The Purāṇas occupy a high rank amongst India’s literary contribution to the world. In addition to being written lore of the highest magnitude, the Purāṇas have also remained in the oral tradition, percolating to the grassroots. They eminently represent the very nature of Sanātana-dharma and can easily qualify as ‘the encyclopaedia of the commoners.’ While the Vedas express the aspirations, inspirations, amazement, and philosophy of the ancient ṛṣis, the Purāṇas make the Vedas accessible to the masses in an engaging manner. Kṛṣṇa-dvaipāyana, the ṛṣi who reorganised the Vedas into four and thus gained the epithet ‘Veda-vyāsa’ is said to have authored all the Purāṇas for the welfare of the world. The etymology of the word ‘purāṇa’ reveals a lot about its content – पुरापि नवं इति पुराणम् – although ancient, it is eternally new and always relevant. The stories, ideas, and philosophy contained in the Purāṇas are ancient, but their value is timeless, and hence, relevant to all times. The Purāṇas can be compared to the river Gaṅgā. The divine river has been flowing in the heartland of India for millions of years; yet, at every moment and at every point in its flow, the water is fresh – the waters of Gaṅgā are important and relevant to us, at all times. Though ancient, the Gaṅgā is perennial, eternal, enriching and life-sustaining. Such is the nature of the Purāṇas.
In most Indian languages today, the word purāṇa has almost become synonymous with ‘story.’ The stories from the purāṇas first capture the heart of the audience – both young and old; through the heart, they enter the head. Stories first entertain and then educate the reader with universal human values. Winning the heart and the head through the same set of words and sentences is perhaps unique to Indian literature. Purāṇic stories are suggestive in nature. The values of adhibhūta (the material), adhidaiva (the emotional), and adhyātma (the spiritual) are embedded in them, the adhyātmic values being the most important. It is also important to note that whenever there is a divergence of view between the Purāṇas, they will need to be resolved from a vedāntic perspective, rooted in the brahmaika-tattva.
While a sizeable part of the Purāṇas contain stories, it should not detract us from the vast scope of the Purāṇic literature. Segments in the Purāṇas speak about geography, administration, architecture, aesthetics, metallurgy, gemmology, medicine, festivals, rituals, law, relationships, and much more. Some Purāṇas also contain aspects of history, which are often peppered with imaginative embellishments. They contain details about tīrtha-kṣetras, sthala-māhātmyās, vratas, and utsava. They have the dimensions of both śāstra and kāvya. Thus, the Purāṇas are, in the true sense, an encyclopaedia of all sacred and secular aspects of Sanātana-dharma. Texts like the Purāṇas are not found elsewhere in the world. Neither the ancient nor the modern civilizations of the world have been able to come up with anything that is close to the Purāṇas in their content, both in quality and quantity.
Tradition lists eighteen mahāpurāṇas, eighteen upapurāṇas, and many upopapurāṇas – most of these are attributed to Bhagavān Veda-vyāsa. These texts are of varying magnitude and importance. They are largely united in spirit but differ in their outer form. It is believed that they find their seed in the Purāṇa-saṃhitā which was put together by Vyāsa’s father Parāśara. Though the historical origin of these texts is shrouded in mystery, the growth of the Purāṇic literature can be compared to that of a banyan tree – though it is a conglomeration of numerous trees, they are all organically united and are manifestations of the main tree; in this case, Vyāsa forms the trunk of the primary tree and represents the philosophical spirit of the Purāṇas.
The next sections provide reference material which could be of use for an ardent student of the Indian culture. The list provided is not an exhaustive bibliography of the Purāṇic literature.
