Monthly Archives: November 2015

Puranas – A Short Introduction

The Puranas occupy a unique position in the sacred and secular literature of the Hindus, being regarded as next in importance only to the Vedas. Along with Mahabharatha they are considered as the fifth Veda, the Veda of the masses.1 The Puranas serve as the key to the proper understanding of the various aspects of Hinduism- its beliefs, its modes of worship, its mythology, its festivals, feasts, and fasts, its sacred shrines and places of pilgrimage, its philosophy and ethics and its theology. The study of ancient Indian history, and culture particularly religion is impossible without a proper knowledge of the Puranas. As a matter of fact, it is virtually impossible to understand not only ancient Indian culture and life, but also the literature in modern Indian languages, as it largely draws upon the ideas and ideologies as embodied in the contents of the Puranas and the epics.2

Classification of the Puranas

There are eighteen major Puranas containing over four lakhs of slokas and are classified into three, those pertaining to Brahma (Brahma Purana, Brahmanda Purana, Brahmavaivarta Purana, Markandeya Purana, Bhavishya Purana and Vamana Purana); those pertaining to Vishnu (Vishnu Purana, Bhagavata Purana, Narada Purana, Garuda Purana, Padma Purana and Varaha Purana) and those to Shiva (Vayu Purana, Linga Purana, Skanda Purana, Agni Purana, Matsya Purana and Kurma Purana). 3

Genesis of the Puranas

Puranas have a hoary past. During the Vedic age there was a class of men called the Sutas and their job was to recite the glories of kings, history of royal families and life and career of great men gathered from eye witnesses and contemporary chroniclers.4 The Rig-Veda contains hymns of a narrative character and short legends in prose and verse called Gathas, Narasamsis, Itihasas, etc., occur in the Brahmana literature. In Vedic literature, Purana, Itihasa, Katha meant ordinarily an old tale, story, legend or incident and they were often interchangeable.5 As the Taittriya Aranyaka speaks of Itihasas and Puranas, it would not be unreasonable to suppose that in the later Vedic period at least some works called Purana existed and were studied and recited by those who were engaged in solemn sacrifices like the Ashwamedha.6 After the end of Mahabharatha War (2449 B.C or 3067 B.C.), Krishna Dvaipayana (also known as Veda Vyasa) compiled the tales, anecdotes, songs and lore that had come down from the ages into a text called Purana Samhita 7 and taught this to his disciple Suta Romaharsana or Lomaharsana, who in turn taught it to Atreya Sumati, Kashyapa Akrtavrana, Bharadvaja Agnivarcas, Vasishta Mitrayu, Savarni Somadatti and Susarman Shamshapayana. Of these six disciples, Kashyapa Akrtavrana, Savarni Somadatti and Susarman Shamshapayana composed three new Purana Samhitas and Suta’s own was the fourth and original one. These four are said to be basic Purana Samhitas.8

Characteristics of the Puranas

The great lexicographer Amara Simha, a contemporary of Kalidasa and who flourished before 6th century A.D. in his dictionary, Amarakosha, says that the Puranas have five characteristics like Sarga, Pratisarga, Vamsa, Manvantara and Vamsanucarita. Among these Sarga and Pratisarga are natural creation and renovation (cosmogony). Vamsa means history of sages and patriarchs. By Manvantara is meant the period of different Manus and Vamshanucarita means genealogy of kings.9

As Apastamba (600 B.C.-300 B.C.) mentions a Bhavisyat Purana and also Purana, it follows that before 500 B.C. several Purana existed and one of which was called the Bhavisyat and the Puranas then known contained the topics of Sarga, Pratisarga and Smriti matters.10 Before 5th century A.D. the number of Puranas was not large and that as the Itihasa and Purana were lumped together as the 5th Veda in the Upanishads, they both had certain matters in common. Itihasa probably did not deal with creation, dissolution and manvantaras but contended itself with the dynasties of kings and with the deeds and legends about the heroes of the past. It appears originally the line of demarcation between Itihasa and Puranas was rather thin.11

