Composition of Puranas in Hindu Mythology

Historical Perspective at the Time of Writings of Puranas

      This was a time when Chandra Gupta II (376-415 CE) inherited a big empire from his father, Samudra Gupta in north of the country. Pallavas, Pandyas and Cholas who were still busy settling issues with each other dominated South India. First Chinese visitor named Fa Hsien had visited India and wrote extensively allowing a better peep into the social spectrum of India of that time.

      Gupta court has been known for its "Navratnas" who included genius from all walks of life including Science, Maths and Astronomy. Astronomers like Aryabhatta and Varahamihira and Mathematicians like Brahmagupta who gave Zero to the world by propagating the theory that the number remaining after a number is subtracted from itself is zero, were also belonging to this court. The great Sanskrit play writer and poet, Kalidasa also belonged to the same empire. In general, the empire was supportive of all issues of creativity and innovation. Guptas were first to make Sanskrit as their official court language.

The eighteen major Puranas are the Bramha Padma, Vishnu, Shiva, Linga, Garuda, Narada, Bhagavata, Agni, Skanda, Bhavisya, Bramha-vaivarta, Markandeya, Vamana, Varaha, Matsya, Kurma and Brahmanda Puranas.

      But soon after fall of Gupta dynasty at the hands of Huns, Buddhism also faced a lot of hostility and oppressions from new rulers. Lot many practising monks got killed and several monasteries also got destroyed. This was probably first such religion based oppression on Indian soil.

      Returning back to religious stage for Hindus, Vishnu as God has been only scantly mentioned in Rig-Veda. He is associated with qualities of saviour par excellence who was always ready to come down from his comforts in Swarga Loka to help suffering humanity. After all, he is known as the God who is involved in creation and preservation of this earth and is known to having supported this earth upon his shoulders. His image was always of benevolence and protection of human being. His marriage to Goddess Laxmi which also became much more important in that time than ever before, resulted in his enhanced image as a superior God pushing Indra to the background and being remembered and worshipped only as a God of Rains.

      The other God of sectarian popularization, Shiva evolved out of terrifying Rudra of Rig-Veda. Shiva is supposed to have been worshipped by Sindhu Sarasvati Culture people even before Rig-Veda got composed. Shiva comes out as a God of extremes — frightening as well as gracious. He is not afraid of violence, sometimes on small issues, but is also known as a source of great happiness. He is known as protector of all performing arts, icon of salvation and immortality. Shiva is creator and destroyer at the same time. He is a commoner as well as Siddh Yogi. People trapped in complexities of seeking spiritualism amidst involvement of a householder with attachments with worldly things and family; find Shiva as someone much closer to them than other Gods.

      This complex interplay of this time with Hindus in North and Hindus in South vs Buddhism vs Jainism going right upto village level is the background for start of writing of a new kind of literature called Puranas. This literature is more relaxed and writings under this corpus are neither attentive nor too much concerned about accuracy or detailing when compared to classical Sanskrit literature composed until that time. And one may call it a "Pulp fiction" of India.

      But they represent a very large volume of writings. And it is to their credit that the Gods worshipped till today had been installed in their pedestal through lot many stories mentioned and repeated with different versions in Puranas. It is to the credit of Puranas that all forms of worship were brought together under one particular system. Another great turn that was provided to Hinduism of all times, the inclusion of and Women qualifying for salvation through worship was also due to Puranas. Puranas alone unlocked the door for both tribals and other castes as well and placed them on the lowest rung of social structure.

Socio-Cultural Background

      It will be very interesting to understand the socio cultural conditions which resulted in emergence of Puranas which lead to Puranic Hinduism to take deep roots to the extent that a large part of Hinduism as ordinarily understood today is shaped out by Puranas. We have discussed earlier that Brahmins have consolidated their position over time by taking over priestly duties once the rituals became very sophisticated. They projected, themselves as essential agent to secure spiritual and religious merits. We might have heard stories where a rich goldsmith becomes Dharma-murti in his next life after he donated all his property to Brahmins at his great Yajna or a rich prostitute named Lilavati attains Shivaloka by donating a hillock to a poor Brahmin.

      Riding on such stories and general belief that donations to Brahmins is sure way of accumulating karmas credits, lot many land was accumulating with Brahmins and Temples. These land grants are said to contribute towards Indian Feudalism of this time. Land needed additional hands for its mending. This necessitated diversion of lower rung population from other vocations to agriculture. That made it mandatory to absorb them in mainstream of religion by adding them to the lowest rung of existing social structure of class. Women got added to ward off expansion of Buddhism. The problem was that those excluded until now had already developed their worship practices which were idol based. Some of them were worshipping animals or different form of Goddesses.

