The Puranas (//; singular: Sanskrit: पुराण purāṇa), are ancient Hindu texts eulogizing various deities, primarily the divine Trimurti God in Hinduism through divine stories. Puranas may also be described as a genre of important Hindu religious texts alongside some Jain and Buddhist religious texts, notably consisting of narratives of the history of the universe from creation to destruction, genealogies of kings, heroes, sages, and demigods, and descriptions of Hindu cosmology, philosophy, and geography. The Puranas are frequently classified according to the Trimurti (Trinity or the three aspects of the divine). The Padma Purana classifies them in accordance with the three gunas or qualities as Sattva (Truth and Purity), Rajas (Dimness and Passion) and Tamas (Darkness and Ignorance), an apparent means by which to rate the texts based on sectarian merit.
Puranas usually give prominence to a particular deity, employing an abundance of religious and philosophical concepts. They are usually written in the form of stories related by one person to another.
The date of the production of the written texts does not define the date of origin of the Puranas. They existed in an oral form before being written down, and were incrementally modified well into the 16th century.
An early occurrence of the term 'purana' is found in the Chandogya Upanishad (7.1.2), translated by Patrick Olivelle as "the corpus of histories and ancient tales" (The Early Upanisads, 1998, p. 259). The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad refers to purana as the "fifth Veda", itihāsapurāṇaṃ pañcamaṃ vedānāṃ, reflecting the early religious importance of these facts, which over time have been forgotten and presumably then in purely oral form. Importantly, the most famous form of itihāsapurāṇaṃ is the Mahabharata. The term also appears in the Atharvaveda 11.7.24. It is important to bear in mind that perhaps a thousand years separates the occurrence of this term in these Upanisads from 'The Puranas' understood as a unified set of texts (see below), and it is therefore by no means certain that the term as it occurs in the Upanisads has any direct relation to what today is identified as 'The Puranas'. As Olivelle points out in the notes to his translation (p 563), the term 'purana' is set within a list of other categories of knowledge, including 'the science of government' (ksatravidya), mathematics, and the science of demonic beings conceived of as serpents (sarpadevajanavidya).
In the 19th century, F. E. Pargiter believed the "original Purana" may date to the time of the final redaction of the Vedas. Gavin Flood connects the rise of the written Purana historically with the rise of devotional cults centring upon a particular deity in the Gupta era: the Puranic corpus is a complex body of materials that advance the views of various competing cults. Wendy Doniger, based on her study of indologists, assigns approximate dates to the various Puranas. She dates Markandeya Purana to c. 250 CE (with one portion dated to c. 550 CE), Matsya Purana to c. 250–500 CE, Vayu Purana to c. 350 CE, Harivamsa and Vishnu Purana to c. 450 CE, Brahmanda Purana to c. 350–950 CE, Vamana Purana to c. 450–900 CE, Kurma Purana to c. 550–850 CE, and Linga Purana to c. 600–1000 CE.
Common ideas are found throughout the corpus but it is not possible to trace the lines of influence of one Purana upon another so the corpus is best viewed as a synchronous whole.
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According to Matysa Purana, they are said to narrate five subjects, called Pancha Lakshana pañcalakṣaṇa ("five distinguishing marks", though some scholars have suggested that these are shared by other traditional religious scriptures):
The Puranas also lay emphasis on keeping a record of genealogies, as the Vayu Purana says, "to preserve the genealogies of gods, sages and glorious kings and the traditions of great men." The Puranic genealogies indicate, for example, that Sraddhadeva Manu lived 95 generations before the Bharata war.
