Eminence of the Puranas

This article is part 2 of 20 in the series Puranas

Puranas have occupied a special status in the realm of Bharatiya literature. The purpose of Puranas is to elucidate Dharma, Darshana (philosophy) and universal ethics. Keeping these as their foundation, Puranas narrate the importance of devotion, glories of Tirtha-Kshetras, Creation and Dissolution (of the world), and the lineages of various Rishis and Kings known to tradition. The Puranas are the basis for the various forms of contemporary Hindu Dharma. The meaning of the word Purana can be derived as purā bhava purāa, or that which is ancient literature. The other derivation, purāpi navaṃ purāṇaṃ is also common. This means Purana is that work which expounds the eternal, unbroken and ever-new Dharma, and tenets of philosophy. Both meanings are equally valid. Our tradition declares that the Puranas describe the subtle meanings of the Veda by simplifying them in the form of stories and sub-stories.

itihāsapurāṇābhyām  vedaṃ  samupabṛṃhayet |
bibhedyalpaśṛtād vedo māmayaṃ praharediti ||

That there are 18 Puranas is well-known. The following Sloka is a good method to remember the names of these Puranas.

ma-dvayam bha-dvayam caiva bra-trayaṃ va-catuṣṭayam |
a-nā-pa-liṃ-ga-kū-skāni purāṇāni pracakṣate ||

Matsya, Markandeya, Bhavishya, Bhagavata, Brahma, Brahma-Vaivarta, Brahmanda, Vamana, Varaha, Vayu, Vishnu, Agni, Narada, Padma, Linga, Garuda, Kurma, and Skanda – these are the eighteen Mahapuranas (Great Puranas). Likewise, there also exist eighteen Upapuranas (or minor Puranas). Among these, only the Sanatkumara, Narasimha, Kapila, Manava, and others are extant. Others remain only in name.

There is difference of opinion in this categorization as well. For example, according to some, the Shiva Purana belongs to the Mahapurana category. Others classify it as an Upapurana. There is similar difference of opinion with respect to the Narada and Bhagavata Puranas. The very word Bhagavata is itself mired in controversy as to whether it denotes the famous Vishnu Bhagavata or the Devi Bhagavata. Sridhara Swami, in the first few lines of his commentary on the Vishnu Bhagavata declares, “bhāgavatam nāma anyadityapi nāśaṃkanīyaṃ (It must not be suspected that there exists another Bhagavatam.).” We need to accept his verdict and understand the term Bhagavata to mean Vishnu Bhagavata.

The primary sources for Puranas are very ancient. The word Purana occurs in the Atharva Veda (11.7.24) and the śatapatha brāhmaṇa (13.4.3 – 13). The bṛhadāraṇyaka upaniṣad mentions, “itihāsaṃ purāṇaṃ vidyā upaniṣadaḥ” while the chāṃdogya upaniṣad declares, “itihāsapurāṇaṃ  paṃcamaṃ vedānām vedaḥ.” The āpastambha dharmasūtra contains a sentence, “atha purāṇe ślokān udāharanti.” When we examine all these, the antiquity of the Puranic literature becomes crystal clear. However, the verdict of modern scholars is clearly unanimous that the extant, voluminous mass of Puranic literature is not all that antiquarian. Of these, some belong to the Gupta Era (300-550 CE). Researchers also opine that Puranic literature witnessed a continuous growth till the tenth century CE.

The Skanda Purana is the most voluminous Purana comprising 81,000 Slokas while the Markandeya Purana is the least comprising just 9,000 Slokas. The Bhavishya Purana mentions the name of the founder of the Sikh sect Guru Nanak, as well as Bhattoji Dikshita, author of the siddhāṃtakaumudi, all names of recent history. Dr. Hazra has conducted extensive research on the Puranas. According to his opinion, the Vishnu Purana, dated 400 CE, is the oldest. This is chronologically followed by the Vayu Purana (500 CE), Bhagavata (600-700 CE), and Kurma Purana (700 CE). The mention of the Vayu Purana in Banabhatta’s harṣacarita is noteworthy. Overall, we may concur with Dr. Hazra’s opinion that till the 14th Century CE, several new stories, episodes and interpolations were added to Puranas such as the Skanda.

