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The Puranas - Belonging to ancient or olden times

Puranas P urana (Sanskrit: पुराण purāṇa, meaning "belonging to ancient or olden times") is the name of an ancient Indian gen...

Puranas

Puranas
Purana (Sanskrit: पुराण purāṇa, meaning "belonging to ancient or olden times") is the name of an ancient Indian genre (or a group of related genres) of Hindu literature (as distinct from oral tradition). Its general themes are history, tradition and religion. While the major puranas are in Sanskrit, puranas exist in other Indian languages also. It is usually written in the form of stories related by one person to another.

There are many texts designated as 'Purana.' The most important are:
  • Mahāpurāṇas and Upapurāṇas, the main Puranic corpus
  • Sthala Purāṇas, scriptures usually extolling the virtues of a certain Hindu temple. They narrate stories of the temple's creation and spiritual history.
  • Kula Purāṇas - Scriptures that deal with the origin and legends of a particular caste.
According to tradition, the Puranas were composed by Vyasa at the end of Dvapara Yuga.

The Darsanas are very stiff. They are meant only for the learned few. The Puranas are meant for the masses with an inferior intellect. Religion is taught in a very easy and interesting way through these Puranas. Even to this day, the Puranas are popular. The Puranas contain the history of remote times. They also give a description of the regions of the universe not visible to the ordinary physical eye. They are very interesting to read and are full of information of all kinds. Children hear the stories from their grandmothers, Pandits, and Purohits (priests) hold Kathas in temples, on banks of rivers and in other important places. Agriculturalists, laborers and bazaar people (common masses) hear the stories.

The Five Characteristics of Purāṇas

The Puranas are of the same class as the Itihasas and are classified into a Mahā- ("great") and a Upa- ("lower, additional") corpus. According to Matsya Purana, they are said to narrate and deal systematically with five subjects, called Pancha Lakshana pañcalakṣaṇa ("five distinguishing marks"):
  1. Sarga - The creation of the universe.
  2. Pratisarga - Secondary creations, mostly re-creations after dissolution.
  3. Vamśa - Genealogy of gods and sages.
  4. Manvañtara - The creation of the human race and the first human beings.1
  5. Vamśānucaritam - Dynastic histories.
Most Mahapuranas and Upapuranas deal with these subject matters, although the bulk of their text consists of historical and religious narratives. A Purana usually gives prominence to a certain deity (Shiva, Vishnu or Krishna, Durga). Most use an abundance of religious and philosophical concepts in their narration, from Bhakti to Samkhya.

The 18 Puranas and Upa-Puranas

There are eighteen main Puranas and an equal number of subsidiary Puranas or Upa-Puranas. The main Puranas are:

1. Brahma Purana
Contains two parts- Purva Bhaag and Uttar Bhaag. Purva Bhaag contains tales of creation, description of Lord Rama and Lord Krishna.
Uttar Bhaag contains a detailed description of Purshottam Tirtha prominent among all the holy places.


2. Padama Purana
Contains five parts. In the first part, sage Pulastya explains the essence of religion to Bheeshma. The second part contains a description of the earth. The third part contains tales of creation as well as a geographical description of India. Fourth part describes the life of Lord Rama. In the fifth part, essential knowledge of religion has been discussed in a dialogue style between Lord Shiva and Parvati.


3.Vishnu Purana
Also contains five parts. First part narrates about the creation of the universe, Pralay, and churning of the sea. The second part contains a geographical description of earth divided into seven islands. The third part describes the origin of Buddhism. Fourth part contains a description of the populating of the earth from the beginning. The fifth part is entirely devoted to the life and plays of Lord Krishna.


4. Skanda Purana
It is the largest Purana. It is mainly devoted to Kartikeya (Skanda), the son of Lord Shiva and Parvati. Besides, it contains a lot of tales related to Lord Shiv and many holy places of pilgrimage devoted prominently to Shiv.


5. Shiv Maha Purana
It is also a huge compilation of tales devoted primarily to the life and plays of Lord Shiva. It is divided into seven Samhitas, which together contain more than twenty-four thousand stanzas.


6. Namana Purana
This Purana is entirely devoted to Vaman avtaar (incarnation) of Lord Vishnu narrated in dialogue style between the sage Pulastya and Narad.


7. Maarkandeya Purana
Markandeya Purana begins with a question put forth by sage Jaimini. In reply to this question, sage Markandeya narrates what constitutes the subject matter of this Purana.


8. Varaha Puran
It contains the tale of the rescue of the earth by ‘Varaha’ avatar (boar incarnation) of Lord Vishnu.


9. Brahma Puran
This Purana contains four parts. The first part contains the tale of creation. The second part contains tales related to goddesses. The third part contains tales related to Lord Ganesh. In the fourth part, tales related to the life and plays of Lord Krishna have been given.


10. Agni Puran
This Purana is devoted to Agni. It is presented in preaching style by Agni to sage Vashishta. It contains the description of various incarnations of God, Lord Rama and Krishna as well as of the earth and stars.


