The Puranas, Part 3


Gracious Manifestation of Devi
Rajput, late 17th c.

Jan 19, CANADA (SUN) — A four-part series on the Puranas.

The Brahma-vaivartta Purana

"That Purana which is related by Savarni to Narada, and contains the account of the greatness of Krishna, with the occurrences of the Rathantara Kalpa, where also the story of Brahma-varaha is repeatedly told, is called the Brahma-vaivartta, and contains eighteen thousand stanzas." The account here given of the Brahma-vaivartta Purana agrees with its present state as to its extent. The copies rather exceed than fall short of eighteen thousand stanzas. It also correctly represents its comprising a Mahatmya or legend of Krishna; but it is very doubtful, nevertheless, if the same work is intended.

The Brahma-vaivartta, as it now exists, is narrated, not by Savarni, but the Rishi Narayana to Narada, by whom it is communicated to Vyasa: he teaches it to Súta, and the latter repeats it to the Rishis at Naimisharanya. It is divided into four Khandas, or books; the Brahma, Prakriti, Ganesa, and Krishna Janma Khandas; dedicated severally to describe the acts of Brahma, Devi, Ganesa, and Krishna; the latter, however, throughout absorbing the interest and importance of the work. In none of these is there any account of the Varaha Avatara of Vishnu, which seems to be intended by the Matsya; nor any reference to a Rathantara Kalpa.

It may also be observed, that, in describing the merit of presenting a copy of this Purana, the Matsya adds, "Whoever makes such gift, is honoured in the Brahma-loka;" a sphere which is of very inferior dignity to that to which a worshipper of Krishna is taught to aspire by this Purana. The character of the work is in truth so decidedly sectarial, and the sect to which it belongs so distinctly marked, that of the worshippers of the juvenile Krishna and Radha, a form of belief of known modern origin, that it can scarcely have found a notice in a work to which, like the Matsya, a much more remote date seems to belong. Although therefore the Matsya may be received in proof of there having been a Brahma-vaivartta Purana at the date of its compilation, dedicated especially to the honour of Krishna, yet we cannot credit the possibility of its being the same we now possess.

Although some of the legends believed to be ancient are scattered through the different portions of this Purana, yet the great mass of it is taken up with tiresome descriptions of Vrindavan and Goloka, the dwellings of Krishna on earth and in heaven; with endless repetitions of prayers and invocations addressed to him; and with insipid descriptions of his person and sports, and the love of the Gopis and of Radha towards him. There are some particulars of the origin of the artificer castes, which is of value because it is cited as authority in matters affecting them, contained in the Brahma Khanda; and in the Prakrita and Ganesa Khandas are legends of those divinities, not wholly, perhaps, modern inventions, but of which the source has not been traced. In the life of Krishna the incidents recorded are the same as those narrated in the Vishnu and the Bhagavata; but the stories, absurd as they are, are much compressed to make room for original matter, still more puerile and tiresome. The Brahma-vaivartta has not the slightest title to be regarded as a Purana.

The Linga Purana

"Where Maheswara, present in the Agni Linga, explained (the objects of life) virtue, wealth, pleasure, and final liberation at the end of the Agni Kalpa, that Purana, consisting of eleven thousand stanzas, was called the Lainga by Brahma himself."

The Linga Purana conforms accurately enough to this description. The Kalpa is said to be the Ísana, but this is the only difference. It consists of eleven thousand stanzas. It is said to have been originally composed by Brahma; and the primitive Linga is a pillar of radiance, in which Maheswara is present. The work is therefore the same as that referred to by the Matsya.

A short account is given, in the beginning, of elemental and secondary creation, and of the patriarchal families; in which, however, Siva takes the place of Vishnu, as the indescribable cause of all things. Brief accounts of Siva's incarnations and proceedings in different Kalpas next occur, offering no interest except as characteristic of sectarial notions. The appearance of the great fiery Linga takes place, in the interval of a creation, to separate Vishnu and Brahma, who not only dispute the palm of supremacy, but fight for it; when the Linga suddenly springs up, and puts them both to shame; as, after traveling upwards and downwards for a thousand years in each direction, neither can approach to its termination. Upon the Linga the sacred monosyllable Om is visible, and the Vedas proceed from it, by which Brahms and Vishnu become enlightened, and acknowledge and eulogize the superior might and glory of Siva.

A notice of the creation in the Padma Kalpa then follows, and this leads to praises of Siva by Vishnu and Brahma. Siva repeats the story of his incarnations, twenty-eight in number; intended as a counterpart, no doubt, to the twenty-four Avataras of Vishnu, as described in the Bhagavata; and both being amplifications of the original ten Avataras, and of much less merit as fictions. Another instance of rivalry occurs in the legend of Dadhichi, a Muni and worshipper of Siva. In the Bhagavata there is a story of Ambarisha being defended against Durvasas by the discus of Vishnu, against which that Saiva sage is helpless: here Vishnu hurls his discus at Dadhichi, but it falls blunted to the ground, and a conflict ensues, in which Vishnu and his partisans are all overthrown by the Muni.

