The Mahapuranas embody the received tradition of Hindu mythology. This anthology contains fresh translations of these myths, only a few of which have ever been available in English before, thus providing a rich new portion of Hindu mythology.
The book is organized into six chapters. “Origins” contains myths relating to creation, time, and space, “Seers, Kings and Super naturals” relates tales of rivers, trees, animals, demons, and men, particularly heroes and sages, Myths about the chief gods are dealth with in three separate chapters: Krsna, Visnu, and Siva, The chapter The Goddess presents stories of the wives and lovers of the gods, as well as of Kali, the savage battle goddess.
In their introductions, the editors provide a historical setting in which to discuss Hindu mythology as well as full analysis of its basis sources. The many names given the their multiplicity is an essential part of the richness of the original. The editors have provided a through glossary to make these names accessible.
Cornelia Dimmitt is Assistant Professor of Theology at Georgetown University and a Core Faculty Member of the Washington, D.C., Consortium Program in History of Religions.
J.A.B. Van Buttenen Distinguished Service Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Chicago. He is currently translating the full Mahabharata, projected to run eight volumes.
Of all genres of Sanskrit texts, the Puranas is the most extensive; their combined size is enormous. The amount of academic study they receive is yet not commensurate with this size. Fortunately recent years have seen increasing academic concern with this textual corpus, and we may be confident that a better understanding of its origin and development will become available in years to come. In spite of this, the Reader prepared by Cornelia Dimmit and J.A.B. Van Buitenen already more than 35 years ago has lost none of its value and utility today. It contains, in English translation, a representative sample of passages from various from various Puranas, dealing with topics repeatedly dealth with in these texts. An Indian reprint of this work is timely and welcome.
There has been a clear need since Heinrich Zimmer's Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization" for a textbook that would incorporate the classical statements of Hindu mythology, a comprehensive, if not exhaustive, selection of Indian accounts of their own cherished stories. This need has been felt and variously responded to. In recent years R. K. Narayan, in Gods, Demons and Others, t has given an excellent version of his own beloved lore. James Kirk, also with a southern Indian emphasis, has retold some very fine tales in his Stories of the Hindus. In her Hindu Myths, Wendy O'Flaherty has dug more ambitiously into Veda, Epic and Purana with an historical perspective on the vagaries of Hindu mythography In addition, cultural anthropologists have shown more and more interest in the ways little communities relate to a larger network of cultures and even civilizations ("Great Traditions"), but their large knowledge about small societies has often found pause before their unfamiliarity with the larger traditions. The historians of Indian art, on the other hand, have built up an architecture of Hindu mythology so magisterial that it has become almost a closed world to the non-specialist.
The authors felt it might be useful to present those who are intrigued by the myths of Indian civilization with representative classical texts. We did not expect to find a single origin for Hindu mythology since sources abound in a variety of media. The Sanskrit Puranas proved particularly useful for our purposes. If their very multitude suggests that there is no single original text for Hindu myths, their common language confirms that there is a single tongue in which their variety was collected. They are not original texts: with every vocative they make clear that they are told by teachers speaking to students who want to listen. And the very substance of this teaching consists of stories about the gods, or mythology as we understand it.
Of course the Puranas themselves had their teachers too. The influence of the epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramavana, has been pro- found; and on those teachers, the influence of the Veda is clear, though not always transparent. But we wanted to present the mythology of the Hindu tradition from a period later than the epics, much as it has been received ever since, too often told, perhaps, but miraculously still fresh.
Moreover the authors saw no need to duplicate materials that are already available in other translations, notably the Mahabharata and the Rdmayana. A Purana reader besides being justifiable in itself has the value of presenting texts not readily available to most people. While tradition ascribed to the Mahabharata a lakh of couplets, or one hundred thousand, to the Puranas it assigns a crore, or ten million. There are translations of some of this material, but not of all the eighteen Great Puranas, let alone the Minor Puranas. Thanks to the generosity of the Kashiraj Trust founded by the Maharaja of' Varanasi (Banaras) there are good editions of some of the Puranas; the Visnu and Bhagavata, and to a lesser extent the Markandeya are also well edited. But it cannot be said that the Puranas are an open book even for the specialist.
The sheer mass of the materials imposed limitations on us. We had no intention of reproducing the contents of any single Purana, because each one includes, in addition to mythology a wealth of didactic, legal and moralistic material. In fact, their encyclopedic aspirations cover the breadth of human knowledge for their place and time. In making our selections, we have used the Puranas most popular in the Hindu tradition itself; our chief sources have been the Visnu, Markandeya, Bhagavata, Matsya, Vamana and Karma, and to a lesser extent the Brahmavaivarta, Siva and Garuda. With such an abundance of riches to choose from, the choice on occasion became simply a matter of balance. We could have used the Bhagavata more extensively on Krsna, for example, but since that text has been translated and anthologized often, the Visnu and Brahmavaivarta accounts seemed preferable.
