The heart of Vedas

By BVK Sastry and Gururaj Mutalik

Puranas are the sacred literature of Sanatana Dharma. These voluminous and encyclopedic works are the common person’s tools to understand the essence of Vedas through song, stories and ritualistic symbols.  Puranas have shaped Hindu community faith identity over centuries. Puranas have molded community faith in sacredness of the land and ritual (Teertha-kshetra). Puranas sculpt the   sacred and ethical code of human and divine relations through vrata-katha- the religious narratives of Gods and Goddesses. Puranas provide the practical means of worshipping Divine through the symbolic forms of Gods at temples, as a stepping stone for commoner, to access Divine through emotional attachment (Bhakti ). Puranas are the treasure house of many stories and narratives that binds together families through festivity and relations. The national and community festivities of Navaratri Desersa, Ganesha Worship, Kumbha-mela, Deepvali, and Holi are some of the religious events derived from the authority of Puranas and are of community wide significance.  These works provide the source inspiration for art, (temple) architecture, dance and music compositions which are the variegated tapestry of culture of India.

[Note: About Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavatam, more detailed articles will be added to the web. – Ed. ] 

The term ‘purana’ is found in the Atharvaveda 11.7.24 and  Chandogya Upanishad (7.1.2), translated, The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad refers to purana as the “fifth Veda”, itihāsapurāṇaṃ pañcamaṃ vedānāṃ, reflecting the early religious importance of Puranas.  Mahabharata, the great epic is also called itihāsapurāṇaṃ.   Generally Puranas do not carry any supplementing commentary or additional explanation. The open ended approach to absorb and be current for teaching Dharma Shastra seems to have created a danger of interpolation, textual loss and corruption. Though these works are not in the main stream of Vedanta texts, there seems to have emerged a necessity to weave a thread of consistency for meaning and purpose of these works. In 13th century, sri Madvacharya composed the work called Mahabharata Tatparya Nirnaya to show the threads of a consistent understanding running across all Puranas to establish the message of Vedas.  Taking references from all Puranas, Madhvacahrya establishes the message of Vedas as Sanatana Dharma and supremacy of Sri Vishnu.

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Maharshi Veda Vyasa, the organizer of Vedas in to four main categories is also considered the narrator-author and compiler of Puranas. The works are open ended and keep updating to meet the needs of the dynamic society. The elements of history sometimes get included as a part of the religious texts. Thus Puranas also serve as the resource reference for exploring the history of land and communities.  Though a technical definition of what constitutes a Purana is there in tradition, all the elements in the extant works of Purana may not match this criterion. Puranas, being oral tradition, like Vedas, and addressing a social outreach purpose of spreading Sanatana Dharma values, have tended to absorb history and social events of to the realm of sacred and pass it on to later generations.

Puranas are generally in the form of poetic dialogue between Gods and sages and narratives to an assembly of spiral seekers. They contain narratives made to spiritual seekers and sages, on specific questions. Puranas are voluminous works and are encyclopedic in nature. The language of narrative is Samskrit. The tradition of Purana narration is called ‘Katha’. One who undertakes the social spread of the message of Puranas through public discourse, song and  ritual -narrative s- is called katha-kaar / Hari katha kaar’. This is a means used by saints and sages to deliver the message of Vedas, wrapped in the protective package of faith-devotion to personal deities. The beneficiaries of Purana discourse are common household persons, especially women in the society. The use of music and dance is an integral part of Purana-narration.

On an overall count, there are 18 main Purana works. The works- Ramayana and Mahabharta are also included in the category of Puranas. Srimad Bhagavatamaha purana deserves a special mention as a major Purana.

Puranas are classified in several ways. One is by the theme and prominence. Maha-Puranas are prominent works; and Upa-Purana’s are secondary works. Eighteen Main (Maha Purana) and eighteen sub (= Upa-) purana works are listed.  The Puranas are also thematically grouped by the Faith dominance and main deity praised in the work. Based on the Vishnu related are Vaishnava Puranas; Shiva related are  Saiva Puranas; Shakti related are Shaakta puranas. Upa-Puranas are generally named on the main deity addressed in the work.

