Hindu, Hinduism and Hindustan: Part XXII

Scriptures and Texts - Part 'E' Puranas

Continued from Part XXI

The literal meaning of the term Purana is "ancient" or "old." They are a genre of encyclopedic texts of the ancient Indian literature covering a wide range of subjects including the theology, philosophy and genealogy of gods, goddesses, demigods, heroes, sages and kings of solar and lunar dynasties along with the cosmogony, cosmology, mythology, Manvantaras (cosmic cycle), folk tales, eternal love stories, pilgrimages, temples, medicine, astronomy, mineralogy, grammar, and so on. The Bhagavata and Vishnu Puranas are among the most popular texts that insist and attach great significance to the Bhakti-yoga practice, while other texts too cover philosophies and spiritual practices of Sankhya, Yoga and Vedanta darshanas. The Puranic literature has been the chief source and inspiration behind the Bhakti movement in the modern India.

In the earlier parts of the current series, the author had discussed the philosophical and numerical vastness and complexities of Hindu scriptures and texts. The archaic nature of the Vedic literature, high metaphysical and spiritual contents as also the methodology of presentation thereof among the Vedas, Upanishads and Darshana Shastras make them difficult beyond the comprehension of the common folks and, therefore, these scriptures do not generate much interest in learning and following among the ordinary class. Hence the Puranas were created to popularize the culture and religion of Vedas through narratives, stories, myths and legends of the gods and goddesses, kings, saints and great men along with the allegories and chronicles of the significant historical events. The exact vintage and authorship of most of the Puranas is not well known and it is widely believed that they were created by Sage Vedavyasa.

Among the scriptures and texts, the Puranas and Itihasas are usually put in the same mythological class and they are characterized with five common features namely history, cosmology (symbolical illustrations of philosophical principles), secondary creation, genealogy and Manavantaras. Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa (aka Vedavyasa) is believed to be the compiler of the all-time great epic Mahabharata and many Puranas. However, the chief aim of Puranas appeared to convey the essence of the Vedas and motivate people for the devotion to God through narratives and illustrations. To that extent it would not be exaggeration or unfair to say that the Puranas are not meant for those people who apply much logic and rationale but for common people who cannot understand and absorb high philosophy of scriptures.

Mythologically, the famous Trimurti (trinity) i.e. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva represent the central theme of the majority of the religious discourses through the narratives and story-telling. But philosophically, they are three manifestations of Brahman Himself, each with a specific set of cosmic functions. Lord Brahma is linked with the creation in the world; Lord Vishnu acts as the preserver and protector by ensuring the order and regularity in the world; and Lord Shiva destroys and withdraws everything into himself paving way for re-creation. According to the interpretations of the ancient sages and scholars, metaphysically the three deities appear to be different but in reality each of them is Brahman only in their highest respective aspect and shall be worshipped as such by the adherents.

The main purpose of the Puranas was to bring people closer to the God. All of the puranical texts are largely sectarian, dedicated to certain deities - gods or goddesses or both. Ordinary Hindu finds it much easier to identify himself with the Puranas than to any other scriptures because they are easy to understand and follow through the tales and legends with the embeded moral teachings. Besides, these texts are also more revered because of their focus on the tradition of the Bhakti-yoga (devotion) which is equally convenient for the Grihastha (family-holders) and Sanyasi (Ascetic) people. This devotion can be achieved by the personification of the chosen deities in various sects. For instance, the Bhagavata Purana offers Bhakti-yoga and its methodology to the devotees who choose Lord Vishnu as ultimate deity. Similarly, the Linga Purana offers the same privilege to Lord Shiva’s followers.

Since different Puranas convey essence of religion through narratives and storytelling, occasionally one may have a perception that while glorifying one deity in the respective Purana, a lower footage or importance has been accorded to other deities. For illustration, in Vishnu Purana and Bhagavata Purana, Lord Vishnu has been quoted as the supreme deity at several places; similarly in the Shiva and Linga Puranas, Lord Shiva has been accorded similar importance. In Hindu mythology, such a contrast, and consequent skepticism, is noticed but this is done most probably to strengthen the faith of devotees in the respective gods. The Vaishnavas essentially worship Lord Vishnu as Supreme God while Shaivas treat Lord Shiva in the same way. Similarly, Goddess Shakti (Durga) is supreme for Shaktas while Smartas, considered as liberal Hindus, worship all principal manifestations of God (Brahman). However, in most of the mythological stories, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva, as part of the trinity, are shown to have equal mutual respect and consideration.

