Hindu dharma is implicitly at odds with monotheistic intolerance. What is happening in India is a new historical awakening... Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Puranas, the source of ancient Indian history

The real history of a country is not the history of wars and battles, invasions and conquests, not even the record of the rise and fall of dynasties, but it is the history of the evolution of its inner national life in all its dimensions and aspects. In studying the History of Bharatvarsha, more particularly the history of ancient Bharatvarsha, most of the historians and scholars more often than not, fail to find out the real soul of India. Our present knowledge and history of ancient Bharatvarsha is derived from and mostly based on the work and writings of western historians and indologists during the last 300 years. Most of these western scholars, armed with passages from Hindu and Buddhist Scriptures, often taken out of their context and whose symbolic significance they could not understand (much less appreciate!), have helped to propagate the fallacy that the history of ancient Bharatvarsha is lost in the mists of unknown and unknowable antiquity and that it is very difficult to reconstruct the history of ancient India on the basis of our Vedas, ancient epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha and the eighteen (18) Puranas.

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Increasingly the World of Science is taking recourse to the language of metaphysics and philosophy. Eminent Scientists all over the World seem to be of the view that they are not yet in contact with Ultimate Reality. Giants in the World of Quantum Physics, have written essays with titles like `The Mysterious Vision' [Sir James Jeans(1877-1946)] and `The Mystic Vision' [Erwin Schrodinger (1887-1961)]. For example, Sir James Jeans has said: "The stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter...we ought rather hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.......Everything that has been said, and every conclusion that has been tentatively put forward, is quite frankly speculative and uncertain. We have tried to discuss whether present-day science has anything to say on certain difficult questions, which are perhaps set for ever beyond the reach of human understanding. We cannot claim to have discerned more than a very faint glimmer of light at the best; perhaps it was wholly illusory, for certainly we had to strain our eyes very hard to see anything at all. So that our main contention can hardly be that the science of to-day has a pronouncement to make, perhaps it ought rather to be that science should leave off making pronouncements: the river of knowledge has too often turned back on itself. (the closing sentences in page 188 of The Mysterious Universe, 1938 Pelican Books reprint of 1931 Second Edition).

The same view was also expressed by Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) in his path breaking book `The Structure of Scientific Revolutions': "Scientists cannot make any further headway, even given adequate resources. I am of the view that reality is ultimately unknowable and that any attempt to describe it obscures as much as it illuminates."

Today, human beings have to quietly accept the fact that we have reached a dead end in our quest to discover the ultimate reality of our existence. We have reached a stalemate because the vast potential for discerning profound truths hidden in the forgotten labyrinth of wisdom tradition of ancient Bharatvarsha History has remained untapped. These include enquiries into the mysteries of nature and the processes and forces that create, sustain and ultimately subsume us. These secrets were unravelled and some of the eternal laws of nature discovered several thousands of years ago by our Vedic Seers and Sages and handed down to us generation after generation for the well-being of all. Great minds in ancient Bharatvarsha devoted themselves to the pursuit of knowledge, particularly in regard to fundamental questions about the origin of the Universe and the Laws and Forces governing it. They were honoured as `Seers' because their vision and discernment enabled them to `See' the reality of the workings of the cosmos. These Seer-Scientists bequeathed to posterity an invaluable heritage of knowledge and insights, blending theory with carefully devised practices. This precious legacy was unfortunately later lost to us.

It is painful to observe that no organised and coordinated effort has been made to present the ancient history of Bharatvarsha against the background of authentic and trustworthy references and records made available by our Vedas, the Agamas, the Epics and the Puranas, Ancient Bharatvarsha Literature in Sanskrit and several other languages, Tamil Sangam Literature, Shilpa Shastras and other related treatises. No scientific methodology has so far been evolved by Indian Historians to analyze, interpret and present ancient history of Bharatvarsha in the light of detailed examinations, study, correlation, collation and interpretation of the records and resources made available by our Vedic Heritage going back to the dawn of history.

