by Horace Hayman Wilson | 1840 | 287,946 words | ISBN-10: 8171102127
The English translation of the Vishnu Purana. This is a primary sacred text of the Vaishnava branch of Hinduism. It is one of the eighteen greater Puranas, a branch of sacred Vedic literature which was first committed to writing during the first millennium of the common era. Like most of the other Puranas, this is a complete narrative from the cr...
THE literature of the Hindus has now been cultivated for many years with singular diligence, and in many of its branches with eminent success. There are some departments, however, which are yet but partially and imperfectly investigated; and we are far from being in possession of that knowledge which the authentic writings of the Hindus alone can give us of their religion, mythology, and historical traditions.
From the materials to which we have hitherto had access, it seems probable that there have been three principal forms in which the religion of the Hindus has existed, at as many different periods. The duration of those periods, the circumstances of their succession, and the precise state of the national faith at each season, it is not possible to trace with any approach to accuracy. The premises have been too imperfectly determined to authorize other than conclusions of a general and somewhat vague description, and those remain to be hereafter confirmed or corrected by more extensive and satisfactory research.
The earliest form under which the Hindu religion appears is that taught in the Vedas. The style of the language, and the purport of the composition of those works, as far as we are acquainted with them, indicate a date long anterior to that of any other class of Sanscrit writings. It is yet, however, scarcely safe to advance an opinion of the precise belief or philosophy which they iñculcate. To enable us to judge of their tendency, we have only a general sketch of their arrangement and contents, with a few extracts, by Mr. Colebrooke, in the Asiatic Researches; a few incidental observations by Mr. Ellis, in the same miscellany; and a translation of the first book of the Saṃhitā, or collection of the prayers of the Rig-veda, by Dr. Rosen; and some of the Upaniṣads, or speculative treatises, attached to, rather than part of, the Vedas, by Rammohun Roy. Of the religion taught in the Vedas, Mr. Colebrooke's opinion will probably be received as that which is best entitled to deference, as certainly no Sanscrit scholar has been equally conversant with the original works. “The real doctrine of the Indian scripture is the unity of the Deity, in whom the universe is comprehended; and the seeming polytheism which it exhibits, offers the elements and the stars and planets as gods. The three principal manifestations of the divinity, with other personified attributes and energies, and most of the other gods of Hindu mythology, are indeed mentioned, or at least indicated, in the Veda. But the worship of deified heroes is no part of the system; nor are the incarnations of deities suggested in any portion of the text which I have yet seen, though such are sometimes hinted at by the commentators.” Some of these statements may perhaps require modification; for without a careful examination of all the prayers of the Vedas, it would be hazardous to assert that they contain no indication whatever of hero-worship; and certainly they do appear to allude occasionally to the Avatāras, or incarnations, of Viṣṇu. Still, however, it is true that the prevailing character of the ritual of the Vedas is the worship of the personified elements; of Agni, or fire; Indra, the firmament; Vāyu, the air; Varuṇa, the water; of Aditya, the sun; Soma, the moon; and other elementary and planetary personages. It is also true that the worship of the Vedas is for the most part domestic worship, consisting of prayers and oblations offered—in their own houses, not in temples—by individuals for individual good, and addressed to unreal presences, not to visible types. In a word, the religion of the Vedas was not idolatry.
It is not possible to conjecture when this more simple and primitive form of adoration was succeeded by the worship of images and types, representing Brahmā, Viṣṇu, Śiva, and other imaginary beings, constituting a mythological pantheon of most ample extent; or when Rāma and Kṛṣṇa, who appear to have been originally real and historical characters, were elevated to the dignity of divinities. Image-worship is alluded to by Manu in several passages, but with an intimation that those Brahmans who subsist by ministering in temples are an inferior and degraded class. The story of the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata turns wholly upon the doctrine of incarnations, all the chief dramatis personæ of the poems being impersonations of gods and demigods and celestial spirits. The ritual appears to be that of the Vedas, and it may be doubted if any allusion to image-worship occurs; but the doctrine of propitiation by penance and praise prevails throughout, and Viṣṇu and Śiva are the especial objects of panegyric and invocation. In these two works, then, we trace unequivocal indications of a departure from the elemental worship of the Vedas, and the origin or elaboration of legends, which form the great body of the mythological religion of the Hindus. How far they only improved upon the cosmogony and chronology of their predecessors, or in what degree the traditions of families and dynasties may originate with them, are questions that can only be determined when the Vedas and the two works in question shall have been more thoroughly examined.
