The term ‘Purana’ (lit. old, ancient) occurs in the Atharvaveda and the Brahamanas in the sense of cosmogonic inquiries. It was designated as ancient legendary lore in the Mahābhärata.
Among various sources used in the reconstruction of Early Indian History, Puranas enjoy place of great significance.
According to tradition, the Puranas were composed by Vyasa. But it’s the form in which they have come down to us, they weren’t the work of one single person nor of one single age. There are 18 major Puranas (Mahapuranas), and many more secondary Puranas (Upapuranas).
The standard list of the 18 Mahapuranas includes the Narada, Vishnu, Bhagavata, Padma, Garuda, Varaha, Matsya, Kurma, Shiva, Skanda, Linga, Agni, Brahmanda, Brahmavaivarta, Bhavishya, Markandeya, Vamana, and Brahma.
The origins of the Puranas perhaps have overlapped to some extent with the Vedas, but their composition stretched forward between 2nd century BC and 10th Century AD.
Five characteristics of Puranas
The Puranas are believed to have five characteristics (Panch-Lakshanas), that is, they are supposed to discuss five topics:
- The creation of the world (Srga);
- Re-creation (Prati Sarga);
- The genealogies of gods and rishis (Vamsha);
- The periods of the various manus (Manvantaras); and
- An account of royal dynasties (Vamshanucharita), including the Suryavamshi and Chandravamshi kings, whose origin is traced to the sun and the moon.
Literally, not all Puranas deal with all these five topics, and most of them deal with much more.
The conception of time in the Puranas
The conception of time in the Puranas is fascinating. There are four ages or yugas-Krita, Treta, Dvapara, and kali, all consisting of thousands and thousands of years.
These four yugas make up a maha yuga, and 1,00 maha yugas constitute a Kalpa. Every Kalpa is further divided into 14 Manvantaras, each presided over by a Manu.
One Yuga follows the other, and the periodic destruction of the world is followed by its re-creation.
This cycle of time connected with the cyclical decline and revival of Dharma.
The earliest parts of the puranic genealogies are either entirely or partly mythical. The later genealogies of kings of the kali age (which according to tradition, began the day Krishna died, 20 years after the Mahabharata war) have historical material.
The account is given in the future tense in the form of prophecy, because Vyasa is supposed to have lived at the end of the Dvapara Yuga and the beginning of the kali yuga, before the events he is supposed to be describing.
The Bhavishya Purana is mentioned in some Puranas as the original authority for the genealogies, but the present versions of this text have incomplete material on the subject.
Although their details do not always match, the Puranas-especially the Vayu, Brahmanda, Brahma, Harivamsha, Matsya, and Vishnu-do provide useful information on ancient political history.
They refer to historical dynasties such as the Haryankas, Shaishunagas, Nandas, Maurya’s, shunga’s, Kanvas, and Andhra (Satavahanas). They also mention certain kings, with names ending in the suffix ‘naga‘, who ruled in northern and central India in the early centuries CE, about whom very little else is known.
The dynastic lists end with the Guptas (4th-6th centuries), indicating that most of the Puranas were compiled at about this time. However, some are later-e.g., the Bhagavata Puranas belongs to the 10th and the Skanda Purana to the 14th century, with additions made up to the 16th century.
Subject-matter of the Puranas
The subject-matter of the Purāņas is very interesting. Cosmogony, deeds of numerous gods and goddesses, saints (Rishis) heroes and ancestors of the human race. And the beginning of the famous royal families, veiled history, geography, flora and fauna, ritualistic and sectarian worship, and some philosophical speculation, most of which is sectarian in character, are clearly expressed in different Puraņas.
These are considerable sections on rights and duties of different castes and aśramas (stages of life) as well as general Brahmaņical rites, such as Vratas, vows, and ceremonies in honor of Vishņu, Siva, Linga, Indra, Agni, Durga, Ganeśa, Lakshmi, Sarasvati, Savitri, Krişņa, Radha, etc.
The Puranas have accounts of mountains, rivers, and places, which are useful for the study of historical geography. They also reflect the emergence of religious cults based on devotion, especially towards the gods Vishnu and Shiva and the goddess shakti.
This devotion was expressed through the worship of images of deities in temples, pilgrimage (tirtha), and vows (Vrata).
Some of the puranic myths such as the stories of encounters and interactions between demons (rakshas, asuras), gods (devas), and sages (rishis) are interpreted by historians as allegorical representations of interactions among people belonging to different cultures.
The character of Puranic literature
The Puranic literature has almost encyclopedic character. But they are written in the careless language, indifferent verification, faulty grammar, inaccurate meters, a medley of contents, sometimes contradictory and bondless exaggeration.
Much other material is placed by the side of the new inferior matter; absurd tales and confused legends are also incorporated with them.
Perhaps, sectarian and semi-literate priests are responsible for their composition. However, they serve as a compendium of all existing knowledge about religion, philosophy, ritual, legends, tales, history, geography, flora and fauna.
Scientific insights from Puranas
In spite of its many shortcomings, remarkable scientific insights are also found buried in these heterogeneous literary compounds.
Rejecting the popular geocentric theory, Vishnu Purana affirms the view that the earth is the center of the solar system. The movement of the planets is stated to impart motion to the pivotal sun.
Puranas status of Art and Literature
Th Purāņas also affirm the status of art and literature. According to Vishņu Purana, “Poetry and all literary creations, as also music, are but aspects of the Lord in His form as Sound.”
Similarly, the Agni Purāņa states, “If Sästra (Science), Itihāsa (history) and popular culture all three combine, it becomes a Kāvya (literary creation).” It also has given a good analysis of the psychology of aesthetic creation and experience.
The Puranas had a very important function in the Brahmanical tradition as vehicles of Brahmanical social and religious values.
At the same time, they also reflect the interaction of Brahmanical and non-Brahmanical cultural traditions and the emergence and development of Hindu religious practices.
In ancient age, the Puranas were the only important literary work accessible to women and Shudras. Vedas were not accessible to them. Because of this, Puranas propogated knowledge among majority of Indian population.
According to Banbhatta, Puranas were read publically in ancient times, and the entire village used to listen to them, that is why Puranas are considered the most important source of spreading secular knowledge among people of Ancient age.