For the General Public
- The Bhārata-bhāratī series published by Rashtrotthana Sahitya contains individual volumes on various Purāṇic characters. They are true to the original and are available in simple English and Kannada
- The Amar Chitra Katha comics published under the editorship of Anant Pai are close to the original texts. They come along with engaging illustrations and a brief summary of the particular story. These are available in English and many Indian languages
- The old editions of Chandamama published in various Indian languages published many stories from the Purāṇas. They maybe accessed by beginners as well
- Shiva Rama Krishna (English) by Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh (Translated into English by Hari Ravikumar) serves as a very good model in understanding the deities, their stories and iconography. The author derives material from the Purāṇas as well as the works of masters in Sanskrit and Kannada. This can serve as a guide to understand any Purāṇa and must be read by the young and the old alike. (Published by the Prekshaa Prakashana, also available as a series of articles https://www.prekshaa.in/series-list/Shiva-Rama-Krishna)
- Vacana Bhāgavata (Kannada) by Ta Su Shamaraya is a beautifully condensed edition of the Bhāgavata-purāṇa. (Published by Ramakrishna Ashrama Mysore)
- Kannada lectures of Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh on the eighteen mahā-purāṇas and several upa-purāṇas capture the stories, symbology and philosophy in an extremely engaging manner. Recordings are available at the Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs, Bangalore. The lectures provide a holistic approach in understanding the Purāṇas in from the Sanātanic perspective.
- Itihāsa-purāṇa (Kannada) by Prof. KS Kannan (Published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan) provides a good introduction to the Purāṇas.
- Mythsand Legends of the Hindus and Buddhists by Sister Nivedita and Ananda Coomaraswamy (Published by the Advaita Ashrama)
- Essays of D.V. Gundappa on the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata and the introduction to the Vacana Bhārata by A R Krishnasastri can also help readers understand the manner in which Purāṇas need to be interpreted. The reader will also need to be acquainted with basic concepts connected with Indian culture – the works of GC Pande and Swami Harshananda (especially the work A Concise Encyclopaedia of Hinduism, published by the Ramakrishna Math) can help in this regard.
After having been acquainted with characters, stories and concepts and having understood the approach to understand them, the student may start going through the complete translations of the Purāṇas. Among these, the Viṣṇu-purāṇa would be a good starting point.
English Translations (in the order of preference)
- Bibek Debroy’s translations of the Purāṇas (and also the Rāmāyaṇa, Mahābhārata and Harivaṃśa) are lucid, close to the original and reliable. Brahma-purāṇa, Bhāgavata-purāṇa and Mārkaṇḍeya-purāṇa are available currently and are published by Penguin Classics. His prose retellings of the Purāṇas published by B. R. Publishing Corporation are worth reading as well.
- Manmatha Nath Dutt’s translations of various Purāṇas are largely reliable, especially if the reader has some knowledge of the Sanskrit language.
- Motilal Banarsidass Publishers have made available verse by verse English translations of most of the major Purāṇas. The translations have been made by a board of scholars. Though largely reliable, the essence of quite a number of Sanskrit terms is lost in translation.
Kannada Translations (in the order of preference)
- Mahāmahopādhyāya Vid. N Ranganatha Sharma’s translations of the Viṣṇu-purāṇa (complete) and Bhāgavata-purāṇa (skandhas 10, 11, 12) are lucid, intimate and highly reliable. His introductory forewords to the works are also insightful. The volumes come with the original text in Kannada letters along with verse-by-verse translation.
Viṣṇu-purāṇa, published by the Ramakrishna Math, Bangalore
Bhāgavata-purāṇa, published by Ramayana Prakashana Samiti, NR Colony, Bangalore
[English translation of the introduction to these books can be found here https://www.prekshaa.in/series-list/Puranas]
- Under the patronage of Sri Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar, the former Mahārāja of Mysore, the translations of all the mahā-purāṇas and several upapurāṇas have been published along with the original. These belong to the Śrī Jayacāmarājendra grantharatnamālā series and are available for online reading
- Motagānahalli Subrahmaṇyaśāstrī’s translation of the entire Skānda-mahāpurāṇa is eminently readable and close to the original. (Published by Śrī Vidyāgaṇapati Prakāśana, Bangalore; this appeared as a part of Śrī Jayacāmarājendra grantharatnamālā series originally)
- Motagānahalli Rāmaśeṣaśāstrī’s translation of the entire Bhāgavata-purāṇa is reliable and comes with word-to-word translation and important footnotes. The introduction to the work is also of high merit. (Published by Śrī Vidyāgaṇapati Prakāśana, Bangalore; this appeared as a part of Śrī Jayacāmarājendra grantharatnamālā series originally)
- In addition to these, the translations of various Purāṇas in the Bharata-darshana series as well as those by Vīrakesari Sītārāma-śāstrī, Devashikhamani Alasingacharya and Pandharinathacharya Galgali (prose translation) may be referred to.
