PURĀṆAS are extensive compendiums of the mytho-history of Bhāratvarṣa (the earlier name of the Indian subcontinent). They participate in the same mythological milieu as epic (itihāsa ) and poetic (kāvya ) works, but they are structured as exhaustive amalgams of epic lore seen through particular (some would say sectarian) perspectives. The Purāṇas may be thought of as core texts of Hindu religiosity; some have become cornerstones of particular devotional traditions, and others have served as templates for institutions, social observances, and traditions of secular knowledge.
The word purāṇa itself means "ancient," and a good deal of Purāṇic lore may have coexisted with the Vedas themselves. Purāṇa appears in the Ṛgveda (where it means "ancient") and is used in a sacrificial context in the Atharvaveda and the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, leading scholars such as R. C. Hazra (1940) to suggest that the Purāṇas originated as narrative portions of the Vedic sacrifice. In early Upaniṣads, Purāṇas are spoken of along with the Vedas as texts of divine origin and are also referred to (with the epic narratives) as a type of fifth Veda. Along with the epics, they gradually came to form a vast textual base of sacred cultural memory.
On a textual-critical level, the enormity and diversity of these narratives, the extensive oral tradition from which they derive, the layering of variant materials through time, and the sectarian claims made on specific works have made the Purāṇic materials difficult to fully catalog or comprehend. The effort by the All-India Kashiraj Trust to publish critical editions of the eighteen principal Purāṇas has proven daunting. Issues of textual criticism are further complicated by the lack of agreement as to what a Purāṇa actually is, because numerous works bear the said name, and none of the conventional classifications of these texts can be called definitive. An early datable definition is found in the sixth-century lexicon Amarakośa, which identifies purāṇa as that which has five characteristics (pañcalakṣaṇa ): sarga (creation); pratisarga (re-creation of the universe after its dissolution); vaṃśa (genealogies of gods, sages, kings, and patriarchs); manvantara (cyclic ages of humanity presided over by Manu, the father of humanity); and vaṃśānucaritam (royal dynastic histories). Although the Purāṇas all contain variations on these themes, none of them literally follows this definition, because the pañcalakṣaṇa materials only make up a small percentage of their volume. Other topics covered include the puruṣārthas or "aims of humanity" (dharma, "sacred duty"; artha "material power"; kāma, "pleasure"; and mokṣa, "ultimate freedom"), religious observances, pilgrimage, charitable offerings, rites for the dead, the glorification of various divinities, descriptions of cycles of time, cosmographies of space (including graphic images of heavens and hells), philosophy and doctrinal expositions, sacraments, and social duties as well as treatises on yoga, sacrifice, and other spiritual practices.
A list of eighteen Mahāpurāṇas (Great Purāṇas) existed in the time of the Arabian traveler al-Bīrūnī (973–1048), who cites two somewhat different versions of it. The traditionally accepted list, often named after the principal narrator of the work, is as follows:
- Brahma (or Ᾱdi, first)
- Padma (Lotus)
- Viṣṇu ("all-pervading" deity)
- Vāyu (deity of the wind)
- Bhāgavata (Kṛṣṇa)
- Nārada (sage son of Brahmā)
- Mārkaṇḍeya (great sage)
- Agni (Vedic fire deity)
- Bhaviṣya (future)
- Brahmavaivarta (transformation of Brahmā)
- Liṅga (symbol of Śiva)
- Varāha (Viṣṇu as a boar)
- Skanda (god of war and son of Śiva)
- Vāmana (Viṣṇu as a brahman dwarf)
- Kūrma (Viṣṇu as a tortoise)
- Matsya (Viṣṇu as a fish)
- Garuḍa (Viṣṇu's bird carrier)
- Brahmāṇḍa (the egg of Brahmā)
These eighteen Mahāpurāṇas, said to contain a total of 400,000 verses, are attributed to the divine sage Vyāsa, who is said have arranged the revealed material (along with the Vedas and epics) and transmitted them to disciples who further elaborated upon them.