In all, there are eighteen main Puranas or Mahapuranas and these are Vishnu Purana, Bhagavata Purana, Naradeya Purana, Garuda Purana, Padma Purana, Varaha Purana, Brahmanda Purana, Brahma Vaivarta Purana, Markandeya Purana, Vayu Purana, Vamana Purana, Brahma Purana, Matsya Purana, Kurma Purana, Linga Purana, Shiva Purana, Skanda Purana and Agni Purana. Of these Puranas, first six are categorized as Sattvic Puranas which primarily glorify Lord Vishnu; the next six are categorized as Rajasic Puranas that glorify Lord Brahma; and the remaining six are considered Tamasic Puranas glorifying Lord Siva. Besides, there are equal numbers of the secondary Puranas or Upapuranas. The most popular Puranas among the devout Hindus are the Vishnu Purana and Bhagavata Purana glorifying Lord Vishnu. The former essentially glorifies Lord Vishnu and his Krishnavtar among metaphysical aspects of the cosmos while the latter is a chronicle of the ten famous Avataras (incarnations) of Lord Vishnu to destroy the evil and restore the virtuous for the sake of the humanity. Similarly the Shiva Purana and Linga Purana are main mythological texts glorifying Lord Shiva. The Markandeya Purana illustrates the Chandi or Devi mahatmya with the theme of the worship of the Divine Mother. In the following paragraphs, the Mahapuranas are briefly explained capturing their principal themes and teachings for the readers.

Vishnu Purana

It is one of the more popular and supposedly the oldest Purana among this genre of scriptures and texts with an approximate origin sometime in the first or early second millennium BCE. The original text had approximately 23000 verses with authorship ascribed to Sage Vedavyasa but currently available manuscripts with slightly varying texts have only approximately 7000 verses. This Purana is also unique in a way that the contents are presented in the panchalakshana (five characteristics) format that is covering Sarga (cosmogony), Pratisarga (cosmology), Vamsha (mythical genealogy) of gods, sages and kings, Manvantara and Vamshanucharitam (legends of successive kings). It is unique because most of the other puranic literature is about diverse range of encyclopedic topics The Vishnu Purana is divided in six amshas (parts) and 126 adhyayas (chapters): the first part contains 22 chapters, the second 16 chapters; the third part 18 chapters; the fourth part 24 chapters; the fifth part is largest with 38 chapters; and the sixth parts is shortest with 8 chapters only.

This is categorized under the Sattva Puranas and it opens as an inquisitive dialogue between sage Maitreya and his guru Parashara, with the former inquiring about the nature of the universe and its components. The first part contains the narratives of creation of the universe, and role of Vishnu and Brahma in the creation. Here Vishnu is defined as an all-inclusive and all-encompassing entity including all living and non-living things in the universe. The famous legend of Prahlada and Vishnu’s Narasimha avatara is also included in the same part. The second part describes earth, continents, oceans and major mountains as well as the story of the King Bharat and Bharatavarsha (India) along with its holy rivers and diversity. The third part covers the theory of Manvantaras, Vedas, Vernas, Ashrama, Shraddha (rites in honor of ancestors) and so on.

The fourth part of the Purana contains the legends of the mythical royal dynasties, starting with Brahma to solar and lunar dynasties up to Parikshita. The text includes the legends of numerous mythical characters such as Shaubhri, Mandhatri, Narmada, Sage Kapila, Rama, Nimi, Janaka and many prominent characters of the Kuruvansh and Yaduvansh dynasties. The fifth part is dedicated to the legends of Krishna and the sixth (last) part describes Kali Yuga and its sufferings with emphasis on yoga, meditation and devotion to Lord Vishnu to achieve salvation. Thus in a nutshell, while explaining the cosmic events and truth through narratives and legends, the Vishnu Purana mainly glorifies Lord Vishnu and his Krishnavatar with a brief mention of allied aspects including praise of the other Trimurti duo Brahma and Shiva, and their oneness with Vishnu.

