The Puranas are ancient Hindu texts eulogizing various deities of the Hindu pantheon through divine stories. The multiple scriptures known by the name of Puranas can be categorized under the same class as the ‘Itihasas’ or Histories – the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and is believed to have been derived from the same religious system as these epics that were the best products of the mytho-heroic stage of Hindu belief.
The Origin of the Puranas
Although the Puranas share some of the traits of the great epics, they belong to a later period and provide a “more definite and connected representation of the mythological fictions and the historical traditions.” Horace Hayman Wilson, who translated some Puranas into English in 1840, says that they also “offer characteristic peculiarities of a more modern description, in the paramount importance which they assign to individual divinities, in the variety … of the rites and observances addressed to them, and in the invention of new legends illustrative of the power and graciousness of those deities…”
The 5 Characteristics of the Puranas
According to Swami Sivananda, the Puranas can be identified by ‘Pancha Lakshana’ or five characteristics they possess – history; cosmology, often with various symbolical illustrations of philosophical principles; secondary creation; genealogy of kings; and of ‘Manvantaras’ or the period of Manu’s rule consisting of 71 celestial Yugas or 306.72 million years.
All the Puranas belong to the class of ‘Suhrit-Samhitas,’ or friendly treatises, markedly differing in authority from the Vedas, which are called the ‘Prabhu-Samhitas’ or the commanding treatises.
The Purpose of the Puranas
The Puranas have the essence of the Vedas and written to popularize the thoughts contained in the Vedas.
They were meant, not for the scholars, but for the ordinary people who could hardly fathom the high philosophy of the Vedas. The aim of the Puranas is to impress upon the minds of the masses the teachings of the Vedas and to generate in them devotion to God, through concrete examples, myths, stories, legends, lives of saints, kings and great men, allegories, and chronicles of great historical events. Ancient sages used these images to illustrate the eternal principles of the belief system that came to be known as Hinduism. The Puranas helped the priests to hold religious discourses in temples and on banks of holy rivers, and people loved to hear these stories. These texts are not only replete with information of all kinds but also very interesting to read. In this sense, the Puranas play a pivotal role in Hindu theology and cosmogony.
The Form and Author of the Puranas
The Puranas are mainly written in the form of a dialogue in which one narrator relates a story in reply to the inquiries of another. The primary narrator of the Puranas is Romaharshana, a disciple of Vyasa, whose primary task is to communicate what he learned from his preceptor, as he had heard it from other sages. Vyasa here is not to be confused with the renowned sage Veda Vyasa, but a generic title of a compiler, which in most Puranas is Krishna Dwaipayana, the son of great sage Parasara and the teacher of the Vedas.
The 18 Major Puranas
There are 18 main Puranas and an equal number of subsidiary Puranas or Upa-Puranas and many ‘sthala’ or regional Puranas. Of the 18 major texts, six are Sattvic Puranas glorifying Vishnu; six are Rajasic and glorifying Brahma; and six are Tamasic and they glorifying Shiva. They are categorized serially in the following list of Puranas:
- Vishnu Purana
- Naradiya Purana
- Bhagavat Purana
- Garuda Purana
- Padma Purana
- Brahma Purana
- Varaha Purana
- Brahmanda Purana
- Brahma-Vaivarta Purana
- Markandeya Purana
- Bhavishya Purana
- Vamana Purana
- Matsya Purana
- Kurma Purana
- Linga Purana
- Shiva Purana
- Skanda Purana
- Agni Purana
The Most Popular Puranas
Foremost among the many Puranas are the Srimad Bhagavata Purana and the Vishnu Purana. In popularity, they follow the same order. A portion of the Markandeya Purana is well known to all Hindus as Chandi, or Devimahatmya.
Worship of God as the Divine Mother is its theme. Chandi is read widely by the Hindus on sacred days and Navaratri (Durga Puja) days.
About Shiva Purana & Vishnu Purana
In the Shiva Purana, quite predictably, Shiva is eulogized over Vishnu, who is sometimes shown in poor light. In the Vishnu Purana, the obvious happens – Vishnu is highly glorified over Shiva, who is often disparaged. Despite the apparent disparity depicted in these Puranas, Shiva and Vishnu are thought to be one, and part of the Trinity of Hindu theogony. As Wilson points out: “Shiva and Vishnu, under one or other form, are almost the sole objects that claim the homage of the Hindus in the Puranas; departing from the domestic and elemental ritual of the Vedas, and exhibiting a sectarial fervor and exclusiveness … They are no longer authorities for Hindu belief as a whole: they are special guides for separate and sometimes conflicting branches of it, compiled for the evident purpose of promoting the preferential, or in some cases the sole, worship of Vishnu or of Shiva.”
Based on the teachings of Sri Swami Sivananda