The Puranas, Part 4


Jan 20, CANADA (SUN) — Conclusion of a four-part series on the Puranas.

The Kurma Purana

"That in which Janarddana, in the form of a tortoise, in the regions under the earth, explained the objects of life--duty, wealth, pleasure, and liberation--in communication with Indradyumna and the Rishis in the proximity of Sakra, which refers to the Lakshmí Kalpa, and contains seventeen thousand stanzas, is the Kurma Purana."

In the first chapter of the Kurma Purana it gives an account of itself, which does not exactly agree with this description. Suta, who is repeating the narration, is made to say to the Rishis, "This most excellent Kaurma Purana is the fifteenth. Sanhitas are fourfold, from the variety of the collections. The Brahmí, Bhagavatí, Saurí, and Vaishnavi, are well known as the four Sanhitas which confer virtue, wealth, pleasure, and liberation. This is the Brahmi Sanhita, conformable to the four Vedas; in which there are six thousand slokas, and by it the importance of the four objects of life, O great sages, holy knowledge and Parameswara is known."

There is an irreconcilable difference in this specification of the number of stanzas and that given above. It is not very clear what is meant by a Sanhita as here used. A Sanhita, as observed above (p. xi), is something different from a Purana. It may be an assemblage of prayers and legends, extracted professedly from a Purana, but is not usually applicable to the original. The four Sanhitas here specified refer rather to their religious character than to their connexion with any specific work, and in fact the same terms are applied to what are called Sanhitas of the Skanda. In this sense a Purana might be also a Sanhita; that is, it might be an assemblage of formulæ and legends belonging to a division of the Hindu system; and the work in question, like the Vishnu Purana, does adopt both titles. It says, "This is the excellent Kaurma Purana, the fifteenth (of the series):" and again, "This is the Brahmí Sanhita." At any rate, no other work has been met with pretending to be the Kurma Purana.

With regard to the other particulars specified by the Matsya, traces of them are to be found. Although in two accounts of the traditional communication of the Purana no mention is made of Vishnu as one of the teachers, yet Suta repeats at the outset a dialogue between Vishnu, as the Kurma, and Indradyumna, at the time of the churning of the ocean; and much of the subsequent narrative is put into the mouth of the former.

The name, being that of an Avatara of Vishnu, might lead us to expect a Vaishnava work; but it is always and correctly classed with the Saiva. Puranas, the greater portion of it inculcating the worship of Siva and Durga. It is divided into two parts, of nearly equal length. In the first part, accounts of the creation, of the Avataras of Vishnu, of the solar and lunar dynasties of the kings to the time of Krishna, of the universe, and of the Manwantaras, are given, in general in a summary manner, but not unfrequently in the words employed in the Vishnu Purana. With these are blended hymns addressed to Maheswara by Brahma and others; the defeat of Andhakasura by Bhairava; the origin of four Saktis, Maheswarí, Siva, Satí, and Haimavatí, from Siva; and other Saiva legends. One chapter gives a more distinct and connected account of the incarnations of Siva in the present age than the Linga; and it wears still more the appearance of an attempt to identify the teachers of the Yoga school with personations of their preferential deity. Several chapters form a Kasí Mahatmya, a legend of Benares. In the second part there are no legends. It is divided into two parts, the Íswara Gíta and Vyasa Gita. In the former the knowledge of god, that is, of Siva, through contemplative devotion, is taught. In the latter the same object is enjoined through works, or observance of the ceremonies and precepts of the Vedas.

The date of the Kurma Purana cannot be very remote, for it is avowedly posterior to the establishment of the Tantrika, the Sakta, and the Jain sects. In the twelfth chapter it is said, "The Bhairava, Vama, Arhata, and Yamala Sastras are intended for delusion." There is no reason to believe that the Bhairava and Yamala Tantras are very ancient works, or that the practices of the left-hand Saktas, or the doctrines of Arhat or Jina were known in the early centuries of our era.

The Matsya Purana

"That in which, for the sake of promulgating the Vedas, Vishnu, in the beginning of a Kalpa, related to Manu the story of Narasinha and the events of seven Kalpas, that, O sages, know to be the Matsya Purana, containing twenty thousand stanzas."

