From New World Encyclopedia

Purana (Sanskrit: पुराण, meaning "ancient" or "old") is the name of a genre of popular Indian scriptures, primarily found in Hinduism, usually written in the form of stories about specific gods. In Hindu religious literature, the designation "Purana" confers on a text an aura of authority and antiquity and, as such, there are many texts in India that go by the name of Purana. However, according to Hindu tradition, only eighteen Mahāpuranas ("Great Puranas") are considered to be the most authoritative.

Puranas normally give prominence to a certain deity (for example, Shiva, Vishnu or Krishna, Durga) and thus are popular texts among specific Hindu bhakti movements and sectarian schools. Two famous Vaisnava Puranas are the "Vishnu Purana" and the "Bhagavata Purana," which are mostly concerned with mythical and historical narrations of the popular Hindu god Vishnu. Puranas are often written in the vernacular, making them widely accessible to a mass audience, and they continue to be an important part of the overall Hindu corpus of scripture.

The Puranas have a correlative manifestation in the structures of other world religions. For example, the Jewish Talmud contains theHaggadah, Buddhism has the Jataka tales, and Islam honors the Hadith. These stories provide narrative aspects of religious traditions that embody and communicate essential religious truths, but not in didactic or doctrinal format.


In Hindu mythology, the Puranas are said to have been composed by the sage Vyasa, the narrator of the Mahabharata epic. In Sanskrit, Vyasa means "Divider," and some scholars have interpreted this to mean "Editor." [1]

Even though the word "Purana" literally means "old" or "ancient" in Sanskrit, due to the multiplicity of texts that carry this name, not all are ancient. Some are of comparatively recent origin and use the title "Purana" to gain respect for their content. However, ancient references to Puranas appear in the Atharvaveda 11.7.24 and the Satapatha Brahmana and There are also references to the Puranas in the Upanishads where the Itihasa-Purana is mentioned.[2] The Itihasa-Purana was considered the "fifth Veda" according to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.[3] Scholars argue that some contents of the Puranas may even date to an earlier period, deriving from oral tradition.


Puranas fall into the category of Hindu scripture known as Smrti (tradition). The canonical lists of Puranas vary from place to place and from time to time, and they are enumerated and classified in multiple ways.

Traditionally, it is said that there are eighteen Mahāpuranas (meaning: "Great, mighty") and eighteen Upapuranas (meaning: "Lower, additional"). They are usually written in Sanskrit by Brahmins and normally tell of the creation of the universe and the human race, narrate the genealogies of gods, kings, and saints, and contain assorted narratives, stories, and philosophical and religious topics. Traditionally[4] they are said to narrate five subjects, called "Panca-laksana" (Sanskrit: "Five distinguishing marks"), which are:

  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.
  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. Some scholars have suggested that these "distinguishing marks" are shared by other traditional religious scriptures of the world (for example, the Bible).[5] They use an abundance of religious and philosophical concepts in their narration, from Bhakti to Samkhya.

Sanskrit Mahapuranas are usually not directly accessible to the common person as read texts. They are, however, 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 traveling Brahmin settles for a few weeks in a temple and narrates parts of a Purana, usually with a Bhakti perspective).

According to the Padma Purana,[6] it is said that six belong to the quality (guna) of goodness, six to passion, and six to ignorance:

  • Goodness (Sattva): Vishnu Purana, Bhagavata Purana, Naradeya Purana, Garuda Purana, Padma Purana, Varaha Purana
  • Passion (Rajas): Brahmanda Purana, Brahma Vaivarta Purana, Markandeya Purana, Bhavishya Purana, Vamana Purana, Brahma Purana
  • Ignorance (Tamas): Matsya Purana, Kurma purana, Linga Purana, Shiva Purana, Skanda Purana, Agni Purana

Some Upapuranas are: Sanat-kumara, Narasimha, Brihan-naradiya, Siva-rahasya, Durvasa, Kapila, Vamana, Bhargava, Varuna, Kalika, Samba, Nandi, Surya, Parasara, Vasishtha, Devi-Bhagavata, Ganesa, and Hamsa.[7] Most of these have not been critically edited yet, and are available mostly through devotional publications, in multiple versions and recensions.