A description of the universe, and of the regal dynasties of the Vaivaswata Manwantara to the time of Krishna, runs through a number of chapters, in substance, and very commonly in words, the same as in other Puranas. After which, the work resumes its proper character, narrating legends, and enjoining rites, and reciting prayers, intending to do honour to Siva under various forms. Although, however, the Linga holds a prominent place amongst them, the spirit of the worship is as little influenced by the character of the type as can well be imagined. There is nothing like the phallic orgies of antiquity: it is all mystical and spiritual. The Linga is twofold, external and internal. The ignorant, who need a visible sign, worship Siva through a 'mark' or 'type'--which is the proper meaning of the word 'Linga'--of wood or stone; but the wise look upon this outward emblem as nothing, and contemplate in their minds the invisible, inscrutable type, which is Siva himself. Whatever may have been the origin of this form of worship in India, the notions upon which it was founded, according to the impure fancies of European writers, are not to be traced in even the Saiva Puranas.

Data for conjecturing the era of this work are defective, but it is more of a ritual than a Purana, and the Pauranik chapters which it has inserted, in order to keep up something of its character, have been evidently borrowed for the purpose. The incarnations of Siva, and their 'pupils,' as specified in one place, and the importance attached to the practice of the Yoga, render it possible that under the former are intended those teachers of the Saiva religion who belong to the Yoga school, which seems to have flourished about the eighth or ninth centuries. It is not likely that the work is earlier, it may be considerably later. It has preserved apparently some Saiva legends of an early date, but the greater part is ritual and mysticism of comparatively recent introduction.

The Varaha Purana

"That in which the glory of the great Varaha is predominant, as it was revealed to Earth by Vishnu, in connexion, wise Munis, with the Manava Kalpa, and which contains twenty-four thousand verses, is called the Varaha Purana."

It may be doubted if the Varaha Purana of the present day is here intended. It is narrated by Vishnu as Varaha, or in the boar incarnation, to the personified Earth. Its extent, however, is not half that specified, little exceeding ten thousand stanzas. It furnishes also itself evidence of the prior currency of some other work, similarly denominated; as, in the description of Mathura contained in it, Sumantu, a Muni, is made to observe, "The divine Varaha in former times expounded a Purana, for the purpose of solving the perplexity of Earth."

Nor can the Varaha Purana be regarded as a Purana agreeably to the common definition, as it contains but a few scattered and brief allusions to the creation of the world, and the reign of kings: it has no detailed genealogies either of the patriarchal or regal families, and no account of the reigns of the Manus. Like the Linga Purana, it is a religious manual, almost wholly occupied with forms of prayer, and rules for devotional observances, addressed to Vishnu; interspersed with legendary illustrations, most of which are peculiar to itself, though some are taken from the common and ancient stock: many of them, rather incompatibly with the general scope of the compilation, relate to the history of Siva and Durga. A considerable portion of the work is devoted to descriptions of various Tirthas, places of Vaishnava pilgrimage; and one of Mathura enters into a variety of particulars relating to the shrines of that city, constituting the Mathura Mahatmyam.

In the sectarianism of the Varaha Purana there is no leaning to the particular adoration of Krishna, nor are the Rath-yatra and Janmashtami included amongst the observances enjoined. There are other indications of its belonging to an earlier stage of Vaishnava worship, and it may perhaps be referred to the age of Ramanuja, the early part of the twelfth century.


The Skanda Purana

"The Skanda Purana is that in which the six-faced deity (Skanda) has related the events of the Tatpurusha Kalpa, enlarged with many tales, and subservient to the duties taught by Maheswara. It is said to contain eighty-one thousand one hundred stanzas: so it is asserted amongst mankind."

It is uniformly agreed that the Skanda Purana in a collective form has no existence; and the fragments in the shape of Sanhitas, Khandas, and Mahatmyas, which are affirmed in various parts of India to be portions of the Purana, present a much more formidable mass of stanzas than even the immense number of which it is said to consist. The most celebrated of these portions in Hindustan is the Kasi Khanda, a very minute description of the temples of Siva in or adjacent to Benares, mixed with directions for worshipping Maheswara, and a great variety of legends explanatory of its merits, and of the holiness of Kasi: many of them are puerile and uninteresting, but some are of a higher character.