We might, it is to be supposed, admit the description which the Matsya gives of itself to be correct, and yet as regards the number of verses there seems to be a misstatement. Three very good copies, one in my possession, one in the Company's library, and one in the Radcliffe library, concur in all respects, and in containing no more than between fourteen and fifteen thousand stanzas: in this case the Bhagavata is nearer the truth, when it assigns to it fourteen thousand. We may conclude, therefore, that the reading of the passage is in this respect erroneous. It is correctly said that the subjects of the Purana were communicated by Vishnu, in the form of a fish, to Manu.

The Purana, after the usual prologue of Suta and the Rishis, opens with the account of the Matsya or 'fish' Avatara of Vishnu, in which he preserves a king named Manu, with the seeds of all things, in an ark, from the waters of that inundation which in the season of a Pralaya overspreads the world. This story is told in the Mahabharata, with reference to the Matsya as its authority; from which it might be inferred that the Purana was prior to the poem. This of course is consistent with the tradition that the Puranas were first composed by Vyasa; but there can be no doubt that the greater part of the Mahabharata is much older than any extant Purana. The present instance is itself a proof; for the primitive simplicity with which the story of the fish Avatara is told in the Mahabharata is of a much more antique complexion than the mysticism and extravagance of the actual Matsya Purana. In the former, Manu collects the seeds of existing things in the ark, it is not said how: in the latter, he brings them all together by the power of Yoga.

In the latter, the great serpents come to the king, to serve as cords wherewith to fasten the ark to the horn of the fish: in the former, a cable made of ropes is more intelligibly employed for the purpose.

Whilst the ark floats, fastened to the fish, Manu enters into conversation with him; and his questions, and the replies of Vishnu, form the main substance of the compilation. The first subject is the creation, which is that of Brahma and the patriarchs. Some of the details are the usual ones; others are peculiar, especially those relating to the Pitris, or progenitors. The regal dynasties are next described; and then follow chapters on the duties of the different orders. It is in relating those of the householder, in which the duty of making gifts to Brahmans is comprehended, that we have the specification of the extent and subjects of the Puranas. It is meritorious to have copies made of them, and to give these away on particular occasions.

Thus it is said of the Matsya; "Whoever gives it away at either equinox, along with a golden fish and a milch cow, gives away the whole earth;" that is, he reaps a like reward in his next migration. Special duties of the householder--Vratas, or occasional acts of piety--are then described at considerable length, with legendary illustrations. The account of the universe is given in the usual strain. Saiva legends ensue; as, the destruction of Tripurasura; the war of the gods with Taraka and the Daityas, and the consequent birth of Kartikeya, with the various circumstances of Uma's birth and marriage, the burning of Kamadeva, and other events involved in that narrative; the destruction of the Asuras Maya and Andhaka; the origin of the Matris, and the like; interspersed with the Vaishnava legends of the Avataras. Some Mahatmyas are also introduced; one of which, the Narmada Mahatmya, contains some interesting particulars. There are various chapters on law and morals; and one which furnishes directions for building houses, and making images. We then have an account of the kings of future periods; and the Purana concludes with a chapter on gifts.

The Matsya Purana, it will be seen even from this brief sketch of its contents, is a miscellaneous compilation, but including in its contents the elements of a genuine Purana. At the same time it is of too mixed a character to be considered as a genuine work of the Pauranik class; and upon examining it carefully, it may be suspected that it is indebted to various works, not only for its matter, but for its words. The genealogical and historical chapters are much the same as those of the Vishnu; and many chapters, as those on the Pitris and Sraddhas, are precisely the same as those of the Srishti Khanda of the Padma Purana. It has drawn largely also from the Mahabharata: amongst other instances, it is sufficient to quote the story of Savitrí, the devoted wife of Satyavat, which is given in the Matsya in the same manner, but considerably abridged.

Although a Saiva work, it is not exclusively so, and it has no such sectarial absurdities as the Kurma and Linga. It is a composition of considerable interest; but if it has extracted its materials from the Padma, which it also quotes on one occasion, the specification of the Upa-puranas, it is subsequent to that work, and therefore not very ancient.

The Garuda Purana

"That which Vishnu recited in the Garuda Kalpa, relating chiefly to the birth of Garuda from Vinata, is here called the Garuda Purana; and in it there are read nineteen thousand verses."

The Garuda Purana which has been the subject of my examination corresponds in no respect with this description, and is probably a different work, though entitled the Garuda Purana. It is identical, however, with two copies in the Company's library. It consists of no more than about seven thousand stanzas; it is repeated by Brahma to Indra; and it contains no account of the birth of Garuda. There is a brief notice of the creation; but the greater part is occupied with the description of Vratas, or religious observances, of holidays, of sacred places dedicated to the sun, and with prayers from the Tantrika ritual, addressed to the sun, to Siva, and to Vishnu. It contains also treatises on astrology, palmistry, and precious stones; and one, still more extensive, on medicine.

