Thursday, 23 June 2011

A four-part series on the Puranas.

Today we begin a four-part overview of the Puranas, written by H.H. Wilson as a preface to his book, The Visnu Purana, published in London in 1840. Wilson translated the Visnu Purana from the Sanskrit, and gives an interesting summary of the Puranic hierarchy. This overview will cover the following texts:

Brahma Purana, Padma Purana, Visnu Purana, Viyaviya Purana, Bhagavata Purana, Naradiya Purana, Markandeya Purana, Agni Purana, Bhavishya Purana, Brahma-vaivartta Purana, Linga Purana, Varaha Purana, Skanda Purana, Varaha Purana, Skanda Purana, Vamana Purana, Kurma Purana, Matsya Purana, Garuda Purana, Brahmanda Purana, and the Upa-puranas.


It is said in the Uttara Khanda of the Padma, that the Purnas, as well as other works, are divided into three classes, according to the qualities which prevail in them. Thus the Vishnu, Naradiya, Bhagavata, Garuda, Padma, and Varaha Puranas, are Satwika, or pure, from the predominance in them of the Satwa quality, or that of goodness and purity. They are, in fact, Vaishnava Puranas.

The Matsya, Kurma, Linga, Siva, Skanda, and Agni Puranas, are Tamasa, or Puranas of darkness, from the prevalence of the quality of Tamas, 'ignorance,' 'gloom.' They are indisputably Saiva Puranas.

The third series, comprising the Brahmanda, Brahma-vaivartta, Markandeya, Bhavishya, Vamana, and Brahma Puranas, are designated as Rajasa, 'passionate,' from Rajas, the property of passion, which they are supposed to represent.

The Matsya does not specify which are the Puranas that come under these designations, but remarks that those in which the Mahatmya of Hari or Vishnu prevails are Satwika; those in which the legends of Agni or Siva predominate are Tamasa; and those which dwell most on the stories of Brahma are Rajasa. I have elsewhere stated, that I considered the Rajasa Puranas to lean to the Sakta division of the Hindus, the worshippers of Sakti, or the female principle; founding this opinion on the character of the legends which some of them contain, such as the Durga Mahatmya, or celebrated legend on which the worship of Durga or Kali is especially founded, which is a principal episode of the Markandeya.

The Brahma-vaivartta also devotes the greatest portion of its chapters to the celebration of Radha, the mistress of Krishna, and other female divinities. Col. Vans Kennedy, however, objects to the application of the term Sakta to this last division of the Puranas, the worship of Sakti being the especial object of a different class of works, the Tantras, and no such form of worship being particularly inculcated in the Brahma Purana. This last argument is of weight in regard to the particular instance specified, and the designation of Sakti may not be correctly applicable to the whole class, although it is to some of the series; for there is no incompatibility in the advocacy of a Tantrika modification of the Hindu religion by any Purana, and it has unquestionably been practised in works known as Upa-puranas.
The proper appropriation of the third class of the Puranas, according to the Padma Purana, appears to be to the worship of Krishna, not in the character in which he is represented in the Vishnu and Bhagavata Puranas, in which the incidents of his boyhood are only a portion of his biography, and in which the human character largely participates, at least in his riper years, but as the infant Krishna, Govinda, Bala Gopala, the sojourner in Vrindavan, the companion of the cowherds and milkmaids, the lover of Radha, or as the juvenile master of the universe, Jagannatha. The term Rajasa, implying the animation of passion, and enjoyment of sensual delights, is applicable, not only to the character of the youthful divinity, but to those with whom his adoration in these forms seems to have originated, the Gosains of Gokul and Bengal, the followers and descendants of Vallabha and Chaitanya, the priests and proprietors of Jagannath and Srinath-dwar, who lead a life of affluence and indulgence, and vindicate, both by precept and practice, the reasonableness of the Rajasa property, and the congruity of temporal enjoyment with the duties of religion.

The Puranas are uniformly stated to be eighteen in number. It is said that there are also eighteen Upa-puranas, or minor Puranas; but the names of only a few of these are specified in the least exceptionable authorities, and the greater number of the works is not procurable. With regard to the eighteen Puranas, there is a peculiarity in their specification, which is proof of an interference with the integrity of the text, in some of them at least; for each of them specifies the names of the whole eighteen. Now the list could not have been complete whilst the work that gives it was unfinished, and in one only therefore, the last of the series, have we a right to look for it. As however there are more last words than one, it is evident that the names must have been inserted in all except one after the whole were completed: which of the eighteen is the exception, and truly the last, there is no clue to discover, and the specification is probably an interpolation in most, if not in all.