Purana (Sanskrit: purana), meaning "belonging to ancient or olden times", is the name of an ancient Indian genre (or a group of related genres) of Hindu or Jain literature (as distinct from oral tradition). They primarily are post-Vedic texts containing a narrative of the history of the Universe, from creation to destruction, genealogies of the kings, heroes and demigods, and descriptions of Hindu cosmology, philosophy and geography. Puranas are called the Friendly Treatises or Suhrit-Sammitas, and are usually written in the form of stories related by one person to another. Vyasa Rishi is considered to be the compiler of the Puranas. As Dr Radhakrishnan beautifully puts it `The Spiritual motive dominates life in India. Indian Philosophy has its interest in the haunts of the men, and not in supra-lunar solitudes. It takes its origin in life, and enters back into life after passing through the schools. The Gita and the Upanishads are not remote from popular belief. They are the great literature of the country, and at the same time vehicles of great systems of thought. THE PURANAS CONTAIN THE TRUTH DRESSED UP IN MYTHS AND STORIES, TO SUIT THE WEAK UNDERSTANDING OF THE MAJORITY. THE HARD TASK OF INTERESTING THE MULTITUDE IN METAPHYSICS IS ACHIEVED IN India'.

The shortcomings, deficiencies, inaccuracies and the deliberate distortions in the approaches to the investigations and study of our timeless heritage by western scholars have been clearly explained and brought out by several Indian Scholars of great erudition such as Shri V.G.Ramachandran, Professor K. Srinivasaraghavan and Shri G.S.Sampath Ayyangar in their great book titled `Ancient India' published by the International Society for the Investigation of Ancient Civilization in 1998.

The continued negligence of the study of 18-Puranas simply on the wrong ground that they are dealing only with mythical events and unbelievable stories, and not the historical events should by all means be completely avoided. The systematic study of these Puranas should be encouraged and supported by all the Indian Universities.

Dr. Mahalingam, Chairman Sakthi Group of Companies, in a brilliant article titled `Puranas-A Source of Information for Historical Research', published in 1997 said that the Puranas hold an eminent rank in the religion and literature of ancient Bharatvarsha. Like the Vedas, they too possess the credit of divine origin and are no less important than the Vedas in terms of either their sanctity or moral or practical influence upon ancient Indian Society. He concluded `I have a feeling that the narratives recorded in the Puranas can be easily well sifted out and authentic and credible facts can be collected from them. That is why at various Conferences and Seminars on ancient history of Bharatvarsha, I have been emphasising the need for considering our Puranas as important sources of information on Bharatvarsha's historic past. It is necessary for the History Departments of our Universities to concentrate on searches and researches into our Puranas. When that is done, much light will be thrown on the Island Continent of Kumari'.

F.E.Pargiter (1852-1947) was an ICS Officer of British India. He was one of the pioneers who categorically said that our knowledge of the most ancient times in Bharatvarsha rests mainly on tradition. He was able to obtain correct and lasting results from a very detailed and critical examination of Puranic and Epic traditions as well as of the Rig Veda and Vedic Literature. He published his findings based on his detailed study of the 18-Puranas and the great Epics in his landmark book titled `Ancient Indian Historical Tradition' in March 1922. In his preface to this book, Pargiter stated `Nothing herein has been the outcome of preconceived ideas, speculation or haste. It began with a study of the Epics and Puranas for geographical information about ancient India 30 years ago, during the translation of the `Markandeya Purana', in order to study its geographical chapters. Geography included political divisions, and led to an examination of ancient kingdoms and so on to their dynastic genealogies and traditions—subjects that were generally regarded as of little or no historical value and were practically neglected'.

In his remarkable and primordial source book on ancient Indian historical tradition, in the very first Chapter relating to a general survey of that glorious tradition, F E Pargiter quotes the following verse in Sanskrit which occurs in Vayu Purana,Padma Purana, Siva Purana, and Mahabharatha:

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The above Sanskrit verse gives this message:
‘The Brahmin, who may not know the four Vedas with the Angas and Upanishads, should not really be regarded as having attained proficiency, if he should not (does not) thoroughly know the PURANA. He should reinforce the VEDA with the ITHIHASA and PURANA. The Veda is afraid of him who is deficient in tradition, (thinking) ‘he will do me hurt’.
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Most pseudo-secular Marxist and anti-Hindu (and of course anti-national) historians from Jawaharlal Nehru University and Aligarh University takes special delight in running down the sources of ancient historical tradition of Bharatvarsha. For them Karl Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Tse Tung are the real sons of the Indian soil; Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Bipin Chandra Pal, Lala Lajput Rai and other great nationalist leaders who pleaded for time-honoured Hinduism Sanatana Dharma do not belong to India. No wonder the traitors of the Communist Party of India fully cooperate with the repressive British Government in India during the stirring days of Quit India Movement in August 1942. In any other civilised country, such traitors would have been executed without much ado soon after Independence. Lenin, Stalin and Mao Tse Tung are no longer relevant in their respective countries. But to the Communist traitors of India today, they continue to be their working Gods!