The latter portion, called the Preta Kalpa, is taken up with directions for the performance of obsequial rites. There is nothing in all this to justify the application of the name. Whether a genuine Garuda Purana exists is doubtful. The description given in the Matsya is less particular than even the brief notices of the other Puranas, and might have easily been written without any knowledge of the book itself, being, with exception of the number of stanzas, confined to circumstances that the title alone indicates.

The Brahmanda Purana

"That which has declared, in twelve thousand two hundred verses, the magnificence of the egg of Brahma, and in which an account of the future Kalpas is contained, is called the Brahmanda Purana, and was revealed by Brahma."

The Brahmanda Purana is usually considered to be in much the same predicament as the Skanda, no longer procurable in a collective body, but represented by a variety of Khandas and Mahatmyas, professing to be derived from it. The facility with which any tract may be thus attached to the non-existent original, and the advantage that has been taken of its absence to compile a variety of unauthentic fragments, have given to the Brahmanda, Skanda, and Padma, according to Col. Wilford, the character of being the Puranas of thieves or impostors. This is not applicable to the Padma, which, as above shewn, occurs entire and the same in various parts of India. The imposition of which the other two are made the vehicles can deceive no one, as the purpose of the particular legend is always too obvious to leave any doubt of its origin.

Copies of what profess to be the entire Brahmanda Purana are sometimes, though rarely, procurable. I met with one in two portions, the former containing, one hundred and twenty-four chapters, the latter seventy-eight; and the whole containing about the number of stanzas assigned to the Purana. The first and largest portion, however, proved to be the same as the Vayu Purana, with a passage occasionally slightly varied, and at the end of each chapter the common phrase 'Iti Brahmanda Purane' substituted for 'Iti Vayu Purane.' I do not think there was any intended fraud in the substitution. The last section of the first part of the Vayu Purana is termed the Brahmanda section, giving an account of the dissolution of the universe; and a careless or ignorant transcriber might have taken this for the title of the whole. The checks to the identity of the work have been honestly preserved, both in the index and the frequent specification of Vayu as the teacher or narrator of it.

The second portion of this Brahmanda is not any part of the Vayu; it is probably current in the Dakhin as a Sanhita or Khanda. Agastya is represented as going to the city Kanchí (Conjeveram), where Vishnu, as Hayagríva, appears to him, and, in answer to his inquiries, imparts to him the means of salvation, the worship of Parasaktí. In illustration of the efficacy of this form of adoration, the main subject of the work is an account of the exploits of Lalita Deví, a form of Durga, and her destruction of the demon Bhandasura. Rules for her worship are also given, which are decidedly of a Sakta or Tantrika description; and this work cannot be admitted, therefore, to be part of a genuine Purana.

The Upa-puranas

The Upa-puranas, in the few instances which are known, differ little in extent or subject from some of those to which the title of Purana is ascribed. The Matsya enumerates but four; but the Deví Bhagavata has a more complete list, and specifies eighteen. They are, 1. The Sanatkumara, 2. Narasinha, 3. Naradíya, 4. Siva, 5. Durvasasa, g. Kapila, 7. Manava, 8. Ausanasa, 9. Varuna, 10. Kalika, 11. Samba, 12. Nandi, 13. Saura, 14. Parasara, 15. Aditya, 16. Maheswara, 17. Bhagavata, 18. Vasishtha.

The Matsya observes of the second, that it is named in the Padma Purana, and contains eighteen thousand verses. The Nandi it calls Nanda, and says that Kartikeya tells in it the story of Nanda. A rather different list is given in the Reva Khanda; or, 1. Sanatkumara, 2. Narasinha, 3. Nanda, 4. Sivadharma, 5. Durvasasa, 6. Bhavishya, related by Narada or Naradíya, 7. Kapila, 8. Manava, 9. Ausanasa, 10. Brahmanda, 11. Varuna, 12. Kalika, 13. Maheswara, 14. Samba, 15. Saura, 16. Parasara, 17. Bhagavata, 18. Kaurma. These authorities, however, are of questionable weight, having in view, no doubt, the pretensions of the Deví Bhagavata to be considered as the authentic Bhagavata.