The names that are specified are commonly the same, and are as follows: 1. Brahma, 2. Padma, 3. Vaishnava, 4. Saiva, 5. Bhagavata, 6. Narada, 7. Markanda, 8. Ágneya, 9. Bhavishya, 10. Brahma-vaivartta, 11. Lainga, 12. Varaha, 13. Skanda, 14. Vamana, 15. Kaurma, 16. Matsya, 17. Garuda, 18. Brahmanda. This is from the twelfth book of the Bhagavata, and is the same as occurs in the Vishnu.

In other authorities there are a few variations. The list of the K.urma P. omits the Agni Purana, and substitutes the Vayu. The Agni leaves out the Saiva, and inserts the Vayu. The Varaha omits the Garuda and Brahmanda, and inserts the Vayu and Narasinha: in this last it is singular. The Markandeya agrees with the Vishnu and Bhagavata in omitting the Vayu. The Matsya, like the Agni, leaves out the Saiva.

Some of the Puranas, as the Agni, Matsya, Bhagavata, and Padma, also particularize the number of stanzas which each of the eighteen contains. In one or two instances they disagree, but in general they concur. The aggregate is stated at 400,000 slokas, or 1,600,000 lines. These are fabled to be but an abridgment, the whole amount being a krore, or ten millions of stanzas, or even a thousand millions. 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. The former is, however, as I have elsewhere stated, a quantity that an individual European scholar could scarcely expect to peruse with due care and attention, unless his whole time were devoted exclusively for many years to the task. Yet without some such labour being achieved, it was clear, from the crudity and inexactness of all that had been hitherto published on the subject, with one exception, that sound views on the subject of Hindu mythology and tradition were not to be expected. Circumstances, which I have already explained in the paper in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society referred to above, enabled me to avail myself of competent assistance, by which I made a minute abstract of most of the Puranas. In course of time I hope to place a tolerably copious and connected analysis of the whole eighteen before Oriental scholars, and in the mean while offer a brief notice of their several contents.

In general the enumeration of the Puranas is a simple nomenclature, with the addition in some cases of the number of verses; but to these the Matsya Purana joins the mention of one or two circumstances peculiar to each, which, although scanty, are of value, as offering means of identifying the copies of the Puranas now found with those to which the Matsya refers, or of discovering a difference between the present and the past. I shall therefore prefix the passage descriptive of each Purana from the Matsya. It is necessary to remark, however, that in the comparison instituted between that description and the Purana as it exists, I necessarily refer to the copy or copies which I employed for the purpose of examination and analysis, and which were procured with some trouble and cost in Benares and Calcutta. In some instances my manuscripts have been collated with others from different parts of India, and the result has shewn, that, with regard at least to the Brahma, Vishnu, Vayu, Matsya, Padma, Bhagavata, and Kurma Puranas, the same works, in all essential respects, are generally current under the same appellations. Whether this is invariably the case may be doubted, and farther inquiry may possibly shew that I have been obliged to content myself with mutilated or unauthentic works. It is with this reservation, therefore, that I must be understood to speak of the concurrence or disagreement of any Purana with the notice of it which the Matsya Purana has preserved.

Lord Brahma and Saraswati

The Brahma Purana

"That, the whole of which was formerly repeated by Brahma to Marichi, is called the Brahma Purana, and contains ten thousand stanzas." In all the lists of the Puranas, the Brahma is placed at the head of the series, and is thence sometimes also entitled the Adi or 'first' Purana. It is also designated as the Saura, as it is in great part appropriated to the worship of Surya, 'the sun.' There are, however, works bearing these names which belong to the class of Upa-puranas, and which are not to be confounded with the Brahma. It is usually said, as above, to contain ten thousand slokas; but the number actually occurring is between seven and eight thousand. There is a supplementary or concluding section called the Brahmottara Purana, and which is different from a portion of the Skanda called the Brahmottara Khanda, which contains about three thousand stanzas more; but there is every reason to conclude that this is a distinct and unconnected work.

The immediate narrator of the Brahma Purana is Lomaharshana, who communicates it to the Rishis or sages assembled at Naimisharanya, as it was originally revealed by Brahma, not to Marichi, as the Matsya affirms, but to Daksha, another of the patriarchs: hence its denomination of the Brahma Purana.

