What are the Puranas?


What are the Puranas?

Purana texts are called Puranas because they makes Vedas complete (puranat puranam iti canyatra). This is not to suggest that the Vedas are incomplete. It simply means that the Puranas are explanatory supplements which aid one to understand the concise and ambiguous passages in the Vedas.

Puranas are appeared from the Supreme Person along with all other vedic scriptures :

Atharva Veda 11.7.24:

rcah samani chandamsi puranam yajusa saha
ucchistaj-jajnire sarve divi deva divi-sritah

“The Rg, Sama, Yajur and Atharva became manifest from the Lord, along with the Puranas and all the Devas residing in the heavens.”

Atharva Veda 15.6.10–12:

sa brhatim disam anu vyacalat tam itihasas ca puranam ca gathas ca itihasasya ca sa vai puranasya ca gathanam ca narasamsinam ca priyam dhama bhavati ya evam veda

“He approached the brhati meter, and thus the Itihasas, Puranas, Gathas and Narasamsis became favorable to him. One who knows this verily becomes the beloved abode of the Itihasas, Puranas, Gathas and Narasamsis.”

Madhyandina-sruti, Brhad-aranyaka Upanisad 2.4.10

asya mahato bhutasya nihsvasitam etad yad rg-vedo yajur-vedah sama
vedo’tharvangirasa itihasah puranam ityadina

“O Maitreya, the Rg, Yajur, Sama and Atharva Vedas as well as the Itihasas and the Puranas all manifest from the breathing of the Lord.”

Gopatha Brahmana, purva 2.10

evam ime sarva veda nirmitah sa-kalpah sa-rahasyah sa-brahmanah sopanisatkah setihasah sanvakhyatah sa-puranan

“In this way, all the Vedas were manifested along with the Kalpas, Rahasyas, Brahmanas, Upanisads, Itihasas, Anvakhyatas and the Puranas.” 

Puranas and Itihasa are fifth veda :

nama va rg-vedo yajur-vedah sama-veda atharvanas caturtha itihasa-puranah pancamo vedanam vedah

“Indeed, Rg, Yajur, Sama and Atharva are the names of the four Vedas.The Itihasas and Puranas are the fifth Veda.” (Kauthumiya Chandogya Upanisad 7.1.4)

Mahabharata (Adi Parva 1.267) and Manu Samhita

itihasa puranabhyam vedam samupabrmhayet

” One must complement one’s study of the Vedas with the Itihasas and the Puranas.

There are total 18 puranas

The divisions of the eighteen Puranas is defined by Lord Siva to Uma in the Padma Purana (Uttara Khanda 236.18-21):

vaisnavanam naradiyam ca tatha bhagavatam subham
garudam ca tatha padmam varaham subha-darsane

sattvikani puranani vijneyani subhani vai
brahmandam brahma-vaivarta markandeyam tathaiva ca

bhavisyam vamanam brahmam rajasani nibodha me
matsyam kaurmam tatha laingam saivam skandam tathaiva ca

agneyam ca sad etani tamasani nibodha me

” O beautiful lady, one should know that the Visnu, Naradiya, Bhagavata, Garuda, Padma and Varaha are all in the mode of goodness. The Brahmanda, Brahma-vaivarta, Markandeya, Bhavisya, Vamana and Brahma are in the mode of passion. The Matsya, Kurma, Linga, Siva, Skanda and Agni are in the mode of ignorance.”

Sri Krsna has clearly expressed in Bhagavad-gita that goodness is superior to passion and ignorance. Similarly, Sri Suta Gosvami explains in the Bhagavata (1.2.24) that “Passion is better than ignorance because it can lead to realization of the Absolute Truth.” In this verse Suta speaks about which type of worship produces the ultimate benefit, and his conclusion is that one can only achieve the best result by worshipping Lord Visnu. The sattvika Puranas recommend the worship of Visnu / Krsna, whereas the rajasika and tamasika Puranas advocate the worship of minor deities and therefore do not lead the aspirant towards the Absolute Truth.

It is noteworthy that the sattvika Puranas commence with a questioner inquiring from a learned speaker about the nature of the Absolute. The speaker’s answers are clear, direct and unambiguous, leaving no room for misinterpretation. However, in the tamasika and rajasika Puranas questions are put to the speaker which do not pertain to the Absolute Truth. For example, in the Linga Purana the sages request Suta to speak about the glories of the Lingam form of Lord Siva. We may conclude from this that although Sri Suta Gosvami is learned in transcendental subject matters and expert in explaining them, the questions by the sages here restrict him from speaking on it. All rajasika and tamasika Puranas contain this characteristic defect and therefore are not reliable sources of transcendental knowledge.

