Purana (पुराण) is a vast genre of Indian literature about a wide range of topics, particularly about legends and other traditional lore. The Puranas are known for the intricate layers of symbolism depicted within their stories. Composed originally in Sanskrit and in other Indian languages, several of these texts are named after major Hindu Gods such as Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma, and Adi Shakti. The Puranic genre of literature is found in both Hinduism and Jainism. There are 18 Mukhya Puranas (Major Puranas) and 18 Upa Puranas (Minor Puranas), with over 400,000 verses. The first versions of various Puranas were likely to have been composed between the 3rd and 10th century CE. The Puranas do not enjoy the authority of a scripture in Hinduism but are considered as Smritis.
Meaning of Purana
Purana is one of a class of Hindu sacred writings chiefly from a.d. 300 to a.d. 750 comprising popular myths and legends and other traditional lore. The Purana literally means “ancient, former, or old”.
Douglas Harper states that the etymological origins of Puranas are from Sanskrit Puranah, literally “ancient, former,” from pura “formerly, before,” cognate with Greek Paros “before,” pro “before,” Avestan paro “before,” Old English fore, from Proto-Indo-European *pre-, from *per-.”
The Purpose of Puranas
In their perpetual struggle for existence, human beings have forgotten their relationship with God and are overly attached to material sense gratification from time immemorial. Religious literature such as Vedas and Puranas attempt to bring human beings closer to God and re-establish their forgotten relation with God. Puranas offer shelter to people who seek to conquer the darkest region of material existence.
Origin of Purana
Vyasa, the narrator of the Mahabharata, is hagiographically credited as the compiler of the Puranas. The ancient tradition suggests that originally there was but one Purana. Vishnu Purana (3.6.15) mentions that Vyasa entrusted his Puranasamhita to his disciple Lomaharshana, who in turn imparted it to his disciples, three of whom compiled their own Samhitas. These three, together with Lomaharshana’s, comprise the Mulasamhita, from which the later eighteen Puranas were derived.
The term Purana appears in the Vedic texts. For example, Atharvaveda mentions Purana (in the singular) in XI.7.24 and XV.6.10-11:
“The rk and saman verses, the chandas, the Purana along with the Yajus formulae, all sprang from the remainder of the sacrificial food, (as also) the demigods that resort to heaven. He changed his place and went over to great direction, and Itihasa and Purana, Gathas, Verses in praise of heroes followed in going over.” — Atharvaveda XV.6.10-11,
According to Thomas Coburn, Puranas, and early extra-puranic texts attest to two traditions regarding their origin, one proclaiming a divine origin as the breath of the Great Being, the other as a human named Vyasa as the arranger of already existing material into eighteen Puranas.
Of the many texts designated ‘Puranas,’ the most important are the Mahāpurāṇas or the major Puranas. These are said to be eighteen in number, divided into three groups of six, though they are not always counted in the same way. In the Vishnu Purana Part 3 Section 6(21-24) the list of Mahapuranas is mentioned. The Bhagavat Purana mentions the number of verses in each Purana in 12.13(4-9).
Sometimes also called Adi Purana, because many Mahapuranas lists put it first of 18. The text has 245 chapters and shares many passages with Vishnu, Vayu, Markendeya Puranas, and the Mahabharata. Includes mythology, theory of war, artwork in temples, and other cultural topics. Describes holy places in Odisha, and weaves themes of Vishnu and Shiva, but hardly any mention of the deity Brahma despite the title. No. of verses 10,000.
A large compilation of diverse topics, it describes cosmology, the world, and the nature of life from the perspective of Vishnu. It also discusses festivals, numerous legends, the geography of rivers and regions from northwest India to Bengal to the kingdom of Tripura, major sages of India, various Avatars of Vishnu and his cooperation with Shiva, a story of Rama-Sita that is different from the Hindu epic Ramayana.
