The last great authority in matters of religion is the Puranic literature which forms the basis of popular Hinduism. All these treatises are supposed to be the works of Vyasa according to orthodox but popular view. The word Purana, as it occurs in the Upanisads, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, means legends of our Kings and Sages. The present Puranas, like the Mahabharata, aim at incorporating everything in their texts to make them all comprehensive and encyclopaedic in nature. The anxiety of these writers to make their texts all inclusive would be evident from the definition of Puranas for originally it was described as consisting of five topics-puranam panca-Iaksanam; but later on the list was enhanced to ten characteristics to be added to the Purana definition.
According to the Brahmanical traditions, as recorded in the Atharvaveda and the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, Purana has as much a sacred origin as the Vedas themselves. The Atharvaveda says (XI/7/24 and XV/6/4) that the Vedas and the Puranas originated from the sacrifice and the latter ascribes the origin of the Vedas and Puranas to the birth of Mahad-bhuta. These traditions are
unanimous in recognising the sacredness of the Purana literature. In the later Vedic literature Purana is even called the fifth Veda (Chandogya Upanisad (VII/l/4). Though these references by the use of the word Purana in singular show that there must have been one Purana text only, yet it can hardly be derived that more than one Purana had not come into existence before the beginning of the Christian era. In the Taittiriya Aranyaka, Manusmrti and Yajnavalkyasmrti we find the use of the word ‘Puranani’, The, Mahabharata speaks of a Purana proclaimed by Vayu, and the Apastamba Dharmasutra has a passage quoted from Bhavisya Purana.
It is evident that the Purana as a branch of literature existed even before the beginning of the Christian era bearing the character attributed to it. But this is not advisable to hold that the present Puranas are the works referred to in the Satapatha Brahmana, the Upanisads and the Sutra literature. Till the compilation of the
Mahabharata, the Puranas in their present form were not available. Thus these may be the recast of older texts or enlarged editions incorporating the philosophy, practices, Brahmanical religious-sects and the social reforms carried out from time to time in the Indian society, but had not changed their essential character.
The Puranas are like the Bible for the common people of India, and Puranic discources in the temples are popular even now. They occupy a unique position in the sacred and secular literature of the Hindus. These afford us a far greater insight into all aspects and phases of Hinduism and are useful for a historical study of the Indian society as well as for comparative studies in the fields of religion, philosophy, mythology and tradition. They may be described as popular encyclopaedias of ancient and mediaval Hinduism. We get a complete picture of the mind, heart, spirit and body of India from an intelligent and comprehensive study of the Puranas.
These Puranas are a type of mythico historical Iiterature which has for many centuries played a unique role in the development of the Indian society and culture. They are now accepted as one of the important sources of Indian history. They occupy an intermediate position between the Vedic age and the period of classical literature. They have been influencing the life of the Indian masses through the centuries and are valuable as supplying the material for the study of such diverse subjects as religion and philosophy, folklore and ethnology, literature and science, history and geography, and politics and sociology.
By culture we mean the entire stock of intellectual and artistic achievement of the people. This includes also civilization with its concrete attainments. The purpose of the Puranas including the Itihasa, is to present entire culture and civilization of an ancient people-in contrast to the new lines of thought and life being introduced from time to time in the country. These new lines of thought and life were known to the people from the sermons of priests and the edicts of the kings, and the poets of the Puranas presented this culture and civilization into the metrical composition. The Mahapuranas in content contain about five lakh verses, and it is very arduous to examine, index, translate and study this enormous mass of literature. According to the Hindus, a student should He grateful that the gods had transmitted this literature for the benefit of mankind.
The theology and cosmogony of these books are largely drawn from earlier writings; the doctrines which they teach, the institutions they describe, and a part of the legends they relate-belong to a period v.v. prior to their own compilations and redactions. This literature claims to teach mythology and cosmogony, geography and astronomy, chronology and grammar and sometimes even anatomy and medicine, as well as to give the geneologies of the kings. These were designed popularly to teach the Vedic doctrines to women-folk and the lower strata of the society, who cannot understand or approach the more complicated works; as such these were called the fifth Veda (itihasa-puranabhyam vedartham upabrmhayet).
It is true that, as far as chronology and direct history is concerned, the Puranas are of little value, but their myths and legends form correct pictures of the time to which they belong. They give us a view of the mythology and religion of the people and, indirectly, reveal much of their true history. Probably these were the traditional tales of the poets, who were eulogists as well as historians of the ruling families. With the geneologies many myths were blended and this material was woven in a connected form by later writers. To mythology also systems of cosmogony, geography, philosophy, and astronomy, were added. After this, the contending sects were added to these-as also a mass of fiction glorifying either Krsna or Siva or any other, favourite deity. The Puranas are the work of different generations and varied circumstances. Mythology of the Puranas is much more developed than in the Mahabharata.
They teach pantheism and penance, self-mortification and self-indulgence, and virtue, and love of God. They also advocate monotheism and, at time, set aside all gods other than the favourite one. The Hindu theist claims that there is but one God -one Being in the millions of forms. Hence he asserts that, whenever anyone of the various deities of the Hindu pantheon is propiciated-by means of sacrifice, oblations, yoga or worship-it is the supreme Lord who is gratified.
Generally speaking: the Puranas came into prominence in the early centuries of the Christian era; but their recasts and developments came to a close about the tenth century. Thus, this literature is very important from the viewpoint of the religion, history, socio- logy of India during the first millennium of the Christian era.
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