Additions and Alterations in the Puranas

Over a period of time the Sutas who were the preservers and propagators of the Puranas sunk low in the social scale and foreign dynasties like that of Kanishka and the Huns did not patronize them. The Sutas probably became Buddhists as Buddhism with its Jataka stories gave to all persons following the profession of a bard sufficient scope for earning their livelihood.12 With the exit of the Sutas and as Sanskrit learning became peculiarly the business of Brahmins, the profession of studying Puranas was taken over by the Brahmins.13 But the Brahmins who studied the Vedas considered the Brahmins who were devoted to the study of the Puranas as having fallen away from the highest Brahmanic standard. Hence the Brahmins studying the Puranas magnified their own profession and extolled the Puranas by incorporating distinctly Brahmanic teachings and practice into the Puranas and compared them as sacred as Vedas.14

The surviving Puranas contain far more subjects than the five characteristics. Some Puranas barely touch these five and deal at great length with altogether different topics. Of all the Puranas extant, Vishnu Purana alone closely agrees with the definition of Purana having the five lakshanas though it also contains a good many other topics. On a modest calculation the four subjects of vrata, shraddha, tirtha and dana covers at least one hundred thousand slokas in the present 18 main Puranas. It is probable therefore that the present main Puranas are partial and gradually inflated representatives of an earlier group of Puranas (not necessarily 18 in number) that existed before Yajnavalkya (100 A.D.-300 A.D.) It is impossible to find out what these Puranas were or contained.15   But most of the extant Puranas were composed or completed in the period from the 5th or 6th century A.D. to the 9th century A.D.16

Categorization and Contents of the Extant Puranas

Prof. Hara Prasad Shastri has classified the Puranas into several groups in accordance with the subject matter they contain. The encyclopedic group comprises Puranas like the Agni, Garuda and Narada. The next group which contains Puranas like Padma, Skanda and Bhavishya deals with tirthas (legends about holy places) and vratas (religious vows). Puranas like Linga, Vamana and Markandeya are grouped as sectarian and Puranas like Vayu, Brahmanda, Vishnu and Matsya are grouped as historical. The Puranas are also classified into ancient and later. The less, the number of additions other than the characteristics topics as defined by Amarakosha, the older the Puranas. Judging by this test we may pronounce Vayu, Vishnu, Matsya and Brahmanda as the ancient Puranas. From the Vaishnava point of view the Puranas are sub divided into sathvika, rajasika and tamasika, with the Puranas grouped under Vishnu being defined as sathvika, those under Brahma as rajasika and those grouped under Shiva as tamasika.17

It appears that up to the period of the Atharvaveda, the Puranas signified only tales of old and were allied with ithihasa, gathas, narasamsis, etc. During the Upanishad period chapters on cosmology along with the ages of the Manus were incorporated and later it came to have the characteristics as defined by Amarasimha in his Amarakosha.18 According to R.C.Hazra during 3rd-4th century A.D. topics on Hindu rites and customs which formed the subject matter of early smrti samhitas such as Manu and Yajnavalkya were incorporated in the Puranas and later from 600 A.D. onwards new topics regarding gifts, initiation, sacrifices, homa, tirthas, tithis, etc. not found in the Manu and Yajnavalkya smrti were incorporated in the Puranas.19

Upa Puranas

There are eighteen minor Puranas (Upapuranas) besides the eighteen major ones. They are Sanatkumara, Narasimha, Naradiya, Siva, Durvasas, Kapila, Manava, Ushanas, Varuna, Kalika, Samba, Saura, Aditya, Maheshvara, Devibhagavata, Vasistha, Visnudharmottara and Nilamata Purana.20 The Matsya Purana speaks of the Upapurana as sub-sections (Upabhedas) of the principal 18 Puranas while the Kurma Purana states that the Upapurana are the summaries or abridgments of the 18 principal Puranas made by sages after studying them.21 The Upapuranas are more sectarian in character and has little historical value.22 According to R.C.Hazra the Upapuranas were composed between 650-8—A.D. by the adherents of sects like Pancaratras, Pashupatas, etc for establishing the varnashramadharma and the authority of the Vedas among the masses.23 But P.V.Kane is of the view that there is no positive objective evidence for placing any Upapurana except the Visnudharmottara before the 8th or 9th century A.D.24

Sthala Puranas

A third class of Puranas exists and is known as Sthala Puranas. Each place of pilgrimage, each important shrine has its Sthala Purana alleged to have been the work of this or that Rishi of ancient sanctity. Notwithstanding their pretentious claims, they are works of no authority and are rank forgeries.25