Pargiter clearly states that our knowledge of the most ancient times in India rests mainly on tradition. Let me sum up his views in this regard as follows: The Puranas, the Mahabharatha and in a minor degree the Ramayana profess to give accounts from tradition about earliest occurrences. The Vedas, the Brahmanas and other Brahmanic Literature supply detailed and exact information also. The oldest of these, the Rig Veda, contains historic allusions, of which some record contemporary events, but more refer to bygone times and persons and are wholly based on inherited tradition. Almost all the information about ancient India therefore comes from tradition. Statements of an historical kind in the Vedic Literature become serviceable, if they can be linked up with other statements from elsewhere, and that can be only from tradition. It is tradition that gives many of them a chronological position; hence the soundness and force of the Counsel given in the verse to above are manifest.

To quote the beautiful words of F.E.Pargiter
‘Tradition therefore becomes all important. It is the only source, since historical works are wanting, and is not an unworthy guide. In ancient times men knew perfectly well the difference between truth and falsehood, as abundant proverbs and sayings show. It was natural therefore that they should discriminate what was true and preserve it; and Indian historical tradition must be considered in this light’.

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In ancient Bharatvarsha political supremacy fostered religious ascendancy, and Rishis and Munis, protected and favoured by royal power and prestige, spread and propagated their doctrines and observances, not only in the countries conquered, but also in the regions beyond their actual sway. Kings and Rishis therefore were the prominent figures, and it is mainly with them that ancient traditions deal.

Though historical works about ancient India are wanting, yet tradition has handed down fairly copious genealogies of the ancient dynasties. The Puranas consist largely of the Royal Genealogies and Kshtriyas Ballads and Tales. Dynastic accounts and heroic tales were the principal subjects of the Kshtriya record. These state the succession of Kings, and in that way are historical. According to Pargiter, they are almost the only historical data found in Sanskrit books as regards ancient political development; and the list of teachers in professed chronological order set out in some brahmanical books supply evidence as regards brahmanical succession. The genealogies form the basis by which the investigation of tradition for historical ends in ancient Bharatvarsha may be tested. To quote Pargiter once again:
‘They supply the best chronological clue’.
F.E.Pargiter gives a general survey of the genealogies in the Puranas and comes to many meaningful conclusions relating to the politics, culture, religion and society of ancient Bharatvarsha. Famous Kings in the Epics and Puranas were Mandhatr, Harishchandra, Sagara, Bhageeratha, Dasaratha and Rama of Ayodhya; Sasabindhu and Arjuna Karthavirya among Yadavas; Dushyanta, Bharatha, Ajamidha, Kuru and Santanu among Pauravas; Jahnu and Gadhi of Kanyakubja; Divodasa and Pratardana of Kasi; Vasu Caidya of Cedi and Magadha; Marutta Aviksita and Trnabindu of the Vaisala Kingdom; Usinara and Sibi of the Panjab Anavas. All were great monarchs, some of them were great conquerors, and many it is said were great sacrificers. All these great Kings had the moral and spiritual support and benediction of great Rishis of ancient Bharatvarsha. Let me give a few examples in this context. The Vasishtas were hereditary priests of Ayodhya, and various members of their family are mentioned in close connection with Harishchandra, Sagara and Dasaratha. Arjuna Karthavirya was favoured by Rishi Datta Atreya. Marutta Aviksita had Samvarta Angirasa for his priest.

The Vayu Purana, Bramanda Purana and Vishnu Purana give an account of how the original Purana came into existence. These three Puranas say that Krishna Dvaipayana divided the single Veda into four and arranged them, and so came to be called VYASA. He entrusted them to his four disciples, one to each, namely Paila, Vaisampayana, Jaimini and Sumantu. Then with tales, anectodes, songs and lore that had come down from the ages he compiled a Purana and taught it and the Itihasa to his fifth disciple, the Suta Romaharsana or Lomaharsana. After that SAGE VYASA composed the Mahabharatha. The Epic itself implies that the Purana preceded it. It says that Vyasa, just after he had composed it, declared that he had already made the Itihasas and Puranas manifest.

