According to Webster New Universal dictionary, myth is a traditional story of unknown authorship ,ostensibly with a historical basis but serving usually to explain some phenomenon of nature , the origin of man or the customs , institutions and religious rites of a people. Myths usually involve the exploits of gods and goddesses and kings and heroes.
It is a sort of narrative stories based on belief and affirmation of a religion and is written in a popular language easy to understand and grasp by the common folk and ladies in particular. By the passage of time, myths came to be regarded as false, concocted and distorted stories for the sake of popular gains. and with the intent of entrapping the ignorant and innocent people in ones fold for cheap economic gain and exploitation in the garb of religion. Not that the myths are all without any content of truth , truth they have, yet with the passage of time , space and place, the truth is obliterated and merely part of historical charm and enticement prevails to suit the exploiters. Myths are myths after all and are destined to loose its charm . People come to realize their hollowness. some day.. The moral appeal looses its strength and the very purpose of their formation is lost. It is a fact that the myths also contain some facts, a sort of prescription of some facts of one category; manipulated as well as factual. and can point at the truth so far untold by others in an easy way. Myths build their own world by recurrence of stories and weaving enticing narrations and symbols for all ages and places with logical truth and factual presentation.
Myths are useful in four ways
- They are original and evoke awe and gratitude.
- They present cosmology and describe universe
- They are supportive of social order of the time and
- They are adept in psychologically entrapping the individual in the domain of spirit.
They target the present and combine popularity with amorality and literature with improbable and exaggerated narrations. It becomes difficult to reach the reality behind their statements. They have to be reevaluated or analyzed properly. Socrates was of opinion that myths be eradicated from education as general people cannot distinguish the allegorical sense of the literature and understand the exaggerations.
Generally myths are associated with falsehood as they succeed in subverting the historical truth and result in to the advantage of the exploiters
Any ancient text in Sanskrit containing mythological account of ancient times is called Purana. In non- Vedic Sanskrit studies they are considered as Smrits. These Puranas were completed between 400 to 1500 CE There has been no one writer but many at different times of composition.
Vedas were read by the people in olden days. Gargi, a woman had read it. Janshruti, a shudra by birth, had read it under Raikya Muni. Yajur Veda ch. 26-ii states,’ it is the right of all people irrespective of caste, color and sex to read Vedas.’ Gradually materialistic tendencies and greed began to catch hold of society and the priest class became money minded. This led to ritualistic formations of religious ceremonies for earning a handsome amount and indulging in a life of luxury. Ignorance of real religion began to hold the society at the mercy of priests and pundit – ritualists.
The foreign invasions and terror, accompanied with forceful conversion made people dependent on these pundits and their teaching of rituals for the grace of God. The kings and sovereign rulers also went astray and developed ego. They would fight with one another for show of bravery and would like to be heroically praised. This was the time when the kings and the priests combined in their efforts to keep the people under their grip and fold. The kings wanted popularity as heroes and the pundits’ monetary gains. The Sutas or court charanas were engaged to reach the people and serve as mediators. Every court had an account of its dynasty of kings and deeds, As chroniclers, Sutas gathered their Itivrat or history. Sages wrote down traditionally collected stories as told by Sutas Very often they were full of exaggerations and distortion in praise of their patron kings. The sages included religious versions also and thus the written work was called Purana. The sages wished these books be considered on par with the old religious scriptures and they tried best to reach the goal by linking them to old writers of renown and ancient events of popular likings.
The Nature of Puranas
Puranas can be divided into two categories
- Mahapuranas and
- Upa Puranas.
Both the categories have 18 puranas each.
Mahapuranas can further be divided into three types.
- Vishnu and
In the first category, the Rajas guna prevails and in the second Sattvik guna where as in the third Tamas prevails.
The Purana with Rajas quality are
- Brahma Purana
- Brahmand Purana
- Brahma Vaivrata Purana
- Markandeya Purana
- Bhavishya Purana and
- Vamana Purana
Sattva Guna dominated Puranas are
- Vishnu Purana
- Srimad Bhagavat Purana
- Narad Purana
- Garuna Purana
- Padam Purana and
- Varaha Purana
Tamoguna prevailing Puranas are
- Shiva Purana
- Linga Purana
- Skanda Purana
- Agni Purana
- Matsa Purana and
- Kurma Purana
There are many other Puranas of very recent origin as well.