Interpolation and Plagiarism in the Puranas

According to P.V.Kane, the extant Puranas and some of the Upapuranas have been so much tampered with and inflated by additions intended to bolster up particular forms of worship and particular tenets that great caution is required before one recognize them as genuine and reliable representatives for ascertaining the general state of Indian society and beliefs in ancient India.26 According to Venkatachala Iyer, chapters of great number and great length are found plagiarized from one Purana and incorporated entire into another, verbatim. The reason for this was during the days when the Puranas were composed it was extremely difficult to bring out multiple copies and each locality prided itself on the possession of a particular book (Purana). Every endeavor was made to make each Purana self-contained as far as possible and this was done with the minimum of literary effort on the part of the author. Page after page was transcribed entirely from some other Purana with headlines and the names of the interlocutors mostly changed. The readers thus found his Purana as complete as possible. The author had the satisfaction of knowing that his literary larceny could not ordinarily be discovered in conditions which existed. It may appear strange and paradoxical that each one of the two Puranas should copy from the other. And yet it is true. This happens when a portion of Purana A is copied into Purana B, and some other portion of Purana B is copied into Purana A.27

Cautious approach in using Puranas to reconstruct Indian History

According to A.D.Pusalkar the Puranas contains not only valuable historical material 28 but also information on various topics for the reconstruction of ancient Indian history. But in using it a modern historian should be able to disentangle legendary, fictitious or mythological material from the purely historical and cultural data.29 According to L.Hariyappa, in estimating the value of the Epics and the Puranas for a historical study, the view is generally held that sound conclusions are possible when only critical editions of the texts are made available. No definite period of composition can be fixed for these works, because, through centuries they have been subjected to additions and alterations with the result that they have grown in bulk. As it has proved in the case of Mahabharatha, it is an arduous task to bring out critical editions. All the same the necessity for them is beyond question, if a systematic insight into the currents and cross currents of our culture is to be gained.30


  1. D.Pusalkar, Studies in the Epics and Puranas,Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1955, p. xIiii
  2. Vettam Mani- Puranic Encyclopedia, Motilal Banarsidass, 1975, vii
  3. Ibid, pp: 617,618
  4. Dhirendra Nath Pal, Sri Krishna, his Life and Teachings, The Research Home, Calcutta, 1923, pp: xxii,xxiii
  5. Krishnamachariar, History of Classical Sanskrit Literature, TTD Press, Madras, 1937, p.2
  6. V.Kane, History of Dharmashastras, vol V, part II, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona, 1962, p.817
  7. Vishnu Purana says that Vyasa compiled a Purana Samhita with Akhyana (what is seen with one’s own eyes), Upakhyana (what is heard from different persons), Gathas (songs about the ancestors) and Kalpasuddhi (treatment of shraddha ceremony) and gave it to his chief disciple, Lomaharsana, born in the Suta caste. (Krishnamachariar, Op.cit, pp: 73,74
  8. E.Pargiter, Ancient Indian Historical Tradition, Oxford University Press, London, 1922, pp: 21-23
  9. Vettam Mani- cit,, p. 617
  10. V.Kane, Op.cit, p.818
  11. Ibid, p.840
  12. Ibid, p.857
  13. E.Pargiter, Op.cit, p.24
  14. Ibid, 29
  15. V.Kane, Op.cit, pp: 841,842
  16. Ibid, pp: 854,855
  17. D.Pusalkar, Op.cit,, pp: xIiii, xIix,I
  18. Ibid, p. Iiii
  19. Ibid, p. 197
  20. Vettam Mani- cit, p.619
  21. V.Kane, Op.cit, p. 835
  22. D.Pusalkar, Op.cit, p xIviii
  23. Ibid, pp: 204-205
  24. V.Kane, Op.cit, p.838
  25. Venkatachala Iyer- The Puranas in QJMS vol XIII, April 1923, No.3, p.705
  26. V.Kane, Op.cit, p.838
  27. Venkatachala Iyer, Op.cit, pp:706,707
  28. E.Pargiter, who worked as a judge in Calcutta High Court in his work, Ancient Indian Historical Tradition published in 1922, has made use of the Puranas to reconstruct the history of India from the earliest times down to the Mahabharatha war. He held the view that the Puranas did not support the theory of Aryan migration through North-West region of India. (A.D.Pusalkar, Studies in the Epics and Puranas, p.195)
  29. Ibid, p. Ixviii
  30. Hariyappa- Rig-Vedic Legends through the Ages, Poona, 1953, pp:127-128