The Maha puranas are :

1.Agni Purana( 15,400 verses)
2. Bhagavata (18,000 verses).
3  Brahma (10,000 verses).
4. Brahmanda (12,000 verses)
5. Brahmavaivarta (17,000 verses) .
6.Garuda (19,000 verses)
7. Harivamsa (16,000 verses)
8.Kurma         (17,000 verses).
9. Linga ( 11,000 verses).
10. Markandeya (90,000 verses)
11. Matsya   (14,000 verses) .
12.Narada (25,000 verses)
13.Padma  (55,000 verses)
14. Shiva (24,000 verses)
15. Skanda ( 81,100 verses)
16. Vamana (10,000 verses)
17. Varaha (24,000 verses)
18. Vayu (24,000 verses)
19.Vishnu(23,000 verses)

Puranas are also classified according to qualification of persons who can understand them.  Purāṇas are supplementary and amplificatory explanations of the Vedas intended for different types of men. All men are not equal. Padma Purana classifies the puranas into three types as sattvik ,rajasic and tamasic , using the  three Guna principles for classification. Six puranas are placed in each of the three guna tags.  There are men who are conducted by the mode of goodness, others who are under the mode of passion and others who are under the mode of ignorance. The Purāṇas are so divided that all seekers can take advantage of the guidance from these texts and make spiritual advancement and adjustments.

The Mahapuranas are also classified according the three aspects of the divine addressing creation sustenance and dissolution:

Brāhma Puranas: (Brahma Purana, Brahmānda Purana, Brahma Vaivarta Purana, Mārkandeya Purana, Bhavishya Purana )

Vaiṣṇava Puranas: ( Vishnu Purana, Bhagavata Purana, Nāradeya Purana, Garuda Purana, Padma Purana, Varaha Purana, Vāmana Purana, Kūrma Purana, Matsya Purana)

Śaiva Puranas: Shiva Purana, Linga Purana, Skanda Purana, Agni Purana.

The Upapuranas are lesser or ancillary texts: these are sometimes also said to be eighteen in number, with still less agreement as to the canonical titles. They include among many: Sanat-kumara, Narasimha, Brihan-naradiya, Siva-rahasya, Durvasa, Kapila, Vamana, Bhargava, Varuna, Kalika, Samba, Nandi, Surya, Parasara, Vasishtha, Devi-Bhagavata, Ganesha, Mudgala, and Hamsa, with only a few having been critically edited. The Ganesha and Mudgala Puranas are devoted to Ganesha. The Devi-Bhagavata Purana, which extols the goddess Durga, has become (along with the Devi Mahatmya of the Markandeya Purana) a basic text for Devi worshipers.

Sthala Puranas are a class of sacred works which provide a connection between the land and Divine in many forms. The concept of historicity and time does not find any relevance here.  There are numerous Sthala Puranas, most written in vernaculars, some with Sanskrit versions as well. The 275 Shiva Sthalams of the continent have puranas for each, famously glorified in the Tamil literature Tevaram. Some appear in Sanskrit versions in the Mahapuranas or Upapuranas.

                Kula Puranas are other class of sacred works which provide a community identity linked to certain deity or event of sacred significance.   These Puranas deal with a caste’s origin myth, stories, and legends (the word kula means “family” or “tribe” in Sanskrit). They are important sources for caste identity though usually contested by rival castes.

Valmiki’s Ramayana is considered as first social format literary narrative of Vedas, to reach out society. Veda-Vyasa’s Mahabharata, coming after several hundred years after Ramayana, is also classified as a purana.  According to traditional schools Ramayana and Mahabharata are separated by several centuries in the Yuga scale. Ramayana is in Treta yuga and Mahabharata in Dwapara yuga. The common purpose of all three works is social outreach of Vedic message, the restoration of Sanatana Dharma in society. According to modern schools, Ramayana and Mahabharata are separated at least by 3000 years, both belonging to pre-Christian era.

