Puranic encyclopaedia

by Vettam Mani | 1975 | 609,556 words | ISBN-10: 0842608222

This page describes the Story of Purana included the Puranic encyclopaedia by Vettam Mani that was translated into English in 1975. The Puranas have for centuries profoundly influenced Indian life and Culture and are defined by their characteristic features (panca-lakshana, literally, ‘the five characteristics of a Purana’).

Story of Purāṇa

General information.

The Amarakośa describes a Purāṇa thus:

"sargaśca pratisargaśca vaṃśo manvantarāṇi ca / vaṃśānucaritaṃ cāpi purāṇam pañcalakṣaṇam //"

According to this definition, Purāṇa is one which describes Sarga, Pratisarga, Vaṃśa, Manvantara and Vaṃśānucarita. Among these Sarga and Pratisarga are natural creation and renovation (Cosmogony). Vaṃśa means history of sages and patriarchs. By Manvantara is meant the period of different Manus. Vaṃśānucarita means Genealogy of kings. In the Purāṇas which are current now some of these five divisions are wanting.

Statements about Purāṇas are found even in the Brāhmaṇas. Therefore it is to be surmised that Purāṇas existed even before historic times. Mahābhārata has used the term Purāṇa to mean stories about devas and siddhas. The Upaniṣads say that Purāṇas are itihāsas and as such constitute the fifth Veda. Smṛti says that Purāṇas are commentaries on Vedas. From all these statements it can be gathered that Purāṇas have a hoary past. The great Sanskrit scholar Raṅgācārya has defined Purāṇa as Purā nava (Purā=old; nava =new) meaning things which are as good as new though existing from olden times. Though there are large portions of wide imagination dealing with the human side in the Purāṇas many truths about the universe can be grasped from them. All the Purāṇas contain praises of Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Maheśvara. In most of the Purāṇas of old, new additions and interpolations are seen. The Purāṇas in original were in existence before Christ.

"ākhyānaiścāpyupākhyānair gāthābhiḥ kalpaśuddhibhiḥ / purāṇasaṃhitāṃ cakre purāṇārthaviśāradaḥ //" (Śloka 15, Chapter 6, Aṃśa 3, Viṣṇu Purāṇa)

"aṣṭādaśa purāṇāni kṛtvā satyavatīsutaḥ / bhāratākhyānamakhilaṃ cakre tadupabṛṃhaṇam //" (Śloka 70, Chapter 53, Matsya Purāṇa)

From the above it can be gathered that it was Vyāsa who composed all the Purāṇas. Bāṇa who lived in the seventh century A.D. speaks about Vāyu Purāṇa. Kumārila Bhaṭṭa who lived in the eighth century and Śaṅkarācārya who lived in the ninth century speak about the Purāṇas. Purāṇas must have therefore taken their present forms before the sixth or seventh century A.D.

There are eighteen major Purāṇas and another eighteen minor ones. The major Purāṇas contain over four lakhs of Ślokas. All the Purāṇas are in verses like Mahābhārata. But none of them is as good as Mahābhārata as a piece of literature. Still the Purāṇas splendidly reflect the culture of Bhārata. The Purāṇas are the basis of the bulk of Indian thinking on matters social, cultural, religious and political. Even the Indian art has taken form from the Purāṇas. The Purāṇas are classified into three, those pertaining to Brahmā, those pertaining to Viṣṇu and those to Śiva.

A. Viṣṇu-based Purānas.

(i) Viṣṇu Purāṇa. This is one of the most important of all the Purāṇas. This contains the five technical divisions of the Purāṇas. This is divided into six aṃśas. This deals with the events of Vārāhakalpa and contains twentythree thousand ślokas. The theme is the ten incarnations of Mahāviṣṇu. Viṣṇu Purāṇa is the most ancient of all the Purāṇas and has got the name Purāṇaratna (gem of Purāṇas).

The method of narration is in the form of teaching his disciple Maitreya by sage Parāśara. Since there is a reference in it to the Maurya dynasty it is to be surmised that this was composed in the first or second century A.D. The narrator himself states thus:—"Vyāsa an adept in the compositon of Purāṇas composed this Purāṇasaṃhitā with ākhyānas, Upākhyānas, gāthās and Kalpanirṇayas. A Sūta named Romaharṣaṇa was Vyāsa’s chief disciple. The broad-minded Vyāsa gave that saṃhitā to that sūta. Romaharṣaṇa had six disciples named Sumati, Agnivarcas, Mitrāyus. Śāṃśapāyana, Akṛtavraṇa, and Sāvarṇi. Of these Akṛtavraṇa, Sāvarṇi and Śāṃśapāyana born in the Kaśyapagotra have composed Purāṇasaṃhitās. There is yet another saṃhitā composed by Romaharṣaṇa which was the basis of the saṃhitās of his three disciples. I have composed Viṣṇupurāṇa basing on the above four saṃhitās."

