A marvellous amalgam of mythology and metaphysics, the
Markandeya Purana unfolds as a series of conversations, in which
the sage Markandeya is asked to answer some deeper questions
raised by events in the Mahabharata. These illuminating exchanges
evolve into a multifaceted exploration of the core concepts of
Hindu philosophy—from an excellent exposition of yoga and its
unique attributes to a profound treatise on the worship of the
goddess, the Devi Mahatmya, which also includes the popular
devotional texts known as ‘Chandi’ or "Durga Saptashati’.
Brimming with insight and told with clarity, this luminous text is
also a celebration of a complex mythological universe populated
with gods and mortals, and contains within its depths many nested
tales like that of Queen Madalasa and her famous song.
Bibek Debroy’s masterful translation draws out the subtleties of
the Markandeya Purana, enabling a new generation of readers to
savour its timeless riches.
Thr word ‘purana’ means old, ancient. The Puranas are old texts,
usually referred to in conjunction with Itihasa (the Ramayana
and the Mahabharata).! Whether Itihasa originally meant only the
Mahabharata, with the Ramayana being added to that expression
later, is a proposition on which there has been some discussion.
But that’s not relevant for our purposes. In the Chandogya
Upanishad, there is an instance of the sage Narada approaching
the sage Sanatkumara for instruction. Asked about what he already
knows, Narada says he knows Itihasa and Purana, the Fifth Veda.’
In other words, Itihasa—Purana possessed an elevated status. This
by no means implies that the word ‘purana’, as used in these two
Upanishads and other texts too, is to be understood in the sense of
the word being applied to a set of texts known as the Puranas today.
The Valmiki Ramayana is believed to have been composed by
Valmiki and the Mahabharata by Krishna Dvaipayana Vedavyasa.
After composing the Mahabharata, Krishna Dvaipayana Vedavyasa
is believed to have composed the Puranas. The use of the word
composed immediately indicates that Itihasa—Purana are ‘smriti’
texts, with a human origin. They are not ‘shruti’ texts, with a divine
origin. Composition does not mean these texts were rendered
into writing. Instead, there was a process of oral transmission,
with inevitable noise in the transmission and distribution process.
Writing came much later.
Frederick Eden Pargiter’s book on the Puranas is still one of
the best introductions to this corpus.? To explain the composition
and transmission process, one can do no better than to quote him.
‘The Vayu and Padma Puranas tell us how ancient genealogies,
tales and ballads were preserved, namely, by the sutas,* and they
describe the suta’s duty . . . The Vayu, Brahmanda and Visnu
give an account, how the original Purana came into existence. . .
Those three Puranas say—Krsna Dvaipayana divided the single
Veda into four and arranged them, and so was called Vyasa. He
entrusted them to his four disciples, one to each, namely Paila,
Vaisampayana, Jaimini and Sumantu. Then with tales, anecdotes,
songs and lore that had come down from the ages he compiled a
Purana, and taught it and the Itihasa to his fifth disciple, the suta
Romaharsana or Lomaharsana . . . After that he composed the
Mahabharata. The epic itself implies that the Purana preceded it.
As explained above, the sutas had from remote times. preserved the
genealogies of gods, rishis and kings, and traditions and ballads
about celebrated men, that is, exactly the material—tales, songs and
ancient lore—out of which the Purana was constructed. Whether
or not Vyasa composed the original Purana or superintended its
compilation, is immaterial for the present purpose . . . After the
original Purana was composed, by Vyasa as is said, his disciple
Romaharsana taught it to his son Ugrasravas, and Ugrasravas the
sauti’ appears as the reciter in some of the present Puranas; and the
sutas still retained the right to recite it for their livelihood. But, as
stated above, Romaharsana taught it to his six disciples, at least
five of whom were brahmans. It thus passed into the hands of
brahmans, and their appropriation and development of it increased
in the course of time, as the Purana grew into many Puranas, as
Sanskrit learning became peculiarly the province of the brahmans,
and as new and frankly sectarian Puranas were composed.’ Pargiter
cited reasons for his belief that the Mahabharata was composed
after the original Purana, though that runs contrary to the popular
perception about the Mahabharata having been composed before
the Puranas. That popular and linear perception is too simplistic,
since texts evolved in parallel, not necessarily sequentially.
In popular perception, Krishna Dvaipayana Vedavyasa
composed the Mahabharata. He then composed the Puranas.
Alternatively, he composed an original core Purana text, which has
been lost, and others embellished it through additions. The adjective
‘purana’, meaning old account or old text, became a proper noun,
signifying a specific text. To be classified as a Purana, a Purana has
to possess five attributes—pancha lakshmana. That is, five topics
must be discussed—sarga, pratisarga, vamsha, manvantara and
vamshanucharita. The clearest statement of this is in the Matsya
Purana. Unlike the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, there is no
Critical Edition of the Puranas.® Therefore, citing chapter and verse
from a Purana text is somewhat more difficult, since verse, if not
chapter, may vary from text to text. With that caveat, the relevant
shloka (verse) should be in the fifty-third chapter of the Matysa
Purana. Sarga means the original or primary creation. The converse
of sarga is universal destruction, or pralaya. That period of sarga
lasts for one of Brahma’s days, known as kalpa. When Brahma
sleeps, during his night, there is universal destruction.
Brahma Sutras (81)
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