The north Indian manuscripts of Padma Purana are very different from south Indian versions, and the various recensions in both groups in different languages (Devanagari and Bengali, for example) show major inconsistencies. Like the Skanda Purana, it is a detailed treatise on travel and pilgrimage centers in India. No. of verses 55,000.
One of the most studied and circulated Puranas, it also contains genealogical details of various dynasties. Better preserved after the 17th century, but existing in inconsistent versions, more ancient pre-15th century versions are very different from modern versions, with some versions discussing Buddhism and Jainism. Some chapters were likely composed in Kashmir and the Punjab region of South Asia. A Vaishnavism text focused on Vishnu. No. of verses 23,000.
The Shiva Purana is one of eighteen Purana genres of Sanskrit texts in Hinduism, and part of the Shaivism literature corpus. It primarily centers around the Hindu God Shiva and Goddess Parvati, but references and reveres all Gods. The Shiva Purana asserts that it once consisted of 100,000 verses set out in twelve samhitas (books), however the Purana adds that it was abridged by sage Vyasa before being taught to Romaharshana. No. of verses 24,000.
The most studied and popular of the Puranas, telling of Vishnu‘s Avatars, and of Vaishnavism. It contains genealogical details of various dynasties. Numerous inconsistent versions of this text and historical manuscripts exist, in many Indian languages. Influential and elaborated during the Bhakti movement. No. of verses 18,000.
Also called Naradiya Purana. Discusses the four Vedas and the six Vedangas. Dedicate one chapter each, from Chapters 92 to 109, to summarize the other 17 Maha Puranas and themselves. Lists major rivers of India and places of pilgrimage, and a short tour guide for each. Includes discussion of various philosophies, soteriology, planets, astronomy, myths, and characteristics of major deities including Vishnu, Shiva, Devi, Krishna, Rama, Lakshmi, and others. No. of verses 25,000.
Describes Vindhya Range and western India. Probably composed in the valleys of the Narmada and Tapti rivers, in Maharashtra and Gujarat. Named after sage Markandeya, a student of Brahma. Contains chapters on dharma and on the Hindu epic Mahabharata. The Purana includes Devi Mahatmyam of Shaktism. No. of verses 9,000.
Contains encyclopedic information. Includes geography of Mithila (Bihar and neighboring states), cultural history, politics, education system, iconography, taxation theories, organization of the army, theories on proper causes for war, diplomacy, local laws, building public projects, water distribution methods, trees and plants, medicine, Vastu Shastra (architecture), gemology, grammar, metrics, poetry, food, rituals, and numerous other topics. No. of verses 15,400.
The Bhavishya Purana (Bhaviṣya Purāṇa, lit. “Future Purana”) is one of the eighteen major works in the Purana genre of Hinduism, written in Sanskrit. The title Bhavishya means “future” and implies it is a work that contains prophecies regarding the future, however, the “prophecy” parts of the extant manuscripts are a modern era addition and hence not an integral part of the Bhavishya Purana.
Those sections of the surviving manuscripts that are dated to be older are partly borrowed from other Indian texts such as Brihat Samhita and Shamba Purana. No. of verses 14,500.
It is related by Savarni to Narada and centers around the greatness of Krishna and Radha. In this, the story of Brahma-Varaha is repeatedly told. Notable for asserting that Krishna is the supreme reality and the Gods Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma are incarnations of him. Mentions geography and rivers such as Ganga to Kaveri. No. of verses 18,000.
Discusses Lingam, a symbol of Shiva, and the origin of the universe as per Shaivism. It also contains many stories of Lingam, one of which entails how Agni Lingam solved a dispute between Vishnu and Brahma. No. of verses 11,000.
Primarily Vishnu-related worship manual, with large Mahatmya sections or travel guide to Mathura and Nepal. The presentation focuses on Varaha as an incarnation of Narayana but rarely uses the terms Krishna or Vasudeva. Many illustrations also involve Shiva and Durga. No. of verses 24,000.
Describes the birth of Skanda (or Karthikeya), son of Shiva. 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. No. of verses 81,000.
