(Last Updated on : 21/07/2012)
Indian Puranas constitute one of the richest sources of Hindu Literature as well as mythology. They contain some important components of both Hinduism
as well as Buddhism
. The Puranas narrate various stories about the Gods and the Goddesses, rights and rituals and hymns. These scriptures have been passed from one generation to the other, either by word of mouth or stored scriptures. There are about 18 major Puranas along with some minor ones, which have been merged in various ideas from different faiths. The Indian Puranas are classified into the Mahapuranas (great) and the Upapuranas (lower, additional) and the classification of Puranas depends on the importance of each of these Indian Puranas.
Origin of Puranas
According to researches, the Puranas represent the earliest traditional history. Tradition has it that the Puranas were composed by Ved Vyas
at the end of Dwapara Yuga, though the exact origin of Indian Puranas is not known. However modern scholars state that Indian Puranas existed from the 4th century BC to the 1st millennium AD. The Puranas undoubtedly reach back to great antiquity and are rooted in Vedic Literature
; many a legend, already familiar from Hymns of Rig Veda
and from the Brahmanas
, reappears in the Puranas. Furthermore, history depicts that Puranas existed even before the advent of the Vedic texts. Age of the Puranas lies in the antiquity and in those past days, Puranas were given enough significance for the developed civilisation.
But, just as undoubtedly, those works which have come down to us under the title of " Purana" are of a later date, and up to the present day books are fabricated which assume the proud title "Purana," or claim to be parts of ancient Puranas. Even the latest productions of this literature have the external form and the archaic frame of the oldest Puranas.
Meaning of Puranas
The word "Purana" means originally nothing but Puranam Akhyanam, i.e. old narrative. In the older literature, in Brahmanas, Upanishad
and old Buddhist texts, the word is generally found in connection with Itihasa
. But the Itihasas and Puranas or Itihasapurana so often mentioned in olden times, do not mean actual books, still less, then, the epics or Puranas which have come down to us. It is indeed likely enough that the Puranas are only recasts of older works of the same species, namely, of works of religious didactic contents, in which were collected ancient traditions of the Creation, the deeds of the gods, heroes, saints and ancient ancestors of the human race, the beginnings of the famous royal families, and so on.
This fact of the later recasting of the Puranas is verified by the fact that none of these Puranas conforms to the definition of the term Purana as given in themselves. According to this old definition, every Purana is to have five characteristics (pancalaksana) i.e. it is to treat five subjects: 1) Sarga, creation, 2) Pratisarga
, secondary-creation, i.e. the periodical annihilation and renewal of the worlds, 3) Vamsa, genealogy, i.e. the genealogy of the gods and Risis, (4) Manvantarani, the Manu-periods of time, i.e. the great periods, each of which has a Manu
or primal ancestor of the human race, and 5) Vamsanucarita, the history of the dynasties, viz. the early and later dynasties whose origin is traced back to the sun (solar dynasty) and the moon (lunar dynasty).
It has been seen that these five things only partly form the contents of the Puranas handed down to us. Whereas some contain much more than what is included in the five characteristics, others scarcely touch upon these subjects, but deal with quite different things. What is especially significant of almost all Puranas is their sectarian character, i e. their being dedicated to the cult of some god or other, of Lord Vishnu or Lord Shiva
, is completely ignored by the old definition. In most of these works there are also considerable sections on the rights and duties of the castes and of the Asramas, on the general Brahmanical rites, especially the funeral sacrifices (Sraddhas), as well as on particular ceremonies and feasts (Vratas) in honour of Vishnu or Shiva and frequently also sections on Yoga
and Samkhya philosophy
Content of Puranas
The Puranas are texts that represent the Indian culture and civilization as well as the history and the geography of the world since its creation. Geography in the Puranas is the chief topic of discussion from early times in connection with recreation; and many of the existing Puranas contain chapters on these topics. According to Puranic tradition, the earth consisted of seven dvipa or continents, such as Jambu dvipa, Plaksa dvipa, Saimali dvipa, Kusa
dvipa, Kraunca dvipa, Saka dvipa, Puskara dvipa. According to the description given in the Puranas, each of these seven dvipa or continents was divided into a number of varsas or subcontinents. These dvipas were surrounded by seven oceans containing water which salt, sugarcane-juice, wine, clarified butter, curd
and good drinking water mixed in the water of the ocean.
The Indian Puranas speak quite extensively about the battle between the Gods and the Demons. The Puranas give detailed account of Hindu lore, religious practices - Yoga, prayers, sacrifices and everyday customs and they complement the metaphysical seriousness of the Upanishads, the magical and sacrificial lore of the Atharva Veda
, and the orthodoxy of the Rig Veda
Indian Puranas also speak at length about the various gods and goddesses. Puranic Deities of India includes Lord Brahma
, Vishnu and Shiva. According to the Puranas, Vishnu and Shiva were visualized as forming a harmony with Brahma. These Puranic deities were introduced to the religions during the 4th and 5th century A.D. These gods were witnessed as almighty. Moreover, the gods were given a particular identity depending on their power. The Puranas also narrate the incidents of various influential kings, their supremacy as well as the rivalry between princely clans.
The Puranas are works that represent the deep mystic structuring of Indian civilization. They are viewed as expanding, modifying, and transforming the orthodox Brahmanism of the Vedas, through bhakti or devotion.