Subject matter of the Purans
The Purana treats chiefly of the creation and destruction; renovation of worlds, the genealogy and deeds of gods and goddesses along with heroes and kings and lineage of Manu etc. We find that the Puranas deal systematically with the five subjects
- The Creation ;
- Genealogy of gods and rsis;
- Manavantars or reigns of Manus; as each Manu rules over an aeon , each of which is shorter than the preceding ones ;
- Pratisarga or history of humanity, destruction and construction;
- Vansanucarit or history of Solar and Lunar dynasty
Among these Puranas, Bhagvata Purana and Vayu Purana are said to be of great value Vishnu as Krsna is the central deity of the text in Bhagavata Purana. It has become so popular that it has been translated in almost all the Indian languages. Many religious movements especially of Caitanya and Vallabha made it their scriptural authority. It became a complex work as it fuses many different traditions. It uses highly sophisticated lyrical meters and descriptions, mostly in songs. Thus it provides intense flow of emotions aiming at ecstasy. It derives its metaphysical frame from Advaita tradition but modifies it chiefly to bear out Vishnu and Krsna cult.
Vishnu Purana is total Vaishnava in theory. Out of 18 Puranas, unlike others, it was completed towards the end of 4th century. It is a unified and clearly structured composition which is consistent in its viewpoint of theological description. It describes Vishnu as Brahman, Omnipotent and Omnipresent. Vishnu is in the center of all things, animate and inanimate. Vedas and Varnashram are subjects dealt with chronology of kings and heroes. Future destruction of world and its re-absorption into Vishnu and Vishnu as Krishna has also been described. It happens to be the first Purana that was translated into English in 1840.
We find that Puranas describe not only the dynasty but also the major events of the times and cosmology. Even reference to deluge and earthquakes of the past are there in included. Cautious study of Purana can give us much valuable information’s of our past.
Puranas were written with the intention that the work should persist as Vedas. It was made a chronicle account of the past. In order that it survives the ravages of time, the Purana writers adopted a novel way of putting religion into its structure. With religious temper, it was sure to find a permanent place. The sage-writers of Puranas treated the information given by the Sutras and colored it with religious tinge and information cleverly but they could not understand that such temper is based on logic whereas source of religion is spiritual. Thus much of the coloring remained ineffective. The sage writers took all the precautions. The account as told by the Sutas was not taken in a matter of fact way but was twisted to suit religious bend of mind and seem believable. to ignorant people and the women folk. It was mixed with exaggeration and super natural elements in the name of Divine play as it looked appealing, charmingly enticing and engaging. The writers went to the extreme of saying that the Puranas are as old as the Vedas and have been mentioned in the ancient scriptures as they were in fact written by Vyasa, the famous composer of Vedas and other scriptures.
To establish that the Puranas are authoritative books on par with Vedas, these writers in self interest went to the extent of declaring that Vyasa is the author of all these 18 Puranas. They also tried to make the reading of Puranas mandatory during Puja and rituals by quoting the Mahabharata that these 18 Puranas which are in harmony with the Vedas be read while offering oblations to manes and hear stories of Puranas for salvation. The fact is otherwise.
Vyasa wrote commentary on Yoga Shastra and Vedanta Shastra. They are as appealing and reasonable as to influence any thoughtful person into scientific understanding. A person of his standing can never go so low as to write such unscientific stories and events for public consumption.
Very few people know that the Puranas as mentioned in the ancient scriptures are not those written about the 6th oto10th century, by pundits and Sutas. Swami Dayanand says that the term Purana is referred in the Brahmanas and Sutra books. as Itihaas, Puranas, Kalpa, Gatha. and Narashansi. The Itihaas record events as discussion between King Janaka and sage Yajnavalkya. Puranas of those days describe cosmology, Kalpa, power of Vedic words, Gathas, narrative stories to illustrate truth; Narashansi, describe the chronicles of human acts. and deeds. This has nothing to do with those recently written 18 Puranas. (For detail see Swami Dayanand : Light of Truth). We have to understand that even before Vyasa, his father Parashar, Grandfather Shakti, great grand father Vashista, and other sages had read Vedas – all the four Vedas.
Utility of Puranas
A close study of these 18 Puranas is bound to reveal that they do serve the cause of religion in the sense that they combine the illiterate and ignorant class and woman folk by creating interest in religion through tales and various sort of narrations, easy and exaggerated. They do not at all picture the real Hindu religion as revealed in the Vedas and is possible only by the higher studies. Yet they serve a purpose in a limited sense. They have to be studied with caution and with a logical mind other wise one may possibly end in grip of false priests and pundit- ritualists for money and useless ceremonies.
A Critical Approach
The recent Puranas are not without fault and wrong information purposely inserted therein by the priests for economic exploitation. and dominance. In Siva Purana, Siva has been described as Lord of all; Usha, Brahman, Ganesh, Indra and Surya are spoken as servants. Vishnu Purana holds Vishnu on highest pedestal and Shiva and other Gods as servants. For Devi Purana , Devi is Supreme and others totally subordinate; In this way, Shiva Purana describes Siva; Vishnu Purana, Vishnu ; Devi Purana, Devi; Ganesh Purana, Ganesh; Surya, Surya; Vayu, Vayu; etc as author of creation and destruction of universe, but each of them consider the other as created ones, how then a devotee can understand who is the First Cause? Similarly cosmology has also been described differently by these Puranas.