Of the many texts designated 'Puranas' the most important are the Mahāpurāṇas. These are said to be eighteen in number, divided into three groups of six, though they are not always counted in the same way. Combining the various lists Cornelia Dimmitt and J. A. B. van Buitenen have collated twenty names, totalling 429,000 verses:
|S.No.||Purana name||Verses number||Comments|
|1||Agni||15,400 verses||Contains details of Vastu Shastra and Gemology.|
|2||Bhagavata||18,000 verses||Indologist Ludo Rocher considers it to be the most celebrated and popular of the Puranas, telling of Vishnu's twenty four Avatars. Its tenth and longest canto narrates the deeds of Krishna, introducing his childhood exploits, a theme later elaborated by many Bhakti movements.|
|3||Brahma||10,000 verses||Describes the Godavari and its tributaries.|
|4||Brahmanda||12,000 verses||Includes Lalita Sahasranamam, a text some Hindus recite as prayer.|
|5||Brahmavaivarta||17,000 verses||Describes ways to worship Devis, Krishna and Ganesha.|
|6||Garuda||19,000 verses||Describes death and its aftermath.|
|7||Harivamsa||16,000 verses||Is considered to be a supplement to the Mahabharata and is sometimes classified with it as itihāsa instead of a purana.|
|8||Kurma||17,000 verses||Is the second of ten major avatars of Lord Vishnu.|
|9||Linga||11,000 verses||Describes the magnificence of the Lingam, symbol of Shiva, and origin of the universe. It also contains many stories of Lingam, one of which entails how Agni Lingam solved a dispute between Vishnu and Brahma.|
|10||Markandeya||09,000 verses||Contains the Devi Mahatmya, an important text for the Shaktas.|
|11||Matsya||14,000 verses||Narrates the story of Matsya, the first of ten major Avatars of Vishnu. It also contains genealogical details of various dynasties.|
|12||Narada||25,000 verses||Describes the greatness of Vedas and Vedangas.|
|13||Padma||55,000 verses||Describes the greatness of Bhagavad Gita. Hence, it is also known as gītāmāhātmya (lit. the majesty of Gita).|
|14||Shiva||24,000 verses||Describes the greatness of Shiva, greatness in worshiping Shiva, and other stories about him.|
|15||Skanda||81,100 verses||Describes the birth of Skanda (or Karthikeya), son of Shiva. The longest Purana, it is an extraordinarily meticulous pilgrimage guide, containing geographical locations of pilgrimage centers in India, with related legends, parables, hymns and stories. Many untraced quotes are attributed to this text.|
|16||Vamana||10,000 verses||Describes areas around Kurukshetra in North India.|
|17||Varaha||24,000 verses||Describes various forms prayer and devotional observances to Vishnu. Many illustrations also involve Shiva and Durga.|
|18||Vayu||24,000 verses||Sometimes confused with the Shiva Purana, it is considered one of the oldest examples of the genre.|
|19||Vishnu||23,000 verses||Describes the many deeds of Vishnu and various ways to worship him.|
According to Prabhupada, the puranas are classified according to qualification of persons who can understand them: "Purāṇas are supplementary explanations of the Vedas intended for different types of men. All men are not equal. Padma Purana classifies the puranas into three types as sattvik, rajasic and tamasic puranas, each constitutes of six puranas. There are men who are conducted by the mode of goodness, others who are under the mode of passion and others who are under the mode of ignorance. The Purāṇas are so divided that any class of men can take advantage of them and gradually regain their lost position and get out of the hard struggle for existence."
|Vaiṣṇava Puranas:||Vishnu Purana, Bhagavata Purana, Nāradeya Purana, Garuda Purana, Padma Purana, Varaha Purana, Vāmana Purana, Kūrma Purana, Matsya Purana|
|Brāhma Puranas:||Brahma Purana, Brahmānda Purana, Brahma Vaivarta Purana, Mārkandeya Purana, Bhavishya Purana|
|Śaiva Puranas:||Shiva Purana, Linga Purana, Skanda Purana, Agni Purana|
The Padma Purana, Uttara Khanda (236.18-21), itself a Vaishnava Purana, classifies the Puranas in accordance with the three gunas or qualities; truth, passion, and indifference. Notably this system is highly sectarian and classifies all Śaiva puranas as tamasic, all Vaiṣṇava puranas as sattvic, and those to Brahma are all classified as rajasic:
|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|
The Upapuranas are lesser or ancillary texts: these are sometimes also said to be eighteen in number, with still less agreement as to the canonical titles. They include among many: Sanat-kumara, Narasimha, Brihan-naradiya, Siva-rahasya, Durvasa, Kapila, Vamana, Bhargava, Varuna, Kalika, Samba, Nandi, Surya, Parasara, Vasishtha, Devi-Bhagavata, Ganesha, Mudgala, and Hamsa, with only a few having been critically edited.
The Ganesha and Mudgala Puranas are devoted to Ganesha. The Devi-Bhagavata Purana, which extols the goddess Durga, has become (along with the Devi Mahatmya of the Markandeya Purana) a basic text for Devi worshipers.
This corpus of texts tells of the origins and traditions of particular Tamil Shiva temples or shrines. There are numerous Sthala Puranas, most written in vernaculars, some with Sanskrit versions as well. The 275 Shiva Sthalams of the continent have puranas for each, famously glorified in the Tamil literature Tevaram. Some appear in Sanskrit versions in the Mahapuranas or Upapuranas. Some Tamil Sthala Puranas have been researched by David Dean Shulman.
These Puranas deal with a caste's origin myth, stories, and legends (the word kula means "family" or "tribe" in Sanskrit). They are important sources for caste identity though usually contested by rival castes. This subgenre is usually in the vernacular and may at times remain oral. These have been little researched, though they are documented in the caste section of the British Census of India Report and the various Gazetteers.