The different works known by the name of Purāṇas are evidently derived from the same religious system as the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata, or from the mytho-heroic stage of Hindu belief. They present, however, peculiarities which designate their belonging to a later period, and to an important modification in the progress of opinion. They repeat the theoretical cosmogony of the two great poems; they expand and systematize the chronological computations; and they give a more definite and connected representation of the mythological fictions, and the historical traditions. But besides these and other particulars, which may be derivable from an old, if not from a primitive era, they offer characteristic peculiarities of a more modern description, in the paramount importance which they assign to individual divinities, in the variety and purport of the rites and observances addressed to them, and in the invention of new legends illustrative of the power and graciousness of those deities, and of the efficacy of implicit devotion to them. Śiva and Viṣṇu, under one or other form, are almost the sole objects that claim the homage of the Hindus in the Purāṇas; departing from the domestic and elemental ritual of the Vedas, and exhibiting a sectarial fervour and exclusiveness not traceable in the Rāmāyaṇa, and only to a qualified extent in the Mahābhārata. They are no longer authorities for Hindu belief as a whole: they are special guides for separate and sometimes conflicting branches of it, compiled for the evident purpose of promoting the preferential, or in some cases the sole, worship of Viṣṇu or of Śiva.
That the Purāṇas always bore the character here given of them, may admit of reasonable doubt; that it correctly applies to them as they now are met with, the following pages will irrefragably substantiate. It is possible, however, that there may have been an earlier class of Purāṇas, of which those we now have are but the partial and adulterated representatives. The identity of the legends in many of them, and still more the identity of the words—for in several of them long passages are literally the same—is a sufficient proof that in all such cases they must be copied either from some other similar work, or from a common and prior original. It is not unusual also for a fact to be stated upon the authority of an ‘old stanza,’ which is cited accordingly; shewing the existence of an earlier source of information: and in very many instances legends are alluded to, not told; evincing acquaintance with their prior narration somewhere else. The name itself, Purāṇa, which implies ‘old,’ indicates the object of the compilation to be the preservation of ancient traditions, a purpose in the present condition of the Purāṇas very imperfectly fulfilled. Whatever weight may be attached to these considerations, there is no disputing evidence to the like effect afforded by other and unquestionable authority. The description given by Mr. Colebrooke of the contents of a Purāṇa is taken from Sanscrit writers. The Lexicon of Amara Sinha gives as a synonyme of Purāṇa, Pañca-lakṣanam, ‘that which has five characteristic topics:’ and there is no difference of opinion amongst the scholiasts as to what these are. They are, as Mr. Colebrooke mentions, 1. Primary creation, or cosmogony; 2. Secondary creation, or the destruction and renovation of worlds, including chronology; 3. Genealogy of gods and patriarchs; 4. Reigns of the Manus, or periods called Manwantaras; and 5. History, or such particulars as have been preserved of the princes of the solar and lunar races, and of their descendants to modern times. Such, at any rate, were the constituent and characteristic portions of a Purāṇa in the days of Amara Sinha, fifty-six years before the Christian era; and if the Purāṇas had undergone no change since his time, such we should expect to find them still. Do they conform to this description? Not exactly in any one instance: to some of them it is utterly inapplicable; to others it only partially applies. There is not one to which it belongs so entirely as to the Viṣṇu Purāṇa, and it is one of the circumstances which gives to this work a more authentic character than most of its fellows can pretend to. Yet even in this instance we have a book upon the institutes of society and obsequial rites interposed between the Manwantaras and the genealogies of princes, and a life of Kṛṣṇa separating the latter from an account of the end of the world, besides the insertion of various legends of a manifestly popular and sectarial character. No doubt many of the Purāṇas, as they now are, correspond with the view which Col. Vans Kennedy takes of their purport. “I cannot discover in them,” he remarks, “any other object than that of religious instruction.” The description of the earth and of the planetary system, and the lists of royal races which occur in them, he asserts to be “evidently extraneous, and not essential circumstances, as they are entirely omitted in some Purāṇas, and very concisely illustrated in others; while, on the contrary, in all the Purāṇas some or other of the leading principles, rites, and observances of the Hindu religion are fully dwelt upon, and illustrated either by suitable legends or by prescribing the ceremonies to be practised, and the prayers and invocations to be employed, in the worship of different deities,” Now, however accurate this description may be of the Purāṇas as they are, it is clear that it does not apply to what they were when they were synonymously designated as Pañca-lakṣaṇas, or ‘treatises on five topics;’ not one of which five is ever specified by text or comment to be “religious instruction.” In the knowledge of Amara Sinha the lists of princes were not extraneous and unessential, and their being now so considered by a writer so well acquainted with the contents of the Purāṇas as Col. Vans Kennedy is a decisive proof that since the days of the lexicographer they have undergone some material alteration, and that we have not at present the same works in all respects that were current under the denomination of Purāṇas in the century prior to Christianity.
