Knowledge and scientific progress play a foundational role in a society. The knowledge of reality, nature, human life and its principles form an integral part of the various social, physical, cultural, economic and environmental systems developed by it. Through the efforts of people dedicated to these knowledge systems and sciences, this knowledge and the culture and civilisation is carried forward.
In the Indian context, Vedas are the principal sources of knowledge and sciences (Veda comes from the root ‘Vid’ meaning ‘to know’). One needs to have sufficient knowledge and training such as that in Vedangas before beginning the study of the Vedas. On the other hand, Puranas contain the knowledge of the Vedas narrated in a manner that can be understood and related by the masses. One cannot imagine Bharatiya samskriti without the Itihaasa and the Puranas. The stories and the traditions in the Itihasa Puranas have been passed down for millenia and have played a significant role in keeping up the civilizational continuity. The stories are relatively well known among people and continue to live in their hearts and minds. In this series of articles we will look at Puranas as encyclopaedic works of Indian knowledge systems.
Puranas as popular knowledge forms
To understand the relevance of Puranas as knowledge systems, let us take an analogy. A science journal or article or theory, though available in the public domain, can only be understood and made use of by researchers or scientists who have prior knowledge and background in that field. An ordinary person may not be able to understand it or appreciate the specific details in it. However the benefits of scientific pursuit are not limited to just those groups of scientists, but are available to everybody. One may ponder as to how this happens. It is through science communication and through the application of science into technology that has helped disseminate this knowledge, the discoveries of sciences and their applications to the masses. The technologies and frameworks help to apply these principles in daily lives and thus the benefits of science and technology reach everybody. Science communication helps people understand the concepts, use it to interpret the world around them and keeps us aware and excited about the latest discoveries. This in turn builds shraddha among people in the discoveries of science and also inspires us to engage with it, for example by taking up further studies in science or contributing to its development or simply using the technologies. As a society we see the relevance of science and are able to invest in it which in turn benefits the society. The values that lie at the heart of science such as objectivity and empirical evidence become a part of our thought process, our worldview and the functioning of our societies’ systems. We thus follow a “culture” based on science.
The Puranas have played a similar role in the context of Indian knowledge systems. They are encyclopaedic works containing the quintessence of the Vedas and various Indian knowledge systems. They adopt a narrative-based approach and are in the form of dialogues among devas, rishis, sages and kings. They are non anthropocentric and contain accounts of various beings and creations. Filled with rasa and stories that captivate the imagination, they not only contain the theory and principles of sciences and the Indian knowledge systems but also detail out their applications through rituals, traditions and samskaras such that the people are benefited from them. They also contain accounts of dharma, practical wisdom, social conduct, yoga and topics of human wellbeing. It is the grace of Maharishi Vyasa and the guru parampara who have taken the sciences to every household through popular narrations and practical methods.
Now that we have seen the context of the Puranas, let us learn about them in more detail.
Matsya Avatara of Lord Vishnu carrying Manu and the saptarishis during the cosmic dissolution. The description of the dissolution has several resemblances to the great flood described in several civilizations including Chinese, Greek, Norse and South American
What are Puranas?
Puranas are bodies of works that have been present since ancient times and are ever-new as they contain the knowledge of the eternal principles. The timescales covered in Puranas are vast and there are accounts of multiple creations and dissolutions. At such grand scales, the essential principles that are not changing, the knowledge that helps one to fulfil one’s purushartha, that develops bhakti and gnana towards one’s ishtadeva and the values and stories that guide one to do acts that are beneficial for everyone and not harmful become essential to be preserved and passed on. True to their name, the puranas and their knowledge are timeless.
Since this had been (in existence) before also (Purā api), it is remembered as Purāṇam. (Brahmanda Purana, Section 1, Chapter 1)
Yāska in his Nirukta 3.19 mentions the etymology of Puranas as “purā navaṃ bhavati iti purāṇaṃ” – “The old becomes new, that is Purana”.
There are 18 Mahapuranas and 18 Upa puranas. Along with them there are several Sthala Puranas as well in various parts of Bharata.
One can remember the names of the 18 Mahapuranas through a simple shloka below:
Madwayam Badwayam chaiva
puranani prudhak prudhak”||
Ma dwayam – Two of them start with Ma –
- Matsya Purana
- Markandeya Purana
Ba dwayam means two puranas starting with Ba
- Bhagavata Purana or Srimad Bhagavata Purana
- Bhavishya Purana
Bra trayam means 3 of them start with the letters Bra
- Brahmanda Purana
- Brahma Vaivarta Purana
- Brahma Purana
Va Chatustayam means four of them start with Va
- Vamana Purana
- Varaha Purana
- Vishnu Purana
- Vayu Purana
ANAPALINGA KUSKani refers to a Purana for each of the letters in bold
- Agni Purana (A).
- Narada Purana (NA).
- Padma Purana (PA).
- Linga Purana (LIN)
- Garuda Purana (GA)
- Kurma Purana (KU)
- Skanda Purana (SK)
Puranas as fifth Veda
The Puranas have been recognised as the fifth Veda by Lord Brahma himself. In the Reva Khanda, Avantya Khanda of Skanda Purana, Rishi Lomaharshana says, “the Purāṇa constitutes the soul of the Vedas; the well-known six Aṅgas (ancillary subjects) are the different limbs; what is found in the Vedas is seen in the Smṛtis and what is seen in both is narrated in the Purāṇas. Among all scriptural treatises it was the Purāṇa that was remembered at the outset by Brahmā. Thereafter the Vedas issued forth from his mouth.”
Srimad Bhagavatam verse 1.4.20 says,
vedāś catvāra uddhṛtāḥ
pañcamo veda ucyate
The four divisions of the original sources of knowledge [the Vedas] were made separately. But the historical facts and authentic stories mentioned in the Purāṇas are called the fifth Veda.