Encyclopaedia and Indices
- Purāṇic Encyclopaedia compiled by Vettam Mani is an excellent volume. Important characters, deities, places and concepts are arranged in an alphabetical order and concepts connected with them are compiled from all the major purāṇas as well as the Vedas, Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata. This can work as a single source for any reference connected with purāṇas. (Motilal Banarsidass Publishers)
- The Purāṇa Index by V R Ramachandra Dikshitar gives an alphabetic index of characters and concepts in the Purāṇas. (Motilal Banarsidass Publishers)
- Bhāgavata-kośa (Kannada) by Mudambailu C Gopalakrishna Shastri contains an alphabetical index of people and places connected with the Bhāgavata-purāṇa with detailed explanation. (Published by Ramakrishna Ashrama, Mysore)
- Purāṇa-nāma-cūḍāmaṇi (Kannada) by Benegal Ramarao and Panyam Sundarashastri (Published by Mysore University)
Research, Analysis, and Allied Literature
(These may be accessed by the general public after they have gone through the Beginner and Intermediate material. The following texts may be read in parallel with reading of the translations.)
- Purāṇā-vimarśa (Hindi) by Ācārya Baldev Upādhyāya examines quite a number of historical details. It also discusses the connection between Vedas and purāṇas, the conception of values in the purāṇas and attempts to resolve a few discrepancies in the texts. (Chaukhamba Surbharati Prakashan)
- Purāṇaloka (Kannada) compiled by Pādekallu Viṣṇu Bhaṭṭa contains a series of insightful articles authored by eminent scholars on all the major purāṇas (Published by Brahmashri Mitturu Purohita Thimmayya Bhatta Samprathisthana)
- Purāṇaparyālocanam (Sanskrit) by Srikrishnamani Tripathi gives condensed stories and family trees and analyses quite a few concepts from the purāṇas. The language is simple and a person well-versed in any Indian language will be able to understand large parts of the work. (Chaukhamba Surbharati Prakashan)
- Vaidik devatā - udbhav aur vikās (Hindi) by Gayacharan Tripathi traces the origin of the deities from the Vedas to the purāṇas. The work gives a good compilation of material from various original sources. (Jointly published by Rashtriya Samskrit Sansthan and DK Print World)
- The Purāṇas and National Integration (English and Hindi) compiled by Prof. Pushpendra Kumar is a collection of interesting research articles on various aspects of the purāṇas. Aspects connected with geography, education, arts administration, society and the role of women are amongst the topics covered. The articles are of varied quality and require the discernment of the reader (Nag Publishers, Delhi)
- Vedic Roots of Hindu Iconography (English) by R Nagaswamy is an insightful work on various deities and their origin in the Vedas and Purāṇas (Kaveri Books, New Delhi)
- Vedic Elements in Puranic Mantras and Rituals (English) by Gauri Mahulikar, is an interesting read (Nag Publishers)
- Legends in Puranas by SG Kantawala (Published by Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan)
- Introduction to Puranas – the Lighthouse of Indian Culture by Prof. Pushpendra Shastri (Published by Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan)
- Purāṇagata vedaviṣayaka sāmagrī kā samīkṣātmaka adhyayan by Ramshankar Bhattacharya (Published by Hindi Sahitya Sammelan, Allahabad)
- Purāṇasāhityādarśaḥ (Sanskrit) by Brijesh Kumar Shukla (New Bharatiya Book Corporation)
- Purāṇ-aṃk of various Purāṇas (Published by Gita Press, Gorakhpur)
- Purāṇas and Dharmaśāstra (English) by P V Kane provides extraordinary insights. They occur in Volume 1 Part 1 and Volume 5 Part 2 of the History of Dharmashastra series (Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune)
- All-India Kashiraj Trust, Varanasi published a journal titled Purāṇa (Half-yearly bulletin of the Purāṇa Department) for over two decades (1960s and 1970s). They contain invaluable research articles on the various dimensions of purāṇas.