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Pargiter makes this simple point clear. The Sutas had from remote times preserved the genealogies of Gods, Rishis and Kings, and traditions and Ballads about celebrated men, that is, exactly the material—tales, songs and ancient lore – out of which the Purana was constructed. Whether or not Vyasa composed the original Purana or superintended its completion, is immaterial for the purpose of understanding of ancient Bharatvarsha. What is important to note is that there was abundant tradition of various kinds, which could and would naturally have been used for its construction, and of the very kinds that went into its construction. The ancient tales were topics of real interest to Kings, people and Rishis, as both the Epics and Puranas by their very structure proclaim, and they were also matters to which men of intelligence gave their attention. Allusions in the Veda itself show the same. Therefore it is quite natural that, after the religious hymns were formed into the Veda, the ancient secular tales and lore should have been collected in a Purana.

Apart from producing his seminal work ‘Ancient Indian Historical Tradition’, Pargiter also translated the MARKANDEYA PURANA into English with detailed notes. This is a remarkable work on the society and geography of ancient Bharatvarsha. This Purana has a character different from that of the others. It is nothing of sectarial spirit. It deals little in precepts, ceremonial or moral. Its leading feature is narrative; and it presents and uninterrupted succession of legends. With regard to the question of the place of its origin, this Purana seems to have emanated from Western India, especially from the region near the mouths of the Rivers Narmada and Tapti. Markandeya says positively that Cyavana was the Rishi who first declared it. Cyavana obtained it from Bhrgu and declared it to all the Rishis and they in turn repeated it to Daksha and Markandeya learnt it from Daksha. The most important part of this Purana relates to Devi Mahatmya (popularly known as Durga Saptasathi), in which the real speaker is a Rishi named Medhas, and which is only repeated by Markandeya.

Pargiter says in his introduction that the geographical chapters in the Markandeya Purana are comprehensive with enumeration of several countries, races and tribes till then known, whether ancient or mediaeval.

Pargiter has suggested the considerations that should guide us about the way in which the Historical tradition of ancient Bharatvarsha should be treated. He says that we should not put it aside as wholly unworthy of our attention, nor should we try to explain them in a summary manner by prima facie comments. As he puts it succinctly
‘The former course is not criticism but is mere pre-judging the matter, and the latter is superficial observation.... All human testimony is liable to error, and tradition is human testimony concerning the long past: hence it is not to be discarded simply because it contains discrepancies. Ancient Indian Historical tradition must be examined and weighed with the aid of all information available and of experience and common sense.’

he most important source book for getting a total aerial view of all the Puranas is PURANIC ENCYCLOPAEDIA, A comprehensive Work with special reference to the Epic and Puranic Literature, by VETTAM MANI a great Puranic Scholar from Kerala. This work in English was first published by Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, Delhi in 1975. Ever since then it has run into several editions and has become a popular reference book. This encyclopaedia was a English translation of the original work of Vettam Mani in Malayalam.

Vettam Mani wrote this great work first in Malayalam under the title Puranic Nighantu. The first volume was published in February 1964 at Kottayam. Vettam Mani started this work in Malayalam on 1st of January 1955 and it took him 9 years before he could release the first volume in February 1964. The remaining four parts of Puranic Nighantu in Malayalam were published between 1964 and 1966. The second edition of this work in Malayalam was brought out in May 1967 under the original title of Puranic Nighantu. When the third edition of this work in Malayalam was printed in 1971, the name was changed to PURANIC ENCYLOPAEDIA. This very work was translated into English and published by Motilal Banarsidas, the internationally famous indological publishers in 1975.

In the preface to the English edition of this work, Vettam Mani rightly observed:

`The Puranas along with the Great Epics—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, have for centuries, profoundly influenced Indian life and Culture. The well-known definition of a Purana as a work having five characteristic features—puranam pancalaksanam—namely, primary creation, secondary creation, the genealogies, the ages of Manu, and the dynastic account hardly does justice to the full significance of these works. They are much more than that. While their genealogies and the dynastic account form the bed-rock of the political history of ancient India, they throw a flood of light on all aspects of Indian Culture—its religion, social practices, art, literature and sciences. They serve as the key to the proper understanding of the various aspects of Hinduism-—its beliefs, its modes of worship, its mythology, its festivals, feasts, and fasts, its sacred shrines and places of pilgrimage, its philosophy and ethics and its theogony. Truly it has been said that a Brahmin was not really wise if he did not know the Puranas. The study of ancient Indian history, and culture—particularly religion-—is impossible without a proper knowledge of the Puranas. As a matter of fact, it is virtually impossible to understand not only ancient Indian culture and life, but also the literature in modern Indian languages, as it largely draws upon the ideas and ideologies as embodied in the contents of the Puranas and the epics.'

