(Last Updated on : 20/07/2010)
Age of Puranas contains various valuable materials for the sociological study of ancient India. No definite date can be suggested for the Puranas. In some cases, different chapters of a single Purana appear to have been composed or assembled in different periods. By and large the early Puranas came into being approximately between the 2nd century and the 6th century AD. The researches of the scholars have revealed that the Puranas are antique in its character and composition. The references of the Puranas in the ancient texts reveal that the Puranas existed even before the advent of the Vedic texts, though not as a form of literary genre. Modern scholarship has varied its attitude towards the Puranas at different times.
In the last decades of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, the Puranas were not provided enough importance for depicting history. This is so because the Puranas represent a confused accumulation of their legendary and historical events, thereby depicts a weird idea of age. Hence the confused and disintegrated idea of age reduces the historical importance of the Puranas. In the early decades of the 19th century, H.H Wilson made a systematic study of the Puranas and brought out an English translation of the Vishnu Purana
. The English translation of Vishnu Purana made by Wilson opens with an exhaustive introduction and critical and comparative notes which attracted the attention of European scholars to this important branch of Sanskrit literature.
One of the objects of the Puranas was to give freedom to women and Sudras in certain religious rites and practices. They were denied the right to Vedic rites, and had been groaning under the grinding weight of repression and feeling an urge for liberation in this field. The result was that a large number of them embraced Buddhism
which allowed the same privileges to all irrespective of any discrimination. This caused an erosion of the Brahmanical society, and the sacerdotal class, which depended on the people for their maintenance, felt the need for works like the Puranas. During some centuries preceding and following the birth of Christ, three unorthodox faiths exerted wide and deep influence on the populace. These were Buddhism, Jainism
and Ajivakism. The semi-Vedic worship of the Trinity, Lord Brahma
, Lord Vishnu
and Lord Shiva
, and the non-Vedic Shaktism were powerful forces to reckon with.
The Vaisnavas were broadly divided into two sects, namely Pancaratra and Bhagavata. Bhagavatism was very popular among the non-Brahmanical and foreign tribes. The rights and privileges in religious matters, denied to women and Sudras in the traditional Brahmanical Shastras, have been given to them by the Vaishnava; women and Sudras were allowed directly to worship Lord Vishnu. The Puranas tell that the political sway of the Nandas, Mauryas, Andhras etc. dealt a severe blow to the traditional Brahmanical religion. Sudra kings are known to have themselves performed Asvamedha sacrifice. They extended very liberal support to Buddhists and Jains. The Buddhists advocated mendicancy and the Jains severe asceticism. The privileges in religious performances, given by them to women and Sudras, considerably undermined the Brahmanical society. There were other reasons also for the weakening of this society. One was the invasions by foreigners from the north-west and the other the spread of Tantricism among the masses.
Onslaughts on the Brahmanical religion and society continued till the first quarter of the 4th century A.D when the Guptas came to power. The Gupta kings revived the Brahmankul religion battered by hostile forces for a long time. Tantric religion spread through Vaishnavism
and Saivism. The Buddhists also had many Tantras. Tantric influence is noticeable roughly from the fifth century onward. In course of time, Tantras influenced Indian Puranas
and Smriti. The embracing of Buddhism and the adoption of Tantric practices led to the decadence of the traditional Brahmanical religion and society in the Puranic age. It was at this stage that the Brahmanas tried, in various ways, to restore their lost glory through the Puranas. Among the revivalist tactics was the introduction of a network of Vratas designed to secure various kinds of material welfare. Gift to Brahmanas in Vratas was declared to be conducive to happiness. Gift to one having a large family to maintain was considered to be particularly useful. Among the articles of gift were such daily necessities as oil, salt, umbrella, sandals etc. Dishonest economy has been condemned. This means that one should spend in gift as much as one's purse permits.
In the early decades of the 20th century the methodical research of F.E Pargiter placed before the world a critical survey of the historical material of the age of Puranas. Before the advent of the detailed study of F.E Pargiter the Puranas were in the darkest oblivion as a literary genre. The modern scholars have opined that the present view is to accept the Puranas as one of the important sources of traditional history of ancient India. Nowadays the Puranas are being critically studied in order to extract the traditional historical data stored in it. Modern historians also depend on the Puranic materials for their own works.
Being the ancient existing literary genre, the Puranas are significant to throw light to the comprehensive history of Indian culture. The age of Puranas embody the vastness of the rich Indian culture and civilisation. It has sections dealing with polity, sociology, administrative institutions, fine arts, architecture, etc. which articulate the very spirit of Indian culture and civilization. The function of a modern historian should be to disentangle legendary, fictitious or mythological material from the purely historical or cultural data. However the Puranas stand unique as the literary genre in its antiquity of age.