This narrative of authorship, the occurrence of the word purāṇa in the singular in a number of early works, and the scholarly tradition of a search for origins led a number of scholars to promote the notion of there being an original purāṇa that gradually was expanded and elaborated upon. The Purāṇas themselves, however, contain numerous and variant versions of their authorship (divine and human) and seem to accommodate multiperspectives of origin and meaning. This would be consistent with their derivation from a vast oral tradition and would suggest that the very idea of their being "books," as Ludo Rocher (1986) has argued, may be more a product of manuscript codification between the fourth and tenth centuries and later textual critical traditions than Purāṇic ones.
Various traditions have classified and continue to classify Purāṇas in a number of ways: devotionally, according to the main deity they glorify; qualitatively, according to the said quality (guṇa ) of nature they participate in (sattva, "purity-being"; rajas, "passion"; tamas, "dark inertia"); chrono-logically; by subject; and by the number of major revisions, particularly from different doctrinal standpoints.
Along with various lists of Mahāpurāṇas, there are Upapurāṇas, or shorter Purāṇas of supposedly later composition and more particular focus. Another Purāṇic literature is called a Māhātmya, which is a text (usually attached to a Purāṇa) that glorifies a divinity, a place of pilgrimage, or a ritual offering. There are also works known as Sthalapurāṇas, which are connected with specific localities, giving rise to the idea that every place may have had a Purāṇa of its own, rich with legendary history, and which may or may not be written down. Vaṃśapurāṇas (sometimes called Caste Purāṇas) devote themselves to the history of a lineage or particular social group. And finally, an enormous number of Purāṇic translations and derivative works exist in regional languages. These too are Purāṇas, especially when one considers how the regional traditions, local legends, and sensibilities of one area can become absorbed, "brahamanized," and reconstituted as part of a Mahāpurāṇa.
The Sanskrit of the Purāṇas is similar to epic Sanskrit, but it shows a Prakrit influence and frequent grammatical irregularities, leading some scholars to speculate on their local origins and subsequent brahmanical appropriation. The Bhāgavata, as the most Sanskritized and literary-conscious Purāṇa, may be an exception here, or it may be the most obvious example of the above process.
Within the major Purāṇic literatures there is a significant diversity of style: Agni, Garuḍa, and Nārada are primarily encyclopedic compendiums; Padma, Skanda, and Bhaviṣya deal largely with places of pilgrimage; Vāmana and Mārkaṇḍeya pay a good deal of attention to doctrinal concerns; and Vāyu and Brahmāṇḍa are concerned with history. Within this great variety, however, certain common narrative styles and sensibilities can be observed.
What kinds of stories do the Purāṇas tell? Not original ones, or ones set down by a single author; they are collections that have been passed down through the ages. These narratives often begin with a scene at the celebrated snake sacrifice of King Janamejaya, where sages have gathered in the Naimiṣa forest. The sages ask a sūta or bard, who is spoken of as a "holder of knowledge of the ancient lore," to narrate what he has heard, and so begins a series of dialogues within dialogues, in which narrators refer to other narrations that took place in other times and places. This technique of multinarrative frames is significant in its free-associative mythopoetic sensibility. Information is always contextualized within a particular situation. Hence whereas a Purāṇa is an admittedly collaborative retelling of the epic past, it may be filled with variants, with different versions of a particular tale appearing in the same text. Looked at historically, one sees a developing tradition quite unlike that of the fixed Vedic mantras. Looked at through its own narrative logic, one may see this style as a most authentic mode of mythmaking, not "myth" in the sense of something false but as a sacred narrative that imaginatively transmits that which is most dear to a culture.
Significance of the PurĀṆas
Whether or not the Purāṇas can ultimately claim the same revelatory power or priestly status as the Vedas or whether they were arranged by Vyāsa or edited by priests in order to absorb local cults and practices under a normative brahmanical fold, their widespread influence and importance is undeniable. The Devībhāgavata puts it thus: "Śruti and smṛti are the two eyes of dharma but the Purāṇa is its heart" (XI.1.21).