Bhagavata Purana

The Bhagavata Purana is perhaps the most followed and widely acknowledged religious text among the Hindu Vaishnavas and Smartas. Some people also refer it as the "Fifth Veda” because of its emphasis on the practice of devotion and religious philosophy of the glorification of the God in its manifested form. At one place, it is mentioned that the Srimad Bhagavatam is the essence of the entire Vedanta literature and any person who has tasted its nectar would have no desire for anything else. This Purana dates back to the first millennium possibly sometimes after the 6th century CE. Originally in Sanskrit but it has many recensions in different Indian languages. The Purana comprises of twelve books (skandhas) totaling 332 chapters (adhyayas) from 16,000 to 18,000 verses in different recensions, the tenth book being the largest and more popular with about 4,000 verses.

As the most revered text in Vaishnavism in Hindu tradition, it insists for the bhakti of Lord Vishnu in the form of Krishna as ultimate means of self-realization, salvation (Moksha) and eternal bliss. The first book (skandha) starts with a dialogue between sages Vedavyasa and Narada as the former felt still dissatisfied even after incorporating the gist of the Vedas into his epic Mahabharata. The Sage Narada ascribes this unease to his not describing the highest goal of knowledge as yet. Following this, Vedavyasa writes the twelve books for the text, and teaches it to his teenage son Shuka. The first nine books have largely dealt with the tales and legends of Vishnu glorifying the bhakti-yoga. These tales relate to incarnations of Vishnu, Prahlada, Gajendra, Dhruva, Bali, Uddhava, Vidura, Maitreya, Parikshit, Priyavrata, Akrura, Ajamila and many others. The plots in various tales are interconnected and include the gods (Deva), demons (Asuras) and human beings, invariably the good prevailing upon the evil forces. The tenth book is dedicated to Krishna and is the main reason for the popularity of the Bhagavata Purana. The eleventh book underlines the need to follow and protect Dharma and in the last book, the prophecy of Kali Yuga is predicted which talks about the Mahapralaya (destruction) of the world and beginning of the new Yuga cycle.

Apart from the tales and legends glorifying the Bhakti-yoga, the Bhagavat Purana is high on the philosophical and spiritual contents too. The Purana talks of the Hindu darshanas in a larger perspective rather than focusing on just one philosophy. While the Bhakti-yoga is the prominently glorified, several chapters and verses are dedicated to the philosophies and teachings of Samkhya, Yoga and more particularly Advaita Vedanta too. In this text, explanation of the Samkhya is at variance with the other classical Samkhya texts as it presents Brahman, or Ishvara, as creating all beings within his Self in latent form and then converting itself into Maya under the influence of own power whereas in classical Samkhya the impulse of creation is Prakriti. Krishna describes the world as an illusion and the individual as dreamer, and teaches Samhkhya and Yoga as means to overcome the dream. Similarly, the Purana discusses the merger of the individual Self (soul) with the Brahman, a distinctly Advaitic philosophy propounded by Adi Shankara.

Shiva Purana

The Shiva Purana is dedicated to Lord Shiva and has great recognition among the Shaivites . Though it mainly glorifies Shiva and his consort Parvati through various tales and legends but discusses other Gods and Goddesses too with reverence. The Shiva Purana is said to originally contain as many as one lakh verses in twelve Samhitas (books), but different surviving versions now occur in much less number of verses and content. For instance, one major recension found in the South India has seven Samhitas, another version has six and yet another version in Bengal has no Samhitas but two large sections called Purva-khanda and Uttara-khanda. The available Samhitas are Vidyeshvara, Rudra, Uma, Kailasa, Shatarudra, Kotirudra and Vayaviya.

The content of this Purana is centred around Lord Shiva covering the subjects like cosmology, mythology, ethics, Yoga, pilgrimage, bhakti, interaction of gods, holy rivers, geography, and so on. The oldest surviving chapters of the Shiva Purana also discuss the Advaita Vedanta clubbed with the bhakti elements. Shiva has been described in many forms but they are not glorified as Avatara. At certain places, He is depicted as a Mahayogi sitting in the meditation posture in Himalayas. Conspicuous forms of Shiva are Rudra characterized with a fiery and angry mood, Nataraja in a dancing attire, Yogeshwar symbolic to a great yogi and ascetic and the Linga as the symbol of energy and potential. Adherents of the Shaivism consider Shiva as the Supreme deity.

