Book I of Vishnu Purana
The first part or Khanda of the Vishnu Purana narrates the creation of the universe, Pralay and the churning of the sea. After he has first glorified Lord Vishnu in a hymn, he gives an account of the creation of the world as it is seen occurring in almost all of the Puranas. Philosophical views, essentially belonging to the Samkhya Philosophy, are here in a remarkable manner mingled with popular mythical ideas. Along with the accounts of the creation of the gods and demons, of the heroes and the primal ancestors of the human race, are numerous mythological narratives, allegories and legends of ancient kings and sages of primeval times.
Many of these narratives can already be seen occurring in the Mahabharata, like that of the twirling of the ocean. There is here a particularly poetical description of the goddess of Fortune and Beauty, Sri, arising in radiant beauty out of the twirled milk-ocean. In a splendid hymn she is glorified and invoked by Indra as the mother of all beings, as the source of all that is good and beautiful, and as the giver of all happiness. Just as this piece serves, above all, for the glorification of Vishnu, whose wife Sri is, so it is in all the other narratives always Vishnu, whose praise is sung in an extravagant manner.
Book II of Vishnu Purana
Book II of the Vishnu Purana first gives (Chapter 1-12) a description of the world. The seven continents and the seven oceans are described, in the midst of which situated Jambudvipa with the golden mountain Meru, the dwelling of the gods. In Jambudwipa is Bharatavarsa, i.e. "India," whose lands, mountains and rivers are enumerated. After this description of the earth follows a description of Patala, the nether world in which the snake-gods dwell; next follows an enumeration and description of the still deeper-situated Narakas or hells. As a contrast there follows a description of the heavenly spheres, the sun, the chariot of the sun and the sun-horses with astronomical expositions on the sun's course, the planetary system and the sun as giver of rain and preserver of beings. Next follows a description of the moon, of its car, its horses, its course, and its relation to the sun and planets. The section concludes with the statement that the whole world is but Vishnu, and that he alone is the only reality.
In connection with the name Bharatavarsa there is then related (Chapter 13-16) a legend of king Bharata of old, which, however, only serves as an introduction to a philosophical dialogue in which the ancient doctrine of the Unity of All, familiar from the Upanishads, is presented from the Vishnuite standpoint. The style of the whole section recalls that of the Upanishads in many respects.
Book III of Vishnu Purana
Book III of the Vishnu Purana begins with an account of the Manus (primal ancestors of the human race) and the ages (manvantaras) over which they ruled. This is followed by a discussion on the four Vedas, on their division by Vyasa and his pupils and on the origin of the various Vedic schools. Then follows an enumeration of the eighteen Puranas and a list of all sciences.
Then the question is raised and discussed, how one may attain to liberation as a devout Vishnu-worshipper. In a beautiful dialogue (Chapter 7) between Lord Yama, the god of death, and one of his servants, it is explained that he who is pure in heart and leads a virtuous life and has directed his mind to Vishnu, is a true Vishnu-worshipper and therefore is free from the bonds of the god of death. This is followed by an exposition on the duties of the castes and Asramas, on birth and marriage ceremonies, ritual ablutions, the daily sacrifices, the duties of hospitality, conduct at meals and so on.
A long treatise (Chapter 13-17) on the funeral oblations and ceremonies for the worshipping of spirits of ancestors (Shraddhas) concludes this section, in which the Vedic-Brahmanical religious customs are represented as the right kind of Vishnu-worship. The last two chapters of the' book describe the origin of the heretical sects hostile to the Veda, whose adherents, especially the Jains, called Digambara, and the Buddhists known as "Red mantles" (Raktambaras)." are represented as the worst evil-doers. In order to show how sinful it is to have any sort of intercourse with such heretics, the story of the ancient king Satadhanu is told. He was a devout worshipper of Vishnu, but once, out of mere politeness, exchanged a few words with a heretic, and in consequence was re-born consecutively as a dog, jackal, wolf, vulture, crow and peacock. This went on till at last-thanks to the constant faithfulness and piety of his wife Saibya- he again came into the world as a king.
Book IV of Vishnu Purana
Book IV of the Vishnu Purana contains chiefly genealogical lists of the ancient royal races, of the solar dynasty, which traces its origin back to the sun-god, and the lunar dynasty, which traces its origin to the moon-god. Long lists of ancient kings- many of them purely mythical, some probably historical- are only occasionally interrupted in order to relate some legend about one or other of them. The legends related here are full of marvel and wonder. There is Daksha, who is born out of Brahma's right thumb; Manu's daughter Ila, who becomes transformed into a man; Iksvaku, who owes his existence to the sneezing of Manu; King Raivata, who, with his daughter Revali, goes to heaven, in order to have a husband for his daughter recommended to him by god Brahman ; or indeed King Yuvanasva, who becomes pregnant and brings a son into the world, whom Indra suckles with the drink of immortality, the child putting his finger into the mouth of the god and then sucking it. The child received the name Mandhatr. The latter became a powerful king and the father of three sons and fifty daughters.
In this book we meet with many legends already familiar from the epics, for example, those of Pururavas and Urvasi, of Yayati and others. There is also here a short summary of the legend of Lord Rama. There is an account of the birth of the Pandavas and of Lord Krishna and the story of the Mahabharata is briefly touched upon. The conclusion of this extensive genealogical book is formed by prophecies concerning the "future" kings of Magadha, the Saisungas, Nandas, Mauryas, Sungas, Kanvayanas and Andhrabhrtyas concerning the foreign barbarian rulers who will succeed them, and the terrible age brought about by them, an age without religion and without morality, which will only be ended by Vishnu in his incarnation as Kalki.
Book V of Vishnu Purana
Book V is a complete whole in itself. It contains a detailed biography of the divine cowherd Lord Krishna in which practically the same adventures are told in the same order as in the Harivamsa Parva of the Mahabharata.
Book VI of Vishnu Purana
Book VI is quite short. Once again the four consecutive ages of the world (yugas)- Krta, Treta, Dvapara and Kali- are recalled, and the evil Kaliyuga is described in the form of a prophecy, to which is attached a presentation of the various kinds of dissolution (Pralaya) of the universe. Next are described in a pessimistic manner (Chapter 5) the evils of existence, the pain of being born, of childhood; of manhood, old age and death, the torments of hell and the imperfection of the bliss of heaven, and from this the conclusion is drawn that only liberation from existence, freedom from re-birth, is the highest happiness, But for this it is necessary to know the nature of God; for only that wisdom is perfect by which God is seen, all else is ignorance. The medium for obtaining this wisdom is Yoga, meditation upon Vishnu. The two penultimate chapters of the work give information on this medium. The last chapter recapitulates briefly the contents of the whole Purana and ends with a praise of Vishnu and a final prayer.
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