‘Purana’ means old. It implies that the narration referred to was a happening of the past. There are eighteen Puranas, said to have been compiled by Sage Ved Vyasa in Sanskrit. Six Puranas each are devoted to the glorify Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, the Gods of Trimurty as the main deity. Apart from that, Puranas narrate incidents concerning other deities, kings, and commoners also. They present a panoramic view of the past geography, history, customs, ethics and events on the Indian sub-continent and other parts of the globe. The subtle philosophy of Vedas has been illustrated through narratives and discourses written in simple format for laymen to understand and emulate.
Gist of Puranas
Besides eighteen main Puranas, there are sixteen Up-Puranas also, but for the sake of brevity, the contents of major Puranas only are appended below:-
- Brahmapurana: This oldest Purana contains 246 chapters, and 14000 stanzas (Shalokas). In addition to describing the greatness of Brahma, the scripture narrates evolution of Universe from beginning to the period of Indus Valley Civilization. The stories of Rama, Krishna and decent of River Ganga are also included in it.
- Padmapurana: There are 55,000 stanzas divided in 5 chapters (Khandas) of this Purana. The Chapters are Srishti-Khanda, Swarga-Khanda, Uttar-Khanda, Bhumi-Khanda and Patal-Khanda. The narrative tells about the origin of earth, sky, stars, and life. Sages have scientifically classified four types of living beings in Universe, based on their source of origin. All major rivers of India have also been mentioned. Famous love story of Shakuntala and King Dushyanta is also narrated herein. Our country Jambudweepa came to be known as Bharat after a son Bharat born to the couple ruled the country. These contents of this Purana could have inspired Old Testament and later Muhammad also, to propagate the same about origin of Heaven, Earth and Hell with some variations.
- Vishnu Purana: There are 23000 stanzas complied in 6 chapters. Besides narratives of Vishnu and Krishna, this Purana narrates the history of Dhruva, the son of King Uttanapada and King Prithu, after whom Earth derived the name Prithavi. This Purana provides conclusive evidence of boundary demarcation of India:-
उत्तरं यत्समुद्रस्य हिमाद्रेश्चैव दक्षिणम्
वर्षं तद भारतं नाम भारती यत्र सन्ततिः
It means the country that has Himalayas on North, and surrounded by Sea on South is known as Bharat. All those who live in that area are called Bharatvasies (Residents of Bharat). What could be a better identity for Indians thereafter?
- Shivapurana: There are 24,000 stanzas divided in seven chapters (samhitas) to narrate the life of Lord Shiva. It is also known as ‘Vayu Purana’ and contains description of Mount Kailas, Shivalinga, identification and properties of Rudraksha beads, as well as exercising control over passion of lust. The rationale of naming days of the week has also been explained therein.
- Bhagvata Purana: There are 18000 shlokas explaining about Vishnu and Krishna. Theological and spiritual topics such as devotion (Bhakti), awareness (Gyana), and renunciation (Vairagya) are also explained in it. It also contains several historical accounts of dynasties prior to the battle of Mahabharata, as well as it narrates post Mahabharata events like submerge of Krishna’s capital Dwarka in to sea and destruction of Yadava clan.
- Narada Purana: There are 25000 shlokas in it. It has two parts. The first part sums up the gist of all the eighteen Puranas. The main thrust is to explain and illustrate the greatness of Krishna, and spiritual explanations of life after death. The second parts deals primarily about the art of music. The theory explained therein is the foundation of Indian music. The formation of seven note scales (swara- saptaks), octaves (Mandra, Madhya and Taar Sthanas), modes (moorchhanas), natural and complex movements (shuddha, and koot taanas) have been explained. It is noteworthy to contrast that till first century western music had only five notes in vogue and there was no theory at all till Aristotle provided some format.
- Markandeya Purana: This Purana is the shortest as compared to others. There are 9000 shlokas in 137 chapters. There is discussion on social justice and Yoga between Sage Markandeya and Sage Jaimini. Also it contains the early stories of Krishna and Devi Bhagwati.
- Agni Purana: has 15000 shlokas divided into 383 chapters. This scripture is an encyclopedia of Hindu philosophy, history and science. The synopsis of Matasya Avatar, Ramayana and Mahabharata are given in it. There is interesting discussion on three Up-veda Dhanurveda, Gandharveda and Ayurveda that deal with science of weapons, music, and longevity respectively.