We intend this book as a reader. Hence we have felt our responsibility to its readers quite strongly Even though tempted we have tried not to interpose a private interpretation between the text and its users. The introductions before each section seek mostly to describe and give guidance to the reader, whom, oratorically, we presume to know very little. We hope to be forgiven for stating the obvious.
There are some cautions. Some of the Sanskrit text editions used are quite good; some are very poor. While we have attempted to render our texts accurately, there were times when the texts failed us, and emendation was necessary. The specialist will readily discern the course we have chosen. At the beginning of certain selections we have sometimes extended the sense of the text in the translation, to facilitate transitions between fragments. And although pleading the exigencies of space is poor justice, at times we have shortened stories because the alternative was to select a shorter but poorer version; the couplets omitted are indicated in the Notes on Sources. Contrariwise, we have not stinted on the variety of names attributed to a single deity, for homogenization here would have impoverished the rich fabric of identities in which each one is clothed. A Glossary of names will, we hope, assist the reader.
Practically all the Puranas are composed in a meter called sloka which consists of thirty-two syllables, half of which are free. It is a very easy meter that is best translated into English prose. In the case of a number of cultural terms the English translations can only be approximations. Where even approximations would not do we have kept the Sanskrit word and have explained it either in a footnote or in the Glossary.
While both authors stand behind the whole book, the reader needs to know the division of labor between them. The initiative for the book was taken by Cornelia Dimmitt, who located and selected the texts, and who is largely responsible for the content of the introductions. The translation itself has been wholly collaborative.
An ordered universe is established in the cosmogonic and cosmological myths of the Puranas. Symmertical in space and time, it sup- ports the social order and values of early Indian society. It is a grand and complex vision, assembled in the course of a lengthy oral tradition, and it synthesizes an entire collection of stories about the origin of the world. As presented in the Puranas, this vision is the foundation of what has become, in the years since their compilation, the Hindu view of the origins and nature of the world in space and time.
There is no single creation myth to be found in the Puranas, but rather a blend of several alternative views of the origins of the cosmos. From the interweaving of various themes there has been fashioned a complex and almost wholly integrated vision of the primal emergence of phenomenal forms from formless potential. The blending together of different creation myths has been ingeniously and creatively, if not always consistently, accomplished. And the at- tempt to reconcile apparently different views of the creative process reveals a distinguishing feature of Puranic style as a whole, perhaps of Hindu thought as a whole: a preference for the synthesis of disparate views into a larger whole rather than the rejection of apparently dissident elements in favor of a single view considered to be exclusively true.
What are the major themes so interwoven in Puranic accounts of world creation? The awakening of Visnu that starts the creative process; a primal egg that contains the universe; the dual principles of Prakrti and Purusa, whose interaction brings about the emergence of phenomena; and the pouring forth of forms from the various parts of the body of an anthropomorphically conceived deity, either Brahma, Purusa or Visnu.
Perhaps the most prominent creation motif centers on the god Visnu in the form called Narayana (often interpreted to mean "lying in the waters"). In the waters, or cosmic ocean which conceals all phenomena in potential, sleeps the god resting on a serpent named Ananta, "endless," or Sesa, "remainder," in the positive sense of survivor. The deity is understood to be represented in all three elements of the myth: waters, snake and sleeping god. It is his substance and power that lie at the source of all creation. How then does creative activity proceed from this somnolent scene? The active agent in creation is identified as the god Brahma, who himself derives from Visnu.
In a process reminiscent in a peculiar way of human birth, perhaps a masculine image of bodily reproduction, a lotus grows out of the sleeping Visnu's navel, a lotus that holds within it the god Brahma from whose body subsequently pour forth all the elements of creation as emanations from his own substance. Creation is presented in this myth as the successive appearance of phenomenal forms from within the body of a god, first Visnu, then Brahma, in whom they have lain previously in potentiality.
A second significant motif is that of a golden egg sometimes depicted as self-existent, sometimes the product of Prakrti and Purusa, and sometimes itself the abode of Brahma, the active creator god. This egg rests on the waters of the universal ocean "swollen with beings" (Mark. 42.64), all phenomena contained within it, awaiting birth. An analogy with birth from the egg is drawn in various descriptive passages. In "The Cosmic Egg" it is the human (or animal) fetal sac that is identified with the mountains, the amniotic fluid with the oceans and rivers of earth. From this self-arisen egg the world is produced. And the active agency of its production is identified as the god Brahma, who effects creation by breaking open the egg in the beginning.