The story of Agastya records probably, in a legendary style, the propagation of Hinduism in the south of India: and in the history of Divodasa, king of Kasi, we have an embellished tradition of the temporary depression of the worship of Siva, even in its metropolis, before the ascendancy of the followers of Buddha, There is every reason to believe the greater part of the contents of the Kasi Khanda anterior to the first attack upon Benares by Mahmud of Ghizni. The Kasi Khanda alone contains fifteen thousand stanzas.

Another considerable work ascribed in upper India to the Skanda Purana is the Utkala Khanda, giving an account of the holiness of Urissa, and the Kshetra of Purushottama or Jagannatha. The same vicinage is the site of temples, once of great magnificence and extent, dedicated to Siva, as Bhuvaneswara, which forms an excuse for attaching an account of a Vaishnava Tirtha to an eminently Saiva Purana. There can be little doubt, however, that the Utkala Khanda is unwarrantably included amongst the progeny of the parent work. Besides these, there is a Brahmottara Khanda, a Reva Khanda, a Siva Rahasya Khanda, a Himavat Khanda, and others. Of the Sanhitas, the chief are the Súta Sanhita, Sanatkumara Sanhita, Saura Sanhita, and Kapila Sanhita: there are several other works denominated Sanhitas.

The Mahatmyas are more numerous still. According to the Súta Sanhita, as quoted by Col. Vans Kennedy, the Skanda Purana contains six Sanhitas, five hundred Khandas, and five hundred thousand stanzas; more than is even attributed to all the Puranas. He thinks, judging from internal evidence, that all the Khandas and Sanhitas may be admitted to be genuine, though the Mahatmyas have rather a questionable appearance. Now one kind of internal evidence is the quantity; and as no more than eighty-one thousand one hundred stanzas have ever been claimed for it, all in excess above that amount must be questionable. But many of the Khandas, the Kasi Khanda for instance, are quite as local as the Mahatmyas, being legendary stories relating to the erection and sanctity of certain temples or groups of temples, and to certain Lingas; the interested origin of which renders them very reasonably objects of suspicion. In the present state of our acquaintance with the reputed portions of the Skanda Purana, my own views of their authenticity are so opposed to those entertained by Col. Vans Kennedy, that instead of admitting all the Sanhitas and Khandas to be genuine, I doubt if any one of them was ever a part of the Skanda Purana.

The Vamana Purana

"That in which the four-faced Brahma taught the three objects of existence, as subservient to the account of the greatness of Trivikrama, which treats also of the Siva Kalpa, and which consists of ten thousand stanzas, is called the Vamana Purana."

The Vamana Purana contains an account of the dwarf incarnation of Vishnu; but it is related by Pulastya to Narada, and extends to but about seven thousand stanzas. Its contents can scarcely establish its claim to the character of a Purana.

There is little or no order in the subjects which this work recapitulates, and which arise out of replies made by Pulastya to questions put abruptly and unconnectedly by Narada. The greater part of them relate to the worship of the Linga; a rather strange topic for a Vaishnava Purana, but engrossing the principal part of the compilation. They are however subservient to the object of illustrating the sanctity of certain holy places; so that the Vamana Purana is little else than a succession of Mahatmyas. Thus in the opening almost of the work occurs the story of Daksha's sacrifice, the object of which is to send Siva to Papamochana tirtha at Benares, where he is released from the sin of Brahmanicide.

Next conies the story of the burning of Kamadeva, for the purpose of illustrating the holiness of a Siva-linga at Kedareswara in the Himalaya, and of Badarikasrama. The larger part of the work consists of the Saro-mahatmya, or legendary exemplifications of the holiness of Sthanu tirtha; that is, of the sanctity of various Lingas and certain pools at Thanesar and Kurukhet, the country north-west from Delhi. There are some stories also relating to the holiness of the Gódavari river; but the general site of the legends is in Hindustan. In the course of these accounts we have a long narrative of the marriage of Siva with Uma, and the birth of Kartikeya.

There are a few brief allusions to creation and the Manwantaras, but they are merely incidental; and all the five characteristics of a Purana are deficient. In noticing the Swarochisha Manwantara, towards the end of the book, the elevation of Bali as monarch of the Daityas, and his subjugation of the universe, the gods included, are described; and this leads to the narration that gives its title to the Purana, the birth of Krishna as a dwarf, for the purpose of humiliating Bali by fraud, as he was invincible by force. The story is told as usual, but the scene is laid at Kurukshetra.

A more minute examination of this work than that which has been given to it might perhaps discover some hint from which to conjecture its date. It is of a more tolerant character than the Puranas, and divides its homage between Siva and Vishnu with tolerable impartiality. It is not connected, therefore, with any sectarial principles, and may have preceded their introduction. It has not, however, the air of any antiquity, and its compilation may have amused the leisure of some Brahman of Benares three or four centuries ago.


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