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The Puranas (Sanskrit: "of ancient times") are the scriptures of modem Hinduism, which assumed their present form slightly earlier than the time of Sankaracharya, the great Saivite reformer, who flourished in the eighth or ninth century. The Puranas which exist now were compiled in the Puranic Period [AD 600-1000], and have since been altered and considerably enlarged during many centuries after the Mahommedan conquest of India.

They are not authorities for Hinduism as a whole; they are special guides for separate and often conflicting branches and sects, written for the evident purpose of promoting either Vishnu or Shiva worship at the expense of the other god. In them the simple primitive fancies suggested by the operations of Nature have become supplanted by the wild imaginings of a more advanced civilisation, and of a more corrupt state of society. They are the stronghold of polytheism, pantheism, and idolatry. Legends about some of the Vedic gods and gods of later times abound. Together with the advocacy of the Puranic gods, each of which is honoured with separate chapters, in which he is supremely praised and lauded above the other gods, the worship of planets is developed, rivers are deified, and many animals and birds receive divine worship as the "Vahans" or vehicles of the gods and goddesses. Certain trees also are regarded as sacred and receive worship. We may therefore regard the Puranas as giving sanction to the later and more extravagant developments of Hinduism.

The Purana literature is very extensive. The 18 Mahapuranas are said to contain 400,000 verses. Over and above these, there are 18 Upa-puranas, and 18 more Puranas unsuccessfully claiming position among the 36 Maha and Upa-puranas. Besides these 54, there is a miscellaneous lot of Puranas bringing up the number nearly to one hundred.

To suppose that they are altogether concoctions of the Middle Ages is to place too great a strain on credulity. They can scarcely have been reconstructed from the fragmentary evidence supplied by Vedas and Brahmanas at a period when no one could have dreamed of treating Vedas and Brahmanas as historical documents a task reserved for the nineteenth century. The only possible conclusion is that the Puranas have preserved, in however perverted and distorted a form, an independent tradition, which supplements the priestly tradition of the Vedas and Brahmanas, and which goes back to the same period. This tradition, as we may gather from the prologues, was handed down from one generation of bards to another and was solemnly promulgated on the occasion of great sacrificea.

The principal Puranas seem to have been edited in their present form during the Gupta period, when a great extension and revival of Sanskrit Brahmanical literature took place. The Vayu Purana in its present shape seems to be referred to the fourth century AD by the well-known passage describing the extent of the Gupta dominions, which is applicable only to the reign of Chandra-gupta I in 320-6 AD. The Vayupurana, Vishnupurana, Maisyapurana, and Brahmandapurana seems to stop with the imperial Guptas and their contemporaries, which indicates that the date of the redaction of the four works named cannot be very far removed from 500 AD, the imperial Gupta dynasty having ended about 480 AD. By 1000 AD the Puranas were, as now, eighteen in number, and were regarded as coming down from immemorial antiquity, when the mythical Rishis lived.

A very striking analogy to the mutual relations of the various Puranas is to be found in the case of the Saxon chronicle, which, as is well known, continued to be written up in various monasteries down to the reign of Stephen, though the additions made after the Roman conquest were independent of each other. Similarly the copies of the original verse Purana that were possessed by the priests of the great centres of pilgrimage were altered and added to chiefly by the insertion of local events after the fall of a central Hindu government had made communication between the different groups of Brahmans relatively difficult In this way the Brahma Purana may represent the Orissa version of the original work, just as the Padma may give that of Pushkara, the Agni that of Gaya, the Varaha that of Mathura, the Vamana that of Thanesar, and the Matsya that of the Brahmans on the Narmada.