A third creation theme involves the cooperation of two eternal elements, Prakrti and Purusa. While these terms take on a philosophical significance elsewhere in Indian tradition, in numerous Puranic passages their creative function is more mythologically pictured. It is hard to avoid the impression (in "Prakrti and Purusa," for example) that the two together produce the egg whose contents are the universe, and that they do so in a process like the corning together of sperm (Purusa) and egg (Prakrti) in the conception of human or animal life. In this passage the egg so produced is not broken open to reveal emergent life; instead, it appears that the physical universe of seven concentric spheres of material is located within the unbroken egg, whose invisible motivation is Purusa and whose material substance is Prakrti, both eternal. The whole creation as man knows it, with "gods, demons, men, islands and so forth, oceans and the entire aggregate of celestial lights" (Mark. 42.67), i.e. man's perceptual world, continues to exist to within this surrounding egg.
A complex synthesis of the notions of Brahma as active creative agent along with Prakrti and Purusa as cooperative creators is found in "The Origin and Nature of Time." And here we also find another recurrent theme or major premise of these creation myths: that creation is always recreation, that the cosmos which emerges into existence periodically dissolves into potentiality, and then reemerges into actuality in a cycle that has no beginning and will have no end. The process of the pouring forth of forms eventually reverses itself, and all phenomona are reabsorbed into potentiality: the dissolution of all forms is the inevitable consequence of their manifestation.
Each of these creation themes, then, finds resolution in a corresponding mode of dissolution. Two major modes of such dissolution are implied. As Visnu, via Brahma, ceases his inactivity and arises to create, or more literally, to pour forth forms, so Visnu as Rudra or Siva in an excess of activity brings about the furious destruction of all forms and their dissolution back again into the cosmic sea.
In different terms, Prakrti and PUfU1?a, who in cooperation produce the world, also permit the quiescence and reabsorption of all forms. "When this whole world goes to dissolution in Prakrti, then it is said by the learned to be reabsorbed into its original nature" (Mark. 43.3). Just as Brahma is the creative agent for Visnu, so the three gunas, or qualities, like the interwoven strands of a cord, are the agents by which the material world of forms and activity comes forth from the primal interactions of Prakrti and Purusa. In "The Origin and Nature of Time" these two themes are combined with each other. Prakrti is agitated, aroused to creative activity through Purusa; then rajas, the quality of passion, in the form of the god Brahma creates the world; sattva, the quality of tranquility, in the form of the god Visnu supports and protects creation; and tamas, or darkness, in the form of the god Siva (Rudra or Hara) destroys the world. And these three strands of the created web of the world hold within themselves the inevitability of their own dissolution. When they separate once again into their constituent threads, the world no longer hangs together. Note that in both the myth involving Visnu and that which involves Prakrti and Purusa, creation and the created world are pictured in terms of activity; dissolution and the reabsorption of forms are depicted in terms of sleep, or complete inactivity.
Another motif that forms a contributing part of all of the foregoing themes is the literal emergence from, or identification of the forms of the material world with, the body of a god. Both Brahms and Purusa, in different passages, perform this function of substantial cause. In both cases the human body is the model for creative emanation.
In "The Origin of the World from Brahma," Brahma's breath, head, heart and so forth give rise to the famous seven seers variously identified with the promulgators of the Veda and with the stars of the Little Dipper; demons arise from his buttocks, gods from his face, sheep come from his breast, goats from his mouth, cows from his stomach, horses from his feet and so on; from his four mouths arise the meters, hymns and prayers of the Vedic sacrifices. In "Purusa, the Cosmic Person" the four castes derive from Purusa's body; the seven levels of heaven are located in his upper body; and the seven netherworlds in his lower parts. In both cases it appears that, in a manner similar to that of the cosmic egg, the body of the god continually supports these elements of the universe. This is an ongoing creative activity, not one effected and completed in a past primal scene. Evidently continuing the view of the Rg Vedic hymn X.90, where the cosmos in all its parts is arranged in the body of a deity, this vision remains a powerful image throughout Puranic times.
What specific phenomena emerge from these various creations? Three categories of things are described at length: the shape of physical space including heavenly, underworldly and earthly geography, the divisions of time, and the conditions of social and ritual life.
An extraordinary vision of the passage of time, from the smallest wink of an eye to the vast length of the lifetime of the creator god Brahma-12,OOO thousands of divine years, each of which equals 360 human years, for a total of 4,320,000,000 human years-is depicted in the Puranas. Cosmic existence is equated not only with the body of the god spatially, but temporally as well. The universe endures as long as the god lives, then dies as he dies; a periodic dissolution of all forms coincides with the ending of Brahma's life. "Brahma, the golden embryo, origin of the gods, without beginning so to speak, resting in the calyx of the world lotus, was born in the beginning. His life-span is one hundred years ..." (Mark. 43.22). The reckoning of this life-span, however, is exceedingly complex; it amounts to a series of superimposed calendars including daily, weekly, yearly and cosmically patterned calculations. This complicated scheme comprises the temporal conditions under which all created beings (gods, demons, humankind and others) live. And within this scheme can be discerned at least three distinct organizing principles. Just as various discrete creation motifs have been superimposed on the mythical vision of original creation, so have several temporal systems been more or less effectively harmonized with each other.
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