The early chapters of this work give a description of the creation, an account of the Manwantaras, and the history of the solar and lunar dynasties to the time of Krishna, in a summary manner, and in words which are common to it and several other Puranas: a brief description of the universe succeeds; and then come a number of chapters relating to the holiness of Orissa, with its temples and sacred groves dedicated to the sun, to Siva, and Jagannath, the latter especially. These chapters are characteristic of this Purana, and shew its main object to be the promotion of the worship of Krishna as Jagannath. To these particulars succeeds a life of Krishna, which is word for word the same as that of the Vishnu Purana; and the compilation terminates with a particular detail of the mode in which Yoga, or contemplative devotion, the object of which is still Vishnu, is to be performed. There is little in this which corresponds with the definition of a Pancha-lakshana Purana; and the mention of the temples of Orissa, the date of the original construction of which is recorded, shows that it could not have been compiled earlier than the thirteenth or fourteenth century.

The Uttara Khanda of the Brahma P. bears still more entirely the character of a Mahatmya, or local legend, being intended to celebrate the sanctity of the Balaja river, conjectured to be the same as the Banas in Marwar. There is no clue to its date, but it is clearly modern, grafting personages and fictions of its own invention on a few hints from older authorities.

The Padma Purana

"That which contains an account of the period when the world was a golden lotus (padma), and of all the occurrences of that time, is therefore called the Padma by the wise: it contains fifty-five thousand stanzas." The second Purana in the usual lists is always the Padma, a very voluminous work, containing, according to its own statement, as well as that of other authorities, fifty-five thousand slokas; an amount not far from the truth. These are divided amongst five books, or Khandas; 1. the Srishti Khanda, or section on creation; 2. the Bhumi Khanda, description of the earth; 3. the Swarga Khanda, chapter on heaven; 4. Patala Khanda, chapter on the regions below the earth; and 5. the Uttara Khanda, last or supplementary chapter. There is also current a sixth division, the Kriya Yoga Sara, a treatise on the practice of devotion.

The denominations of these divisions of the Padma P. convey but an imperfect and partial notion of their contents. In the first, or section which treats of creation, the narrator is Ugrasravas the Suta, the son of Lomaharshana, who is sent by his father to the Rishis at Naimisharanya to communicate to them the Purana, which, from its containing an account of the lotus (padma), in which Brahma appeared at creation, is termed the Padma or Padma Purana. The Suta repeats what was originally communicated by Brahma to Pulastya, and by him to Bhishma. The early chapters narrate the cosmogony, and the genealogy of the patriarchal families, much in the same style, and often in the same words, as the Vishnu; and short accounts of the Manwantaras and regal dynasties: but these, which are legitimate Pauranik matters, soon make way for new and unauthentic inventions, illustrative of the virtues of the lake of Pushkara, or Pokher in Ajmir, as a place of pilgrimage.

The Bhumi Khanda, or section of the earth, defers any description of the earth until near its close, filling up one hundred and twenty-seven chapters with legends of a very mixed description, some ancient and common to other Puranas, but the greater part peculiar to itself, illustrative of Tirthas either figuratively so termed--as a wife, a parent, or a Guru, considered as a sacred object--or places to which actual pilgrimage should be performed.

The Swarga Khanda describes in the first chapters the relative positions of the Lokas or spheres above the earth, placing above all Vaikuntha, the sphere of Vishnu; an addition which is not warranted by what appears to be the oldest cosmology. Miscellaneous notices of some of the most celebrated princes then succeed, conformably to the usual narratives; and these are followed by rules of conduct for the several castes, and at different stages of life. The rest of the book is occupied by legends of a diversified description, introduced without much method or contrivance; a few of which, as Daksha's sacrifice, are of ancient date, but of which the most are original and modern.

The Patala Khanda devotes a brief introduction to the description of Patala, the regions of the snake-gods; but the name of Rama having been mentioned, Sesha, who has succeeded Pulastya as spokesman, proceeds to narrate the history of Rama, his descent and his posterity; in which the compiler seems to have taken the poem of Kalidasa, the Raghu Vansa, for his chief authority. An originality of addition may be suspected, however, in the adventures of the horse destined by Rama for an Aswamedha, which form the subject of a great many chapters. When about to be sacrificed, the horse turns out to be a Brahman, condemned by an imprecation of Durvasas, a sage, to assume the equine nature, and who, by having been sanctified by connexion with Rama, is released from his metamorphosis, and dispatched as a spirit of light to heaven. This piece of Vaishnava fiction is followed by praises of the Sri Bhagavata, an account of Krishna's juvenilities, and the merits of worshipping Vishnu. These accounts are communicated through a machinery borrowed from the Tantras: they are told by Sadasiva to Parvati, the ordinary interlocutors of Tantrika compositions.