Every purana deals with at least the following five topics:

  1. Sarga (original Creation, the evolution of the universe from its material cause),
  2. Pratisarga ( dissolution and Secondary Creation, the re-creation of the universe from the constituent elements into which it is merged at the close of each aeon (kalpa) or day in the life of the Creator, Brahma),
  3. Vamsa / Vamsha / varnia ( ancient genealogies of the Divinities, Demons, Rishis and so on),
  4. Manvantara (the periods of the Manus, that is, Cosmic Cycles, the groups of great ages (mahayuga) included in an aeon, in each of which mankind is supposed to be produced anew from a first father, Manu. The name Manvantara means time between the Manus, and Manu means "with one mind," that is to say, humanity.),
  5. Vamsa Charitra / Vansacharita / Vamshanucharita / vamsanucarita / vamsyanucharita / vampanucharita (histories of the great dynasties, the royal families who rule over the earth during the four ages (yuga) which make up one great age).
These appear to have been the original subjects of the Puranas, and were so specially their province that the epithet 'having five characteristic subjects' was an old synonym of the title Purana ; hence religious instruction apart from these subjects was not one of their primary aims, nor do they appear to have been composed for sectarian purposes originally. Sectarian designs seem rather to have been an after-modification, except in the latest Puranas, which are frankly sectarian. The first three of these subjects are closely connected and may be considered together. The teaching ia neither uniform nor consistent, but seems to combine different schemes. It postulates the primordial essence called prakrti and prodhuna, spirit called purusa, and the god Brahma, with whom both prakrti and purusa are sometimes identified. Prakrti contained the three qualities, goodness (tattva), passion (rajas), and darkness (tamai), in equilibrium. It first evolved the great intellectual principle (mahat) as the first stage. From this was evolved the principle of individuality (ahankara), and from this the five subtle elements (tan-radtra), sound, touch, form, taste, and smell, which became manifest respectively aa the five elements (bhitta), ether, air, light, water, and solid matter. This was the second stage, the elemental creation (bhuta-sarga). In the third stage the ten organs of sense and action and the mind proceeded from the intellectual principle. These three stages were the creation from prakrti (prakrtasarga). All these principles and elements, through the influence of spirit, combined and formed an egg, the egg of Brahma, wherein he, assuming the quality of passion, became active, brought the world into existence as the fourth stage, and through meditation originated, fifthly, the animal kingdom, sixthly, the gods, seventhly, mankind, eighthly, the intellectual notions called anugrana, and, ninthly, Sanatkumara and other semi-divine mind-born sons who remained celibate, whence this creation is called kaumara. In all these the three qualities existed in different states of predominance.

Five out of the eighteen Puranas, namely, the Vayu, Matsya, Vishnu, Brahmanda, and Bhagavata contain king lists. The Brahmanda and Bhagavata Puranas being comparatively late works, the lists in them are corrupt, imperfect, and of slight value. But those in the oldest documents, the Vayu, Matsya, and Vishnu, are full, and evidently based upon good authorities. The latest of these three works, the Vishnu, was initially the best known in the West, having been completely translated into English in 1840; but in some cases its evidence is not so good as that of the Vayu and Matsya. It was composed, probably, in the fifth or sixth century AD, and corresponds most closely with the theoretical definition that a Purana should deal with the five topics of primary creation, secondary creation, genealogies of gods and patriarchs, reigns of various Manus, and the histories of the old dynasties of kings. The Vayu seems to go back to the middle of the fourth century AD, and the Matsya is probably intermediate in date between it and the Vishnu.

The most systematic record of Indian historical tradition is that preserved in the dynastic lists of the Puranas. If some kind of annals of kings and dynasties existed, even in that ancient period, beyond what is found in the Brahmanas themselves, they have long since been lost. Probably such annals were preserved in the traditions of the people, and were altered and re-cast, and mixed up with legends from century to century, and from age to age, until, after about two thousand years, they finally assumed the shape of the modern Puranas.

The Puranas began to be recast when the worship of Hindu deities rose in popular estimation about the time of Wema-Kadphises circa 250 A D, and the process continued through the Gupta period to a much later date and new Puranas appeared from time to time ; and it has hardly ceased even to this day. They existed long before, since they are alluded to in the Upanishads and Brautasutras, but their contents must have been strictly in accordance with the rule given by Amarasimha in his lexicon, and embraced an account of the creation and dissolution of the world, of the different families of Bishis and princes, and of the deeds of the most heroio among them, and of the Manvantaras or different ages of the world. But now the necessity of glorifying the different gods and goddesses whose worship was rising in favour and of firmly inculcating other religious duties had been felt; and new Puranas were composed having the framework of the old but with new matter introduced on every occasion.

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