- Bhavishya Purana: There are 28000 shlokas divided into 129 chapters. It contains large collection of assorted subjects ranging from the properties of Sun, process of evolution and names of calendar months, diversity of snakes, characteristics and antidotes of snake poisons, just to mention the few. It is more surprising to find several pages in this ancient scripture containing narrative identical to Bible. Not only there are descriptions of past Hindu dynasties but as the title of the document suggests, Nanda dynasty, Chandragupta Maurya, Qutabuddin Aibak, Mughals, Shivaji and Queen Victoria have also been forecast. There is mention of legendry King Vikram and Betal also in this scripture. Bhavishya Purana surely provides stimulus for intellectuals to undertake research studies.
- Brahmavivarta Purana: There are 18,000 shlokas and 218 chapters of this Purana it. Details about Brahma, Ganesh, Krishna, Tulsi, Lakshami, Sarsavati have been included. There are some discussions on Ayurveda also.
- Linga Purana: This Purana contains 11000 shlokas and 163 chapters. It deals about Aghora-mantra of Tantra cult. Besides that, evolution of universe, astronomy, and cosmic time calculations has also been explained in Linga Purana. The narrative of King Ambrish also finds place in this scripture.
- Varaha Purana: This Purana contains 217 chapters (skandhs) and 10000 shlokas. It contains the story of Varaha incarnation of Vishnu. Importance of Bhagavad Gita has been explained in detail. There are descriptions of evolution of universe, underworld (Patal Loka), movement of Sun in Northern and Southern hemispheres, and causes of full moon and dark nights have also been explained. These facts remained unknown to West till 15 th century.
- Skandha Purana: This Purana is the longest of the Puranas. There are six parts (Khand) and 81,000 shlokas. It contains geographical descriptions on ancient Bharat, Mountain Sahyadri and the temple at Kanyakumari. It identifies 27 astronomical constellations (nakshatras), 18 major rivers of India, story of Ganga’s descent, twelve Jyotirlingas, and beauty of Arunachal Pradesh. There is an interesting account of Somdeva (moon), his wife Tara and their son Buddh (mercury) offering allegorical positioning of these heavenly bodies.
- Vamana Puran: There are 95 chapters and 10000 shlokas and two parts in this Purana, but only one part is available. Stories connected with Vamana Avataar in Bharuch Kuchh Gujarat are given in detail. Apart from that this Purana also narrates evolution of universe, geographical position of earth, seven continents, Jambudweep (India) and location of several rivers and mountains.
- Kurma Purana: There are four chapters and 18000 shlokas in this Purana that narrates the story of Kurma Avatara of Vishnu. It narrates the churning of ocean story leading to emergence of Vedas, Ayurveda, wealth and four Yugas. It also explains four stages of human life and history of lunar (Chandravanshi) Kings.
- Matsya Purana: There are 14,000 shlokas in 290 chapters in this Purana. The main theme is to explain the story of Matsya Avatar, evolution of planets in our solar system, and the dynasties of Chandravanshi kings. The romantic episodes of Kacha, Devyani, Sharmishtha and King Yayati are also narrated in this scripture. This Purana is also likely to be source of inspiration for Old Testament and subsequently to Muhammad.
- Garuda Purana: There are 279 chapters and 18000 shlokas in this Purana. Details regarding Pretaloka, Yamaloka, and Naraka (hell), and 84 million kinds of lives are given in it. The scripture was in two parts but now only one is available. People hesitate to keep this Purana in their houses because of its fearful subject matter. At the same time, portions of this Purana are recited in many Hindu homes during rituals fallowing death. This Purana allegorically explains the conditions inside the womb that a soul has to pass through before rebirth. In English literature, John Banyan’s ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ has more or less similar theme where an Evangelist guides Christian soul to surmount troubles on way to heavenly bliss.
- Brahmanda Purana: This Purana can be said to be the first treatise on Cosmology. It is in three parts having 12,000 shlokas. It is believed that Adhyatma Ramayana, which is now an independent volume, was originally a part of this Purana. It explains evolution of our solar system and planets, cosmic time calculation stating that seven Manovantars have passed since creation of universe. Many solar and lunar dynasties have also been mentioned including the narrative of Parshuram Avatar. Some Indian sages took the knowledge of this Purana to Indonesia also.
Relevance of Puranic Literature
Historical accounts were not preserved in ancient period like we do today. Events and persons were remembered through oral descriptions, fables, customs and drawings. Mythologies of other religions are full of stories, and images of supernatural persons divided into gods, demons and humans, but most of them cannot be related to time and place. In comparison, accounts given in Puranas can be connected to geography and time line with greater rationality and accuracy, and further corroborated with versions and established facts. Many priests and kings did claim to be descendants of supernatural beings, but their earthly identity has today been ascertained. Similarly historical event and scientific phenomena mentioned in Puranas can also be x-rayed out from the cover of mythological shells. If nothing else, Puranas are still the earliest narratives available to mankind to infuse values for bringing up children.
Chand K Sharma
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