- Research papers and writings of the following scholars contain original insights and are worth consulting – V S Sukthankar, Moti Chandra, P K Gode, V S Agarawal, Anand Swarup Gupta, S Srikantha Sastri
- Studies in the Purāṇic Records on Hindu Rites and Custom and Studies in the Upapurāṇas (in six volumes) by R C Hazra are worth referring to. (Published by Motilal Banarsidass and Munshiram Manoharlal, respectively)
- The works of Prof. S K Ramachandra Rao also contain good insights into Indian deities and iconography. The works contain large number of references from various Purāṇas and other sources. Some aspects in his works are dated and need to be reconceived from the perspective of modern research – this is especially true in the case of Aryan-Dravidian divide.
- Vamana Purana: A Study and Mastya Purana: A Study – books by V.S. Agarwala (Published by Nag Publishers)
- Retrieval of History from Puranic Myths by P.L. Bhargava (DK Printworld)
- The Cultural Heritage of India Vol. 2, Section on the Purāṇas (Published by the Ramakrishna Mission, Kolkata)
Gita Press Gorakhpur and the Choukhamba Sanskrit Series have published the original text of most of the Purāṇas in the Devanagari script. Hindi translations of most of these have also been made available by the same publishers. These are amongst the most easily accessible texts today.
Scholars who wish to pursue research on the Purāṇas may also want to refer to the various Sanskrit commentaries available.
Critical Editions of the Purāṇas
- Viṣṇu-purāṇa (in two volumes) – critically edited by M. M. Pathak, published by Oriental Institute, M. S. University of Baroda
- Mārkaṇdeya-purāṇa (in two volumes) – critically edited by M. L. Wadekar, published by Oriental Institute, M. S. University of Baroda
- Viṣṇudharmottara-purāṇa – Tṛtīya-khaṇḍa – critically edited by Priyabala Shah, published by published by Oriental Institute, M. S. University of Baroda. The companion volume which contains critical notes and analysis is useful for students of poetry, sculpture, painting, dance and aesthetics.
- Kūrma-purāṇa – critically edited by Anand Swarup Gupta published by All-India Kashiraj Trust
- Vāmana-purāṇa – critically edited by Anand Swarup Gupta, published by All India Kashiraj Trust, Varanasi
- Varāha-purāṇa (in two volumes) – critically edited by Anand Swarup Gupta, published by All India Kashiraj Trust, Varanasi
A critical edition of the Bhāgavata-purāṇa is under preparation at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune
Thanks to Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh, Srinidhi Ramachandra, Shashikiran BN and Hari Ravikumar for their inputs and help.
 वेदाः प्रतिष्ठिताः पूर्वं पुराणे नात्र संशयः – Skānda-purāṇa 1.21
आत्मा पुराणं वेदानाम् – Skānda-purāṇa 1.22; इतिहासपुराणाभ्यां वेदं समुपबृंहयेत्।
 निस्ताराय तु लोकानां स्वयं नारायणः प्रभुः।
व्यासरूपेण कृतवान् पुराणानि महीतले॥ – Padma-purāṇa
 It should be noted that the word ‘myth’ hardly captures the meaning of the word Purāṇa. For the lack of a better word in English, early writers on Indian texts seem to have used it.