The inference deduced from the discrepancy between the actual form and the older definition of a Purāṇa, unfavourable to the antiquity of the extant works generally, is converted into certainty when we come to examine them in detail; for although they have no dates attached to them, yet circumstances are sometimes mentioned or alluded to, or references to authorities are made, or legends are narrated, or places are particularized, of which the comparatively recent date is indisputable, and which enforce a corresponding reduction of the antiquity of the work in which they are discovered. At the same time they may be acquitted of subservience to any but sectarial imposture. They were pious frauds for temporary purposes: they never emanated from any impossible combination of the Brahmans to fabricate for the antiquity of the entire Hindu system any claims which it cannot fully support. A very great portion of the contents of many, some portion of the contents of all, is genuine and old. The sectarial interpolation or embellishment is always sufficiently palpable to be set aside, without injury to the more authentic and primitive material; and the Purāṇas, although they belong especially to that stage of the Hindu religion in which faith in some one divinity was the prevailing principle, are also a valuable record of the form of Hindu belief which came next in order to that of the Vedas; which grafted hero-worship upon the simpler ritual of the latter; and which had been adopted, and was extensively, perhaps universally established in India at the time of the Greek invasion. The Hercules of the Greek writers was indubitably the Balarāma of the Hindus; and their notices of Mathurā on the Jumna, and of the kingdom of the Suraseni and the Pandæan country, evidence the prior currency of the traditions which constitute the argument of the Mahābhārata, and which are constantly repeated in the Purāṇas, relating to the Paṇḍava and Yādava races, to Kṛṣṇa and his contemporary heroes, and to the dynasties of the solar and lunar kings.
The theogony and cosmogony of the Purāṇas may probably be traced to the Vedas. They are not, as far as is yet known, described in detail in those works, but they are frequently alluded to in a strain more or less mystical and obscure, which indicates acquaintance with their existence, and which seems to have supplied the Purāṇas with the groundwork of their systems. The scheme of primary or elementary creation they borrow from the Sāṅkhya philosophy, which is probably one of the oldest forms of speculation on man and nature amongst the Hindus. Agreeably, however, to that part of the Paurāṇik character which there is reason to suspect of later origin, their iñculcation of the worship of a favourite deity, they combine the interposition of a creator with the independent evolution of matter in a somewhat contradictory and unintelligible style. It is evident too that their accounts of secondary creation, or the developement of the existing forms of things, and the disposition of the universe, are derived from several and different sources; and it appears very likely that they are to be accused of some of the incongruities and absurdities by which the narrative is disfigured, in consequence of having attempted to assign reality and significancy to what was merely metaphor or mysticism. There is, however, amidst the unnecessary complexity of the description, a general agreement amongst them as to the origin of things, and their final distribution; and in many of the circumstances there is a striking coñcurrence with the ideas which seem to have pervaded the whole of the ancient world, and which we may therefore believe to be faithfully represented in the Purāṇas.
