Besides the eighteen major Puranas many Upa-Puranas have been written. All Puranas do not belong to the same time. Some are ancient, some are quite recent. In the same Purana there are ancient and recent parts. Among the Puranas in circulation now Vishnu and Vayu are the most authentic and ancient according to scholars.
The matters dealt with in Puranas have been enumerated in Vayu Purana 4.10 as description of creation and destruction, account of different Manavantaras, narratives of various royal dynasties and their members. Besides this, accounts of particular incidents, the caste system and stories conducive to spiritual salvation are also found in Puranas. A particular community of persons called Suta were reciters of the Puranas. Vayu Purana states, Ancient pandits had directed that the Suta's duty is to be acquainted with the generational accounts of Devas, Rishis, Kings of limitless prowess and other noble souls. (3.31-32). At many places the Suta has been described as satyavrataparayana, devoted to the vow of truth.
In olden times Bharatavarsha was split up into different kingdoms. Every king's court had one Magadha who was conversant with his royal master's dynastic account and deeds. Magadhas were what we know as chroniclers today. The Sutas mentioned above used to gather from these Magadhas the local itavritta or 'history'. Should any Magadha exaggerate anything about his master or hide some fault of his, the Suta would rectify that. It is because of this that the Sutas were known as satyavrataparayana. The Sutas knew the dynastic accounts of all kings. In ancient times kings and sages used to perform rituals of sacrifice. In these yajnas notable persons and wise men from many lands used to be invited. The Sutas would arrive at the yajnas and each would recite what he had collected. Writing down these stories told by Sutas was the task of the sages.
The traditionally collected stories narrated by Sutas and written down by sages as a book came to be known as Purana. Puranas have been known from very old times. The sages writing the Puranas have added to them at different times and specified Manvantaras for special events. What constitutes a Manvantara has been discussed in the book. According to the Purana-composing sages, the world's creation, growth and destruction has occurred repeatedly. Each such revolution has occurred over a very long period of time.
If the five signs of a Purana are examined, there will be no hesitation about considering it as itavritta or 'history'. The Purana writer's intention is that, filled with chronological accounts of important events, his work should persist till universal dissolution. In order to protect the work from the ravages of time, the Purna writer adopted a novel method. For preserving the itavritta or 'history' he did not take recourse to rock-carvings, copper-plate inscriptions, safes, the imperial records department etc. because he knew that political and natural disasters demolish all of these. The ancient Purana writer sought out an indestructible shelter for preserving the Purana. He found that man's religious temperament is permanent. So long as man exists on earth, he will adopt some religion or other. The religious propensity of the general public is founded on logic while the source of religion is spiritual. The sage writing the Purana, instead of putting forward the Puranic accounts plainly, gave his stories a form that the religious bent of mind would accept. Consequently, exaggerated and miraculous elements entered the Purana and it came to be counted as a religious text. Even today listening to a Purana, reading it, writing it, printing it and gifting it to a Brahmin is considered highly meritorious among the public. Only a specialist historian will take pains to preserve a history written in straightforward fashion. Such historians are rare in society. On the other hand, among the general public there are thousands of persons who are eager to preserve Puranic style itavritta or 'history' as religious texts. Puranas are still in wide circulation while many ancient astronomical and other scientific texts have disappeared. The exaggerations of the sage writing the Puranas are indicated by special hints and their actual meaning can be made out easily. To the discriminating person knowing the meaning of the Puranas they are genuine history and he considers them completely believable accounts of the past. The authenticity of the Puranas has been discussed in the book.
It is not that modern itavritta or history contains only accounts of kings and important persons and their families. The description of all types of major natural events is also found in history. The Purana writer, too, in similar fashion has noted many natural events in the Puranas. The Puranas mention that when the Chakshusa Manvantara ended there was a terrible deluge. Reference to this deluge is found in legends of many nations. When, in the past, devastating earthquakes occurred is also recorded in the Puranas. In the Puranas many genuine accounts of the past have been captured. If the Puranas are studied with attention, the ancient itavritta or history of Bharata will be recovered.
That the ancient Hindu did not know how to write itavritta, this criticism is completely mistaken and stems from ignorance. The Puranas are a dazzling proof of the excellence of the Hindu's historical sense. New historians, in so many cases, explain events depending upon their own thinking and imagination whereby there is possibility of the itavritta becoming tainted with prejudice. Moreover their accounts remain inaccessible to the ordinary man. On the other hand, the Hindu Puranic writer merely records events narrated by Sutas. He does not make any attempt to explain it. Often the Purana writer has recorded contradictory accounts of the same event, but has not tried to discover the truth by using his own intelligence and imagination. Determining the truth is not the Purana-writer's duty, it is the task of the Purana-explainer. Their duties being distinct, the data of the itavritta has always remained accessible to the ordinary people. In this matter the method of the Puranic writer is superior to the modern historian's, as is his way of preserving the Puranas. By depending on the religious inclination of the general public he has evinced extremely penetrating insight. The proof of the success of the method he chose is that Puranas are prevalent even now but no other race in the world has a written history that is so ancient and covering so extended a period of time chronologically. Inferring history from stone inscriptions, graves, stupas etc. is one thing and to preserve written accounts of the past is quite something else. Among the ancient races only the Hindu was alert regarding itavritta. He had focused on an extremely refined and excellent ideal and achieved success in that ascesis too. His written, extremely ancient itavritta, added to over time, is extant even now and attracts respect from the general public. The historical achievement of the Hindu is incomparable in the world.
The proofs of whatever has been stated in the introduction have been discussed in the book. Without examining these proofs none need to accept or reject the writer's views. Belief or disbelief without grounds both militate equally against determining the truth.
The subject being new, many new words have had to be used in the book. Most of the words have been taken from the Puranas, the rest created by the writer. In Sanskrit the word purana has been used to mean history. In Sanskrit the meaning of itihasa is different. In Bengali itihasa connotes history as used today. In Sanskrit and in Bengali since the word itihasa has different meanings and can confuse the discussion on Puranas, therefore so long as the true sense of the word purana is not established in Bengali literature, till then a new word is required to connote history. In this book the world itavritta has been used to mean history. Ita means that which is past and vrittameans description. The meaning of itavritta being similar to itihasa the former cannot be used to mean history. Itavritta is a new word and therefore there is no possibility of error in its use to define something.
Repetitions have occurred at places in recounting matters dealt with in this book. For example, the authenticity of the Puranas has been discussed in more than one place. Since authenticity can be examined in many ways, therefore the issue of the Puranas' authenticity has come up in different contexts. Further, in the interest of explaining things repetition has also occurred. It will be clear from the contents where the same topic has been discussed in different places.
Translated by Pradip Bhattacharya, IAS
from the original by Dr. Girindrashekhar Basu