Vettam Mani has clearly explained what inspired him to undertake this gigantic task of preparing a Puranic Encyclopaedia. The literary writings in all Indian languages are indebted to the Epics and the Puranas in more than one way—their form, content, ideas and ideologies are all influenced to a greater or lesser extent by these ancient works. Direct and indirect allusions to Puranic episodes, characters, events, are frequently to be met with in the literary writings of all Indian languages. Teachers engaged in imparting instruction in literature in modern Indian languages must therefore be conversant with the contents of the Puranas and Epics in order to be able to explain these allusions wherever they occur in the writings in modern Indian languages. However, it is well nigh impossible for an average teacher to go through the whole of this vast Puranic Literature. Viewed in this light, the paramount public need for a handy work of reference like the present Encyclopaedia should become abundantly clear.

The word Purana is derived from pura which means `formerly' or `from ancient times' and na meaning `to breathe' or `live'. Purana therefore means that which lives the past or which breathes ancient times. The Puranas are regarded as Ithihas (history). Puranas are referred to as far back as the Athrva Veda, the Satapatha Brahmanas, and the ancient Upanishads. It is clear that the Puranas had attained a state of sacredness like the Vedas and were associated with Ithihas (history) even in those times the probable dates of these Puranas are between 100 A.D. and 600 A.D. We know however, from the references made to them that other Puranas were in existence at the time of Bana (early 7th century), sabara (between A.D.200 and 400), Kumarilla (7th century) and Shankaracharya (between A.D.650 and 800). We also know that their contents were similar to those in the extant Puranas as we know them today.

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According to tradition, there are 18 Mahapuranas and 18 Upapuranas. Each Mahapurana lists eighteen canonical Puranas, but the contents of each list vary reflecting differences in time and place. The eighteen extant Mahapuranas are :

1. Agni Purana (15,400 verses)

2. Bhagavata Purana (18,000 verses). The most celebrated and popular of the Puranas. It is concerned with Vishnu Bhakti, telling of the exploits and deeds of Vishnu's Avataras. Its tenth canto (its longest) narrates the deeds of Krishna and, probably for the first time in Sanskrit, tells of his exploits as a child, a theme later elaborated by many Bhakti movements.

3. Bhavishya Purana (14,500 verses)

4. Brahma Purana (24,000 verses)

5. Brahmanda Purana (12,000 verses; includes Lalita Sahasranamam, a text millions of Hindus recite as prayer)

6. Brahmavaivarta Purana (18,000 verses)

7. Garuda Purana (19,000 verses)

8. Kurma Purana (17,000 verses)

9. Linga Purana (11,000 verses)

10. Markandeya Purana (9,000 verses; includes Devi Mahatmyam, an important text for Shaktas)

11. Matsya Purana (14,000 verses)

12. Narada Purana (25,000 verses)

13. Padma Purana (55,000 verses)

14. Skanda Purana (81,100 verses), probably the longest of all, containing parables, legends and stories, with multiple versions and rescensions. Many untraced quotes from a Purana are conveniently attributed to this Purana.[10]

15. Vamana Purana (10,000 verses)

16. Varaha Purana (10,000 verses)

17. Vayu Purana (24,000 verses)

18. Vishnu Purana (23,000 verses)

In addition to the above 18 Puranas, we also have the Harivamsa Purana (16000 verses) and Shiva Purana (24000 verses).

There is also another traditional approach to the classification of Puranas. They have been classified with reference to the three aspects of Trimurti _ creation, preservation and destruction. Based on this approach, Mahapuranas can be classified as follows:

Brahma Puranas: Brahma Purana, Brahmanda Purana, Brahma Vaivarta Purana, Markandeya Purana, Bhavishya Purana,

Vishnu Puranas: Vishnu Purana, Bhagavata Purana, Naradeya Purana, Garuda Purana, Padma Purana, Varaha Purana,Vamana Purana,Kurma Purana, Matsya Purana, Kalki Purana

Shiva Puranas: Shiva Purana, Linga Purana, Skanda Purana, Agni Purana, Vayu Purana