The Itihasa-Puranas have been hailed as the fifth Veda and contain the essence of Vedas in many other texts including the Chandogya Upanishad, Brhadaranyaka Upanishad and others.
Maharishi Veda Vyasa – the compiler of Puranas
Puranas have emerged from the Lord himself and the original Puranic lore is said to contain 100 crore verses. In the Dvapara Yuga, Lord Narayana takes avatara as Maharishi Veda Vyasa and divides the original lore into parts. In the present Dvapara Yuga, Shree Krishna Dvaipayana (Ved Vyasa) abridged the original lore to 4 lakh verses and divided it into 18 books for the ease of understanding of everybody. These have been passed down systematically through the guru-shishya parampara.
Panchalakshanas of puranas
We have looked at the definition of Puranas as that which is ancient yet always new. In addition, Puranas are said to have panchalakshanas or 5 characteristics. The Amarkosa (Thesaurus of Samskrita) defines the panchalakshanas as:
“sargaśca pratisargaśca vaṃśo manvantarāṇi ca
vaṃśānucaritaṃ cāpi purāṇam pañcalakṣaṇam”
The Pancalakshanas are:
- Sarga – Creation
- Pratisarga – Subsequent creations and dissolution
Sections on Sarga and Pratisarga describe the origin of the universe, the various tattvas (elements) that make up the universe and how they evolve. The creation of physical reality and the earth is described. Thereafter, the creation and evolution of various beings from Lord Brahma is described.
In the Indian view, creation is a cyclical phenomenon that occurs repeatedly along with dissolution. The Puranas describe various kinds of dissolutions of the universe and how recreation happens again. These chapters cover topics in the Indian knowledge system that we study today in the subjects of physics, cosmology, chemistry, evolutionary biology, geology and earth sciences.
- Vamsa – Genealogy and accounts of rishis and devas – their origin, stories from their lives and lineages. Puranas are non anthropocentric in nature and thus look at the human origin and history in context of the history of other beings. One reads about the co-evolution and interaction between different beings in the evolution of reality.
- Manvantara – The cosmic units of time and the timescales at which various events unfold are described in the Puranas. This section also talks about Manu (progenitor of human beings) and his lineage, the code of conduct and social practice as described by Manu. It also describes the varna-ashrama dharma (the duties of people belonging to various classes and at various stages of their life).
- Vamsanucharita – Genealogy of kings, dynasties and stories from their lives. We learn about the dynasties that have ruled and stories from their lives illustrating the principles of dharma, artha, kama and moksha. Along with Vamsa, these stories help to tell the civilizational history of Bharata and also illustrate best practices that help one to pursue one’s swadharma.
A closer look at these panchalakshana reveals them to be topics which are studied today in the subjects of cosmology, biology, physics, chemistry, history, political sciences, economics, anthropology and much more… We will look at the panchalakshanas in detail in the subsequent articles.
Some Puranas such as the Bhagavata Purana also mention another 5 lakshanas: Utaya (links between deities, sages, kings and various living beings), Ishanakutha (tales of Bhagavan and his avatars), Nirodha (cessation), Mukti (spiritual liberation) and Ashraya (Refuge).
Puranas as encyclopaedia of Indian knowledge systems
The Puranas cover a wide range of knowledge systems and are not limited to the pancalakshanas alone. Even a quick glance through the table of contents of the Puranas or a summary of topics of Puranas on the Wikipedia page of Puranas tells us of the encyclopaedic nature of these works. Some of them include architecture, economy, politics, diplomacy and governance, philosophy, literature, grammar, poetry, music, geography, geology, diseases and medicines, nutrition and food, temples and tirtha sthalas, yoga and much more! Certain topics are discussed in greater detail in certain puranas. For example, the Agni Purana and the Matsya Purana discuss in great detail about temple architecture. The Brahmanda Purana discusses creation elaborately. Thus each Purana has its own style of narration and focus on the topic of contents.
In today’s contexts we have seen the emergence of narrative based curriculums such as Big History that attempt to synthesise the knowledge from various subjects into a coherent narrative or storyline. Such curriculums have attracted global attention and have seen widespread adoption. In the Indian context, several thousand years ago, the Itihaasa and the Puranas had adopted a narrative based approach and integrated various knowledge systems into their stories. They adopt a non anthropocentric view and contain accounts of other beings as well. The timescales adopted in them are huge and challenge our perception and understanding of time. The diversity and complexity of information encoded in the Puranas makes them a wonderful and engaging source of knowledge. They follow an inquiry-based approach and proceed as a series of questions and answers. Some chapters detail out the theory and concepts, in others the knowledge is encoded in the form of stories. One also finds the anticipated questions or doubts that one may have answered in the Puranas as one proceeds with them.
Thus we see that the Puranas are an encyclopaedia of knowledge in the sciences, social sciences, arts, humanities, medicine and other topics studied in modern knowledge systems today. While we are used to the worldview and knowledge of the modern sciences, Puranas offer a good starting point to develop an overview and dive deeper into specific knowledge streams into the Indian knowledge systems and worldview for common people. They are an excellent source of information to the enthusiastic mind on various topics on Indian culture and knowledge systems. While Vedas require a background to study and understand, anyone with shraddha and interest can start exploring the Puranas. Reading the Puranas is not just reading stories or learning information but a harmonious amalgamation that generates meaning for oneself. May we seek the blessings of Maharishi Vyasa and the guru parampara to become supatras of this wonderful knowledge and tradition.
- Swami Shivananda on Puranas: https://www.sivanandaonline.org//?cmd=displaysection§ion_id=574
- Puranic Encyclopaedia by Vettam Mani