Describes North India, particularly the Himalayan foothills region. No. of verses 10,000.
An encyclopedia of diverse topics. Narrates the story of Matsya, the first of ten major Avatars of Vishnu. Likely composed in west India, by people aware of the geographical details of the Narmada River. Includes legends about Brahma and Saraswati. It also contains controversial genealogical details of various dynasties. No. of verses 14,000.
An encyclopedia of diverse topics. Primarily about Vishnu, but praises all Gods. Describes how Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma collaborate. Many chapters are a dialogue between Vishnu and the bird-vehicle Garuda. Cosmology, Describes cosmology, the relationship between Gods. Discusses ethics, what are crimes, good versus evil, various schools of Hindu philosophies, the theory of Yoga, the theory of “heaven and hell” with “karma and rebirth”, including Upanishadic discussion of self-knowledge as a means of moksha.
Includes chapters on rivers, the geography of Bharat (India) and other nations on earth, types of minerals and stones, testing methods for stones for their quality, various diseases and their symptoms, various medicines, aphrodisiacs, prophylactics, Hindu calendar and its basis, astronomy, moon, planets, astrology, architecture, building a home, essential features of a temple, rites of passage, virtues such as compassion, charity and gift making, economy, thrift, duties of a king, politics, state officials and their roles and how to appointment them, genre of literature, rules of grammar, and other topics. The final chapters discuss how to practice Yoga (Samkhya and Advaita types), personal development, and the benefits of self-knowledge. No. of verses 19,000.
One of the earliest composed Puranas, it contains controversial genealogical details of various dynasties. Includes Lalita Sahasranamam, law codes, system of governance, administration, diplomacy, trade, and ethics. Old manuscripts of Brahmanda Purana have been found in the Hindu literature collections of Bali, Indonesia. No. of verses 12,000.
Mahapuranas according to Uma Samhita
In Shiva Purana – Uma Samhita mentioned the following list of Mahapuranas:
In Devi Bhagavata, the Vayu Purana is mentioned instead of the Shiva Purana. The Mahapuranas have also been classified based on a specific deity, although the texts are mixed and revere all Gods and Goddesses:
|Brāhma:||Brahma Purana, Padma Purana|
|Surya:||Brahma Vaivarta Purana|
|Śaiva:||Shiva Purana, Linga Purana|
|Vaiṣhṇava:||Vishnu Purana, Bhagavata Purana, Skanda Purana, Varaha Purana, Nāradeya Purana, Garuda Purana, Vayu Purana, Varaha Purana, Matsya Purana, Bhavishya Purana, Vāmana Purana, Kūrma Purana, Mārkandeya Purana, Brahmānda Purana|
|Śakta:||Devi-Bhagavata Purana, Markandeya Purana, Brahmanda Purana, Skanda Purana|
All major Puranas contain sections on Devi (Goddesses) and Tantra; the six most significant of these are Markandeya Purana, Shiva Purana, Linga Purana, Brahma Vaivarta Purana, Agni Purana, and Padma Purana.
The difference between Upapuranas and Mahapuranas has been explained by Rajendra Hazra as “a Mahapurana is well known, and that what is less well known becomes a Upapurana”. Rocher states that the distinction between Mahapurana and Upapurana is ahistorical, there is little corroborating evidence that either was more or less known, and that “the term Mahapurana occurs rarely in Purana literature and is probably of late origin.”
The Upapuranas are eighteen in number, with disagreement as to which canonical titles belong in that list of eighteen.
They include among –
With only a few having been critically edited. The Ganesha and Mudgala Puranas are devoted to Ganesha.