Sometimes people without spiritual guru meet with problems like why there is glorification of different deities in different puranas ? It is there because it elevates one to the Satvika nature from Tamasik and Rajasik Nature. Satvika Puranas talks about Supreme absolute truth but Tamasika doesn’t talks most of the times.

For example —

The tamasa puranas do not recommend proper brahma-jignyAsa :

The Sattvik Puranas always begin with a neutral question. For example, consider the Bhagavata Purana:

Please, therefore, being blessed with many years, explain to us, in an easily understandable way, what you have ascertained to be the absolute and ultimate good for the people in general. (Bhagavata Purana)

But now, consider the Skanda Purana:

Please narrate to us the greatness of Lord Shiva, who carries a trident in his hand. We would like to hear about the merit achieved by worshiping him and meditating upon his pastimes. (Skanda Purana)

As you can see, the Bhagavata begins with a question that is quite general, ie, what is the greatest good for all and then only goes on to talk about vAsudevA, the son of devaki. But in the Skanda Purana, the rishis asked a specific question, rather than a general one, and had a biased opinion about Shiva already in their mind, so they started with a question asking the greatness of Shiva rather than an unbiased enquiry of the ultimate truth.

See the introduction to Shiva Purana, where the sages pose the question to Romaharshana:

You have taught us a lot, but we are still not satisfied. You have had the fortune of studying under Vedavyasa and there is nothing that you do not know, past, present or future. Tell us about Shiva, we do not know very much about Shiva. (Shiva Purana)

The same biased inquiry again. This proves that the nature of brahma jignyAsa in the tAmasa purAnAs is kuTarka and tAmasic as opposed to the sAttvika purAnAs.

Since knowledge gained by a biased question is obviously biased and hence a form of tamas, these puranas are classified as ‘tamasa puranas’.

One may ask at this point why Srila Vyasadeva wrote these Puranas. According to the various desires of the materially conditioned jivas, he arranged the Puranas. Nevertheless, all Puranas contain glorification of Lord Visnu. This was included by Vyasa in order that those in the lower modes of passion and ignorance will slowly develop interest in the Supreme Lord Hari while studying the rajasika and tamasika Puranas. Therefore in the Hari Vamsa (3.323.34)it is said –

vede ramayane caiva purane bharate tatha
adav-ante ca madhye ca harih sarvatra giyate

“In the Vedas, the Ramayana, Puranas and Mahabharata, from the very beginning to the end, as well as within the middle, only Hari, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is explained.”

Yet it must be understood that although rajasika and tamasika Puranas do not speak extensively on the Absolute Truth, this does not mean that they give no valid knowledge at all. If this was the case why would acaryas such as Madhva cite from Puranas such as Skanda, Brahma, Brahmanda, Brahma-vaivarta etc which are not sattvika by nature? The Puranas in the lower modes may also give some insight into the Absolute Truth, although not to the same extent as the sattvika Puranas.

By this we may conclude that the sattvika Puranas are the ultimate pramana. This is also declared by the Padma Purana – sattvika moksa-dah proktah: “The sattvika Puranas give salvation.” Unfortunatly, as stated before, there are no current disciplic schools nor bona-fide commentaries for most of these works. Some of the sattvika Puranas recommend the path of bhakti, while others glorify the path of jnana or yoga.

Of all the puranas, Srimad Bhagavatam is Highest :

THE PREEMINENT NATURE OF THE SRIMAD-BHAGAVATAM/Bhagavata Purana

Many quotations regarding the extraordinary importance of the Bhagavatam can be found in several other Puranas, such as the Bhagavata-Mahatmya section of the Padma Purana, wherein we find such verses as the following:

The holy scripture known as Srimad-Bhagavatam was expounded in this age of Kali by the sage Sukadeva Gosvami [Vyasadeva’s son] with the object of completely destroying the fear of being caught in the jaws of the serpent of time. There is no means other than this conducive to the purification of the mind. One gets to hear Srimad-Bhagavatam only when there is virtue earned in one’s past lives. (1.11-12)… All the evils of Kali-yuga [this present age of quarrel and confusion] will surely disappear at the very chanting of Srimad-Bhagavatam, even as wolves take flight at the very roar of a lion. (1.62)… If you seek the highest destiny, read even yourself daily one half of a quarter of a verse of Srimad-Bhagavatam. (3.33)… Indeed, this is the righteous course prescribed in the Kali age for washing away all agony, poverty, misfortune and sin as well as for the conquest of passion and anger. Otherwise the illusory energy of the Lord is most difficult to get rid of even for the gods. How then can it be set aside by men? Hence, the course of hearing Srimad-Bhagavatam has been recommended. (3.64-65)… Like bubbles appearing in water or mosquitoes among living beings, those who remain deprived of hearing an exposition of Srimad-Bhagavatam are born only to die. (5.63)

There are many other verses in the Padma Purana that point out the potency and importance of the Bhagavatam.

