because of the similarities that are found throughout the texts, it is not possible to trace the line of influence of one Purana upon another, so the corpus is best viewed as a synchronous whole.[2]

The date of the earliest written texts does not define the date of origin of the Puranas.[3] They were transmitted orally before being written down[3], while at the same time, they have been modified well into the 16th century[3][4] and beyond.

Serious work on the Puranas began when the All India Kashiraj Trust was formed under the patronage and guidance of Dr. Vibhuti Narayan Singh, the Maharaja of Kashi, which, in addition to producing critical editions of the Puranas, also published the journal Puranam.[5]

Origins[edit | edit source]

An illustration of Varaha avatar based on the Bhagavata Purana

An early reference is found in the Chandogya Upanishad (7.1.2). (c. 500 BCE.) The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad refers to purana as the "fifth Veda"[6], itihāsapurāṇaṃ pañcamaṃ vedānāṃ, reflecting the early religious importance of these myths, presumably then in oral form. The term also appears in the Atharvaveda 11.7.24[7][8]. According to Matysa Purana, [9] they are said to narrate five subjects, called Pancha Lakshana pañcalakṣaṇa ("five distinguishing marks"):[10]

  1. Sarga: the creation of the universe.
  2. Pratisarga: secondary creations, mostly re-creations after dissolution.
  3. Vamśa: genealogy of the gods and sages.
  4. Manvañtara: the creation of the human race and the first human beings. The epoch of the Manus' rule, 71 celestial Yugas or 308,448,000 years.
  5. Vamśānucaritam: the histories of the patriarchs of the lunar and solar dynasties.

Some scholars have suggested that these 'distinguishing marks' are shared by other traditional religious scriptures.[11]

The Puranas also lay emphasis on keeping a record of genealogies. The Vayu Purana states that in ancient times the Sūta (Sanskrit:सूत bards of Puranic stories) preserved the genealogies of gods, rishis, glorious kings and the traditions of great men.

According to Pargiter (1922), the "original Purana" may date to the time of the final redaction of the Vedas.[7] and Pargiter (1979)[12][13] Pargiter has argued that the Puranic Krta Yuga—in the Vayu Purana the four Yugas are divided into 4800, 3600, 2400, and 1200 years—"ended with the destruction of the Haihayas [by Rama Jamadagnya]; the Treta began approximately with Sagara and ended with Rama Dasarathi's destruction of the Raksasas; and the Dvapara began with his reinstatement at Ayodhya and ended with the Bharata battle".[14]

In Arrian's Indica, Megasthenes (Greek Historian born c. 350 BC died c. 290) is quoted as stating that the Indians counted from Shiva (Dionysos) to Chandragupta Maurya (Sandracottus) "a hundred and fifty-three kings over six thousand and forty-three years."[15] The list of kings in Kalhana's Rajatarangini goes back to the 19th century BCE.[16]

Nevertheless Gavin Flood (Professor of Oxford University, Hindu Studies and Comparative Religion) connects the rise of the written Purana historically with the rise of devotional cults centring upon a particular deity in the Gupta era: the Puranic corpus is a complex body of materials that advance the views of various competing cults.[2]

Although these texts are related to each other, and material in one is found in another, they nevertheless each present a view of ordering of the world from a particular perspective. They must not be seen as random collections of old tales, but as highly selective and crafted expositions and presentations of worldviews and soteriologies, compiled by particular groups of Brahmins to propagate a particular vision, whether it be focused on Viṣṇu, Śiva, or Devī, or, indeed, any number of deities.

The Puranas are available in vernacular translations and are disseminated by Brahmin scholars, who read from them and tell their stories, usually in Katha sessions (in which a travelling brahmin settles for a few weeks in a temple and narrates parts of a Purana, usually with a Bhakti perspective).

Texts[edit | edit source]

The Mahapuranas[edit | edit source]

Of the many texts designated Puranas the most important are the Mahāpurāṇas. These are always said to be eighteen in number, divided into three groups of six.

  1. Agni Purana (15,400 verses)
  2. Bhagavata Purana (18,000 verses). One of the most celebrated and popular of the Puranas,[17] telling of Vishnu's ten Avatars. Its tenth and longest canto narrates the deeds of Krishna, introducing his childhood exploits, a theme later elaborated by many Bhakti movements.[18]
  3. Bhavishya Purana (14,500 verses)
  4. Brahma Purana (24,000 verses)
  5. Brahmanda Purana (12,000 verses; includes Lalita Sahasranamam, a text some Hindus recite as prayer)
  6. Brahma Vaivarta Purana (18,000 verses)
  7. Garuda Purana (19,000 verses)
  8. Kurma Purana (17,000 verses)
  9. Linga Purana (11,000 verses)
  10. Markandeya Purana (9,000 verses; includes Devi Mahatmyam, an important text for Shaktas)
  11. Matsya Purana (14,000 verses)
  12. Narada Purana (25,000 verses)
  13. Padma Purana (55,000 verses)
  14. Shiva Purana (24,000 verses)
  15. Skanda Purana (81,100 verses), the longest Purana, it is an extraordinarily meticulous pilgrimage guide, containing geographical locations of pilgrimage centers in India, with related legends, parables, hymns and stories. Many untraced quotes are attributed to this text.[19]
  16. Vamana Purana (10,000 verses)
  17. Varaha Purana (10,000 verses)
  18. Vishnu Purana (23,000 verses)