Linga Purana

This is yet another important iconographic Mahapurana of the Shaivite sect of Hinduism. Like many other Puranas, the exact vintage of it is not known but the broad speculations are that it was authored between the fifth and tenth century CE. The extant text is comprised of two parts namely Purva-bhaga (also Purvardha) in 108 chapters and Uttara-bhaga (also Uttarardha) in 55 chapters with a total about 11,000 verses. The text glorifies Lord Shiva and encompasses a range of other subjects like mythology, cosmology, seasons, festivals, geography, stotras, iconic relevance and value, pilgrimage, the design and consecration of the Linga and Nandi. The Yoga and its physical and spiritual significance is also highlighted in one part.

The Purana glorifies Lingam, the symbol of Lord Shiva, and the origin of the universe. It also contains many stories of Lingam, one of which entails how Agni Lingam solved a dispute between two other manifested forms of Brahman, Vishnu and Brahma. As per Linga Purana, Shiva is beyond any shape or color, taste or smell, word or touch, without quality, motionless and changeless; an analogy to Brahman which is vindicated by the Linga’s structure. The lower part is a square base called the Brahmabhaga or Brahma-pitha, symbolic to the creator Brahma while the middle is the octagonal Vishnubhaga or Vishnu-pitha signifying sustainer quality of Vishnu. The top cylindrical portion is the Rudrabhaga or Shiva-pitha, which symbolizes the projecting flame of fire and is the worshipable part.

According to a tale in the Linga Purana, once Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu had an argument over who is greater than the other. During the debate, Lord Shiva appeared and transformed Himself as a huge pillar of fire spread across the cosmos. He requested the two gods to scale the head or foot of his form to find out the truth. Brahma set out to map the height of the flame of fire as swan and Vishnu became a boar to dig and scale the base of the fire. Needless to mention, the two gods could not succeed in finding the limits and the episode established the sublime truth of Lord Shiva. This story is found in Shiva Purana and some other texts as well glorifying Shiva that also vindicates the earlier submission that the Puranas tend to glorify the respective deity as supreme while according reverence to other gods.

Brahma Purana

The Brahma Purana is another important text of Hindu Mahapurana genre which is listed as the first Mahapurana in several religious references; hence it is also called Adi Purana. Its origin is traced back between the thirteenth to sixteenth century BCE; the existing manuscript is divided in two parts, namely the Purvabhaga and Uttarbhaga, with a total of 245 chapters and about 10,000 verses. It is actually a compilation of diverse topics on the mythology, cosmology, genealogy, Manvantara, geography (including holy places, rivers, temples) and several other topics related to the puranic genre of literature.

The Padma Purana has categorized it as a Rajas Purana that suggests its linkage to Lord Brahma in the original text. However, the surviving text does not have much relevance to Brahma but has many passages common with the Vishnu, Vayu and Markendeya Puranas as also with the Mahabharata. The range of subjects covered is mythological tales, theory of war, Sanskara (rites), pilgrimage, Dharmashastras, temples and cultural aspects, and so on. Briefly, it also covers the philosophies of Samkhya and Yoga of the Hindu darshana. Remarkably, a large number of chapters (about 60%) are dedicated to the details and description of the geography and holy sites of Godavari river region of the modern Odisha and a part of Rajasthan.

Garuda Purana

The Garuda Purana is a part of Vaishnava tradition, basically glorifying Lord Vishnu and His consort Lakshmi besides emphasizing reverence to all gods. The composition of this Purana is ascribed to Vedavyasa and scholars consider it a text of early first millennium. It is divided into two parts, the Purva Khanda (earlier section) and the Uttara Khanda (later section), also known as Preta Khanda. The former Khanda contains 229 chapters, but in some recensions it varies from 240-243 chapters; similarly the latter Khanda contain 34 chapters but varying to as many as 49 in some versions. It is believed that originally the text was comprised of about 19,000 verses, but different recensions now have much lesser numbers. Several chapters are structured as the dialogue between Lord Vishnu and His bird-vehicle Garuda explaining cosmic knowledge and inter-relationship of Trimurti – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