      It was at this time that Hindu practices came up with various Avatars of Vishnu and other Gods. This expansion allowed absorption of gods of newly added smaller communities of Shudras into mainstream either as an Avatar of a chief God or as their junior partner. In order to absorb their practices, the recognized worship methods also got added. That is how we have nine different types of worships until now. These were 1. Shravanam (by listening); 2. Kirtanam (by devotional group singing); 3. Smaranam (reciting name repeatedly); 4. Pada Sevanam (sharing feast offered to God); 5. Dasyam (rendering self to God like a slave); 6. Archanam (worship by offering flowers, incense); 7. Vandanam (praying earnestly); 8. Sakhyam (worship in form of a friend); and 9. Atmasamarpan (total surrender of one's life to serve God). Each one of these practices was actually practised by one or the other smaller community which got absorbed into main stream. So the polytheism and idol worship got added to Hinduism together with switching from complicated rituals to simpler ways of Bhakti Marga (Gadkari, 1996).

      The legends and myths relating to different Yugas also got added by Puranas. Before Puranas one does not come across mention of Yugas as separate mythological time periods. In a smart move by the Purana composers, they linked various popular salvation practices to Yugas. Puranas mention that the way for achieving spiritual salvation in the Sat Yuga was through meditation, the Treta Yuga by Yajnas, the Dwapar Yuga by reciting sacred mantras while the Kali Yuga was by repeating name of God Vishnu with full devotion.

      At the time of Puranas, the Hindu religion has gone out of hands of Brahmins and any one could take up writing Puranas or contribute in specific Puranas without any class restriction. The composers came up with stories after stories to drive home various points to cement absorption of minor communities in mainstream. For example, in Mahabharata Anushasan Parva saying "Even a Shudra having a good heart, liberal mind and clean character can become a Yogi" or Brahma Purana saying that "...a chandal wins over a demon by his bhakti for Vishnu and both of them achieve salvation" or in Bhagvadgita Srikrishna telling Parth that "Even Vaishya, Shudra women or others born of sin can achieve salvation by taking refuge in me" or showing Valmiki, the robber as author of Ramayana or showing Vyasa, the son of a fisher women as author of Mahabharata were few such steps which would have been unthinkable until the time of Manu Smriti.

      Another commonality among most Puranas is having separate chapters on Kali Yuga. All the Puranas talk about collapsing of old social systems and big tumbling down of most social codes relating to relatives, family and women. This indicates towards big impact of mixing of Shudras into the social structure on well established and strict social codes of the past.

Numbers and Classifications

      There are about 18 Puranas and large number of sub Purana (Upa Purana) dedicated to different Gods and other subject matters.

      The eighteen major Puranas are the Bramha Padma, Vishnu, Shiva, Linga, Garuda, Narada, Bhagavata, Agni, Skanda,
Bhavisya, Bramha-vaivarta, Markandeya, Vamana, Varaha, Matsya, Kurma and Brahmanda Puranas.

      The Brahma Purana consists of 10,000 verses, the Padma Purana of 55,000 verses, Sri Vishnu Purana of 23,000 verses, the Shiva Purana of 24,000 verses, Srimad-Bhagavatam of 18,000 verses. The Narada Purana has 25,000 verses, the Markandeya Purana 9,000 verses, the Agni Purana 15,400 verses, the Bhavisya Purana 14,500 verses, the Brahma-vaivarta Purana 18,000 verses, the Linga Purana 11,000 verses, the Varaha Purana contains 24,000 verses, the Skanda Purana 81,100 verses, the Vamana Purana 10,000, the Kurma Purana 17,000, the Matsya Purana 14,000, the Garuda Purana 19,000 and the Brahmanda Purana 12,000. Thus the total number of verses in all the Puranas is 400,000 strong.

Language and Content

      Puranas are easy Sanskrit texts addressing religious aspirations of all classes following mythological stories and events. The stories told and elaborated here contain substantial local content in terms of rituals, practices, geography, and instructions about worship. These are not very comprehensive or based on complete thinking of Shastras and were compiled in bulk with lots of repetition of stories and instances which are just vaguely grounded to something said in the Sruti literature. Puranas allowed play of imaginations going to infinite levels. Puranas, meaning 'ancient', are actually compendiums of myths and rituals shown in continuity of past.

      Composers wrote these with a lot of focus on 'our own' God, our own pilgrimage, our own river, our own people, our own customs and festivals and our own Heros. I read somewhere those composers of Purana's believed that "it is our world and this is the whole world" and most parts of the voluminous literature is coloured with such localizations.