11. Bhavishya Purana
This Purana contains five Parvas (parts). The first part contains a description of creation. Second, third and fourth parts contain a detailed description of Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu, and Surya respectively. In the fifth part, the description of heaven has been given.


12. Kurma Purana
Lord Himself has narrated this Purana in Kurma (tortoise) incarnation to Narad. Narad narrated it to Sutaji who in his term narrated it to an assembly of great sages.

13. Matsya Purana
Tales of Lord’s fish incarnation and preservation of Manu and the seeds of all life during Pralay by Matsya avtaar is the main theme of this Purana.


14. Garuda Purana
In Garuda Purana, Lord Vishnu preaches his vehicle, Garuda about the subtleties of religion and life. Besides, trivial tales related to religion and moral, this Purana also contains a description of diamond-like jewels and the ways to identify the best kind of jewels.


15. Brahmaand Purana
It is the last of the eighteen Puranas. Presently it is available in different pieces and no connection seems to exist between them. Once, it had contained Aadhyatma Ramayana.


16. Shrimad Bhagwat Purana
Because of its beautiful presentation style, Shrimad Bhagwat Purana has a high rank in Sanskrit literature. It contains tales related to various incarnations of Lord Vishnu and mainly deals with the life and plays of Lord Krishna.


17. Linga Puran
Preaching about the glory of Lord Shiva and Linga Puja is the main objective of this Purana. In two parts, this Purana contains tales related to the creation of the universe, origin of Linga, and of all the Vedas, Brahma, Vishnu etc. from this Linga.


18. Narad Purana
It is a Vaishnav Purana presented in a style of dialogue between Narad and Sanat Kumar. This Purana contains a detailed description of major places of pilgrimage.


Of these, six are Sattvic Puranas and glorify Vishnu; Six are Rajasic Puranas and glorify Brahma; six are Tamasic Puranas and glorify Siva.

Neophytes or beginners in the spiritual path are puzzled when they go through Siva Purana and Vishnu Purana. In Siva Purana, Lord Siva is highly eulogized and an inferior position is given to Lord Vishnu. Sometimes Vishnu is belittled. In Vishnu Purana, Lord Hari (Vishnu) is highly eulogized and the inferior status is given to Lord Siva. Sometimes Lord Siva is belittled. This is only to increase the faith of the devotees in their particular Ishta-Devata (favorite or tutelary deity). Lord Siva and Lord Vishnu are one.

The best among the Puranas are the Srimad Bhagavata and the Vishnu Purana. The most popular is the Srimad Bhagavata Purana. Next comes Vishnu Purana. 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.

Other Puranas
Besides the two major types of puranas namely the Maha-puranas and Upa-puranas, there are other two Hindu puranas namely, Sthala puranas, Kula puranas, and others.

Sthala puranas: These texts 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.

Kula Puranas: This puranas are caste or family oriented. They deal with a caste`s origin myth, stories, and legends. The kula puranas is of uttermost importance as it is an important source for caste identity and is usually contested by other, rival, castes. This subgenre is usually in the vernacular language and might at times be oral.

Other puranas: There are many other narratives that go by the name of Purana. Most are written in vernaculars and are usually concerned with mythical and historical narrations. These texts, such as the Padma Purana of Bengal and Assam (narrating the story of the goddess Manasa), are vast in number and scattered all over the Indian subcontinent.

The utility of the Puranas
Study of the Puranas, listening to sacred recitals of scriptures, describing and expounding of the transcendent Lilas (divine sports) of the Blessed Lord – these form an important part of Sadhana (spiritual practice) of the Lord’s devotee. It is most pleasing to the Lord. Sravana (hearing of the Srutis or scriptures) is a part of Navavidha-Bhakti (nine modes of devotion). Kathas (narrative or story) and Upanyasas open the springs of devotion in the hearts of hearers and develop Prema-Bhakti (divine love for God) which confers immortality on the Jiva (individual soul).

[Note: The nine modes of devotion are: Hearing His (God’s) names and glories, singing them, remembering the Lord, worship (service) of His Feet, adoration with flowers, prostrations, regarding oneself as His servant, as His friend, and total self-surrender.]

The language of the Vedas is archaic, and the subtle philosophy of the Vedanta and the Upanishads is difficult to grasp and assimilate. Hence, the Puranas are of special value as they present philosophical truths and precious teachings in an easier manner. They give ready access to the mysteries of life and the key to bliss. Imbibe their teachings. Start a new life of Dharma-Nishtha and Adhyatmic Sadhana from this very day.

[Note; Dharma-Nishtha = steadfastness or establishment in Dharma. Adhyatmic (pertaining to the Inner Self) Sadhana (spiritual practice)]

Translations
The Puranas are available in vernacular translations and are disseminated by Brahmin scholars, who read from them and tell their stories, usually in Katha sessions (in which a travelling brahmin settles for a few weeks in a temple and narrates parts of a Purana, usually with a bhakti perspective).