The Vishnu Purana

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...

Classification of the Purāṇas

There is another classification of the Purāṇas alluded to in the Matsya Purāṇa, and specified by the Padma Purāṇa, but more fully. It is not undeserving of notice, as it expresses the opinion which native writers entertain of the scope of the Purāṇas, and of their recognising the subservience of these works to the dissemination of sectarian principles.. Thus it is said in the Uttara Khaṇḍa of the Padma, that the Purāṇas, as well as other works, are divided into three classes, according to the qualities which prevail in them. Thus the Viṣṇu, Nāradīya, Bhāgavata, Gāruḍa, Padma, and Vārāha Purāṇas, are Sātwika, or pure, from the predominance in them of the Satwa quality, or that of goodness and purity. They are, in fact, Vaiṣṇava Purāṇas. The Matsya, Kūrma, Liṅga, Śiva, Skanda, and Agni Purāṇas, are Tāmasa, or Purāṇas of darkness, from the prevalence of the quality of Tamas, ‘ignorance,’ ‘gloom.’ They are indisputably Śaiva Purāṇas. The third series, comprising the Brahmāṇḍa, Brahma-vaivartta, Mārkaṇḍeya, Bhaviṣya, Vāmana, and Brahmā Purāṇas, are designated as Rājasa, ‘passionate,’ from Rajas, the property of passion, which they are supposed to represent.. The Matsya does not specify which are the Purāṇas that come under these designations, but remarks that those in which the Māhātmya of Hari or Viṣṇu prevails are Sātwika; those in which the legends of Agni or Śiva predominate are Tāmasa; and those which dwell most on the stories of Brahmā are Rājasa. I have elsewhere stated[1], that I considered the Rājasa Purāṇas to lean to the Sākta division of the Hindus, the worshippers of Śakti, or the female principle; founding this opinion on the character of the legends which some of them contain, such as the Durgā Māhātmya, or celebrated legend on which the worship of Durgā or Kālī is especially founded, which is a principal episode of the Mārkaṇḍeya. The Brahma-vaivartta also devotes the greatest portion of its chapters to the celebration of Rādhā, the mistress of Kṛṣṇa, and other female divinities. Col. Vans Kennedy, however, objects to the application of the term Sākta to this last division of the Purāṇas, the worship of Śakti being the especial object of a different class of works, the Tantras, and no such form of worship being particularly iñculcated in the Brāhma Purāṇa[2]. This last argument is of weight in regard to the particular instance specified, and the designation of Śakti may not be correctly applicable to the whole class, although it is to some of the series; for there is no incompatibility in the advocacy of a Tāntrika modification of the Hindu religion by any Purāṇa, and it has unquestionably been practised in works known as Upa-purāṇas. The proper appropriation of the third class of the Purāṇas, according to the Padma Purāṇa, appears to be to the worship of Kṛṣṇa, not in the character in which he is represented in the Viṣṇu and Bhāgavata Purāṇas, in which the incidents of his boyhood are only a portion of his biography, and in which the human character largely participates, at least in his riper years, but as the infant Kṛṣṇa, Govinda, Bāla Gopāla, the sojourner in Vrindāvan, the companion of the cowherds and milkmaids, the lover of Rādhā, or as the juvenile master of the universe, Jagannātha. The term Rājasa, implying the animation of passion, and enjoyment of sensual delights, is applicable, not only to the character of the youthful divinity, but to those with whom his adoration in these forms seems to have originated, the Gosains of Gokul and Bengal, the followers and descendants of Vallabha and Caitanya, the priests and proprietors of Jagannāth and Śrīnāth-dvār, who lead a life of affluence and indulgence, and vindicate, both by precept and practice, the reasonableness of the Rājasa property, and the congruity of temporal enjoyment with the duties of religion[3].

The Purāṇas are uniformly stated to be eighteen in number. It is said that there are also eighteen Upa-purāṇas, or minor Purāṇas; but the names of only a few of these are specified in the least exceptionable authorities, and the greater number of the works is not procurable. With regard to the eighteen Purāṇas, there is a peculiarity in their specification, which is proof of an interference with the integrity of the text, in some of them at least; for each of them specifies the names of the whole eighteen. Now the list could not have been complete whilst the work that gives it was unfinished, and in one only therefore, the last of the series, have we a right to look for it. As however there are more last words than one, it is evident that the names must have been inserted in all except one after the whole were completed: which of the eighteen is the exception, and truly the last, there is no clue to discover, and the specification is probably an interpolation in most, if not in all.