The Mahapuranas are frequently classified according the three aspects of the divine Trimurti,

  • Brahma Puranas: Brahma Purana, Brahmānda Purana, Brahma Vaivarta Purana, Mārkandeya Purana, Bhavishya Purana,
  • Vishnu Puranas: Vishnu Purana, Bhagavata Purana, Nāradeya Purana, Garuda Purana, Padma Purana, Varaha Purana, Vāmana Purana, Kūrma Purana, Matsya Purana
  • Shiva Puranas: Shiva Purana, Linga Purana, Skanda Purana, Agni Purana, Vāyu Purana


According to the Padma Purana,[21] the texts may be classified in accordance with the three gunas or qualities; truth, passion, and ignorance:

  • Sattva ("truth; purity"): Vishnu Purana, Bhagavata Purana, Naradeya Purana, Garuda Purana, Padma Purana, Varaha Purana
  • Rajas ("dimness; passion"): Brahmanda Purana, Brahma Vaivarta Purana, Markandeya Purana, Bhavishya Purana, Vamana Purana, Brahma Purana
  • Tamas ("darkness; ignorance"): Matsya Purana, Kurma Purana, Linga Purana, Shiva Purana, Skanda Purana, Agni Purana

The Upapuranas[edit | edit source]

The Upapurāṇas are lesser or ancillary texts: these are sometimes also said to be eighteen in number, with still less agreement as to the canonical titles. Few have been critically edited. They include: Sanat-kumara, Narasimha, Brihan-naradiya, Siva-rahasya, Durvasa, Kapila, Vamana, Bhargava, Varuna, Kalika, Samba, Nandi, Surya, Parasara, Vasishtha, Devi-Bhagavata, Ganesha, Mudgala, and Hamsa.[22]

The Ganesha and Mudgala Puranas are devoted to Ganesha.[23][24] The Devi-Bhagavata Purana, which extols the goddess Durga, has become (along with the Devi Mahatmya of the Mārkandeya Purana) a basic text for Devi worshipers.[25]

There are many others all over the Indian subcontinent.[26]

Sthala Puranas[edit | edit source]

This corpus of texts tells of the origins and traditions of particular temples or shrines—the word sthala means "spot" in Sanskrit. There are numerous Sthala Puranas, most written in vernaculars, some with Sanskrit versions as well. Some appear in Sanskrit versions in the Mahapuranas or Upapuranas. Some Tamil Sthala Puranas have been researched by David Dean Shulman.[27]

Kula Puranas[edit | edit source]

These Puranas deal with a caste's origin myth, stories, and legends (the word kula means "family" or "tribe" in Sanskrit). They are important sources for caste identity though usually contested by rival castes. This subgenre is usually in the vernacular and may at times remain oral.[28] These have been little researched, though they are documented in the caste section of the British Census of India Report and the various Gazetteers.[29]

Jain Puranas[edit | edit source]

Jain Puranas deal with Jain myths, history and legends and form a major part of early Kannada literature.[30] [31] The best known is the Mahapurana of Acharya Jinasena.

