The Vishnu Purana (विष्णुपुराण) is one of the eighteen Mahapuranas, a genre of ancient and medieval texts of Hinduism. It is an important Pancharatra text in the Vaishnavism literature corpus. More than any other major Purana, the Vishnu Purana presents its contents in Pancalaksana format – Sarga (cosmogony), Pratisarga (cosmology), Vamśa (genealogy of the Gods, sages, and kings), Manvantara (cosmic cycles), and Vamśānucaritam (legends during the times of various kings). Vishnu Purana, like all major Puranas, attributes its author to be sage Veda Vyasa. The actual author(s) and date of its composition are unknown and contested. Estimates of its composition range from 400 BCE to 900 CE. The Padma Purana categorizes Vishnu Purana as a Sattva Purana (Purana that represents Goodness and purity).
What is Vishnu Purana?
The Vishnu Purana is one of the eighteen Mahapuranas, a genre of ancient Indian texts. It is considered one of the most important and authoritative texts in Hinduism, primarily focusing on the life, exploits, and teachings of Lord Vishnu, one of the principal deities in Hindu mythology.
Date of composition of Vishnu Purana
The composition date of Vishnu Purana is unknown and contested, with estimates widely disagreeing. Some proposed dates for the earliest version of Vishnu Purana by various scholars include:
- Vincent Smith (1908): 400-300 BCE,
- CV Vaidya (1925): ~9th-century,
- Moriz Winternitz (1932): possibly early 1st millennium, but states Rocher, he added, “it is no more possible to assign a definite date to the Vishnu Purana than it is for any other Purana”,
- Rajendra Chandra Hazra (1940): 275-325 CE,
- Ramachandra Dikshitar (1951): 700-300 BCE,
- Roy (1968): after the 9th century,
- Horace Hayman Wilson (1864): acknowledged that the tradition believes it to be 1st millennium BCE text and the text has roots in the Vedic literature, but after his analysis suggested that the extant manuscripts may be from the 11th century, and
- Wendy Doniger (1988): c 450 CE.
The scholarship on Vishnu Purana, and other Puranas, have suffered from cases of 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.
Vishnu Purana Structure
The extant text comprises six amsas (parts) and 126 adhyayas (chapters). The first part has 22 chapters, the second part consists of 16 chapters, the third part comprises 18 chapters and the fourth part has 24 chapters. The fifth and the sixth parts are the longest and the shortest part of the text, comprising 38 and 8 chapters respectively.
The textual tradition claims that the original Vishnu Purana had 23,000 verses, but the surviving manuscripts have just a third of these, about 7,000 verses.
The Vishnu Purana is an exception in that it presents its contents in Vishnu worship-related Panchalaksana format – Sarga (Cosmogony), Pratisarga (Cosmology), Vamsa (Mythical genealogy of the Gods, sages, and kings), Manvantara (Cosmic Cycles), and Vamsanucaritam (Legends During The Times Of Various Kings). This is rare, state Dimmitt and van Buitenen, because just 2% of the known Puranic literature corpus is about these five Panchalaksana items, and about 98% is about a diverse range of encyclopedic topics.
Contents of Vishnu Purana
Vishnu Purana opens as a conversation between sage Maitreya and his Guru, Parashara, with the sage asking, “What Is The Nature Of This Universe And Everything That Is In It?”
First Amsa: Cosmology
The first Amsha (part) of Vishnu Purana presents cosmology, dealing with the creation, maintenance, and destruction of the universe.
Second Amsa: Earth
The second part of the text describes its theory of Earth, the seven continents, and seven oceans. It describes Mount Meru, Mount Mandara, and other major mountains, as well as Bharata Varsha (Literally, the country of Bharata) along with its numerous rivers and diverse people. The seven continents are named Jambu, Plaksha, Salmala, Kusha, Krauncha, Saka, and Pushkara, each surrounded by different types of liquids (salt water, fresh water, wine, sugarcane juice, clarified butter, liquid yoghurt, And milk).
This part of the Vishnu Purana describes spheres above the Earth, planets, the Sun, and the Moon. Four Chapters (2.13 to 2.16) of the second book of the text present the legends of King Bharat, who abdicates his throne to lead the life of a Sannyasi, which is similar to the legends found in sections 5.7 to 5.14 of the Bhagavata Purana. The geography of Mount Mandara as east of Mount Meru, presented in this book and other Puranas, states Stella Kramrisch, may be related to the word Mandir (Hindu Temple) and the reason for its Design, “Image, Aim, and Destination”.