Srimad Valmiki Ramayana is an epic poem which conveys the essential message: Virtue annihilates vice.   It is a magnum opus of 24,000 verses (Sloka)  in Sanskrit language, organized in to six units ( Kanda) with sub chapters (Sarga), it is hailed as the essence of Vedas, the story of the incarantion of the Supreme Divinie Maha Vishnu as Sri Rama to establish Sanatana Dharma. The six units are :  Bala Kanda  [77 chapters], Ayodhya Kanda [119 chapters] Aranya Kanda [75 chapters], Kishkindha Kanda [67 chapters], Sundara Kanda  [68 chapters] and Yuddha Kanda [128 chapters]. A seventh unit called Uttara Kanda is also listed as a part of Ramayana.

Srimad Mahabharata (3100 BCE) The Mahabharata is a major re-narration of Sanatana Dharma by Sri Veda Vyasa. Coming after at least three millennia after Srimad Valmiki Ramayana, it is story of the Kuru dynasty and the issues of Dharma involved in their life events. Mahabharata, like Puranas is an open ended narrative, ever growing from  its original 10,000 verse level (jaya) to one lakh verse composite status (Maha  bharata) over several centuries. Attributed to the authorship of Veda Vyasa, it’s recensions are kept alive by his disciples Vaishampayana and Suta muni. Mahabharata is the purana -epic from where the ancient name of India is derived. As an ever expanding book, its structure is in to eighteen main books (Parvas) and within we have (Sargas). Mahabharata is a treasure house of everything that India is proud of: Srimad Bhagavad -Gita, the monumental discourse on Yoga-Vedanta in Samskrit language, ethical discourses like Vidura niti, Philsophical riddles like Yaksha Prashna, poetic stories of Nala-damayanti, Shakuntala.

Harivamsha, is considered a Maha Purana by some traditional schools . It is a poetic narrative from sage Vaishampayana to King Janamejaya.  Harivamsa, means   “the dynastic history of Hari, Vishnu.  It is listed as the last chapter of Mahabharata.  A work of 16,000 verses, Harivamsha  is organized in to three sections – Harivamsa parva (50 chapters), Visnu parva (128 chapters) and Bhavisya parva (138 chapters).  Attributed to Sage Vyasa’s authorship, the focus of the text is the life time events of Sri Krishna after the battle at Kuruksetra, including his ‘Avatara’  glorification. The narrative tradition of Harivamsha comes in the lineage of Ugrasrava and Saunka Suta puranika at Naimisaranya  forest.  Harivamsha is reverentially quoted by many Vedanta schools to highlight the glory of Vishnu and His ‘Avatars’.

Bhagavata Maha Puranam is accorded a special place amongst Purana’s. According to traditional schools the work belongs to pre-Christian era and closer to Mahabharata period. Modern schools are of the view that this work belongs to post Christian era, around 1000 AD.   Bhagavata Maha puranam has its focus is on teaching bhakti (devotion) to Supreme God Vishnu (Narayana) in the form of SriKrishna.  The Bhagavata Purana is the source of important narratives in Hinduism, especially ten avatars of Vishnu, and past times of Krishna. The structure of Srimad Bhagavatam is in twelve books, told as a story by Sage Shuka to the king Parikshit, cursed to die in seven days by a snake bite. This poetic work has been the delight of many devotees to savor the taste of devotion as a medicine and means for final liberation.

Summing up, the ancient Indian wisdom, having its seeds in Vedas has always reached its message to society through Puranas and Upa-Puranas, Ramayana, Mahabharata (and Harivamsha) and Bhagavatam. What is popularly known as Hinduism – as faith belief ritualistic practice of religion and culture, is better seen as  an understanding and practice of Vedas presented through the lens of these works providing the song, stories and ritualistic symbols for common person to get practice Sanatana Dharma to get engaged  with the Sacred Divine.