Note: This is the first part of a series of the English translation of Mahamahopadhyaya Vidwan Sri N. Ranganatha Sarma’s Kannada monograph titled, purāṇagaḻa nele mattu tattvavicāra published in 2010.
In the expansive accomplishments of Indians in the field of literature, historical works (itihāsa) like the Vedas, Upanishads, Srimad Ramayana, and Mahabharata, and Puranic works like skāndapurāṇa, viṣṇupurāṇa and others are world-renowned works that bring pride to any country. The various stories, wise sayings, and more importantly, philosophical elements that are related to the Atman, are contemplative topics that attract scholars. From the ancient times, our people have called the Ramayana and Mahabharata as works of itihāsa or history. Therefore, we must consider Sri Rama, Lakshmana, Bhishma, Drona and others as real people who lived at some point in history, i.e., they were historical persons. Because they are an inextricable part of our mahākāvya-s (great literature), the supernatural and magical descriptions woven around them by the poet is entirely appropriate.
The eighteen mahāpurāṇa-s (Great Puranas) are widely known. Because all streams of philosophy in India are centred around the Atman, the literary body of work beginning with the Vedas have upheld the primacy of the Atman in its inquiry. The Veda is inaccessible to the human being’s ordinary faculties. Because it is widely accepted that the Puranas are the creations of humans, we can clearly see the human hand at various places therein. Owing to various reasons, human thought has assumed various forms, and we see some mutually opposing elements in the Puranas. However, because the Vedas are regarded as apauruṣeya (non-human origin), not a single line can be altered in them. But its meaning can be stretched and expanded and interpreted according to will and fancy. However, a philosopher endowed with pure consciousness, an honest seeker of Truth will clearly realise its true meaning.
There is an important difference between Indian philosophical inquiry and its Western counterpart. In our process of contemplating on the Ultimate Truth, we assign it various names such as Hari, Hara, Ganapati, Surya, and Shakti. We also assign to each of these various attributes, forms, and temperaments. Westerners assign no such names and attributes but use words such as soul, consciousness and so on in their inquiry. In reality, names like Hari, Hara, etc, are sectarian conceptions. The Indian who is habituated to sectarian worship from time immemorial doesn’t free himself from its thrall and is content to be immersed in it. Sects like Christianity and Islam describe philosophy using terminology such as Christ and Prophet and attribute temperaments and behaviours to the Ultimate Truth, and like Indian sects, are steeped in sectarian delusions. Such terminology and beliefs do not bring happiness to the genuine philosopher who is a seeker of Truth. Therefore, the person who sets aside all such sectarian beliefs and embarks on a real quest of the philosophical Truth will definitely find it. This is my conviction.
In reality, our Puranas are quests for such a philosophical Truth. However, a few sectarian fanatics have sidelined this quest for Truth and have twisted its contents in order to establish the supremacy of their respective sects. They have composed their own verses and added them to the Puranas. They have added lines which extol their sects and have created proofs for nonexistent premises. The sentences in the Puranas are unlike that of the Vedas which are chanted using the udātta-anudātta swara pattern. They also don’t contain Vaidika terms. There is no tradition of memorizing the Puranas. Therefore, it is easy to introduce interpolations in them.
According to Dr. Hazra, who has undertaken substantial research in the Puranas, the Vishnu Purana is the oldest. In his opinion, the date of this Purana is roughly 400 C.E. Other Puranas have been composed in an unbroken fashion all the way up to the fourteenth century C.E. Their source material can be traced back to Veda Vyasa who preached some Puranic concepts to his disciples, sūta and romaharṣaṇa. Thus, according to Dr. Hazra, the notion that Veda Vyasa wrote all the Puranas, became popular among our people.
The Bhagavata beautifully propounds the tenet that unsullied devotion (Bhakti) is the chief method of realizing the Bhagavan, who is the form of saccidānaṃda (Unqualified, Formless Bliss). Love (Prema) is included among the nine types of Bhakti. Therefore, several poets have described that the love that the Gopis had for Sri Krishna was the reason for them to obtain Mukti (spiritual liberation). This is also the essence of Jayadeva’s gītagoviṃda. The Bhagavata delineates on the centrality of Bhakti and expounds on the nature of Mukti using the Vedas as its premise. The nature of Mukti is where the Jiva (Living Self) realizes its true nature. In every chapter of the Bhagavata, we can clearly detect the Advaita philosophy of Sri śaṃkarācārya. The essence of Srimad Bhagavata is that Bhakti is the main vehicle for obtaining the afore-described nature of Mukti.
Several years have passed since I translated into Kannada the Vishnu Purana, and the 10th, 11th, and 12th chapters of the Bhagavata. After they were published, several knowledge-lovers averred that the prefaces that I wrote for these translations were very appealing. To read all those prefaces, one needs to purchase five books. Not everyone can afford it. Some also told me that if all these could be compiled in one volume, a bigger number of people could read it and find joy. Thus, I thought of publishing such a compilation. The result is the present work titled The Eminence and the Philosophy of Puranas.
But who would come forward to print and publish this book? As an answer, my esteemed friend, Sri M.S. Srinivasa Rao readily offered to do so. This eminent gentleman has published several valuable books through his organization, Udayana Prakashana of which he is the owner. This is a matter of great joy for me. I immediately began work on the manuscript. However, I was unable to read and write (Note: Vidwan N. Ranganatha Sarma had lost his eyesight in the twilight years of his life). So, how could I make preparations for the book? As usual, my friend, Sri Yellapura Krishna Sarma came forward and organized the prefaces of those earlier books and got them ready for publication. For this great help, I shall always be grateful to Sri Krishna Sarma and Sri M.S. Srinivasa Rao.
I am also eternally grateful to my other friend Vidwan Ananta Sarma Bhuvanagiri, and Vidushi Smt Leelavati who went through the manuscript and proofread it.
In the end, I wholeheartedly remember the timely assistance rendered by the Vice Chancellor of the Karnataka Sanskrit University, Sri Mallepuram G. Venkatesh. He classified the chapters, gave them titles, wrote the blurb on the back cover, and beautified the work.
I submit this work to the readers with honour and affection.
Vidwan N. Ranganatha Sarma
9 July, 2010.