From other puranas :

Matsya Purana (53.20-22) :

“That which explains the topmost principles of religion, basing it on Gayatri, and which has the incident of the killing of Vrtrasura is to be known as the Srimad Bhagavatam. This Purana has eighteen thousand verses. Whoever makes a copy of the Srimad Bhagavatam and, placing it on a golden lion throne, donates it on the full moon day in the month of Bhadra (August-September), will attain the supreme goal”.

Skanda Purana (2.6.4.3) :

srimadbhagavatasyatha srimadbhagavatah sada

svarupam ekamevasti saccidanandalaksanam

“The nature of the Srimad Bhagavatam and the Personality of Godhead is always the same – full knowledge, bliss, and eternal existence.” And the Padma Purana, Uttara Khanda (198.30) has this statement, srimadbhagavatakhyo’yam pratyaksah krsna eva hi, “Without any doubt, Srimad Bhagavatam is directly Lord Krsna.”

Garuda Purana in Hari-bhakti-vilasa 10.394-395:

artho’yam brahma sutranam bharatartha-vinirnayah gayatri bhasya rupo’sau vedartha paribrmhitah purananam sama rupah saksad bhagavatoditah dvadasa skandha yukto’yam sata viccheda samyutah grantho’stadasa sahasrah srimad bhagavatabhidam

“The Srimad Bhagavatam is the explanation of the Vedanta Sutra. It is the complete settlement of the Mahabharata. It is the complete commentary on the Gayatri mantra. It strengthens the explanation of the Vedas and is the topmost Purana, written by the Supreme Personality of Godhead. It has twelve cantos, one hundred sections and eighteen thousand slokas.”

The importance of the book is also described in the Bhagavatam itself:

This Bhagavata Purana is as brilliant as the sun, and it has arisen just after the departure of Lord Krishna to his own abode accompanied by religion, knowledge, etc. Persons who have lost their vision due to the dense darkness of ignorance in the age of Kali shall get light from this Purana. (Bhag.1.3.43.)

Another example (Bhag.12.13.14-16) is where Suta Gosvami emphasizes its significance, stating that the glorious Bhagavatam is considered to be the cream of all the Upanishads, and a man who is satisfied with tasting the nectar from it will not find such pleasure anywhere else. “All other Puranic scriptures shine forth in the assembly of saintly devotees only as long as that great ocean of nectar, Srimad-Bhagavatam, is not heard. Srimad-Bhagavatam is declared to be the essence of all Vedanta philosophy. One who has felt satisfaction from its nectarean mellow will never be attracted to any other literature. Just as the Ganga is the greatest of all rivers, Lord Achyuta, the supreme among deities and Lord Shambhu [Shiva], the greatest of Vaishnavas, so Srimad-Bhagavatam is the greatest of all Puranas.” Suta Gosvami also says (Bhag.1.2.3):

Let me offer my respectful obeisances unto him [Sukadeva], the spiritual master of all sages, the son of Vyasadeva, who, out of his great compassion for those gross materialists who struggle to cross over the darkest regions of material existence, spoke this most confidential supplement to the cream of Vedic knowledge, after having personally assimilated it by experience.

Srila Suta Goswami explains the benefit of studying the Bhagavatam in this way, “Simply by giving aural reception to this Vedic literature, the feeling for loving devotional service to Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, sprouts up at once to extinguish the fire of lamentation, illusion and fearfulness.” (Bhag.1.7.7)