The contents of the Garuda Purana are a diverse collection of the variety of subject like the cosmology, mythology, inter-relationship of gods, ethics, good versus evil, yogic practices, different Hindu philosophies, karma, reincarnation, concept of the heaven and hell, ancestral rites and soteriology, rivers and geography, minerals and stones, plants and herbs, and so on. In addition, it also talks about the diseases, their symptoms and medicines, aphrodisiacs, prophylactics, astronomy, astrology, planets, Hindu calendar, architecture, temples, building home, rites of passage, charity, economy, politics, duties of a king, rules of grammar, and so on. At the end, few chapters are dedicated to Yoga, Samkhya and Advaita darshanas.

Padma Purana

The Padma Purana is also the part of the eighteen Mahapurana literature corpus. It is an encyclopedic text, named after the flower lotus symbolic to Brahma’s origin; but a large part of it is dedicated to Lord Vishnu, besides in many sections Lord Shiva and Goddess Shakti have also been glorified. It is among the most voluminous texts of the Hinduism with about 55,000 verses, though the surviving two manuscripts in the eastern and western regions hold this number to about 50,000 verses only. The recension of the eastern region (Bengal) contains five khandas (sections) but the western region recension is comprised of six khandas: Srishti Khanda , Bhumi Khanda, Adi Khanda (or Svarga Khanda), Brahma Khanda, Patala Khanda and Uttara Khanda.

The Purana comprises of the subjects like mythology, cosmology, genealogy, geography, rivers and seasons, temples (including famous Brahma Temple at Pushkar) and pilgrimage, discussions on philosophy, ethics and hospitality. The first Khanda (section) begins with the description of the lake Pushkar as Brahma pilgrimage followed by Vishnu related legends and description. The second section looks like a pilgrimage guide with related legends while the third section is dedicated to the cosmology, geography, rivers and holy places. In the fourth section, Lord Vishnu is glorified, besides discussions on seasons, festivals, rituals, goddess Radha and Tulasi plant. In the fifth section, the story of Rama and Sita as incarnations of Vishnu and Lakshmi is narrated, and Shiva and Parvari are also glorified. The last section deals with the legends and mythology of festivals.

The Padma Purana is not only a compilation of the diverse subjects but also its manuscripts vary in different regions of the country. Apart from the broad structure cited above, the Purana contains numerous tales and legends showering praise on Lord Vishnu, chapters dedicated to Gita Mahatmya, Bhagavata Mahatmya and Shiva Gita, citations from the Upanishads, Yoga and Advaita Vedanta philosophies, discussion on Karma, soul and salvation and also description of human ethics and hospitality. Tales of Vishnu relate to his various incarnations and relationship with Shiva. The story of Ram and Sita is at variance with the Hindu epic Ramayana at many ways.

Markandeya Purana

The Markandeya Purana is yet another important text of the eighteen Mahapurana genre named after a sage of same name in Hindu mythology. This Purana is special in the context that it does not represent any sectarian favour to any particular deity. It is also considered among the old vintage Puranas and, according to some scholars, the tenor, texture and content of its early chapters look like the supplement of the great epic Mahabharata. The original manuscript is believed to have 9,000 verses but the surviving manuscripts have 137 chapters and 6,900 verses. Another important feature of this text is Devi Mahatmyam of Shaktism. For the Shaktas, it is the oldest known treatise with chapters 81 to 93 glorifying Devi (Goddess) as the Supreme Truth and creator of the universe the theological and philosophical premises.

The text opens with the Mimamsa darshana founder Sage Jaimini asking sage Markandeya some yet unanswered questions from the Mahabharata. On Sage Markandeya’s advice, Jaimini seeks answers from the four wise birds in the Vindhya Range and this discourse is included in the chapters 4 to 45 of the text. These discussions relate to the moral instructions with mythology, the concepts of Karma, Dharma, Samsara and Shraddha and so on from the Mahabharata and Gautama Dharmasutras. Then the text goes on to address diverse subjects with the socio-cultural information, Vedic ideas and metaphysical thought. The chapters 39 to 43 contain the philosophy of Yoga with assertion that the same is true path of self-knowledge and liberation. In the latter part of the text which is more scholarly, the Sage Markandeya is the primary speaker in chapters from 45 to 80 and 94 to137, which largely deals with the genealogy, Manvantaras, geography and glorification of the god Surya (Sun).