This heart, however, was often ignored or debunked by nineteenth-century ideologues who saw them as a corruption of Vedic religion and by Western scholarship that devalued them as "pseudo-histories" displaying masses of superstitious contradictions. With the emergence of scholarship acknowledging the important psychological and cultural value of myth, however, the Purāṇic world is seen not only as a storehouse of information about the emergence of Hindu India but as the imagistic and narrative revelation of a profoundly imaginative and sophisticated worldview.
The importance of this body of discourse is thus manifold. In devotional religious terms, Purāṇas often champion the superiority of a particular divinity (although their devotion to one god does not necessarily exclude others). Moreover their eclectic and all-encompassing characters have allowed them to serve as a major medium for the transmission of customs and traditions, for long-held ideas around geography, politics, and social organization, and for the subjects of astronomy, medicine, grammar, metrics, architecture, poetics, divination, and a host of others. They are indispensable for understanding popular Hindu traditions and their formation and for the grand narratives that have shaped Indian religious sensibilities.
Dating Purāṇas and seeking their origins have been preoccupations of Western orientalist scholarship, although their composite nature resists chronological specificity. Moreover the fluid Purāṇic notion of "textuality" presents problems, because texts were transmitted orally, frequently elaborated upon, and often changed. There have been numerous speculations about the existence of an original Purāṇa, which expanded into the others. One hypothesis attempted to chronologically date the Purāṇas in terms of increasing complexity, seeing their various layers of discourse like the rings of a tree, but the reverse hypothesis has also been offered. The Prākrit aspect of their language has caused some scholars to see them as originally non-brahman works, reappropriated in reaction to the heterodox schools of the Buddhists and Jains. Others have suggested that the Purāṇas appeared as a result of an effort to provide each Vedic school with a text of its own, whereas another view sees them as developing from many local works within specific parts of India.
The Purāṇic vision of narrating events that occurred in "the distant past" often takes the form of dynastic histories (Vāyu, Matsya, Viṣṇu, Brahma ), and although their history has been disparaged by many, some European scholars (Hermann Jacobi, for example) found a "genuine and valuable historical tradition" in the Purāṇas. F. E. Pargiter (1922) championed their historicity and attempted to reconstruct what he considered the "ancient Indian historical tradition" from Purāṇic sources. The issue as to whether or not such sources can be used to reconstruct ancient history is almost impossible to answer. What one can do, however, is work to understand the intrinsic sensibility of the Purāṇic "past" as a paradigm for the present that can provide cultural visions and ideals. Long-standing narratives, such as the churning of the milky ocean, the childhood pranks of Kṛṣṇa, the great Bhārata War, the exploits of the avatāras of Viṣṇu, the awesome influence of great places of pilgrimage, and the divinities, saintly kings, and sages whose lives shine through eons of time, are very much alive and well in the Hindu religious imagination.
Time and Space
In contrast to Western teleological sensibilities, Indian thinking as exemplified in the Purāṇas envisions time as cyclical. The four ages or yugas (kṛta or satya, treta, dvāpara, and kali ), whose names are the same as those of the throws of dice, are said to repeat themselves in declining order. The Bhāgavata Purāṇa speaks of the sacred law (dharma ) as a cow possessed of four feet (austerity, cleanliness, mercy, and truthfulness), losing one after another in each declining age. The duration of the yugas is said to be 4,800, 3,600, 2,400, and 1,200 years of the devas (gods), with a dawn and twilight preceding and following each age. These 12,000 divine years are converted into human years when multiplied by 360, so the kaliyuga, for example, would last for 432,000 earth years. While some texts speak of world dissolutions at the end of a cycle of four ages, the majority of Purāṇas depict a thousand successive yuga cycles composing a day of Brahmā, or a kalpa, followed by the dissolution of the world, and a night of Brahmā, which is as long as his day. This entire system of days and nights is repeated for the lifetime of Brahmā, which endures for a hundred years, followed by another dissolution and the beginning of a new cycle.
Alongside of this cyclic system is one of fourteen manvantaras, each presided over by a different Manu, who is the progenitor of humanity. Most Purāṇas set the length of a manvantara as seventy-one yuga s, which leaves unaccounted for time and hence the speculation that two separate traditions were grafted together. The present age is said to be that of the seventh Manu and is described in all the Purāṇas as one of chaos and confusion.