The confusion created by these Puranas brought disintegration of Hinduism. They praised their own God as the Supreme and the people forgetting that all these gods are one and the same with different names, began to fight for their Lord, claiming their supremacy over others. Thus the sects began to dominate and the pundits gained influence and a wider committed circle of devotees to their financial benefit and authority. It was Adi Sancaracharya who revived the religion and put a stop to Saiva, Vaishnava and shaktas fights towards disintegration. The sect life could be controlled and integrated into a wider circle of allinclusive Hinduism on the sound principle of Solidarity in Diversity.
Mark some important inconsistencies in the popular Bhagwat Purana. In the second chapter Narayan blesses Brahma and says, ’Thou shalt never be a victim to infatuation, either during creation or dissolution.” We find in the tenth chapter that Brahma through infatuation steals calves. The one condition has to be false in the Purana, The story of Hiranyakasyap and Hiranyaksha is theology but it has been so spun as to create disbelief. Prahlada is tied hand and foot. He is pushed from mountain top; thrown into a well; a red iron pillar heated into fire and was asked to embrace it; the ants crowded the hot pillar and he was saved unhurt. Man lion appearing from stone; who is going to believe it all in this age of science and reason? The man lion blesses Prahlada and says that 21 of thy generation have been saved. Purana says that Prahlad was the fourth generation from Braham. Brahma begot Kashyap and kashyap, Hiranyakshya who got Hiranyakashyap and Prahlad was his son. How then 21 generations are covered by the blessings in the Purana.
The book especially deals with Krsna earlier part of life and describes his lengthy accounts of love affairs. Radha is the new born character of the poetic fancy and divine love. It causes great confusion as the people can not discriminate between a poetic description for emotional devotion and the real worldly love affairs. Many mischievous pranks of Krsna childhood are given cosmic touch and importance which arises question marks and doubts, Pundits have claimed that the whole Purana is composed by Vyasa, who wanted to correct himself for not having praised Krsna before. But the bulk of the work is recited by Vyasa’s son Shuka to Parikshita.
So many other points can be quoted to prove that the Puranas are the creation of recent sages and Sutas who had only the interest of earning money through religion. To some extent they succeeded in portraying religion to ignorant people of the society and keeping them in the fold while they tried to impart Vedic authority on the Puranas by linking it to Vyasa.
There are various Purana that wrongly and knowingly paint religion in self-interest. When priests became licentious and meat-eaters, drunkards, it became their duty to save themselves by giving it a religious sanction. They created Tamas Puranas to give vent to all sort of low-grade feelings and justify their actions in the name of religion. They started by the words as Siva said, Parvati said, Bhairava said etc. Kali Tanta crosses the limit and declares that.’Madya (Wine), Mansa (Meat), Meena (Fish), Mudra (cakes) and Maithun (Copulation) are the five, beginning with letter M, that be followed in life as they lead to salvation. They even call Vedas and Shastras as baseless and harlots and advocate sex with any woman save mother. Less said the better. They plead that there is no turpitude in eating flesh, drinking wine, committing adultery because that is the natural way of created beings, without thinking that abstinence brings great reward.
These 18 Puranas have still a valuable place in the life of religious Hindus as they serve to connect us with the past ,which we have forgotten and which needs revival is the light of new age. Puranas afford useful matter. The stories described therein are from the ancient past and can connect us to our glory if we decipher them scientifically and base them on reason and facts without any exaggeration or distortion. Some critics use the term myth to ascribe the sacred stories of religious value. The treatment of myth in the western experience has been negative with regard to their 18th century pre-Christian cultural stories. The term was used for anything that has a negative connotation, a thing which is false, untrue or a lie connected with the primitive age. In fact in the 18th century, the Greek and Roman heritage of pre-Christian stories of religion was so badly distorted and misshaped that they were treated as myth, some thing of negation. It included primitive stories of gods and goddesses; demons; and magic wonders etc. The western scholars portrayed all non-Jew and non-Christian cultural stories as primitive and unworthy of any value so as to be destroyed along with their cultures. On the other hand they chose to place all biblical literature and Christian stories in the category of history, ignoring all previous criterions and establishing new ones to justify the action. So the story of Moses, parting the Red sea came as history, unmindful of any chronological and textual evidence They considered Rama and Ramarajya as myth despite enough archeological and textual evidence. We should know who writes the history and what else the colonial powers can write. We have to guard against this sort of double standard. We should know that the term myth has been used as a very powerful weapon to minimize the Hindu religious literature and sacred stories, and de-legitimize the Hindu way of life and their stories told to ordinary folk of illiterate and ignorant people. It is our duty to scrutinize the Puranas and base them on scientific reasoning so as to revive our link with the ancient culture of Sanatana Dharma.