Third Amsa: Time
Theory of Manvantaras
The initial chapters of the third book of the Vishnu Purana present its theory of Manvantaras, or Manus-ages (each 306.72 Million Years Long) This is premised upon the Hindu belief that everything is Cyclic, And Even Yuga (Era, Ages) start, mature and then dissolve. Six manvantaras, states the text, have already passed, and the current age belongs to the seventh. In each age, asserts the text, the Vedas are arranged into four, it is challenged, and this has happened twenty-eight times already. Each time, a Veda Vyasa appears and he diligently organizes the eternal knowledge, with the aid of his students.
Ethical duties of all Varnas
The Vishnu Purana asserts that the Brahmin should study the Shastras, worship Gods, and perform libations on behalf of others, the Kshatriya should maintain arms and protect the earth, the Vaishya should engage in commerce and farming, while the Shudra should subsist by profits of a trade, service other varnas and through mechanical labor. The text asserts the ethical duties of all Varnas are to do good to others, never abuse anyone, never engage in calumny or untruth, never covet another person’s wife, never steal another’s property, never bear ill-will towards anyone, never beat or slay any human being or living being.
Be diligent in the service of the Gods, sages, and gurus, asserts the Purana, and seeks the welfare of all creatures, one’s children, and of one’s soul. Anyone, regardless of their varna or stage of life, who lives a life according to the above duties is the best worshipper of Vishnu, claims the Vishnu Purana. Similar statements on the ethical duties of man are found in other parts of Vishnu Purana.
Fourth Amsa: Dynasties
The fourth book of the text, in 24 long chapters, presents royal dynasties, starting with Brahma, followed by solar and lunar dynasties. Those on earth over the Yugas (eras), with Pariksit asserted as the “current king”. The text includes the legends of numerous characters such as Shaubhri, Mandhatri, Narmada, sage Kapila, Rama, Nimi, Janaka, Buddha, Satyavati, Puru, Yadu, Krishna, Devaka, Pandu, Kuru, Bharata, Bhisma, and others.
Fifth Amsa: Krishna
The fifth book of the Vishnu Purana is the longest, with 38 chapters, which is dedicated to the Legend Of Krishna, as an incarnation of Vishnu. The book begins with the story of Krishna’s Birth, His Childhood Pranks And Plays, His Exploits, and His Purpose Of Ending The Tyranny Of the Demon-Tyrant King Of Mathura, Named Kans.
The Krishna story in the Vishnu Purana is similar to his legend in the Bhagavata Purana, in several other Puranas, and in the Harivamsa of the Mahabharata.
Sixth Amsa: Liberation
The last book of the Vishnu Purana is the shortest, with 8 chapters. The first part of the sixth book asserts that Kali Yuga is vicious, cruel, and filled with evilness that creates suffering, yet “Kali Yuga is excellent” because one can refuse to join the evil, devote oneself to Vishnu, and thus achieve salvation.
The last chapters, from 6.6 to 6.7 of the text discusses Yoga and meditation, as a means to Vishnu devotion. Contemplative devotion, asserts the text, is the union with the Brahman (supreme soul, ultimate reality), which is only achievable with virtues such as compassion, truth, honesty, disinterestedness, self-restraint, and holy studies. The text mentions five Yamas, five Niyamas, Pranayama, and Pratyahara.
The final chapter 6.8 of the text asserts itself to be an “imperishable Vaishnava Purana”.
Critical edition of Vishnu Purana
A Critical Edition of the Sanskrit text of the Visnu-Purana was published in two large volumes, 1997 and 1999. A critical edition is prepared by comparing several different manuscripts, recording their variant readings in notes, and choosing the best readings to constitute the text of the critical edition. This is a real, large-scale critical edition, in which 43 Sanskrit manuscripts were gathered and collated, and 27 were chosen from which to prepare the Sanskrit edition. It is:
The Critical Edition of the Visnupuranam, edited by M. M. Pathak, 2 vols., Vadodara: Oriental Institute, 1997, 1999.
Influences of Vishnu Purana
Vishnu Purana is one of the 18 major Puranas, and these texts share many legends and likely influenced each other. Rajendra Hazra, in 1940, assumed that Vishnu Purana is ancient and proposed that texts such as Apasthamba Dharmasutra borrowed text from it. Modern scholars such as Allan Dahlaquist disagree, however, and state that the borrowing may have been in the other direction, from Dharmasutras into the Purana.
Other chapters, particularly those in books 5 and 6 of the Vishnu Purana have Advaita Vedanta and Yoga influences. The theistic Vedanta scholar Ramanuja, according to Sucharita Adluri, incorporated ideas from the Vishnu Purana to identify the Brahman concept in the Upanishads with Vishnu, thus providing a Vedic foundation to the Srivaishnava tradition.
Importance of Vishnu Purana
Teachings of Vishnu Purana