Purāṇas offer vast spatial as well as temporal cosmologies, such as the one of infinite universes expanding and contracting from the pores of the great breathing Viṣṇu, who rests upon Anantaśeṣa, the endless world serpent. In some texts a world egg is said to be at the center of a greater universe, surrounded by the five elements (earth, water, fire, air, and space), containing seven continents and oceans (including oceans of milk, sugarcane juice, and wine), seven higher planetary systems, and seven lower ones arranged around a central axis, Mount Meru, along with a series of heavens and hells. This Purāṇic universe is populated by a vast array of beings, including animals, humans, demons of the netherworlds, and a variety of divine and semidivine beings, including tree spirits (yakṣas ), celestial musicians (gandharvas ), nymphs (āpsaras ), and subterranean serpents (nāgas ) with luminous jewels on their heads.
The Religion of the PurĀṆas
There is no single religion of the Purāṇas, just as there is no one religious tradition of India, but religiosity is a primary characteristic of Purāṇic tradition. The complex religious narratives and discussions in the Purāṇas serve as the basis for a large variety of rituals, devotional liturgies, sacred dramas and poems, and sādhanas or spiritual practices. Again there is no one philosophical position that the texts take, but they combine theistic and nontheistic perspectives, saṁkhya cosmologies in which the world is seen as a challenging combination of matter and consciousness, yogic and meditative practices, and bhakti or loving devotion toward a personal divinity.
While one finds devotion to a number of deities, including Brahmā, whose cults have disappeared, Viṣṇu, Śiva, and Devī dominate the tradition. Yoga and ascetic traditions are generally associated with Śaivism, whereas bhakti or devotional ones are associated with Vaiṣṇavism. Śākta traditions that worship the Goddess in a number of forms, as well as Tantric traditions of immanent awareness and working with the elements of the phenomenal world, are also found in the Purāṇas.
Śiva, known as Mahādeva, the "Great God," is described as the one with a thousand forms, whose breath causes creation, preservation, and destruction. In other texts Śiva is identified as the cause of all causes and as the one appearing in many forms, including one that is half male and half female (ardhanarīśvara ), and as manifest in twenty-eight specific forms. As the Lord of Yoga, Śiva sits forever rapt in meditation. He also maintains a household relationship with his consort, the goddess Pārvartī. This tension between his ascetic and erotic natures, as noted by Wendy Doniger (1993), is the subject of numerous narratives, as is the relatively antisocial nature of Śiva, who is covered in ash and draped with serpents. Many Purāṇas recount narratives of the births and activities of the divine children of Śiva and Pārvartī, Skanda, the god of war, and the elephant-headed Gaṇeśa, the lord of obstacles. Śiva's great sign is the liṅga, a primordial phallic-looking form that signifies potency and divine power. The Liṅga Purāṇa, a most important text for the workshop of Śiva, discusses the liṅga as a supreme symbol of absolute reality.
Śakti, the divine feminine force, invoked under 1,008 names in the Kūrma Purāṇa (1.11) is often associated with Śiva. In other texts (Devībhāgavata, Devīmāhātmya, Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa ), however, the Great Goddess is worshipped as the Supreme Being.
The supremacy of the Goddess, who is created from the combined potency of all the gods, is portrayed in the celebrated story of the defeat of the Buffalo Demon, Mahiṣa. The Devīmāhātmya, the first full-scale Sanskrit account of this narrative, which extends through various modalities throughout India, is part of the Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa. Although the Goddess is one, she is known by many names that indicate her different aspects and qualities, including Caṇḍikā ("Angry"), Ambikā ("Mother"), Nārāyaṇī ("Resting Place of Men"), Kālī ("Dark"), Bhagavatī ("Beneficent"), Durgā ("Protectress"), Vaiṣṇavī ("Related to Viṣṇu"), Gaurī ("Golden"), Lakṣmī ("Fortune"), and Śakti ("Potency").