If a man gives as gift a book of Viṣṇu Purāṇa on the full moon day in the month of āṣāḍha (July) with Jaladhenu he will attain Viṣṇupāda.

(ii) Bhāgavata Purāṇa. This is the most popular and widely circulated of all the Purāṇas. It is dear to Viṣṇu-devotees. Divided into twelve Skandhas this contains eighteen thousand ślokas. All the incarnations of Viṣṇu are described in this. The most interesting Skandha is the tenth Skandha in which the author has described the life and activities of Śrī Kṛṣṇa. There was once a belief that it was Baladeva who lived in the thirteenth century A.D. that had composed this Purāṇa. But this belief was smashed when it was found that Vallālasena of Bengal who lived in the eleventh century A.D. had made references to this Purāṇa in some of his works. Bhāgavata accepts Kapila and Buddha as incarnations of Viṣṇu. This has been translated into all Indian languages. This book has to be given as gift on the fullmoon day in the month of Proṣṭhapada (September). Agni Purāṇa instructs that this book is to be given along with a golden image of a lion.

(iii) Nāradīya Purāṇa. This is in the form of a narration by Nārada to Sanatkumāra. In this book of twentyfive thousand verses Nārada teaches the dharmas of Bṛhatkalpa. If this is given as gift on the full-moon day in the month of Āśvina there will be great prosperity.

(iv) Garuḍa Purāṇa. This is in the form of instructions to Garuḍa by Viṣṇu. This deals with astronomy, medicine, grammar, and with the structure and qualities of diamonds. This Purāṇa is dear to Vaiṣṇavites. The latter half of this Purāṇa deals with life after death. The Hindus of north-India generally read this Purāṇa while cremating the bodies of the dead. This has given great importance to the origin of Garuḍa. There are eight thousand verses in this book. This book should be given as gift along with an image in gold of a swan to get prosperity.

(v) Padma Purāṇa (Pādma Purāṇa). This book is divided into six Khaṇḍas comprising fiftyfive thousand verses. The six Khaṇḍas are Sṛṣṭikhaṇḍa, Bhūmikhaṇḍa, Svargakhaṇḍa, Pātālakhaṇḍa, Uttarakhaṇḍa and Kriyāyogasāra. The Uttarakhaṇḍa describes the importance of all months and also the lotus, the seat of Brahmā. This contains the stories of Śakuntalā and Śrī Rāma as described by Kālidāsa in his works Śākuntala and Raghuvaṃśa which has made some believe that this Purāṇa was written after Kālidāsa. If this Purāṇa is given as gift with a cow in the month of Jyeṣṭha (June) it brings prosperity.

(vi) Varāha Purāṇa. The mode of narration is in the form of narrating the story by Varāha, the third incarnation of Viṣṇu. The theme is about holy places and mantras. It states that the goddess of earth prayed to Mahāviṣṇu and that prayer took the form of a goddess. This book contains fourteen thousand verses. If one copies down this Purāṇa and gives it as gift along with a golden image of Garuḍa on the full-moon day in the month of Caitra (April) one will attain Viṣṇuloka.

B. Purāṇas relating to Brahmā.

(i) Brahma Purāṇa. This is in the form of teachings by Brahmā to Dakṣa. This contains twentyfive thousand verses. This is called Ādi Purāṇa also. There is a special treatise in this book on Orissa, an ancient holy region of Bhārata. There is in this a special annexure explaining the intimacy between Śiva and Sūrya which is a deviation from other Purāṇas. Brahma Purāṇa states about a sūryakṣetra (sun-temple) situated at a place called Koṇārka near the holy place of Purī, installed there in the year 1241 A.D. If this Purāṇa along with Jaladhenu is given as a gift on the full-moon day in the month of Vaiśākha (May) the donor will attain heaven.

(ii) Brahmāṇḍa Purāṇa. This deals with the origin of the universe as told by Brahmā. In the beginning there was a golden egg and the prapañca (universe with its activities) was formed out of it. Portions of Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa, references to Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa and the incarnation of Paraśurāma are included in this. This book contains twelve thousand verses and it is believed to be uttama (best) to give this book as a gift to a brahmin.

(iii) Brahmavaivarta Purāṇa. This was instructed to Sāvarṇika by Nārada. The theme is the story of Rathantara. There are four kāṇḍas in this Purāṇa called Brahmakāṇḍa, Prakṛtikāṇḍa, Gaṇeśakāṇḍa and Kṛṣṇajanmakāṇḍa. This deals with Prapañcasṛṣṭi (creation of the universe). It says that Prapañca is nothing but the Vaivartta (transformation) of Brahman. It is considered to be holy to give this book containing eighteen thousand verses as a gift on the full-moon day in the month of Māgha (February).