Puranas have also been classified based on the gunas (qualities) of satvik(goodness), rajhasic (passion) and thamasic (ignorance). According to the Padma Purana, the 18 Puranas can be classified based on gunas in the following manner:

Sattva (`truth; purity'): Vishnu Purana, Bhagavata Purana, Naradeya Purana, Garuda Purana, Padma Purana, Varaha Purana

Rajas (`dimness; passion'): Brahmanda Purana, Brahma Vaivarta Purana, Markandeya Purana, Bhavishya Purana, Vamana Purana, Brahma Purana

Tamas (`darkness; ignorance'): Matsya Purana, Kurma purana, Linga Purana, Shiva Purana, Skanda Purana, Agni Purana

Traditionally, the Puranas are said to have been composed by the Sage Veda Vyasa, the narrator of the Mahabharata epic. Vyasa in Sanskrit means `Divider,' and some scholars therefore take this simply as a term meaning `Editor'.

The Puranas also lay emphasis on keeping a record of genealogies. Thus the Vayu Purana says: `As seen by good people in the ancient times the suta's duty was to preserve the genealogies of gods, rishis and glorious kings and the traditions of great men.'

Apart from the 18 Mahapuranas, there are also 18 Upapuranas. They are:Sanat-kumara Purana, Narasimha Purana, Brihan-naradiya Purana, Siva-rahasya Purana, Durvasa Purana, Kapila Purana, Vamana Purana, Bhargava Purana, Varuna Purana, Kalika Purana, Samba Purana, Nandi Purana, Surya Purana, Parasara Purana, Vasishtha Purana, Devi-Bhagavata Purana, Ganesha Purana, Mudgala Purana, and Hamsa Purana. Most of these Upapuranas have not been critically edited yet and are available mostly through devotional publications, in multiple versions and recensions. The Devi-Bhagavata Purana extols the virtues of the goddess Durga as the supreme being. It has become (along with the Devi Mahatmya of the Markandeya Purana) a basic text for Devi worshipers.

Apart from Mahapuranas and Upapuranas, we also have Sthala Puranas and Kula Puranas.

The corpus of Sthala Puranas narrates the virtues and stories connected with a certain temple or shrine (the word `Sthala' means `Place' in Sanskrit). There are numerous Sthala Puranas, most written in vernaculars, some with Sanskrit versions as well. Most claim to have a Sanskrit origin, and some of the Sanskrit versions also appear in a Mahapurana or an Upapurana. Some Tamil Sthala Puranas have been researched by David Dean Shulman. Kula Puranas are mostly caste-focussed Puranas (the word `Kula' means `Family' or `Tribe' in Sanskrit). They deal with a caste's origin myth, stories and legends.

There are many Jain Puranas, dealing with Jain myths, history and legends. Studies and English translations of this particular genre are meagre. The best known of them is the Mahapurana of Acharya Jinasena. The Jain Puranas form a major part of the early Kannada literature. Swayambhu Purana, a Buddhist Purana, is major source of the history of the Kathmandu valley. Arguably, some Buddhist Mahayana Sutras seem to have some characteristics of Puranas.

Part IV

According to Hindu tradition, the Puranas were composed by Vyasa at the end of Dvapara Yuga. An early reference to Purana in its present sense can be traced to the Chandogya Upanishad (7.1.2), in which the sage Narada refers to itihâsapurânam panchamam vedânâm. Thus the Chandogya Upanishad ascribes to the Puranas, together with Itihas, the status of a fifth Veda, or Panchama Veda.

In the opinion of Gavin Flood, the Puranic corpus is a complex body of materials that advance the views of various competing cults. Although the puranic texts are related to each other, and material in one is found in another, they nevertheless each present a view of ordering of the world from a particular perspective. They must not be seen as random collections of old tales, but as highly selective and crafted expositions and presentations of worldviews compiled by particular groups of Brahmins to propagate a particular vision, whether it be focused on Vishnu, Shiva, or Devî, or, indeed, any number of deities.

According to Matsya Purana, the puranas are said to narrate five subjects, called Pancha Lakshana (pañchalakshana – ‘five distinguishing marks’):

1. Sarga - The creation of the universe.

2. Pratisarga - Secondary creations, mostly re-creations after dissolution.

3. Vamœa - Genealogy of gods and sages.

4. Manvañtara - The creation of the human race and the first human beings.

5. Vamúâanu charitam - Dynastic histories.

The Buddhist scholar Amarasimha (between the 6th and 8th centuries), who wrote that admirable lexicon the Amara-Kosa, also defined the notion of a Purana along the above lines. He said a true Purana should treat of five subjects: the creation of the world, its periodic destruction and recreation, the pedigree of the Gods and mythical sages, the periods of the life of the world, over each of which a new Manu or First Man, presides and the pedigrees of the Kings of the lines of the Sun and of the Moon.