Notable Puranas

  • The Bhagavata Purana is concerned with Vishnu Bhakti, telling of the exploits and deeds of Vishnu's Avatar. Its tenth canto (its longest) narrates the deeds of Krishna and, probably for the first time in Sanskrit, tells of his exploits as a child, a theme later elaborated by many Bhakti movements.[8]
  • The Devi-bhagavata Purana is an Upapurana extolling the virtues of the goddess Durga as the supreme being. It has become (along with the Devi Mahatmya of the Mārkandeya Purana) a basic text for Devi worshipers.[9]
  • The Skanda Purana is probably the longest of all. A vast storehouse of parables, legends and stories, with multiple versions and recensions.[10]
  • The Bhavishya Purana, apart from its other content, is said to contain references to the Judeo-Christian creation myth (Adam and Eve are referred to as Adama and Havyavati), the Judeo-Christian flood myth, Moses, Jesus (referred to as Iśa—"God"), Mohammad (referred to as Mahāmada—"great intoxication/lust"), Queen Victoria (as Queen Vicyavati), etc. It also contains references to a certain Demon language (apparently English) containing words such as "February."

Sthala Puranas

Other texts of lesser importance also bearing the name Puranas are Sthala Purāṇas. These scriptures usually extol the virtues of specific Hindu temples or shrines (the word Sthala means "place" in Sanskrit), narrating stories of the temple's creation and spiritual history. 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. Additionally, there are several Tamil Sthala Puranas.[11]

Kula Puranas

Another type of Puranas are called Kula Purāṇas, which deal with the origin and legends of particular castes (the word Kula means "family" or "tribe" in Sanskrit). These Puranas deal with a specific caste's origin, stories and legends. The caste purana is an important source for caste identity and is usually contested by other, rival, castes. This subgenre is usually in the vernacular and might, at times, be oral.[12]

Non Hindu Puranas

There are many Jain Puranas, dealing with Jain myths, history and legends.[13] Studies and translations of this particular genre are meager. Additionally, some Buddhist Mahāyāna Sūtras seem to have some characteristics of Puranas.


  1. Wendy Doniger, ed., Purana Perennis—Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jaina Texts. ISBN 0-7914-1381-0
  2. Chandogya Upanishad 3.4.1-2, 7.1.2-4, 7.2.1, 7.7.1 Moghe, 1997
  3. Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 2.4.10, 4.1.2, 4.5.11. Satapatha Brahmana (SBE, Vol. 44, pp. 98, 369). Moghe 1997:160
  4. Matsya Purana 53.65
  5. Wendy Doniger, ed., "Purana as Brahminic Ideology" in Purana Perennis—Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jaina Texts. ISBN 0-7914-1381-0
  6. Padma Purana, Uttara-khanda, 236.18-21
  7. R. C. Hazra, Studies in the Upapuranas, vol. I (Calcutta: Sanskrit College, 1958).
  8. Friendhelm Hardy, Viraha-Bhakti—The Early History of Krsna Devotion in South India. ISBN 0-19-564916-8
  9. Brown Mackenzie, The Triumph of the Goddess—The Canonical Models and Theological Visions of the DevI-BhAgavata PuraNa. ISBN 0-7914-0363-7
  10. Wendy Doniger, ed., "The Scrapbook of Undeserved Salvation: The Kedara Khanda of the Skanda Purana" in Purana Perennis.
  11. David Dean Shulman, Tamil Temple Myths—Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian Saiva Tradition. ISBN 0-691-06415-6
  12. Jawaharlal Handoo, ed., "Kulapuranas—Pulikonda Subbachary" in Folklore in Modern India. ISBN 81-7342-055-6
  13. John E. Cort, "Jaina Puranas: A Puranic Counter Tradition—Padmanabh S. Jaini" in Purana Perennis

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Brown, Mackenzie.The Triumph of the Goddess—The Canonical Models and Theological Visions of the DevI-Bhagavata Purana. ISBN 0-7914-0363-7
  • Doniger, Wendy, ed. Purana Perennis—Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jaina Texts. ISBN 0-7914-1381-0
  • Hardy, Friedhelm. Viraha-Bhakti—The Early History of Krsna Devotion in South India. ISBN 0-19-564916-8
  • Hazra, R. C. Studies in the Upapuranas, vol. I. Calcutta: Sanskrit College, 1958.
  • Moghe, S.G. ed. Professor Kane's Contribution to Dharmasastra Literature. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld Ltd, 1997. ISBN 81-246-0075-9
  • Rao, Velcheru Narayana. "Purana as Brahminic Ideology," in Purana Perennis—Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jaina Texts. ISBN 0-7914-1381-0
  • Rocher, Ludo. The Puranas—A History of Indian Literature. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1986.
  • Sankaranarayana, T.N. Verbal Narratives: Performance and Gender of the Padma Purana. In Chanted Narratives—The Katha Vachana Tradition. ISBN 81-246-0182-8
  • Subbachary, Pulikonda. "Kulapuranas." In Folklore in Modern India. ISBN 81-7342-055-6
  • Shulman, David Dean. Tamil Temple Myths—Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian Saiva Tradition. ISBN 0-691-06415-6

External links

All links retrieved December 2, 2022.


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