Subject matter of the Puranas

Amarasimha, author of the amarakośa has given five main characteristics for the Puranas:

sargaśca pratisargaśca vaṃśo manvantarāṇi ca |
vaṃśānucaritaṃ cāpi purāṇam pañcalakṣaṇam ||

Purāṇa is one which describes sarga, pratisarga, vaṃśa, manvantara and vaṃśānucarita.

sarga = the world’s First Creation [Cosmogony].

pratisarga = dissolution of Creation

vaṃśa = lineage of the Gods and pitṛ-s (ancestors)

manvantara = history of the fourteen Manus beginning with the Manu named svayaṃbhu.

vaṃśānucarita = history of the Solar and Lunar lineages

Although this is the prescribed model for a Purana, not all Puranas reflect all these characteristics. The Vishnu Purana is the sole exception. Because the Vishnu Purana contains a harmonious blend of all these characteristics, it is only fitting that it is given a high place. Apart from the five characteristics, we observe the following subjects dealt with in the Puranas: Dharmaśāstra, Vedanta, Yoga, sāṃkhya (a philosophical school), jautiṣa (astronomy), Vaidya (medicine), vyākaraṇa (grammar), dhanurveda (archery), saṃgīta (music), śilpa (sculpture), alaṃkāra (prosody), and so on. Some Puranas contain purely sectarian matters. We also notice the competition between the Shaiva and Vaishnava sects. There are episodes which glorify a particular Devata and condemn others. Such episodes reflecting narrow-minded sectarian passions are later interpolations. Those who embark on a study of Puranas must necessarily be cautious of such interpolations.

Authorship and Period of Puranas

The total number of Slokas of all the eighteen Puranas is about 4,00,000. Therefore the question that naturally arises is this: who wrote such voluminous books? Tradition gives the following answer: “aṣṭādaśapurāṇānām kartā satyavatīsutaḥ: The Son of Satyavati (Vyasa) is the author of the eighteen Puranas.” The Padma Purana avers:

nistārāya tu lokānām svayaṃ nārāyaṇaḥ prabhu: |
vyāsarūpeṇa kṛtavān purāṇāni mahītale ||

Accordingly, we need to accept that Narayana who took the form of Veda Vyasa authored these eighteen Puranas. However, the Bengali author and scholar, Sri Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya who has examined the works of both Indian and Western scholars of Puranic literature provides valuable insights in his book, Sri Krishnacharit. We can summarise his findings as follows: “When we examine all the eighteen Puranas, we find that numerous Slokas are identical in all of them. In some places, we see some textual variations. The second part of the Brahma Purana contains the detailed story of Sri Krishna. The fifth part of the Vishnu Purana contains the same story. There is absolutely no difference between the two. All the Slokas in the twenty-eight chapters of the fifth part of the Vishnu Purana are exactly seen in the Brahma Purana. If the author of both these Puranas was the same, there was no need for such detailed repetition. Besides, it is nearly impossible for the same author to have such a marked difference in literary style. The styles of Vishnu Purana and Bhagavata Purana are so distinctive that there can be absolutely no unifying relationship between the two. To the reader of the two works, it will clear that the authorship is different. Additionally, the same person will not write about the same topic in several different works. Neither will he repeatedly try to describe and elaborate the same thing over and over. And then, in the eighteen Puranas, we notice multiple repetitions of the same story, and the same topics of Sastra. The story of Sri Krishna is one such great example of this fact. It appears in the first part of the Brahma Purana, the fifth part of the Vishnu Purana, in the Vayu Purana, in the tenth branch of the Srimad Bhagavata, in the third chapter of the Brahmavaivarta Purana, in the Padma Purana, Vamana Purana, and Kurma Purana. In the same manner, we can observe the multiple repititions of many subjects across many Puranas. Besides, there is another significant aspect in all of this. If the same author had written all the eighteen Puranas, we would not notice so many glaring internal contradictions. The Harivamsha also contains a detailed story of Sri Krishna.”

To be continued



Mahamahopadhyaya Vidwan Ranganatha Sharma was a renowned Sanskrit scholar and an authority on Vyakarana or Grammar. He is noted for his translation of the entire Valmiki Ramayana into Kannada, which was published with a foreword by DVG. He has authored several books in Kannada and Sanskrit. He is a recipient of the national award for Sanskrit learning and has received the Rajyotsava Award.  



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