Most Mahapuranas and Upapuranas deal with these subject matters, although the bulk of their text consists of historical and religious narratives. Some scholars have suggested that these ‘distinguishing marks’ are shared by other traditional religious scriptures of the world (e.g. the Bible). A Purana usually gives prominence to a certain deity (Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna or Durga) and depicts the other gods as subservient. Most use an abundance of religious and philosophical concepts in their narration, from Bhakti to Samkhya.

Among the Puranas, the Vishnu Purana comes closest to the definition of a Purana with regard to its contents. Most Puranas devote themselves to one God in whom is personalized the concept of the One Para Brahmma. The Vishnu Purana invokes the God Vishnu. Beginning with an invocation to Vishnu, the Vishnu Purana is in the form of questions and answers between the Sage Parasara and his disciple Maitreya.

In a conversation between Satanika and Sumanta, in the Vishnu Purana, Sumanta says that the Dharma Sastras consisting of the 18 Puranas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha are meant for the education and enlightenment of the common people and are for all the four Varnas.

The Puranas gave the people of ancient India a world-view, a sense of identity and a moral foundation. Though they may not appear to be history as we know it today, yet it cannot be disputed that they teach something more than mere history. The philosophical concepts were told in a manner that even the uneducated could understand.

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The Vishnu Purana declares that he who is wise, balanced and kind, goes to worlds which are eternal sources of happiness. He who is intelligent, modest, devout, who respects wisdom, his superiors and the aged goes to heaven. Let me quote the words of Vishnu Purana ‘The Earth is upheld by the virtuous who have subdued their passions, behaved righteously, uncontaminated by desire, greed or wrath. A wise man should always seek to be pleasant and speak the truth. Where the truth is likely to be painful he should not speak. However, he must not utter that which may be pleasant and acceptable but is detrimental, because if so, then it is better to speak the truth, even if it were to give great offence. A considerate man will always cultivate an act, thought and speech that which is good for all living beings in the world and the next’.

These personal and social obligations of the Hindus given as above in the Vishnu Purana conform with the Institutes of Manu and many passages in the Vishnu Purana follow Manu word for word.

The Puranas are invaluable sources of religious, social and cultural history of ancient India. In his magnificent work on the history of Dharmasastras, P.V.Kane has observed ‘Puranas sound modern when they put social service and removal of suffering and distress as the highest Dharma. They at the same time also lay stress on the heart being more important than works’.

Apart from Vettam Mani’s Puranic Encyclopaedia, another equally important work on the Puranas is Encyclopaedia of Puranic Beliefs and Practices by Dr. Sadashiv A Dange, formerly R.G.Bhandarkar Professor and Head of the Department of Sanskrit in Bombay University. Dr.Dange’s work was published in five volumes in 1989. Dr. Dange in his preface has indicated that Vettam Mani’s Puranic Encyclopaedia is just a collection of all sorts of information and thus it cannot be strictly called as Puranic Encyclopaedia. According to Dr. Dange, Vettam Mani’s work lacks methodology in as much as the references given do not have a set system. Likewise, the earlier work Purana Index by Dr. V.R.R.Dikshithar does not deal with all the 18 Mahapuranas. Thus, in both the works of Dr.V.R.R. Dikshithar and Vettam Mani, the stress is more on personalities rather than on objects or the society. Dr.Dange’s work has tried to present information from the cultural, social and mythological angle. In Dr.Dange’s work wherever individual names do occur, they are mentioned only when they have some belief attached to them or when there is some custom, or practice associated with them. Mere dynastic or personal details are discarded by Dr.Dange.

Dr.Dange’s work is an invaluable reference work on all the 18 Mahapuranas and 18 Upapuranas. What is significant is that original passages in the Sanskrit have been presented at the end of each entry.

