The Real Education that Puranas Offer

This article is part 7 of 20 in the series Puranas

The Path of Sadhana

The Vishnupurana has accepted Bhakti and the performance of Karmas laid down by the Sastras as valid paths of Sadhana. The Inner Life will be purified by performing Karmas. The Bhagavan will reside in that Inner Life. When that occurs, Pure Knowledge will be realized and the highest pedestal called Vishnu will be attained (1.6.12, 13). Only people who perform Karmas will reach the exalted world of Prajapati and others. Only Yogis and Sanyasis will realize the Ultimate Brahman. Those who contemplate on the twelve sacred syllables, “oṃ namo bhagavate vāsudevāya” will attain Moksha through the portals of Sacred Knowledge (1.6.37 thru 40). Although Dhruva witnessed the physical form of Vishnu, he did not attain Moksha. After meditating upon Vishnu for a prolonged period, he was freed from the bonds of virtue and sin and finally attained Moksha (1.20.34). For the attainment of Moksha, even virtue, like sin, is an obstacle. The full meaning of Gita’s verse, “jñānāgniḥ sarvakarmāṇi bhasmatāt kuruterjuna” becomes crystal clear in Dhruva’s attainment of Moksha. This is the sequence: attainment of Pure Knowledge through meditation upon the Bhagavan; Pure Knowledge leading to freedom from virtue and sin; from this, the attainment of Moksha. The description of the attainment of Pure Knowledge (jñāna-Yoga) is beautifully brought out in the conversation between khāṇḍikya and keśidhvaja. This occurs in the seventh chapter of the sixth Amsa and can be called the heart of the Vishnupurana. The absorbing facet in this portion is the mention that Vishnu can be meditated upon as having Eight Arms (aṣṭabhuja). It mentions that the devotee must meditate upon each of these physical aspects and gradually erase the entire sagua form of Vishnu. By doing this, the devotee will eventually grasp his Formless aspect. Reaching this stage is known as Samadhi. In this Samadhi, the distinctions of meditator, the object of meditation, and meditation (the three together is known as tripuṭi) will cease to exist. This state is called the nirvikalpa Samadhi. The person who attains this Samadhi is truly fulfilled. In this state, differences that arise due to ignorance (or illusion) will be destroyed and the person will attain full unison with the Bhagavan and will become abhedi (one who has overcome differences):

vibhedajanakeSjñāne nāśamatyantikaṃ gate |
ātmano brahmaṇo bhedamasantaṃ kaḥ kariṣyati || (6.7.96)       

When the ignorance that causes differences is completely destroyed, who can create any difference in the realisation that the person and Brahma are the same?

The following verse which describes the nature of Bhakti is truly splendid.

yā prītiravekānām viṣayeṣvanapāyinī |
tvāmanusvarataḥ sā me hrudayānmāpasarpatu || (1.20.19) 

Praying to Vishnu, Prahlada says, “no matter what birth I take, let my devotion for you remain steadfast and unswerving.” Further, he says, “Those bereft of wisdom have firm attachment and love for objects that they think bring them happiness. Let my heart which constantly chants your name, also have the same attachment and love for you. Let it not sway even a bit.” The truly blessed person who is endowed with this unswerving devotion will have nothing to do with Dharma, Artha, or Kama. Moksha resides in his palm: “muktistasya kare sthitāḥ.”

Vishnupurana and Srimad Bhagavatam

Among the ten renowned avatara-s of Vishnu, the Vishnupurana contains the stories of five: kūrma, varāha, nṛsiṃha, rāma, and kṛṣṇa. Of these, Sri Rama’s story is narrated very briefly while Sri Krishna’s story is highly elaborate. The famous story where nṛsiṃha slays the demon Hiranyakashyipu occurs in just one line and is not given any importance. The story of the ten avatara-s of Vishnu is provided in a detailed fashion in the Srimad Bhagavatam. It occupies a highly significant place in that Purana. Although the Vishnupurana emphasizes on the importance of Bhakti, this emphasis occurs in a subtle fashion. However, in the Bhagavatam, the exposition of Bhakti is exhaustive and extremely appealing. We can recall here that the very purpose of the Bhagavatam is to offer a discourse on the primacy of Bhakti. In instances where the bhāgavata (expositor of Vishnu Bhakti) describes Bhakti, he forgets himself and is immersed in the Bhagavan. It appears that the goal of the Bhagavatam is to elaborately explain every single facet of the Vishnupurana. However, in the Bhagavatam, we do not see the lilting linguistic style and simplicity of the Vishnupurana. When we consider other aspects such as the sameness of subject and phrasal similarity,      we can conclude that the Bhagavatam is akin to a commentary on the Vishnupurana. However, it is our definite opinion that the author of the Bhagavatam certainly had the Vishnupurana in front of him.

Importance of the Puranas

The tradition of reciting and listening to Puranas has come down to us from ancient times in this sacred Bharatavarsha. In both villages and cities, it was common to witness Purana recitations in temple premises in the evenings. The thawing of this tradition in recent times is proving highly dangerous for the growth of our Sanatana culture. It is equally a matter of great regret that our children do not have even a basic acquaintance of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. A good section of contemporary Hindus have not even heard of great Bhaktas like Dhruva, Prahlada, Markandeya or Ambarisha; they are ignorant of extraordinarily courageous heroes like Nala, Harishchandra, or Yayati; they know nothing about virtuous women like Damayanti, Anasuya, or Chandramati. This is the direct consequence of the decline of the tradition of Purana recitation and listening. More alarming is the fact that even the educated class of Hindus show a wanton negligence towards Puranas. Some have even gone to the extent of hurling contempt against Puranas, “We don’t need your Purana!” However, the truth is exactly the opposite of this attitude. When our ancients declared that the Puranas are part of the fourteen branches of learning, they weren’t merely praising the Puranas. We must not forget the fact that the very purpose of the Puranas is to inform and educate the masses about the most essential topics related to both worldly knowledge and spiritual literacy. The stories narrated in the Puranas are extremely thrilling. The moral and ethical principles that one must learn from these are invaluable. The philosophical tenets expounded therein in simple terms sans tough theories are worth contemplating throughout life. Specialist topics such as Yoga, jyautiṣa (astronomy), etc., that occur incidentally are essential knowledge for every person. Although the long lists of lineages and dynastic histories might bring boredom, we must not forget that they have historical value. Besides, the sections on ācārasahita (related to right conduct) and dharmasahita (expositions on Dharma) are useful for cultured and ethical people.

It is true that the Puranas contain numerous episodes involving supernatural and fantastic elements. Some people object to these on the grounds that they are unbelievable. However, this truth remains—let those who want to believe, believe; but even the non-believers have some profound value or philosophical tenet to take home. So far, no systematic study of all the Puranas has taken place in the method prescribed by the Sastras. If scholars who are well-versed in both our traditional knowledge like Vedanta and modern learning undertake this task with Shraddha, it will be a profound service rendered to Indian learning itself.

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.  



Sandeep Balakrishna is a writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. He is the author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore" and "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History." He translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.

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