Of these Upa-puranas few are to be procured. Those in my possession are the Siva, considered as distinct from the Vayu; the Kalika, and perhaps one of the Naradíyas, as noticed above. I have also three of the Skandhas of the Deví Bhagavata, which most undoubtedly is not the real Bhagavata, supposing that any Purana so named preceded the work of Vopadeva. There can be no doubt that in any authentic list the name of Bhagavata does not occur amongst the Upa-puranas: it has been put there to prove that there are two works so entitled, of which the Purana is the Deví Bhagavata, the Upa-purana the Srí Bhagavata. The true reading should be Bhargava, the Purana of Bhrigu; and the Deví Bhagavata is not even an Upa-purana. It is very questionable if the entire work, which as far as it extends is eminently a Sakta composition, ever had existence.

The Siva Upa-purana contains about six thousand stanzas, distributed into two parts. It is related by Sanatkumara to Vyasa and the Rishis at Naimisharanya, and its character may be judged of from the questions to which it is a reply. "Teach us," said the Rishis, "the rules of worshipping the Linga, and of the god of gods adored under that type; describe to us his various forms, the places sanctified by him, and the prayers with which he is to be addressed." In answer, Sanatkumara repeats the Siva Purana, containing the birth of Vishnu and Brahma; the creation and divisions of the universe; the origin of all things from the Linga; the rules of worshipping it and Siva; the sanctity of times, places, and things, dedicated to him; the delusion of Brahma and Vishnu by the Linga; the rewards of offering flowers and the like to a Linga; rules for various observances in honour of Mahadeva; the mode of practising the Yoga; the glory of Benares and other Saiva Tírthas; and the perfection of the objects of life by union with Maheswara. These subjects are illustrated in the first part with very few legends; but the second is made up almost wholly of Saiva stories, as the defeat of Tripurasura; the sacrifice of Daksha; the births of Kartikeya and Ganesa the sons of Siva, and Nandi and Bhringaríti his attendants and others; together with descriptions of Benares and other places of pilgrimage, and rules for observing such festivals as the Sivaratri. This work is a Saiva manual, not a Purana.

The Kalika Purana contains about nine thousand stanzas in ninety-eight chapters, and is the only work of the series dedicated to recommend the worship of the bride of Siva, in one or other of her manifold forms, as Girija, Deví, Bhadrakalí, Kalí, Mahamaya. It belongs therefore to the Sakta modification of Hindu belief, or the worship of the female powers of the deities. The influence of this worship spews itself in the very first pages of the work, which relate the incestuous passion of Brahma for his daughter Sandhya, in a strain that has nothing analogous to it in the Vayu, Linga, or Siva Puranas.

The marriage of Siva and Parvati is a subject early described, with the sacrifice of Daksha, and the death of Sati: and this work is authority for Siva's carrying the dead body about the world, and the origin of the Píthasthanas, or places where the different members of it were scattered, and where Lingas were consequently erected. A legend follows of the births of Bhairava and Vetala, whose devotion to different forms of Deví furnishes occasion to describe in great detail the rites and formulæ of which her worship consists, including the chapters on sanguinary sacrifices, translated in the Asiatic Researches. Another peculiarity in this work is afforded by very prolix descriptions of a number of rivers and mountains at Kamarupa-tírtha in Asam, and rendered holy ground by the celebrated temple of Durga in that country, as Kamakshí or Kamakhya. It is a singular, and yet uninvestigated circumstance, that Asam, or at least the north-east of Bengal, seems to have been in a great degree the source from which the Tantrika and Sakta corruptions of the religion of the Vedas and Puranas proceeded.

The specification of the Upa-puranas, whilst it names several of which the existence is problematical, omits other works, bearing the same designation, which are sometimes met with. Thus in the collection of Col. Mackenzie we have a portion of the Bhargava, and a Mudgala Purana, which is probably the same with the Ganesa Upa-purana, cited by Col. Vans Kennedy. I have also a copy of the Ganesa Purana, which seems to agree with that of which he speaks; the second portion being entitled the Krída Khanda, in which the pastimes of Ganesa, including a variety of legendary matters, are described. The main subject of the work is the greatness of Ganesa, and prayers and formulæ appropriate to him are abundantly detailed. It appears to be a work originating with the Ganapatya sect, or worshippers of Ganesa. There is also a minor Purana called Adi, or 'first,' not included in the list. This is a work, however, of no great extent or importance, and is confined to a detail of the sports of the juvenile Krishna.


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