To quote the appropriate words of Dr.Dange ‘Purana is described as the fifth Veda, in addition to the four namely, Rig, Yajus, Sama and Atharva (Puranam panchamo Vedah). The reason is that in the Purana, the popular rituals are documented, according to which the general mass of people behave. As such, the Puranic tradition is a blend of the Vedic ritualistic and popular mythical traditions. The Purana is not inferior to the Veda. According to Skanda Purana, Purana is as steady as the Veda. Not only this, all the Vedas are firmly rooted in the Purana. It says that, whatever is not seen in the Smritis or the Veda, is seen in the Purana’.

In his great work Ancient India and Indian Civilization, Paul Masson-Oursel has brillently concluded

‘India was predestined by its geographical structure to be one of the great breeding-grounds of humanity.… It is the land of great asceticism, which seeks to enrich spiritual life by detaching the individual from his surroundings, and it owes its complex originality to its separation from the rest of our planet…. Life breaks out from rules, and does not cease to proliferate in capricious growths, just as it perpetuates ancient types, long obsolete, among other types, more highly developed. .. Theories full of fantastic conceptions, but these are classified under headings governed by analogy. Often richness is accepted as beauty and abundance as truth…. Yet India puts things together and co-ordinates them without artificially assimilating them. That is why its civilization preserves barbaric elements more than it transforms them, and mingles them with others far more refined. It loves art passionately, without ever opposing it to nature, doubtless because nature in that country is like art in its creative exuberance. Religious belief and philosophic reflection partake of the nature of art, because they claim, not to treat of a real, independent of thought, but to establish modes of existence by means of the autonomous activity of the mind….Dives and Lazarus rub shoulders, zeal for fullness and passion for emptiness stand face to face for ever. Let us make our choice without blaming India for the lack of measure in its spirit – which, indeed as I have pointed out, proceeds according to cannons of right conduct. In Greece, Ontology has its limits, those drawn by definition. But India dedicates itself to the unknown and the unlimited because it always operates, even when it seeks to know. When it succeeds in avoiding anarchy, it is because it has found, in its very action, principles of order and guarantees of objectivity’.

This is indeed eternal India of the ages—this india of geography, of history and tradition, of our minds and heart——which nothing in the world can ever change, now and forever.

(The writer is a retired IAS officer)
e-mail the writer at

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At 6/14/2008 11:22:00 AM, Anonymous chanakya said...

From what angle we see determines what aspects of things we see and we may conclude to act differently according to our perceptions.
Two angles may lead to two complete opposite conclusions.
Your vision differs as angles or positions changes.
India's strength is in the domain of the internal mind, the world of imagination, the perception of the invisible, the touching of the impalpable, being in union with the universal self etc...This should not be taken for granted and should be protected as though they are visible heritage. The immaterial landscape of our internal mind when sculpted by a Vedic and Puranic education should be equally respected as any visible landscape of the material world.
Western people are astonished that they are incapable of apprehending what they can not see. A cursory look of western people writing about our culture shows how they are wonderstruck by the intelligence of our ancestors.
We see what is invisible to the Westerners.
When we do Savahasana in Yoga, we send conscious orders mentally to our body to relax. In the west, only now they understand the virtue of what the French call "AUTO SUGGESTION".
They have also coined a word "sophrologie" to copy this brilliant posture and prescribe "relaxation" (identical to this yogic posture) to people suffering from different psychosomatic disorders. A holistic study of a patient to treat his illness is the new idea in the west.
A man of vision like Vajpayee conceived "the Golden Quadrilateral" as facilitating the circulation of persons and goods to make India a superpower and bring prosperity to millions by providing them with jobs while men of Greed who came to power after he left the government in May 2004 viewed this project only as a source of making money. The angle of one person brought prosperity while that of an immoral person caused calamities.
To underline this interior shakthi, take for example a TANJORE UNESCO CLASSIFIED SHIVA TEMPLE BUILT BY RAJA RAJA SOJA or those wonderful temples in ANKOR IN CAMBODIA lying in semi ruin or this big "EIFFEL TOWER" IN PARIS.
What is exterior is only the idea once germinated like a seed in a human mind...A idea in it’s pure invisible form came up one day in the mind of this King Soja or this French architect in his dream...without this idea, no Eiffel Tower. We Indians are educators by excellence and sculptors of human mind...Certainly Puranas that I happened to hear from my grand father are even now enchanting and giving me secretly lot of moral strength and pleasure.
Finally, what is the difference between Hitler and Gandhiji? That is the difference between one mind that has been trained to spread hatred and another that has learnt to spread love. The former used to listen to stories of crusaders, colonisers, looters and pirates while the latter was exposed to Puranas. That is the difference.


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