Agni Purana

It has different versions comprised of 382 or 383 chapters containing between 12,000 to 15,000 verses. The range of the subjects covered are cosmology, mythology, genealogy, politics, education system, iconography, taxation theories, armed forces and war, diplomacy, culture, social laws, building, water distribution, trees and plants, medicine, design and architecture, poetry, food and agriculture, rituals, geography and tourism and so on.

Brahmanda Purana

The nomenclature is based on a cosmological theory of Hinduism, namely the ‘cosmic egg’ (Brahma-anda). The Purana is of the early first millennium vintage with approximately 12000 verses. It discusses subjects like cosmogony, genealogy, Dharma (ethics and duties), Yoga, Sanskara, geography, rivers, good governance, administration, diplomacy, trade, festivals and inland tourism. It is remarkable for the Adhyatma-Ramayana in over 65 chapters and 4,500 verses, an embedded philosophy of the convergence of Bhakti in Rama (Vaishnavism) and Devi (Shaktism) with the Advaita Vedanta.

Brahmavaivarta Purana

It is a Vaishnavism text of the more modern times with the central theme of Krishna and Radha. According to some scholars, the extant version was composed around the fifteenth century CE in Bengal, although most probably the text existed since late 1st millennium. The Purana is comprised of the four khandas (sections), 276 chapters with about 18,000 verses. It identifies Krishna as the Supreme Reality asserting that Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma, Ganesha are all one and the same. Similarly, it also emphasizes the oneness of goddesses like Radha, Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati etc and that they are all incarnations of Prakriti, with the tales and legends akin to the Mahabharata and Devi Mahatmya.

Kurma Purana

This is named after the second incarnation of Vishnu as tortoise who supports the cosmos, while the devas (gods) and asuras (demons) churn the cosmic ocean with the help of the mythological serpent Vasuki to produce the nectar of immortality and recover lost precious things. The Kurma Purana have survived into several recensions in the modern era. Originally, it supposedly had 95 chapters and 17,000 verses but the current versions have only about 6,000. It includes the legends of Vishnu, and glorifies Shiva and Shakti as well with reverence; it carries tales and legends from mythology, geography, pilgrimage, theology and Bhagavad Gita.

Matsya Purana

It is considered one of the oldest and better preserved puranic text. Lord Vishnu is depicted as an incarnation of a fish who saves the world from a cosmic deluge by rescuing Manu (progenitor of human species) in boat along with the seeds of all other living beings. The standard Matsya Purana manuscript has 291 chapters with 14,000 verses. The text is based on the tales and legends encompassing five characteristics of cosmogony, cosmology, mythology, genealogy and Manvantaras. This includes the concepts of primary creation, chronology of the secondary creations whereby the cycle of birth-life-death is added, glorification of the gods and goddesses as also the legends of kings and ordinary folks including solar and lunar dynasties.

Naradeya Purana

This Purana comprises of two Bhagas (parts); the Purvabhaga with 125 chapters and Uttarbhaga with 82 chapters with a total approximately 25,000 verses. Of this, 41 chapters are dedicated to the glorification and reverence to Lord Vishnu including his various incarnations and the remaining chapters deal with a wide range of subjects including the Vedas, deities, temples, holy rivers, pilgrimage places, astronomy, philosophy, soteriology, and so on. It describes four Vedas and six Vedangas as also the myths and legends of the deities such as Lakshmi, Shiva, Parvati, Devi, Krishna, Radha, Rama, Sita, and others. Then it dedicates one chapter each (Chapters 92 to 109) to summarize 17 other Mahapuranas and one for itself. The chapters on philosophy include Adhyatma-jnana (monastic life), Moksha, Dharma and Pashupata darshana.

Skanada Purana

It is the largest known Purana originally with about 81,000 verses and represents the Shaivite literature. Skanda was the elder son of Shiva and Parvati, who is also known as Kartikeya and Murugan in religious texts. He is best known to have fought for the gods in the epic Devasura Sangram (War of Devas and Asuras). Its vintage is linked with the sixth century CE. The common characteristics of this text include discussions on the cosmogony, mythology, genealogy, geography, Dharma, temples, festivals, gemology, and virtues and evil. Lord Shiva is particularly glorified through various tales and legends highlighting His nature and qualities as the Absolute Reality and the source of knowledge (Jnan).