Hinduism Goes Out of Hands of Brahmins

      The localization resulted in mammoth expansion of beliefs and Brahmins had no option but to accept the entire range to accommodate each belief by submerging strict orthodoxy applied in the past. Interestingly; Brahmins were not the main writers of Puranas as writers from other classes took lead in this literature. This resulted in loosening of the grip that Brahmins commanded until now on all Vedic and Hindu writings in general and in conducting rituals in particular but not now. Brahmins were sidelined, as most of the rituals mentioned in these Puranas didn't necessarily required presence of Brahmin Priests.

      For the first time in the history; Hindu religion percolated down and became accessible to all its practitioners from all classes and Brahmin sieve could not hold it under tight thumb as in the past. Another interesting point about Puranas is that these are not strictly for one or more Gods alone. Many temples and towns also got their Parana and in vernacular. Puranas have a separate category called 'Sthala Purana' which, as the very name suggest, are for specific places only.

Shiva and Vishnu Calling Shots

      Main gods covered in Puranas are Shiva and Vishnu. Brahma has been given very small space for worshippers throughout Hinduism and Puranas are no exception to the rule. Actually speaking, the so called Trimurti of Hinduism consisting of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh seems more like a matching game with Christianity where there is a trinity consisting of Holy Spirit, Holy Father and Holy Son. In practice as well in most Hindu scriptures, Vishnu and Shiva are their own preservers and destroyers. Especially for the followers of both Shiva and Vishnu, their Gods are complete Gods and they don't consider it as a faith that their God is only for creation or sustaining or destroying as the concept of Trimurti bases itself on.

      And one more important point not to miss is that by this time Vedic Rituals had been completely replaced by Puranic rituals. Meaning thereby that since the Vedic days, Hinduism as a religion got completely transformed with only key philosophical concepts of samsara, karma, moksha continuing but all visible practices of rituals which were once backbone of Vedic dharma, all sacrifices, all Gods named in Vedas got transformed or pushed to back stage.

      The compilation of Puranas also got carried out on the lines of epics and a lot of oral to writing continued for over centuries. Actually, the discussion if Mahabharata is an epic or a Purana continues without any conclusion. Many writers actually treat Mahabharata just another Purana. This is corroborated by the fact that they contain references and counter references for events and characters and outcomes of one into another. At the time of epics only few cross-references are found, but in Puranas, there are hundreds and hundreds of cross references. As per one estimate, the period of compilations of few important Puranas is shown against their names below to highlight how long these have been in discussions before taking their present form:


      Let us look at a reproduction of some random excerpts from Shiva Purana to get some flavour of the nature of writings and the pattern of showing the chosen God of the particular Purana as bigger than all others combined:

"First of all, Sage Shaunak expressed his desire to Sutji about knowing the means, which could help a man in this era of Kali to attainment lord Shiva, by cleansing all the impurities of his mind and rectifying his inherent demonic tendencies. Sutji then described about Shiva Mahapuran — the supreme of all the puranas, which was narrated by Lord Shiva himself and which was later on retold by Sage Vyas with the permission of Maharshi Sanatkumar, for the benediction of common man. Sutji said, "By understanding the mysteries of Shiva Mahapuran and singing its praises, a man attains greater virtues than that which could be attained by being charitable or by the performance of all the yagyas". Contemplating on the subject matters of Shivmahapuran give auspicious fruits just like a 'Kalpa-taru' (A mythological tree which fulfills all the wishes).

"Once while travelling lord Brahma reached the abode of Lord Vishnu. He saw Lord Vishnu resting on Shesh-Nag and being attended by Garuda and other attendants. When Brahmaji saw that Vishnu did not get up to receive him, he became very angry. Very soon, verbal duel erupted between them. It became so severe that a battle was fought between them, which continued for a very long time. All the deities arrived from the heaven to watch the battle. They became very worried when they saw no sign of battle coming to an end. They decided to go to Lord Shiva, to seek his help "Lord Shiva became very angry with Brahmaji. He proceeded to punish Brahmaji for his falsehood. Lord Vishnu requested Lord Shiva to spare the life of Brahmaji. Lord Shiva became pleased with Vishnuji and accorded him the same status as that of his own."

      Let me also share a story from Vishnu Purana which, in Hinduism, is very well quoted story of evolution of the living beings:

Parashara said, "Maitreya, let me tell you about how Brahma performed the act of creation."