When Maharaja Pariksit learned that he had merely seven more days to live, only a week to bring his life to any kind of spiritual perfection, he asked the great sage Sukadeva Gosvami what he should do. Shukadeva was the son of Srila Vyasadva, the compiler of the Vedic literature. At the time, no one was more qualified than Sukadeva Gosvami to give such advice to the great king. In reply, Sukadeva Gosvami told Maharaja Pariksit: “The highest perfection of human life, achieved either by complete knowledge of matter and spirit, by practice of mystic powers, or by perfect discharge of occupational duty, is to remember the Personality of Godhead at the end of life. O King Pariksit, mainly the topmost transcendentalists, who are above the regulative principles and restrictions, take pleasure in describing the glories of the Lord. At the end of Dvapara-yuga, I studied this great supplement of Vedic literature named Srimad-Bhagavatam, which is equal to all the Vedas, from my father, Srila Dvaipayana Vyasadeva. O saintly King, I was certainly situated perfectly in transcendence [realized in the impersonal Brahman], yet I was still attracted by the delineation of the pastimes of the Lord [Krishna], who is described by enlightened verses. That very Srimad-Bagavatam I shall recite before you because you are the most sincere devotee of Lord Krishna. One who gives full attention and respect to hearing Srimad-Bhagavatam achieves unflinching faith in the Supreme Lord, the giver of salvation.” (Bhag.2.1.6-10)

“My dear Maharaja Pariksit, that great personality Srila Vyasadeva taught me this scripture, Srimad-Bhagavatam, which is equal in stature to the four Vedas.” (Bhag.12.4.42)

Sukadeva Gosvami explained elsewhere that, “This Srimad-Bhagavatam has elaborately described in various narrations the Supreme Soul of all that be–the Personality of Godhead, Hari [Krishna]–from whose satisfaction Brahma is born and from whose anger Rudra takes birth.” (Bhag.12.5.1)

Regarding the power of the contents of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Sri Sukadeva Gosvami relates that there are ten divisions of statements regarding the creation of the universe, the secondary level of creation, planetary systems, protection by the Lord, the creative impetus, the change of Manus, the science of God, returning home back to Godhead, liberation, and the summum bonum. (Bhag.2.10.1)

After a full description of the contents of the Bhagavatam, Suta Gosvami explains that for the person who glorifies this Bhagavata Purana by chanting or hearing it, the demigods, sages, Siddhas, Pitas, Manus, and kings of the earth bestow all desirable things. By studying this Bhagavatam, a brahmana can enjoy the same rivers of honey, ghee and milk he enjoys by studying the hymns of the Rig, Yajur and SamaVedas. A brahmana who diligently reads this essential compilation of all the Puranas will go to the supreme destination, which the Supreme Lord Himself has herein described. However, not only can a brahmana who studies theSrimad-Bhagavatam achieve firm intelligence in devotional service, but also a king [kshatriya] who studies it gains sovereignty over the earth, a vaishya who studies it acquires great treasure, and a shudra is freed from sinful reactions. Lord Hari, the supreme controller of all beings, annihilates the accumulated sins of the Kali age, yet other literature does not constantly glorify Him. But that Supreme Personality of Godhead, appearing in His innumerable personal expansions, is abundantly and constantly described throughout the various narrations of this Srimad-Bhagavatam. (Bhag.12.12.62-66)

“From beginning to end, the Srimad-Bhagavatam is full of narrations that encourage renunciation of material life, as well as nectarean accounts of Lord Hari’s transcendental pastimes, which give ecstasy to the saintly devotees and demigods. This Bhagavatam is the essence of all Vedanta philosophy because its subject matter is the Absolute Truth, which, while non-different from the spirit soul, is the ultimate reality, one without a second. The goal of this literature is exclusive devotional service unto that Supreme Truth.” (Bhag.12.13.11-12)

Srimad-Bhagavatam is the spotless Purana. It is most dear to the Vaishnavas because it describes the pure and supreme knowledge of the paramahamsas [the swan-like saints]. This Bhagavatam reveals the means for becoming free from all material work, together with the processes of transcendental knowledge, renunciation and devotion. Anyone who seriously tries to understand Srimad-Bhagavatam, who properly hears and chants it with devotion, becomes completely liberated.” (Bhag.12.13.18)

Furthermore, the Srimad-Bhagavatam has not always been a book but is an ancient work and has been a spoken tradition from time immemorial. This is illustrated by the following narration. Once Maitreya Muni began to describe to Vidura, saying, “Let me now begin speaking on the Bhagavata Purana, which was directly spoken to the great sages by the Personality of Godhead for the benefit of those who are entangled in extreme miseries for the sake of very little pleasure. Some time ago, being inquisitive to know, Sanat-kumara, the chief of the boy saints, accompanied by other great sages, inquired exactly like you about the truths regarding Vasudeva, the Supreme Lord Krishna, from Lord Sankarshana, who is seated at the bottom of the universe. At that time, Lord Sankarshana was meditating upon His Supreme Lord, whom the learned esteem as Lord Vasudeva [Krishna]. For the sake of the advancement of the great learned sages who were there, He slightly opened His lotus-like eyes and began to speak. The sages came from the highest planets down to the lower region through the water of the Ganges, and therefore the hair on their heads was wet. They touched the lotus feet of the Lord, which are worshiped with various items by the daughters of the serpent-king when they desire good husbands.