(iv) Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa. This is one of the ancient Purāṇas. There are many stories regarding Indra, Sūrya and Agni in this. This includes a division called Devīmāhātmya containing praises about the goddess Durgā. This contains nine thousand verses and it is considered as uttama (best) to give this book as a gift to a brahmin on a full-moon day in the month of Kārttika (November).

(v) Bhaviṣya Purāṇa. This is what is told to Manu by Sūrya (Sun). This contains statements about future events. The book praises the worship of Sūrya (Sun), Agni (fire) and Nāga (serpent). There is an annexure dealing with the several holy places of Bhārata and the rights of pilgrims. The book contains fourteen thousand verses and it is considered to be uttama (best) to give this book along with treacle as a gift to a brahmin on the full-moon day in the month of Pauṣa (January).

(vi) Vāmana Purāṇa. There is a great similarity between the contents of this Purāṇa and that of Varāha Purāṇa. All the incarnations of Viṣṇu from Vāmana downwards are described in this Purāṇa. The scene of Śiva marrying Pārvatī is vividly described in this book. This Purāṇa contains ten thousand verses and it is considered to be uttama (best) to give this book as a gift in the autumn season or at the time of Viṣuva to a brahmin.

C. Purāṇas relating to Śiva.

(i) Vāyu Purāṇa. This Purāṇa is told by Vāyu. Bāṇabhaṭṭa who lived in the seventh century A.D. makes references to this Purāṇa in his works. There are many references in this Purāṇa about the Gupta Kings who ruled Bhārata in the 4th century A.D. So it is believed that this Purāṇa must have been written in the fifth or sixth century A.D The book contains plenty of verses in praise of Śiva. There are fourteen thousand verses in the Vāyu Purāṇa and it is considered to be best to give this book as a gift to a brahmin on the full-moon day in the month of Śrāvaṇa (August).

(ii) Liṅga Purāṇa. This contains instructions of Śiva on Dharma sitting in the form of liṅga (Phallus). The twentyeight different forms of Śiva are described in this. This contains twelve thousand verses and if this book is given as a gift to a brahmin with tiladhenu on the full-moon day in the month of Phālguna (March) the donor will attain Śivasāyujya.

(iii) Skānda Purāṇa. This Purāṇa is narrated by Skanda. The theme is the slaughter of the demon Tārakāsura by Skanda (Subrahmaṇya). There is a great similarity between this Purāṇa and the Kumārasambhava of Kālidāsa. There are eightyfour thousand verses in this Purāṇa and giving this book as a gift is thought to be good.

(iv) Agni Purāṇa. This Purāṇa was instructed to the sage Vasiṣṭha by Agnideva. There are several references in this to Śivaliṅga and Durgādevī. The incarnations of Rāma and Kṛṣṇa are also dealt with in this. Distinct from other Purāṇas this book deals with arts and science like Kavyālaṅkāranāṭakas (Poems, dramas, figures of speech), Jyotiśsāstra (Astronomy) and Śilpakalā (architecture). This Purāṇa contains twelve thousand verses and is capable of imparting knowledge on all arts and sciences.

(v) Matsya Purāṇa. This Purāṇa was taught to Manu by Matsya, the incarnation of Viṣṇu, The incarnation of Matsya is dealt in this. Several subjects like Jainamata (religion of Jainism), Buddhamata (Buddhism), Nāṭyaśāstra (histrionics) and Āndhrarājavaṃsa (kingdom and Kings of Āndhra) are discussed in this book. The book contains thirteen thousand verses and this is to be given as gift along with a golden image of a fish at the time of Viṣuva.

(vi) Kūrma Purāṇa. This Purāṇa is taught by Kūrmamūrti (incarnation of Viṣṇu as Kūrma (tortoise) while narrating the story of Indradyumna at Pātāla. All the seven islands and seven oceans are described in this book. Bhārata is situated in the centre of all these and is called Jambūdvīpa. Though it is believed that there were four saṃhitās for this, only the Brāhmasaṃhitā is available now. It includes Īśvaragītā and Vyāsagītā. The book contains eight thousand verses and is to be given as gift along with a golden image of tortoise.


There are eighteen minor Purāṇas besides the eighteen major ones. They are:—(1) Sanatkumāra (2) Nārasiṃha (3) Nāradīya (4) Śiva (5) Durvāsas (6) Kāpila (7) Mānava (8) Uśanas (9) Vāruṇa (10) Kālika (11) Sāmba (12) Saura (13) Āditya (14) Māheśvara (15) Devībhāgavata (16) Vāsiṣṭha (17) Viṣṇudharmottara (18) Nīlamata Purāṇa.

The two Upapurāṇas mentioned lastly are associated with Kashmir. The first is about the Vaiṣṇava religion there and the second about the wise saying of a Nāga King of the place called Nīla. (Purāṇas; History of Sanskrit Literature).

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