Vamana Purana

It is largely considered as a medieval era text variously dated between 450 - 900 CE, and some scholars even suggest its vintage of ninth to eleventh centuries. It is named after Lord Vishnu’s fifth incarnation as Dwarf. As per the legend, he saved the world from the demon king Bali from his abusive rule in the form of a dwarf monk seeking three steps of land as alms and in turn turning into a giant scaling earth, heaven and netherworld in three steps. The original manuscript has 96 chapters with about 10,000 verses. In the beginning chapters, it glorifies Vishnu but many latter chapters are dedicated to Shiva and various goddesses. The text presents tales and legends covering the cosmology and mythology common to other Puranas.

Varaha Purana

The text is of 10th to 12th century vintage and comprises of two parts: Purvabhaga with 112 chapters and Uttarbhaga with 113 chapters with a total about 24,000 verses; the modern editions containing only about half of this number. The Purana is named after the third incarnation of Vishnu who assumes the form of a boar to rescue goddess Bhudevi (earth) from the clutches of the powerful demon Hiranyaksha. As per the legend, the Varaha descends into the depths of the oceans, slays the demon and rescues her lifting on his tusks to her due place in the universe. Apart from glorifying Vishnu, the text also contains tales and legends in reverence of Shiva and goddesses. In its Dharmasamhita portion, it also contains discussions on the philosophy of the Karma and Dharma.

Vayu Purana

The Vayu Purana is among the oldest Mahapuranas which finds references in the epic Mahabharata and other contemporary Hindu texts. It is found in multiple recensions: some with four padas (parts) divided into 112 chapters, others in two khandas with 111 chapters, with about 24000 verses although the modern manuscripts come with only about half of this number. The Vayu Purana discusses the concepts of cosmology, genealogy, mythology and Manvantaras through the tales and legends of the gods and kings of solar and lunar dynasties. It also contains chapters on the solar system and celestial bodies. Some chapters are also dedicated to the Varna (caste or class), Ashrama (Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha and Sannyasa), Dharma, Sanskaras, penance and even the concept of the hell and heaven in the after-life.


They are another genre of Hindu religious texts in large numbers categorized as the secondary Puranas using a prefix Upa. They deal with similar mythological and allied subjects of the gods, goddesses, sages and kings of the ancient ages with relatively less importance attached in view of their size, volume and content. On the pattern of the Mahapuranas, different lists of the eighteen Upapuranas have been drawn by different sources and the lists considerably vary. However, a more agreeably drawn list of eighteen Upapuranas are Sanat-kumara, Narasimha, Brihan-naradiya, Siva-rahasya, Durvasa, Kapila, Bhargava, Varuna, Kalika, Samba, Nandi, Surya, Parasara, Vasishtha, Devi-Bhagavata, Ganesha, Mudgala and Hamsa Purana. However, many other religious texts too are considered as Upapuranas. As for the difference, according to Rajendra Chandra Hazra, a scholar of Sanskrit and puranic literature, “a Mahapurana is well known, and that what is less well known becomes an Upapurana".

    The significant texts among the Vaishnava literature are the Vishnudharma Purana, Vishnudharmottara Purana, Narasimha Purana, Brihannaradiya Purana and Kriyayogasara.
  • Shaiva Upapuranas are the Saura Purana, Shivadharma Purana, Shivadharmottara Purana, Shiva-rahasya Purana, Ekamra Purana, Parashara Purana and Vikhyada Purana.
  • The most popular Shakta Upapuranas are the Devi Purana, Devi Bhagavata, Kalika Purana, Mahabhagavata Purana, Bhagavati Purana and Chandi Purana.

As can be seen, some of these do not find a place in the above list of the eighteen Upapuranas.