The Devībhāgavata propounds the Śākta polemic that unlike other mārgas, or spiritual paths that demand renunciation as a prerequisite for spiritual attainment, the goddess offers worldly enjoyment (bhukti ) along with liberation (mukti ). As the mother of all beings, the Goddess sees no reason to deprive her devotees of anything. Hence, through her grace, she offers both to devotees, who simply need to acknowledge her as the source of all.
Glorified as the Supreme Being and as Creator but usually as the preserver and sustainer of the universe, Viṣṇu is envisioned as the all-pervading spirit and is worshipped with devotion. One of the most striking features of the Purāṇas devoted to Viṣṇu is the notion of avatāras, incarnations of Viṣṇu who descended into the world to accomplish particular missions. The lists of the avatāras are many, as are the variant concepts about them. There is a generally accepted list of ten principal avatars. Matsya (fish) appeared to rescue Manu, the seven sages, and the seeds of all existing beings from the rising waters and in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa is said to have saved the Vedas after they had sunk into the ocean of dissolution. This particular story has attracted a good deal of scholarly attention due to similarities with flood narratives from other cultures.
The appearance of Kūrma, the tortoise incarnation, revolves around the major Purāṇic legend of the churning of the milky ocean in which devas and auras, gods and demons, use the serpent Vāsuki as a rope for a tug-of-war in which the great Mount Mandara is churned on the tortoise's back. As the ocean is churned, deadly poison emerges and is drunk by the god Śiva (who is hence called Nīlakaṇṭa or "the blue throated one"). A series of treasures then emerges from the ocean, culminating in an elixir of immortality, which is spirited away from the auras by Mohinī ("the beguiling one"), a female incarnation of Viṣṇu.
Varāha, the boar incarnation, appears to save the earth, which had been thrown down to the muddy bottom of the universe by the demon Hiraṇyākṣa. The notion of Viṣṇu appearing in animal forms is believed by some scholars to indicate the incorporation of earlier cults, while others see this phenomenon as an evolutive progression, mirroring the development of an embryo in the womb.
Narasiṁha ("man-lion") delivers the world from the powerful demon Hiraṇyakaśipu, who sought immortality by receiving boons from the gods to be neither killed indoors nor outdoors, by human nor beast, by day nor night, nor by any weapon. Viṣṇu, appearing in a man-lion form, kills the demon at twilight, on a porch and with his long nails, and rescues his devotee, Prahlāda, as Hiraṇyakaśipu's son. As in many Purāṇic narratives, the demonic mentality is portrayed as being desirous of immortality through egotism and power, a project that ultimately fails.
The above incarnations are said to appear in the kṛta yuga. In the next age (treta ), Viṣṇu appears as the brahman dwarf, Vāmana, before the demon king Bali, who had acquired dominion over the three worlds, and asks Bali for a boon of three steps. Assuming a huge form, Vāmana covers the entire universe and deprives Bali of his sovereignty while restoring order to the world.
Paraśurāma (Rāma with an ax), a brutal avatar, rids the world of the errant kṣatriya race twenty-one times over. Rāma, the epitome of righteousness, appears in Purāṇic narratives not as a human king but as a divine incarnation of Viṣṇu. The avatāra of Kṛṣṇa is celebrated in the Viṣṇu Purāṇa and Bhāgavata Purāṇa as the supreme cause of all causes. His eternal consort, Rādha, perhaps hinted at in the Bhāgavata, is present in the Brahmaivrta Purāṇa. The celebrated tenth book of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa recounts the childhood and youth of Kṛṣṇa in stories that have been canonized by bhakti traditions, serving as the bases for poems, plays, and stories in regional languages throughout the subcontinent.
The kali age is said to begin with Kṛṣṇa's disappearance. Buddha appears later in this period as an avatāra of Viṣṇu preaching "heresy" to delude atheists and end the slaughter of animals. The addition of Buddha, whose doctrines pitted him against the brahman class, to this list marks a process known as Sanskritization, through which various deities and regional traditions are absorbed into the normative one. The final avatar of Viṣṇu, Kalki, will appear on a horse, bearing a sword, and will destroy all the demonic elements that have taken over the earth at the end of the kali age.
