“ We are the voices of the’ wandering wind Which moan for rest and rest can never find, Lo! As the wind is, so is mortal life,
A moan, a sigh, a sob, a storm, a strife.”
—Devoe’ Song to Prince Siddharathot,
THE Puranas are looked upon as semi-religious books. As a matter of fact they are, as it were, the storehouses, the vast treasuries of universal information, like the English “Encyclopedia Britamiica “ with a unity of purpose and a theological bent. They contain dissertations and discussions on Theology, Mythology, History, War, Polity, Philosophy, Sciences, Arts and other things. In course of time, with the decline and fall of the Hindu nation, when the ideals of the nation were lowered, when plain living and high thinking ceased to be the national characteristics of the race, when the pure and sublime teachings of the Vedas and the Upanishads began to be neglected, interpolations inculcating the worship of different gods and goddesses, celebrating the praises of holy places of India were made in these books from time to time, and they began to be looked upon with greater and greater reverence, with the result eventually that the most spiritual and scientific religion in the world was replaced by a mixture of Theology, Mythology and Sociology.
When the Hindus became too weak to defend themselves from the attacks of the invaders from the Northwest, in order to preserve their literature from destruction they, assigned it to the care of a class of men whom they invested with special sanctity, and accorded them a privileged position in society. In time the exclusive spirit of these men urged them to look upon learning as their peculiar prerogative, and induced then, with the object of preserving the sacerdotal character of their class, to gradually put a bar to other classes acquiring a knowledge of the Hindu Shastras.
A glance at the contents of the Puranas, however, would reveal their real character; and the commonsense of the Hindus can be relied on to assign these books their true place in the literature of the nation.
The world is moving fast, and forces over which the nation, which long revelled in isolation and ‘exclusiveness to its serious detriment and undoing, has no control are now working so as to demand the utmost circumspection on the part of its leaders and thinkers in husbanding its resources, and preventing its energies from being frittered away in following false ideals. If the fate of the ancient Egyptians, the Persians, the Babylonians and the Greeks is to be avoided, it behoves all well-wishers of the nation not only to hold the mirror to its wretched condition for the edification of the masses, but by making proper use of the useful and valuable lessons contained in parts even of this heterogenous—half sacerdotal, half profane—literature, direct its course towards the realization of aims truly and clearly laid down in the sublime and pure teaching of the Vedas and the Upanishads.
Professor Heeren’ says that the Puranas are not the work of a Valmiki or Vyasa, but, like the poems of
Tzetzes and other grammarians, the fruit of extraordi._
‘Historical Researches, Vol, II, p. 177,
nary diligence combined with extensive reading. He is, nevertheless, far from considering them altogether as an invention of modern times, that is, of the Middle Ages.
The literal meaning of the word Parana is “ old “ and the Puranas profess to teach what is old. “ They are,” says Mrs. Manning, “ written in verse with a view to public recitation at festivals, as vehicles for conveying such instruction as the, people might be presumed to require: Philosophically, they blend Sankhya philosophy with Vedanta, and practically they were a code of ritual as well as a summary of law.”‘
The Puranas have been compiled at different periods and by different men. They seem to have adopted different innovations made into them by Shankaracharya, Ramanuja, Madhavacharya,.. and VaIlabhacharya. “ The invariable form of the Puranas is that of a dialogue, in which some person relates its contents in reply to the inquiries of another.” The immediate narrator is commonly, though not constantly, Lomaharshana or Somaharshana, the disciple of Vyasa, who is supposed to communicate what was imparted to him by his preceptor.
The Puranas are divided into three classes :-
1. Sattvika, or “ Pure,” including Vishnu, Narada, Bhagwat, Garuda, Padma and Varaha Puranas.
2. Tamasa, or “ Puranas of ‘Darkness,” including Matsya, Karma, Linga, Shiva, Skanda and Agni Puranas.
3. Rajasa or “ Passionate,” including.Brah mandit, Vaivarta, Markandya, Bhavishya, Vamana and Brahma P uranas.
The first six Puranas are Vaishnava, the next six are
‘Ancient and IVIediwval India, Vol, I, p, 244.
Shaiva, and the last six advocate the Gossain and Vallabhachari religions.