Concept of Avataras

The Bhagavata Purana is the comprehensive chronicle of all Avataras (incarnations) of Lord Vishnu in Vaishnava literature although many other Puranas also illustrate these legends. He is known to have ten Avaratas and the aim on each occasion was to protect the virtuous from the evil doer for the welfare of the world. The ten Avataras are Matsya (The Fish), Kurma (The Tortoise), Varaha (The Boar), Narasimha (The Man-Lion), Vamana (The Dwarf), Parasurama, Rama Chandra, Sri Krishna, Buddha (the founder of Buddhism) and Kalki in the same order; the last one is yet to come as a godly figure riding on a white horse at the end of the Kali Yuga. The tales and legends associated with these incarnations are illustrated in numerous puranic tales.

The aim of the Matsya Avatara was to save the world from a cosmic deluge by rescuing Vedas and Manu (progenitor of man) along with the seeds of all living things. The Kurma Avatar as the giant tortoise was to support the cosmos, while the devas (gods) and asuras (demons) churned the cosmic ocean to recover the nectar and other precious things lost during the deluge. The objective of the Varaha Avatara was to rescue Bhudevi from the demon named Hiranyaksha. The Narasimha Avatara was to protect devotee Prahlada and the world from the oppression of the demon king Hiranyakashipu. The Vamana Avatara was to restore the power of devas that was taken by the asura King Bali. The purpose of Parasurama Avatara was to end the oppressive dominance of the Kshatriya rulers on the earth. The object of Rama Avatara was to destroy the wicked Ravana and establish Ram-rajya (sattva qualities). Lastly, the purpose of Krishnavatara was to destroy Kamsa other evil-doers besides performing a crucial role in Mahabharata war. The chief aim of Buddha Avatara was to teach piety to the mankind.

Among Hindus, the other most revered deity is Lord Shiva. However, the concept of Avatara is not well established in Shavism. There are occasional references of Shiva’s Avataras and manifestations in puranic texts but the concept did not evolve to gain universal appeal and acceptance. The Linga Purana discusses twenty-eight forms of Shiva which are sparingly interpreted by some as avataras but popular tales and legends are almost non-existent. For instance, Ardhnarishwara, Neelkantha and Rishi Durvasha are considered his manifestations; and Hayagreeva, Sharabha and Ruru as incarnations in animal forms. More common forms of Shiva are Yogeshwara, Natraja, Rudra and Linga but they are also not treated as Avatara. Such occurances of Shiva are mostly glorified as His Lilas (acts) rather than Avataras. As per a legend, Lord Siva assumed the form of Dakshinamurti to impart knowledge to the four Kumaras. Some such divine Lilas are recorded in the Tamil Puranas like Periya Purana, Siva Parakramam and Tiruvilayadal Purana. However, the concept of the Avatara is widely popular in Puranic texts and many other gods and goddesses are known for incarnations in many legends and tales.


The Vedic Sanskrit is archaic and its contents are difficult for the common people to understand and absorb. Also the heavy philosophical and metaphysical concepts of the Upanishads and Vedanta darshana are difficult to grasp and assimilate in common parlance. As against this, the tenor and texture of Puranas is much simple and user friendly as the same philosophy and metaphysical truth is conveyed in easy way through illustrations, tales and legends that generates instant appeal and interest in common man. The beauty of the puranic literature is that the Puranas were conceived and written in easy-to-understand story form by the Sage Vedavyasa and others in the genealogy.

To summarize it, the Puranas convey the same essence of the Vedas through simple illustrations, legends and tales. They were written to impress upon the masses the teachings of the Vedas and devotion to God. The five main characteristics of Puranas as also referred to at many places in this write are history, cosmology (with symbolical illustrations of philosophical principles), secondary creation, genealogy of gods, sages and kings, and Manvantaras (celestial yugas). All the Puranas fall in the category of Suhrit-Sammita (Friendly Treatise), while the Vedas are treated as the Prabhu-Sammita (Commanding Treatise).

The Puranas were produced deriving themes and clues from the four Vedas; hence they are also recognized as the supplementary Vedic literature. The subject matters in the Vedas are difficult for the common man; hence Puranas explain the same through stories, narratives and ancient historical incidents. In the process, one may encounter several events and episodes that appear inconceivable and miraculous beyond the ordinary logic and common sense but then, if we mind it as fanciful, it is universally present everywhere in religious texts across the world, even in key religious books of the two major Abrahamic religions. After all, the immutable faith of human beings is the key concept of all religion.

Continued to Part XXIII


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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