Within the variety of Purāṇic narratives of the various forms of the divine is the idea that the entire physical manifestation is an illusion, an appearance that is ultimately unreal, for the one reality, the brahman alone, is real. This supreme brahman is identified with different gods (usually Śiva, Viṣṇu, or Devī) as well as with the self (ātman ) in all beings in different Purāṇic texts. In some Purāṇas brahman is envisioned in a more dualistic sense as substantively alike but qualitatively different from the individual self. Hence to say that the Purāṇas are monistic or dualistic are partial visions, leading a number of theologians to put forth the idea of "inconceivably one and many." Nevertheless the Purāṇas are not always tolerant of the "many," with Vaiṣṇava- and Śaivaite-based Purāṇas frequently criticizing one another in the most severe terms.
Along with discussions of yoga and meditative sādhanas, Purāṇic devotional tracts contain chapters discussing images of worship or mūrtis. The word mūrti means "embodiment," and the worship, consecration, and installation of divine images involve specific rules and procedures. The worship of images, hymns of praise to various gods, and the practices of hearing and remembering the līlās, or plays of gods on earth, are all aspects of the bhakti tradition that comes to the fore in the Purāṇas. Bhakti, or "loving devotion," develops strongly in the Purāṇas and may well reflect cultural and social changes in Hindu traditions that were reconfigurating their relationship with brahmanical ceremony and ritual.
Future of the PurĀṆas
Purāṇas continue to emerge through contemporary translations in regional languages, including English, through ritual recitations and public performances, and through new innovative forms that continue to shape Hindu traditions. Cultures evolve and change by reconsidering their pasts. And indeed this is what a Purāṇa is, in its largest sense. Rather than seeing Purāṇas only as relics of medieval culture, one can understand them as the matrix of myth that people return to again and again to find new meaning through stories that draw contemporary attention even as they speak of what happened long ago.
Critically edited texts of the Mahāpurāṇas are available through the All-India Kashiraj Trust, including the Garuḍa, Kurma, Vāmana, and Varāha. Many texts and translations are also available through Motilal Banarsidass Indological Publishers in Delhi, including the Agni, Bhāgavata, Brahmāṇḍa, Brahmavaivarta, Liṅga, and Nārada. The Bhaviṣya, Brahmā, Mārkaṇḍeya, Matsya, Padma, Skanda, Vāyu, and Viṣṇu are all translated and available in older versions.
There are a number of valuable secondary sources and studies of Purāṇas available. These include Cheever Mackenzie Brown, The Triumph of the Goddess: The Canonical Models and Theological Visions of the Devī Bhāgavata Purāṇa (Albany, N.Y., 1990); Thomas Coburn, The Devī Māhātmya: The Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition (Delhi, 1988); V. R. Ramachandra Dikshitar, The Purana Index (Delhi, 1995); Cornelia Dimmitt and J. A. B. Van Buitenen, eds. and trans., Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Purāṇas (Philadelphia, 1978; reprint, Delhi, 1988); Wendy Doniger, ed., Purāṇa Perennis: Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jain texts (Albany, N.Y., 1993); R. C. Hazra, Studies in the Purāṇic Records on Hindu Rites and Customs (Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1940; reprint, Delhi, 1987); E. H. Rick Jarow, Tales for the Dying: The Death Narrative of the Bhāgavata-Purāṇa (Albany, N.Y., 2003); Willibald Kirfel, Das Purāṇa Pañcalakṣaṇa: Versuch einer Textgeschichte (Bonn, Germany, 1927); F. E. Pargiter, Ancient Indian Historical Tradition (London, 1922; reprint, Delhi, 1969); Ludo Rocher, The Purāṇas: A History of Indian Literature, vol. 2., fasc. 3 (Weisbaden, Germany, 1986); and P. Flam et al., eds., and Heinrich von Stietencrom et al., comps., Epic and Purāṇic Bibliography (up to 1985): Annotated and with Indexes (Weisbaden, Germany, 1992).
E. H. Rick Jarow (2005)