The Uttara Khanda is a most voluminous aggregation of very heterogeneous matters, but it is consistent in adopting a decidedly Vaishnava tone, and admitting no compromise with any other form of faith. The chief subjects are first discussed in a dialogue between king Dilipa and the Muni Vasishtha; such as the merits of bathing in the month of Magha, and the potency of the Mantra or prayer addressed to Lakshmi Narayana. But the nature of Bhakti, faith in Vishnu--the use of Vaishnava marks on the body--the legends of Vishnu's Avataras, and especially of Rama--and the construction of images of Vishnu--are too important to be left to mortal discretion: they are explained by Siva to Parvati, and wound up by the adoration of Vishnu by those divinities. The dialogue then reverts to the king and the sage; and the latter states why Vishnu is the only one of the triad entitled to respect; Siva being licentious, Brahma arrogant, and Vishnu alone pure. Vasishtha then repeats, after Siva, the Mahatmya of the Bhagavad Gita; the merit of each book of which is illustrated by legends of the good consequences to individuals from perusing or hearing it. Other Vaishnava Mahatmyas occupy considerable portions of this Khanda, especially the Kartika Mahatmya, or holiness of the month Kartika, illustrated as usual by stories, a few of which are of an early origin, but the greater part modern, and peculiar to this Purana.

The Kriya Yoga Sara is repeated by Suta to the Rishis, after Vyasa's communication of it to Jaimini, in answer to an inquiry how religious merit might be secured in the Kali age, in which men have become incapable of the penances and abstraction by which final liberation was formerly to be attained. The answer is, of course, that which is intimated in the last hook of the Vishnu Purana--personal devotion to Vishnu: thinking of him, repeating his names, wearing his marks, worshipping in his temples, are a full substitute for all other acts of moral or devotional or contemplative merit.

The different portions of the Padma Purana are in all probability as many different works, neither of which approaches to the original definition of a Purana. There may be some connexion between the three first portions, at least as to time; but there is no reason to consider them as of high antiquity. They specify the Jains both by name and practices.; they talk of Mlechchhas, 'barbarians,' flourishing in India; they commend the use of the frontal and other Vaishnava marks; and they notice other subjects which, like these, are of no remote origin. The Patala Khanda dwells copiously upon the Bhagavata, and is consequently posterior to it. The Uttara Khanda is intolerantly Vaishnava, and is therefore unquestionably modern. It enjoins the veneration of the Salagram stone and Tulasi plant, the use of the Tapta-mudra, or stamping with a hot iron the name of Vishnu on the skin, and a variety of practices and observances undoubtedly no part of the original system. It speaks of the shrines of Sri-rangam and Venkatadri in the Dekhin, temples that have no pretension to remote antiquity; and it names Haripur on the Tungabhadra, which is in all likelihood the city of Vijayanagar, founded in the middle of the fourteenth century. The Kriya Yoga Sara is equally a modern, and apparently a Bengali composition. No portion of the Padma Purana is probably older than the twelfth century, and the last parts may be as recent as the fifteenth or sixteenth.

The Vishnu Purana

"That in which Parasara, beginning with the events of the Varaha Kalpa, expounds all duties, is called the Vaishnava; and the learned know its extent to be twenty-three thousand stanzas." The third Purana of the lists is that which has been selected for translation, the Vishnu. It is unnecessary therefore to offer any general summary of its contents, and it will be convenient to reserve any remarks upon its character and probable antiquity for a subsequent page. It may here be observed, however, that the actual number of verses contained in it falls far short of the enumeration of the Matsya, with which the Bhagavata concurs. Its actual contents are not seven thousand stanzas. All the copies, and in this instance they are not fewer than seven in number, procured both in the east and in the west of India, agree; and there is no appearance of any part being wanting. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end, in both text and comment; and the work as it stands is incontestably entire. How is the discrepancy to be explained?

The Vayaviya Purana

"The Purana in which Vayu has declared the laws of duty, in connexion with the Sweta Kalpa, and which comprises the Mahatmya of Rudra, is the Vayaviya Purana: it contains twenty-four thousand verses." The Siva or Saiva Purana is, as above remarked, omitted in some of the lists; and in general, when that is the case, it is replaced by the Vayu or Vayaviya. When the Siva is specified, as in the Bhagavata, then the Vayu is omitted; intimating the possible identity of these two works. This indeed is confirmed by the Matsya, which describes the Vayaviya Purana as characterised by its account of the greatness of Rudra or Siva; and Balambhatta mentions that the Vayaviya is also called the Saiva, though, according to some, the latter is the name of an Upa-purana. Col. Vans Kennedy observes, that in the west of India the Saiva is commonly considered to be an Upa or 'minor' Purana.