The Pantheism of the Purāṇas is one of their invariable characteristics, although the particular divinity, who is all things, from whom all things proceed, and to whom all things return, be diversified according to their individual sectarial bias. They seem to have derived the notion from the Vedas: but in them the one universal Being is of a higher order than a personification of attributes or elements, and, however imperfectly conceived, or unworthily described, is God. In the Purāṇas the one only Supreme Being is supposed to be manifest in the person of Śiva or Viṣṇu, either in the way of illusion or in sport; and one or other of these divinities is therefore also the cause of all that is, is himself all that exists. The identity of God and nature is not a new notion; it was very general in the speculations of antiquity, but it assumed a new vigour in the early ages of Christianity, and was carried to an equal pitch of extravagance by the Platonic Christians as by the Śaiva or Vaiṣṇava Hindus. It seems not impossible that there was some communication between them. We know that there was an active communication between India and the Red sea in the early ages of the Christian era, and that doctrines, as well as articles of merchandise, were brought to Alexandria from the former. Epiphanius and Eusebius accuse Scythianus of having imported from India, in the second century, books on magic, and heretical notions leading to Manichæism; and it was at the same period that Ammonius instituted the sect of the new Platonists at Alexandria. The basis of his heresy was, that true philosophy derived its origin from the eastern nations: his doctrine of the identity of God and the universe is that of the Vedas and Purāṇas; and the practices he enjoined, as well as their object, were precisely those described in several of the Purāṇas under the name of Yoga. His disciples were taught “to extenuate by mortification and contemplation the bodily restraints upon the immortal spirit, so that in this life they might enjoy communion with the Supreme Being, and ascend after death to the universal Parent.” That these are Hindu tenets the following pages will testify; and by the admission of their Alexandrian teacher, they originated in India. The importation was perhaps not wholly unrequited; the loan may not have been left unpaid. It is not impossible that the Hindu doctrines received fresh animation from their adoption by the successors of Ammonius, and especially by the mystics, who may have prompted, as well as employed, the expressions of the Purāṇas. Anquetil du Perron has given, in the introduction to his translation of the ‘Oupnekhat,’ several hymns by Synesius, a bishop of the beginning of the fifth century, which may serve as parallels to many of the hymns and prayers addressed to Viṣṇu in the Viṣṇu Purāṇa.
But the ascription to individual and personal deities of the attributes of the one universal and spiritual Supreme Being, is an indication of a later date than the Vedas certainly, and apparently also than the Rāmāyaṇa, where Rāma, although an incarnation of Viṣṇu, commonly appears in his human character alone. There is something of the kind in the Mahābhārata in respect to Kṛṣṇa, especially in the philosophical episode known as the Bhagavad Gītā. In other places the divine nature of Kṛṣṇa is less decidedly affirmed; in some it is disputed or denied; and in most of the situations in which he is exhibited in action, it is as a prince and warrior, not as a divinity. He exercises no superhuman faculties in the defence of himself or his friends, or in the defeat and destruction of his foes. The Mahābhārata, however, is evidently a work of various periods, and requires to be read throughout carefully and critically before its weight as an authority can be accurately appreciated. As it is now in type—thanks to the public spirit of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, and their secretary Mr. J. Prinsep—it will not be long before the Sanscrit scholars of the continent will accurately appreciate its value.
Footnotes and references:
Vol. VIII. p. 369.
Vol. XIV. p. 37.
Published by the Oriental Translation Fund Committee.
A translation of the principal Upaniṣads was published under the title of Oupnekhat, or Theologia Indica, by Anquetil du Perron: but it was made through the medium of the Persian, and is very p. iii incorrect and obscure. A translation of a very different character has been some time in course of preparation by M. Poley.
As. Res. vol. VIII. p. 473.
B. III. 152, 164. B. IV. 214.
Besides the three periods marked by the Vedas, Heroic Poems, and Purāṇas, a fourth may be dated from the influence exercised by the Tantras upon Hindu practice and belief; but we are yet too little acquainted with those works, or their origin, to speculate safely upon their consequences.
As. Res. vol. VII. p. 202.
The following definition of a Purāṇa is constantly quoted: it is found in the Viṣṇu, Matsya, Vāyu, and other Purāṇas:
Click to view A variation of reading in the beginning of the second line is noticed by Rāmāśrama, the scholiast on Amara,
Click to view ‘Destruction of the earth and the rest, or final dissolution:’ in which case the genealogies of heroes and princes are comprised in those of the patriarchs.
Researches into the Nature and Affinity of Ancient and Hindu Mythology, p.153, and note.
Mosheim, vol. I. p.173.
See P. 649 et seq.
Theologia et Philosophia Indica, Dissert. p. xxvi.
Three volumes have been printed: the fourth and last is understood to be nearly completed.