“The four Kumaras, headed by Sanat-kumara, who all knew the transcendental pastimes of the Lord, glorified the Lord in rythmic accents with selected words full of affection and love. At that time Lord Sankarshana, with His thousands of raised hoods, began to radiate an effulgence from the glowing stones on His head. Lord Sankarshana thus spoke the purport of Srimad-Bhagavatam to the great sage Sanat-kumara, who had already taken the vow of renunciation.

“Thereafter, Sanat-kumara in turn, when inquired of by Sankhyayana Muni, explained Srimad-Bhagavatam as he had heard it from Sankarshana. The great sage Sankhyayana was the chief amongst the transcendentalists, and when he was describing the glories of the Lord in terms of Srimad-Bhagavatam, it so happened that my (Maitreya Muni’s) spiritual master, Parashara, and Brihaspati both heard him. The great sage Parashara, as aforementioned, being so advised by the great sage Pulastya, spoke unto me this foremost of the Puranas [Bhagavatam]. I shall also describe this before you, my dear son, in terms of my hearing, because you are always my faithful follower.” (Bhag. 3.8.2-9) In this way, for thousands of years before the Bhagavatam was ever compiled by Srila Vyasadeva in a written form, it had been handed down and spread through an oral tradition.

The Matsya Purana also says that which contains many narrations of spiritual instructions, begins with the gayatri mantra, and also contains the history of Vritrasura, is known as the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Whoever makes a gift of this great work on a full moon day attains to the highest perfection of life and goes back to the spiritual world.

All these references conclude that Srimad-Bhagavatam is the most ripened fruit of the tree of Vedic knowledge consisting of the most clearly defined and highest realizations and understanding of ultimate reality–the Absolute Truth. Over and above that it is also considered the incarnation of God in the form of sound vibration, as confirmed in the following verse: “This Srimad-Bhagavatam is the literary incarnation of God, and it is compiled by Srila Vyasadeva, the incarnation of God. It is meant for the ultimate good of all people, and it is all-successful, all-blissful and all-perfect.” (Bhag.1.3.40)

From this verse it is made clear that Srimad-Bhagavatam is meant for the benefit of everyone who is sincerely interested in the highest truth, regardless of their background. Furthermore, it is compiled by Srila Vyasadeva who was an incarnation of God. He appeared in this world in order to give people this knowledge for the highest good. After all, who can explain the characteristics of the Supreme better than the Supreme Himself? This is also confirmed in Bhagavad-gita (15.5) in which Krishna explains that He is seated in everyone’s heart and from Him comes remembrance, knowledge, and forgetfulness. He is the knower and compiler of the Vedas, by which He is to be known.

This is further elaborated in the Vishnu Purana, Book Three, Chapter Three:

In every Dvapara [or third] age, Vishnu, in the person of Vyasa, in order to promote the good of mankind, divides the Vedas, which is properly but one, into many portions: observing the limited perseverance, energy and application of mortals, he makes the Veda four-fold to adopt it to their capacities; and the bodily form which he assumes, in order to effect that classification, is known by the name of Vedavyasa.

Know, Maitreya, the Vyasa called Krishna Dvaipayana (Vedavyasa) to be the Deity Narayana; for who else on this earth could have composed the Mahabharata. . . That form of Vasudeva. . . composed of the Rig, Sama, and Yajur Vedas, is at the same time their essence, as He is the soul of all embodied spirits. He, distinguished as consisting of the Vedas, creates the Vedas, and divides them by many subdivisions into branches: He is the author of those branches: He is those aggregated branches; for He, the eternal Lord, is the essence of true knowledge. (Vishnu Purana, Book 3, Chapter 4)

These verses clearly explain that it is none other than the incarnation of the Supreme Being who has appeared in this world to compile and divide the Vedas so that people of all levels of intelligence can understand them. It is explained that no ordinary person can do such a thing. How can people who are limited and finite understand the Unlimited and Infinite unless that Supreme Being descends to explain this knowledge Himself? Therefore, as stated in the above-mentioned verses, the essence of the Absolute Reality is found in the Vedic literature, especially within the Srimad-Bhagavatam.

References: Sri Narasingha Chaitanya Ashram and Complete Review of Vedic Literature

Thank you for reading,

Hare Krishna !

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