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. The Puranas by Swami Sivananda
  2. a b Flood 1996, p. 359
  3. a b c Johnson 2009, p. 247
  4. Singh 1997, p. 2324
  5. Mittal 2004, p. 657
  6. Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 2.4.10, 4.1.2, 4.5.11. Satapatha Brahmana (SBE, Vol. 44, pp. 98, 369). Moghe 1997, pp. 160, 249
  7. a b Pargiter 1962, pp. 30–54
  8. Moghe 1997, p. 249 and the Satapatha Brahmana and Sacred Books of the East|SBE Vol. 44, pp. 98, 369
  9. Matsya Purana 53.65
  10. Johnson 2009, p. 248
  11. Rao 1993, p. 85-100
  12. Pargiter 1979
  13. P.L. Bhargava 1971, India in the Vedic Age, Lucknow: Upper India Publishing; Talageri 1993, 2000; Subhash Kak, 1994, The astronomical code of the Rgveda
  14. Pargiter 1922, p. 177
  15. Pliny: Naturalis Historia 6:59; Arrian: Indica 9:9
  16. Elst 1999, with reference to Bernard Sergent
  17. Monier-Williams 1899, p. 752, column 3, under the entry Bhagavata.
  18. Hardy 2001
  19. Doniger 1993, pp. 59–83
  20. The Puranic Encyclopedia
  21. Padma Purana, Uttara-khanda, 236.18–21
  22. R. C. Hazra, Studies in the Upapuranas, vol. I, Calcutta, Sanskrit College, 1958. Studies in the Upapuranas, vol. II, Calcutta, Sanskrit College, 1979. Studies in Puranic Records on Hindu Rites and Customs, Delhi, Banarsidass, 1975. Ludo Rocher, The Puranas - A History of Indian Literature Vol. II, fasc. 3, Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1986.
  23. Thapan 1997, p. 304
  24. Purana at Gurjari
  25. Mackenzie 1990
  26. `Verbal Narratives: Performance and Gender of the Padma Purana, by T.N. Sankaranarayana in Kaushal 2001, pp. 225–234
  27. Shulman 1980
  28. Handoo 1998, pp. 125–142
  29. See for example Castes and Tribes of Southern India vol. I–V, Thurston Edgar. Cosmo Publication, Delhi.
  30. Jaini, Padmanabh S. (1993). "Jaina Puranas: A Puranic Counter Tradition." in Doniger 1993, pp. 207–249
  31. Cort, John E. (1993). "An Overview of the Jaina Puranas". in Doniger 1993, pp. 185–206

References[edit | edit source]

  • Bhargava, P.L. 1971. India in the Vedic Age. Lucknow: Upper India Publishing.
  • Dimmitt, Cornelia; van Buitenen (1978). Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskirt Puranas. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 8170305969. {{cite book}}: Unknown parameter |first 2= ignored (|first2= suggested) (help)
  • Doniger, Wendy (editor) (1993). Purāṇa Perennis: Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jaina Texts. Albany, New York: State University of New York. ISBN 0-7914-1382-9. {{cite book}}: |first= has generic name (help); Cite has empty unknown parameter: |coauthors= (help)
  • Handoo, Jawaharlal (editor) (1998). Folklore in Modern India. ISBN 81-7342-055-6. {{cite book}}: |first= has generic name (help)
  • Hardy, Friedhelm (2001). Viraha-Bhakti - The Early History of Krsna Devotion in South India. ISBN 0-19-564916-8.</ref>
  • Flood, Gavin (1996). An Introduction to Hinduism (Book). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521433045. {{cite book}}: |format= requires |url= (help)
  • Johnson, W.J. (2009). A Dictionary of Hinduism. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-861025-0.
  • Kaushal, Molly (editor) (2001). Chanted Narratives - The Katha Vachana Tradition. ISBN 81-246-0182-8. {{cite book}}: |first= has generic name (help)
  • Majumdar, R. C.; Pusalker, A. D. (1951). The history and culture of the Indian people. Vol. 1: The Vedic age. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
  • Mackenzie, Brwon (1990). The Triumph of the Goddess - The Canonical Models and Theological Visions of the DevI-BhAgavata PuraNa. State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-0363-7.</ref>
  • Mittal, Sushil (2004). The Hindu World. Routledge. ISBN 978-0415215275.
  • Moghe, S. G. (editor) (1997). Professor Kane's contribution to Dharmasastra literature. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd. ISBN 81-246-0075-9. {{cite book}}: |first= has generic name (help)
  • Monier-Williams, Monier (1899). A Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. {{cite book}}: Cite has empty unknown parameter: |coauthors= (help)
  • Pargiter, F.E. (1922). Ancient Indian Historical Tradition. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Pargiter, F. E. (1962). Ancient Indian historical tradition (Book). Original publisher Oxford University Press, London. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass. OCLC 1068416. {{cite book}}: |format= requires |url= (help); Unknown parameter |origdate= ignored (|orig-date= suggested) (help)
  • Rao, Velcheru Narayana (1993). "Purana as Brahminic Ideology". In Doniger Wendy (ed.). Purana Perennis: Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jaina Texts (Book). Albany: State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-1381-0. {{cite book}}: |access-date= requires |url= (help); |format= requires |url= (help)
  • Shulman, David Dean (1980). Tamil Temple Myths: Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian Saiva Tradition. ISBN 0-691-06415-6.
  • Singh, Nagendra Kumar (1997). Encyclopaedia of Hinduism. ISBN 8174881689.
  • Thapan, Anita Raina (1997). Understanding Gaṇapati: Insights into the Dynamics of a Cult. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers. ISBN 81-7304-195-4.

Further reading[edit | edit source]

  • Thurston Edgar. Castes and Tribes of Southern India (Vols I-V). Cosmo Publication, Delhi.