The names that are specified are commonly the same, and are as follows:

  1. Brāhma,
  2. Pādma,
  3. Vaiṣṇava,
  4. Śaiva,
  5. Bhāgavata,
  6. Nārada,
  7. Mārkaṇḍa,
  8. Āgneya,
  9. Bhaviṣya,
  10. Brahma-vaivartta,
  11. Liṅga,
  12. Vārāha,
  13. Skānda,
  14. Vāmana,
  15. Kaurma,
  16. Mātsya,
  17. Gāruḍa,
  18. Brahmāṇḍa[4].

This is from the twelfth book of the Bhāgavata, and is the same as occurs in the Viṣṇu[5]. In other authorities there are a few variations. The list of the K.ūrma P. omits the Agni Purāṇa, and substitutes the Vāyu. The Agni leaves out the Śaiva, and inserts the Vāyu. The Varāha omits the Gāruḍa and Brahmāṇḍa, and inserts the Vāyu and Narasinha: in this last it is singular. The Mārkaṇḍeya agrees with the Viṣṇu and Bhāgavata in omitting the Vāyu. The Matsya, like the Agni, leaves out the Śaiva.

Some of the Purāṇas, as the Agni, Matsya, Bhāgavata, and Padma, also particularize the number of stanzas which each of the eighteen contains. In one or two instances they disagree, but in general they coñcur. The aggregate is stated at 400,000 slokas, or 1,600,000 lines. These are fabled to be but an abridgment, the whole amount being a krore, or ten millions of stanzas, or even a thousand millions. If all the fragmentary portions claiming in various parts of India to belong to the Purāṇas were admitted, their extent would much exceed the lesser, though it would not reach the larger enumeration. The former is, however, as I have elsewhere stated[6], a quantity that an individual European scholar could scarcely expect to peruse with due care and attention, unless his whole time were devoted exclusively for many years to the task. Yet without some such labour being achieved, it was clear, from the crudity and inexactness of all that had been hitherto published on the subject, with one exception[7], that sound views on the subject of Hindu mythology and tradition were not to be expected. Circumstances, which I have already explained in the paper in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society referred to above, enabled me to avail myself of competent assistance, by which I made a minute abstract of most of the Purāṇas. In course of time I hope to place a tolerably copious and connected analysis of the whole eighteen before Oriental scholars, and in the mean while offer a brief notice of their several contents.

In general the enumeration of the Purāṇas is a simple nomenclature, with the addition in some cases of the number of verses; but to these the Matsya Purāṇa joins the mention of one or two circumstances peculiar to each, which, although scanty, are of value, as offering means of identifying the copies of the Purāṇas now found with those to which the Matsya refers, or of discovering a difference between the present and the past. I shall therefore prefix the passage descriptive of each Purāṇa from the Matsya. It is necessary to remark, however, that in the comparison instituted between that description and the Purāṇa as it exists, I necessarily refer to the copy or copies which I employed for the purpose of examination and analysis, and which were procured with some trouble and cost in Benares and Calcutta. In some instances my manuscripts have been collated with others from different parts of India, and the result has shewn, that, with regard at least to the Brahmā, Viṣṇu, Vāyu, Matsya, Padma, Bhāgavata, and Kūrma Purāṇas, the same works, in all essential respects, are generally current under the same appellations. Whether this is invariably the case may be doubted, and farther inquiry may possibly shew that I have been obliged to content myself with mutilated or unauthentic works[8]. It is with this reservation, therefore, that I must be understood to speak of the coñcurrence or disagreement of any Purāṇa with the notice of it which the Matsya P. has preserved.

Footnotes and references:


As. Res. vol. XVI. p. 10.


Asiatic Journal, March 1837, p. 241.


As. Res. vol. XVI. p. 85.


The names are put attributively, the noun substantive, Purāṇa, being understood. Thus Vaiṣṇavam Purāṇam means the Purāṇa of Viṣṇu; Śaivam Purāṇam, the P. of Śiva; Brāhmam Purāṇam, the P. of Brahmā. It is equally correct, and more common, to use the two substantives p. xv in apposition, as Viṣṇu Purāṇa, Śiva Purāṇa, &c. In the original Sanscrit the nouns are compounded, as Viṣṇu-purāṇam, &c.; but it has not been customary to combine them in their European shape.


P. 284.


Journ. Royal As. Soc. vol. V. p. 61.


I allude to the valuable work of Col. Vans Kennedy, on the Affinity between Ancient and Hindu Mythology. However much I may differ from that learned and industrious writer's conclusions, I must do him the justice to admit that he is the only author who has discussed the subject of the mythology of the Hindus on right principles, by drawing his materials from authentic sources.


Upon examining the translations of different passages from the Purāṇas, given by Col. Vans Kennedy in the work mentioned in a former note, and comparing them with the text of the manuscripts I have consulted, I find such an agreement as to warrant the belief that there is no essential difference between the copies in his possession and in mine. The varieties which occur in the MSS. of the East India Company's Library will be noticed in the text.

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