There are eighteen Puranas, and it is said that there are 18 Up-Puranas. “ The eighteen Puranas are said to have 4,00,000 slokas or 16,00,000 lines. They are fabled to be but an abridgment; the whole amounting to a crore or 10 millions of stanzas, even a 1,000 millions.” And Professor Wilson adds: “If all the fragmentary portions claiming in various parts of India to belong to the Puranas were admitted, their extent would much exceed the lesser, though it would not reach the larger enumeration.”‘
To give an idea of their contents, a brief surrey of two of the most important Puranas is subjoined. Shri Bhagwat Purana, “ that in which ample details of duty are described and which opens with the Gagatri: that in which the death of the Asura Vrita is told, and in which the mortals and the immortals of the Saraswata Kalpa, with the events of that period are related is called the Bhagwat .Purana, and consists of eighteen thousand verses.” It is perhaps the most important of all the Puranas. Its philosophy is Vedantic, and it opens with a cosmogony mixed with mysticism and allegory; then follow an account of the creation and of the Varha Avatara; creation of Prajapatees, Swayam Bhava, and then Kapila Avatara, the author of Sankhya Philosophy; an account of the Manwantras, different legends of Dhruva, Vena, Pritha, and an account of the universe follow. Other legends follow, including that of Prahlada, of the churning of the ocean, and the fish
1 There is a little confusion in the names of the 18 Puranas according to the different Puranas themselves.
Avatars and others, and then ‘a history of two Hindu dynasties. The tenth book which gives the history of Krishna, is the most popular part of the Purana. The eleventh book describes the destruction of the Yadavas and the death of Krishna, and his teaching Yoga to Uddhava. The twelfth book contains, the lives of the kings of Kaliyug, and gives an account of the deterioration of all things and their final dissolution. As this Purana was recited by Sukhdeva to Parikshit, who was awaiting the snake-bite, the king was actually bitten by the serpent and expired. It terminates with an account of Vyasa’s arrangement of the Vedas and the Puranas and With praises of its own sanctity.
Agni Purana. “ That Purana which describes the events of the Isana Kalpa and was related by Agni to Vashishta is the Agni Parana. It consists of 16,000 slokas. It commences with an account of the Avataras of Rama and Krishna, and devotes some chapters to “mystical forms of Shiva worship.” A description of the earth, genealogies, etc., follo’w. Then comes a system of medicine, and the work winds up with treatises on rhetoric, prosody, grammar, archery and military tactics, etc. It also contains several systems of niti (polity).
The 18 Up-Puranas are enumerated as follows :-
Sanakumara. 7. Narsingh. 13. Durvasa.
`2. Naradiya. 8. Parasar. 14. Maheshwara.
3. Shiva. 9. Kapila. 15. Manawa.
4. Varuna. 10. Samba. 16. Nandi.
‘5. Ansanasa, 11. Kalika. 17. Saura.
6. Aditya. 12. Bhagwat. 18. Vashishtha.
Tie foregoing brief survey of the contents of two of the Puranas is quite inadequate to enable the reader to form an idea of their importance, as lighthouses to a great Past. The Agni Purana, for instance, contains particulars of the military organization of the Hindus, which in consequence of the loss of the Dhanur Veda are of especial importance. The Deva Purana mentions the brahmastr a, which proves the use of fire-arms by the Hindus in those days. The Padma Purana contains a treatise on the geography of India in particular and the Universe in general, which is of very great importance. Matsya Purana explains the source from which the Jewish, the Christian and the Mohamedan story of the Deluge and their cosmogony are derived. G-aruda Purana contains a treatise on precious stones, astrology and palmistry; a system of medicine is contained in the Agni Purana, while theories of creation are to be found in almost all of them. Some Puranas throw important light on the industries and arts of ancient India, and may, if properly understood and followed, yet help the Indians to improve their position in the industrial world. It must, however, be admitted that sometimes, with a grain of useful information, there will be found a lot of useless chaff. On the whole, the Puranas have as much claim to be regarded as the religious books of the Hindus as the Encyclopedia Britannica has to be accepted as the religious books of Englishmen. As to the antiquity of their contents there is no doubt. Professor H. H. Wilson says: “And the testimony that establishes their existence three centuries before Christianity, carries it back to a much more remote antiquity—to an antiquity that is probably not surpassed by any of the prevailing fictitious institutions or beliefs of the ancient world.”