Brahma is merely part of Narayana. And Narayana is Vishnu. Nara means water and ayana means resting-place. When the earlier creation was destroyed, the world was full of water and Vishnu slept on the water. That is the reason why he is called Narayana. Narayana saw that there was water all around and desired to create the world. He, therefore, adopted the form of a boar (varaha) and went all the way down to the underworld. There the earth saluted him and asked him to rescue her from the underworld. Upon haring the earth's request, Vishnu in his form of a boar began to roar. He used his tusks to lift up the earth from the underworld. Then he carefully placed the earth on the waters. The earth floated on the oceans like a huge boat. Vishnu levelled out the earth and placed the mountains in their proper places. The earth was divided into seven regions or dvipas.

After that came the question of creating the beings. There were four types of beings that Brahma created through the powers of his mind. The first were the demons or asuras, they came out of Brahma's thighs. Next came the gods or devas, they emerged from Brahma's mouth. From Brahma's sides there were created the ancestors or spirits. And the humans came out the last. Many other things were created.

After that Brahma was both hungry and angry. The demons of hunger took form and wanted to eat up Brahma, their creator. There were some among them who did not want to eat their creator, but wanted to protect (raksha) him. They came to be known as rakshas. And those who wanted to eat him came to be known as yakshas. When Brahma saw these undesirable creatures, the hairs
on his head fell off and grew up and stood up again. From these hairs were born the snakes. The gandharvas were born. They were known as Gandharvas because they sing.

Many other things were created. From Brahma's age were created the birds, from his chest sheep and from his mouth goats. From his stomach and sides there came out cattle and from his feet horses, elephants, deer and camels. Plants sprouted from the hair on Brahma's body.

There were four classes of humans that were created, the brahmins, the Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas and the Shudras. The brahmins came out of Brahma's mouth, the Kshatriyas from his chest, the vaishyas from his thighs and the Shudras from his feet.

      Let me also share the full version of the story about Samudra Manthan included in Vishnu Purana. This must have been heard or read many time before but a quick read will show the masala material included to draw the point home that all devas have been enjoying good life in Deva Loka only due to blessings of Lord Vishnu. The simplicity of narrations, and connectivity with everything said or written in the past together with faith of worshippers made Puranas the most remembered source of all mythological stories on Hinduism.

There was a sage called Durvasa who was descended from Mahadeva. Once upon a time, Durvasa was wandering around the world. And in the hands of a pretty woman he saw a beautiful and fragrant garland. Durvasa wanted the woman to give him the garland, which she gladly did. Durvasa placed the garland on his head and continued to roam around the world. Who should he then run into but Indra, the king of the gods? There were other gods with Indra and Indra was seated on his elephant, Airavata. Durvasa picked up the garland and threw it at Indra. Having caught the garland, Indra placed it on the head of his elephant. Airavata got surprised at the pleasant smell that was coming from his head and he raised his trunk to get a better sniff. In the process, the garland fell off his head and onto the ground.

Durvasa was very angry. He thought that Indra had insulted him. He had not even bothered to thank Durvasa for the garland. And instead of placing the garland on his own head, he had seen it fit to place the garland on the head of an elephant. From which place it had fallen off onto the ground. Durvasa therefore got ready to curse Indra. By then, Indra had realized his mistake. He got off the elephant, fell at Durvasa's feet and begged that he might be forgiven. But Durvasa was not like the other sages; he refused to be pacified. And so he cursed Indra. What was the curse? That Lakshmi should disappear from Indra's abode. (Lakshmi, you may know, is the goddess of wealth and prosperity and associated with Vishnu but not from the beginning. It is Puranic stories like this which were responsible for creating many new equations among all the characters of Hindu mythology).

When Indra returned to where he lived in Amaravati, he found the place to be deserted and dilapidated. Lakshmi had left. The plants were dying. The sages were not performing sacrifices. People had become selfish. It was not simply Amaravati that had become like this. Indra ruled over all the three worlds. And in all the three worlds this was precisely what had happened.

The demons never liked the gods and were forever trying to fight with them. They now discovered that the gods were less powerful and less well protected. So they attacked the gods and gave them a good thrashing. What were the poor gods to do? They elected the god Agni as their leader and fled to Brahma for refuge and help. (Devas have been projected as a bunch of jokers, good for nothing stuff who are not able to manage any situation and are made to run to either of the main Gods—what a downfall for Indra from all powerful in Vedas) Brahma told them that he was unable to help them himself; they should seek help from Vishnu. On the northern shores of the great ocean the gods assembled and began to pray. How could Vishnu ignore such prayers? He manifested himself before the gods and gave them the following advice. The gods should meet the demons and have a temporary truce. Both sides should get together and prepare to churn the great ocean. Before the churning, herbs were to be thrown into the ocean. The mountain Mandara was to be used as the churner and the great snake Vasuki as the rope for churning. It was expected that amrita (a drink that made one immortal) would come out of the ocean as a result of the churning. And the gods should promise the demons that this amrita would be equally shared out among the two sides and make them stronger. The promise of the amrita would make sure that the demons took part in the churning. This was nothing but an empty promise. Vishnu hastened to assure the gods that he would ensure that the demons got none of the amrita.