Matsya Purana, and Devi Bhagavata Purana
Several Puranas, such as the Matsya Purana, and Devi Bhagavata Purana list “five characteristics” or “five signs” of a Purana. These are called the Pancha Lakshana (pañcalakṣaṇa), and are topics covered by a Purana:
- Sarga: cosmogony or the creation of the world
- Pratisarga: cosmogony and cosmology
- Vamśa: genealogy of the Gods, sages, and kings
- Manvañtara: cosmic cycles, history of the world during the time of one patriarch
- Vamśānucaritam: Account of royal dynasties dynasty, including the Suryavamshi and Chandravamshi kings
A few Puranas, such as the most popular Bhagavata Purana, add five more characteristics to expand this list to ten:
- Utaya: karmic links between the deities, sages, kings, and the various living beings
- Ishanukatha: Tales about a God
- Nirodha: Finale, cessation
- Mukti: Moksha, spiritual liberation
- Ashraya: refuge
These five or ten sections weave in biographies, myths, geography, medicine, astronomy, Hindu temples, pilgrimage to distant real places, rites of passage, charity, ethics, duties, rights, dharma, divine intervention in cosmic and human affairs, love stories, festivals, theosophy, and philosophy.
Symbolism and layers of meaning
The texts use ideas, concepts, and even names that are symbolic. The words can be interpreted literally and at an axiological level. The Vishnu Purana, for example, recites a myth where the names of the characters are loaded with symbolism and axiological significance. The myth is as follows:
The progeny of Dharma by the daughters of Daksha were as follows: by Sraddhá (devotion) he had Kama (desire); by Lakshmí (wealth, prosperity), was born Darpa (pride); by Dhriti (courage), the progeny was Niyama (precept); by Tusht́i (inner comfort), Santosha (contentment); by Pusht́i (opulence), the progeny was Lobha (cupidity, greed); by Medhá (wisdom, experience), Sruta (sacred tradition); by Kriyá (hard work, labour), the progeny were Dańd́a, Naya, and Vinaya (justice, politics, and education); by Buddhi (intellect), Bodha (understanding); by Lajjá (shame, humility), Vinaya (good behaviour); by Vapu (body, strength), Vyavasaya (perseverance). Shanti (peace) gave birth to Kshama (forgiveness); Siddhi (excellence) to Sukha (enjoyment); and Kírtti (glorious speech) gave birth to Yasha (reputation). These were the sons of Dharma; one of whom, Kama (love, emotional fulfillment) had baby Hersha (joy) by his wife Nandi (delight). — Vishnu Purana, Chapter 7, Translated by Horace Hayman Wilson
Puranas as a complement to the Vedas
The relation of the Puranas with Vedas has been debated by scholars, some holding that there’s no relationship, others contending that they are identical. The Puranic literature, stated Max Muller, is independent, has changed often over its history, and has little relation to the Vedic age or the Vedic literature. In contrast, Purana literature is evidently intended to serve as a complement to the Vedas, states Vans Kennedy.
Some scholars such as Govinda Das suggest that the Puranas claim a link to the Vedas but in name only, not in substance. The link is purely a mechanical one. Scholars such as Viman Chandra Bhattacharya and PV Kane state that the Puranas are a continuation and development of the Vedas. Sudhakar Malaviya and VG Rahurkar state the connection are closer in that the Puranas are companion texts to help understand and interpret the Vedas. K.S. Ramaswami Sastri and Manilal N. Dvivedi reflect the third view which states that Puranas enable us to know the “true import of the ethos, philosophy, and religion of the Vedas“.
Puranas as encyclopedias
The Puranas, states Kees Bolle, are best seen as “vast, often encyclopedic” works from ancient and medieval India. Some of them, such as the Agni Purana and Matsya Purana, cover all sorts of subjects, dealing with – states Rocher – “anything and everything”, from fiction to facts, from practical recipes to abstract philosophy, from geographic Mahatmyas (travel guides) to cosmetics, from festivals to astronomy.
Like encyclopedias, they were updated to remain current with their times, by a process called Upabrimhana. However, some of the 36 major and minor Puranas are more focused handbooks, such as the Skanda Purana, Padma Purana, and Bhavishya Purana which deal primarily with Tirtha Mahatmyas (pilgrimage travel guides), while Vayu Purana and Brahmanda Purana focus more on history, mythology and legends.