Another proof that the same work is intended by the authorities here followed, the Bhagavata and Matsya, under different appellations, is their concurrence in the extent of the work, each specifying its verses to be twenty-four thousand. A copy of the Siva Purana, of which an index and analysis have been prepared, does not contain more than about seven thousand: it cannot therefore be the Siva Purana of the Bhagavata; and we may safely consider that to be the same as the Vayaviya of the Matsya.

The Vayu Purana is narrated by Suta to the Rishis at Naimisharanya, as it was formerly told at the same place to similar persons by Vayu; a repetition of circumstances not uncharacteristic of the inartificial style of this Purana. It is divided into four Padas, termed severally Prakriya, Upodghata, Anushanga, and Upasanhara; a classification peculiar to this work. These are preceded by an index, or heads of chapters, in the manner of the Mahabharata and Ramayana; another peculiarity.

The Prakriya portion contains but a few chapters, and treats chiefly of elemental creation, and the first evolutions of beings, to the same purport as the Vishnu, but in a more obscure and unmethodical style. The Upodghata then continues the subject of creation, and describes the various Kalpas or periods during which the world has existed; a greater number of which is specified by the Saiva than by the Vaishnava Puranas. Thirty-three are here described, the last of which is the Sweta or 'white' Kalpa, from Siva's being born in it of a white complexion. The genealogies of the patriarchs, the description of the universe, and the incidents of the first six Manwantaras, are all treated of in this part of the work; but they are intermixed with legends and praises of Siva, as the sacrifice of Daksha, the Maheswara Mahatmya, the Nilakantha Stotra, and others. The genealogies, although in the main the same as those in the Vaishnava Puranas, present some variations. A long account of the Pitris or progenitors is also peculiar to this Purana; as are stories of some of the most celebrated Rishis, who were engaged in the distribution of the Vedas.

The third division commences with an account of the seven Rishis and their descendants, and describes the origin of the different classes of creatures from the daughters of Daksha, with a profuse copiousness of nomenclature, not found in any other Purana. With exception of the greater minuteness of detail, the particulars agree with those of the Vishnu P. A chapter then occurs on the worship of the Pitris; another on Tirthas, or places sacred to them; and several on the performance of Sraddhas, constituting the Sraddha Kalpa. After this, comes a full account of the solar and lunar dynasties, forming a parallel to that in the following pages, with this difference, that it is throughout in verse, whilst that of our text, as noticed in its place, is chiefly in prose. It is extended also by the insertion of detailed accounts of various incidents, briefly noticed in the Vishnu, though derived apparently from a common original. The section terminates with similar accounts of future kings, and the same chronological calculations, that are found in the Vishnu.

The last portion, the Upasanhara, describes briefly the future Manwantaras, the measures of space and time, the end of the world, the efficacy of Yoga, and the glories of Siva-pura, or the dwelling of Siva, with whom the Yogi is to be united. The manuscript concludes with a different history of the successive teachers of the Vayu Purana, tracing them from Brahma to Vayu, from Vayu to Vrihaspati, and from him, through various deities and sages, to Dwaipayana and Suta.

The account given of this Purana in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal was limited to something less than half the work, as I had not then been able to procure a larger portion. I have now a more complete one of my own, and there are several copies in the East India Company's library of the like extent. One, presented by His Highness the Guicowar, is dated Samvat 1540, or A. D. 1483, and is evidently as old as it professes to be. The examination I have made of the work confirms the view I formerly took of it; and from the internal evidence it affords, it may perhaps be regarded as one of the oldest and most authentic specimens extant of a primitive Purana.

It appears, however, that we have not yet a copy of the entire Vayu Purana. The extent of it, as mentioned above, should be twenty-four thousand verses. The Guicowar MS. has but twelve thousand, and is denominated the Purvarddha, or first portion. My copy is of the like extent. The index also spews that several subjects remain untold; as, subsequently to the description of the sphere of Siva, and the periodical dissolution of the world, the work is said to contain an account of a succeeding creation, and of various events that occurred in it, as the birth of several celebrated Rishis, including that of Vyasa, and a description of his distribution of the Vedas; an account of the enmity between Vasishtha and Viswamitra; and a Naimisharanya Mahatmya. These topics are, however, of minor importance, and can scarcely carry the Purana to the whole extent of the verses which it is said to contain. If the number is accurate, the index must still omit a considerable portion of the subsequent contents.

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