The Puranas are texts sacred to Hinduism. You must have heard of the two great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata states that there are eighteen Puranas and also names three of them, the MarkandeyaPurana. the VayaPurana and the Matsya Purana. Although the Ramayana does not mention any Puranas by name, the word Purana is mentioned several times. This means that the composers of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were familiar with the Puranas. The Puranas are thus fairly ancient texts. The word Purana actually means old or ancient. The two epics and the Puranas are referred to as itihasa. The word itihasa means 'that is what happened', that is, history. Thus, the stories described in the two epics and the Puranas are believed to have happened in the past. Sometimes the Puranas are also referred to as the fifth Veda. The Vaya Purana states that the Puranas were originally recited by the great god Brahma and that one has to understand the Puranas if one is to appreciate the sacred texts of the Vedas and the Upanishads.
No one disagrees that the number of major Puranas is eighteen. These major texts are known as mahapuranas. There are several other minor Puranas, known as upapuranas. There is broad agreement also about the names of the mahapuranas. The only disagreement is about the name of the fourth mahapurana. In some lists, it is the Vaya Purana which is the fourth mahapurana. In other lists, it is the Shiva Purana which is the fourth.
Any mahapurana is supposed to exhibit five characteristics (lakshana). That is, the text must describe five subjects. These five subjects are the original creation of the universe (sarga), the periodical process of destruction and re-creation (pratisarga), the different eras (manvantara), the histories of the solar dynasty (surya vamsha) and lunar dynasty (chandra vamsha) and royal genealogies (vamshanucharita). Around this core skeleton of the five subjects, any Purana normally contains matters of religious concern, customs, ceremonies, sacrifices, festivals, duties of various castes, different types of donations, details of the construction of temples and images and descriptions of places of pilgrimage.
The Hindu Trinity consists of the gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma is regarded as the creator, Vishnu as the preserver and Shiva as the destroyer.
Since all three are important gods, any Purana will tend to glorify all three. But the relative emphasis often varies from one text to another. For example, there are Puranas which attach a lot of importance to Vishnu, that is, to his incarnations (avatara). Such mahapuranas are known as sattvika Puranas and are identified with Vishnu. The sattvika Puranas are the Vishnu Purana, the Narada Purana, the Bhagavata Purana, the Garuda Purana, the Varaha Purana and the PadmaPurana. Puranas which describe creation in great detail are known as rajasika Puranas and are identified with Brahma. The rajasika Puranas are the Brahma Purana, the Brahmanda Purana, the Brahmavaivarta Purana, the Bhavishya Purana, the Vamana Purana and the Markandeya Purana. And tamasika Puranas are those that devote a lot of space to norms and rituals. These are identified with Shiva. The tamasika Puranas are the Shiva Purana, the MatsyaPurana, the KurmaPurana, the LingaPurana, the Skanda Purana and the Agni Purana.
One of Brahma's days is known as a kalpa. It is believed that, at the end of Brahma's day, the universe is destroyed. Darkness prevails throughout Brahma's night, and when the new day dawns, the universe is created afresh. There have thus been several kalpas. There is a belief that each of the mahapuranas was composed in a distinct kalpa.
The traditional belief is that the composer of the Mahabharata was Vedavyasa or Vyasadeva. Of course, Vedavyasa is only a title, conferred on someone who has divided (vyasa) the sacred texts known as the Vedas. It is believed that, so far, twenty-eight individual have held the title of Vedavyasa. The Vedavyasa who is credited with having composed the Mahabharata was twenty-eighth in the line. His name was actually Krishna Dvaipayana. He was called Krishna because he was dark in complexion, the word Krishna meaning dark. He was called Dvaipayana because he was born on an island, the word dvipa meaning Island.
In the Hindu view, time is divided into four eras or yugas. These are known as satya yuga or krita yuga, tretayuga, dvaparayuga and kaliyuga. As one gradually moves from satyayuga to kaliyuga, people tend to deviate from the righteous path and start to follow evil. They must therefore be brought back to the path of righteousness. The wisdom that is in the sacred Vedas must be disseminated amongst people so that they may be weaned away from the path of evil. But the Vedas are abstract and esoteric. They are not at all easy to understand. The knowledge that is in them is easier to comprehend if it is partitioned into several sections. In every dvapara yuga, the Vedas are accordingly divided. A person who does this has the title of Vedavyasa or Vyasadeva conferred on him.
The Mahabharata has one lakh couplets or shlokas. The traditional belief is that, after composing the Mahabharata stories that he had recounted. He therefore composed the Puranas, eighteen of them. Together, the eighteen mahapuranas have four lakh shlokas. Thus, Vedavyasa composed five lakh shlokas in all. However, the VishnuPurana is clearly stated to have been composed by Parashara, krishna Dvaipayana's father. To confuse matters further, it is also believed that the mahapuranas composed by Vedavyasa had altogether one crore of shlokas in them. But one crore of shlokas was too much for mere mortals to read. He therefore summarised the Puranas so that they had only four lakh shlokas between them. It is these summarised versions that have come down to us. Only gods (devas) read the complete texts of the Puranas with one crore of shlokas in them. At least, that is what the ShivaPurana says. To get a rough idea of the sizes of the different Puranas, it may help to look at the table.
Most scholars agree that the mahapuranas were composed. in their final forms. between 300A.D. and 1000 A.D. It is important of course to remember that, despite the traditional belief that Vedavyasa himself composed all the texts, the Puranas were not composed by any single author at any particular point of time. Several authors continued to add their own stories and embellishments and so the texts grew in volume down the ages. It is perfectly possible that some of the early parts of the Puranas were composed around 500 B.C. In fact, it is now agreed that Vedavyasa composed an original Purana, known as the Purana samhita. He taught this to his disciple Lomaharshana or Romaharshana.
Lomaharshana is usually the raconteur of all the Puranas. He belonged to the suta class, which was a class of raconteurs or tellers of anecdotes. The word roma or loma means body-hair and harshana means to thrill. The Puranas state that Lomaharshana's recitals thrilled the body-hair of his listeners. that is, were sensational, and that is how he came to acquire his name. As the Purana samhita passed down from Lomaharshana, the eighteen different mahapuranas came into being.
A few words need to be said about each of the mahapuranas.
The Brahma Purana not only the first in the list of mahapuranas, it is also believed to be the first to have been composed. Accordingly, it is sometimes referred to as the adi (first or original) Purana. Unfortunately, the original text of the BrahmaPurana is no longer available. It has been lost. The present text cannot really be that old. It has references to that worship of Shiva and Vishnu in the State of Orissa and it is known from history that such worship was not prevalent before 600 A.D. or thereabouts, at least not in Orissa. Moreover. the text also mentions the famous sun temple of Konaraka, a temple that was built In the year 1241 A.D. Once the original text of the Brahma Purana had been lost, the text seems to have been reconstructed on the basis of material collected from the Mahabharata, the Harivamsha, the Vayu Purana, the Markandeya Purana and the Vishnu Purana.
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