This the demons did not know, they gladly agreed to the churning. Herbs were hurled into, the ocean and the churning began. The gods grasped Vasuki's tail and the demons its head. In fact, it was Vishnu who asked the demons to grasp the head of the snake. Flames and smoke belched out of the mouth of the snake and made the demons suffer. The gases that came out of the snake's mouth went up into the sky and formed clouds. These clouds were driven towards the tail and poured down as soothing rain on the gods who had grasped the tail. On what was the huge mountain Mandara to be balanced? The solution was again provided by Vishnu. Vishnu adopted the form of a gigantic turtle on which the mountain could be placed.

      Thus the churning went on. And wonderful were the things that emerged out of the ocean as a result of the churning. The first to come out was the cow Surabhi, worshipped by the gods. Next the goddess Varuni emerged. Followed by the fragrant tree known as Parijata. Out came the apsaras (dancers of heaven). And the moon, which Mahadeva accepted as an adornment for his head. (starting this Purana, all painters of Shiva started putting the moon on every depiction involving Shiva). There were bad things as well. The poison that came out was accepted by the snakes. And dressed all in white, the god Dhanvantari came out with the pot of amrita in his hands. At the sight of the amrita, the gods, the demons and the sages were delighted. But there was more to come. There emerged a lotus flower with the shining form of the goddess Lakshmi. She held another lotus in her hand.

      As a height of variations in narration, please see below the summary of the same Poison as included in Shiva Purana:

But before Amrita could be recovered, Halahala ("the most vicious and venomous poison of universe") was produced, which started killing both sides. As no one could bear the poisonous fumes emitted by the poison, both Devas and Asuras began to collapse due to asphyxiation. They ran for help to Brahma, who looked to Vishnu for advice. Vishnu said that only Shiva could digest the deadly poison. So both parties went to Kailasha and prayed to Lard Shiva for help. Shiva chose to consume the poison and thus drink it. His wife Parvati, alarmed, stopped it in his throat with her hands, thus earning him the name Vishkantha (the one who held poison in his throat). He was later saved by the mahavidya (Tara) who is also a form of Parvati. The poison made his throat turn blue; hence, he is also known as Nilakantha (the one with a blue throat). Story continued: The sages began to chant hymns in front of her. The Gandharvas sang, the apsaras danced. Rivers like the Ganga arrived so the Lakshmi could have a bath. There are eight elephants who protect the eight directions. These elephants took clear water from golden vessels and bathed the goddess. The ocean gave her a garland of lotus flowers which would not fade. Vishvakarma provided the jewels. Thus bathed, dressed, jewelled and garlanded, Lakshmi embraced Vishnu. Since the demons did not like Vishnu, this meant that Lakshmi had forsaken the demons. And Lakshmi smiled upon the gods. The demons did manage to get hold of the pot of amrita. But Vishnu adopted a female form to trick the demons of the amrita and give it to the gods.

      The gods drank the amrita and attacked the demons with swords. The amrita had made the gods strong and the demons were not match for them. Their armies scattered and they fled into the underworld. The gods were delighted. They bowed before Vishnu and continued to rule over heaven. The Sun went back to its old path across the sky. So did the stars. Indra ascended his throne and ruled over the three worlds, after having prayed to Lakshmi.

      All other Puranas also equally project their chosen God as supreme and provide for story after story how the God prevailed in most testing situations. Besides those identified with the main heroes of Puranas, Lord Shiva and Vishnu, other Puranas are Agni, Bhagvata, Brahma, Garuda, linga, Markandeya (focus on Shakti Goddess), Vayu (focus is again Shiva), Varaha (all Vishnu avatars and Durga), Padma (focus on Bhagwat Gita), Narada (focus on Vedas and Vedanga), Matsya (focus of Vishnu incarnation by the same name).

      The sole purpose behind reproduction of above quoted stories is to excite the readers towards mythological aspects of the Puranas. While they had redefined external symbols of worship and have aerated the whole range of Hindu Gods, the fact remains that Puranic Hinduism is truth less religion with nominal connectivity with the real Hinduism of universality and spiritualism. The intelligent reader is encouraged to see through the unrealistic mythologies surrounding Puranas and other practices of worship evolved thereafter including the endless Gods with their avatars. Even by mistake also, the great religion of Hinduism should not be reduced or limited to Gods and methods of worship alone.

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