Puranas as religious texts
The colonial era scholars of Puranas studied them primarily as religious texts, with Vans Kennedy declaring in 1837, that any other use of these documents would be disappointing. John Zephaniah Holwell, who from 1732 onwards spent 30 years in India and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1767, described the Puranas as “18 books of divine words”. British officials and researchers such as Holwell, states Urs App, were orientalist scholars who introduced a distorted picture of Indian literature and Puranas as “sacred scriptures of India” in 1767. Holwell, states Urs App, “presented it as the opinion of knowledgeable Indians; But it is abundantly clear that no knowledgeable Indian would ever have said anything remotely similar”.
Puranas as historical texts
Despite the diversity and wealth of manuscripts from ancient and medieval India that have survived into modern times, there is a paucity of historical data on them. This paucity tempted 19th-century scholars to use the Puranas as a source of chronological and historical information about India or Hinduism.
Basham, as well as Kosambi, have questioned whether lack of inconsistency is sufficient proof of reliability and historicity. More recent scholarship has attempted to, with limited success, states Ludo Rocher, use the Puranas for historical information in combination with independent corroborating evidence, such as “epigraphy, archaeology, Buddhist literature, Jaina literature, non-Puranic literature, Islamic records, and records preserved outside India by travelers to or from India in medieval times such as in China, Myanmar, and Indonesia”.
The study of Purana manuscripts has been challenging because they are highly inconsistent. This is true for all Mahapuranas and Upapuranas. Most editions of Puranas, in use particularly by Western scholars, are “based on one manuscript or on a few manuscripts selected at random”, even though divergent manuscripts with the same title exist.
Scholars have long acknowledged the existence of Purana manuscripts that “seem to differ much from the printed edition”, and it is unclear which one is accurate, and whether conclusions drawn from the randomly or cherrypicked printed version were universal over geography or time.
Chronology of Purana
Newly discovered Purana manuscripts from the medieval centuries have attracted scholarly attention and the conclusion that the Puranic literature has gone through slow redaction and text corruption over time, as well as sudden deletion of numerous chapters and its replacement with new content to an extent that the currently circulating Puranas are entirely different from those that existed before 11th century, or 16th century.
For example, a newly discovered palm-leaf manuscript of Skanda Purana in Nepal has been dated to be from 810 CE but is entirely different from versions of Skanda Purana that have been circulating in South Asia since the colonial era. Further discoveries of four more manuscripts, each different, suggest that the document has gone through major redactions twice, the first likely before the 12th century, and the second very large change sometime in the 15th-16th century for unknown reasons. The different versions of manuscripts of Skanda Purana suggest “minor” redactions, interpolations, and corruption of the ideas in the text over time.
The scholarship on various Puranas, has suffered from frequent forgeries, states Ludo Rocher, where liberties in the transmission of Puranas were normal and those who copied older manuscripts replaced words or added new content to fit the theory that the colonial scholars were keen on publishing.
Influence of Purana
The most significant influence of the Puranas genre of Indian literature has been stated by scholars and particularly Indian scholars, in “culture synthesis”, in weaving and integrating the diverse beliefs from ritualistic rites of passage to Vedantic philosophy, from fictional legends to factual history, from individual introspective yoga to social celebratory festivals, from temples to pilgrimage, from one God to another, from Goddesses to tantra, from the old to the new.
These have been dynamic open texts, composed socially, over time. This, states Greg Bailey, may have allowed the Hindu culture to “preserve the old while constantly coming to terms with the new”, and “if they are anything, they are records of cultural adaptation and transformation” over the last 2,000 years.
The cultural influence of the Puranas extended to Indian classical arts, such as songs, and dance culture such as Bharata Natyam in south India and Rasa Lila in northeast India, plays and recitations.
The myths, lunar calendar schedules, rituals, and celebrations of major Hindu cultural festivities such as Holi, Diwali, and Durga Puja are in the Puranic literature.
Teachings of Purana