Purana (literally, "old," from the Sanscrit pura, before, past) is the name of that class of religious works which, besides the Tantras (q.v.), is the main foundation of the actual popular creed of the Brahminical Hindlis (q.v.). According to the popular belief, these works were compiled by Vyasa (q.v.), the supposed arranger of the Vedas (q.v.), and the author of the Mahabharata (q.v.), and possess an antiquity far beyond the reach of historical computation. A critical investigation, however, of the contents of the existing works leads to the conclusion that, in their present form, they do not only not belong to a remote age, but caln barely claim an antiquity of a thousand years. The word Purana occurs in some passages of the Mahabharata, the law-books of Yajnavalkya and Manu (q.v.); it is even met with in some Upanishads and the great Brahmana portion of the White-Yajur-Veda; but it is easy to show that in all these ancient works it cannot refer to the existing Purana, and therefore that no inference relative to the age of the ancient can be drawn from the modern. There are, however, several circumstances tending to show that there were a number of works called Purana which preceded the existing, and were the source whence these probably derived a portion of their contents. The oldest known author of a Sanscrit vocabulary, Amara-Sinha, gives as a synonym of Purana the word Pancha-lakshana, which means "that which has five (panchan) characteristic marks" (bakshanas.); mand the scholiasts of that vocabulary agree in stating that these lakshanas are:
1. Primary creation, or cosmogony; 2. Secondary creation, or the destruction and renovation of worlds; 3. Genealogy of gods and patriarchs; 4. Manwantaras, or reigns of Manus; and, 5. The history of the princes of the solar and lunar races.
Such, then, were the characteristic topics of a Purana at the time, if not of Amara-Sinha himself — which is probable — at least, of his oldest commentators. Yet the distinguished scholar most conversant with the existing Purinas, who, in his preface to the translation of the Vishnu- Purana, gives a more or less detailed account of their chief contents (Prof. H. H. Wilson), observes, in regard to the quoted definition of the commentators on Amara-Sinha, that in no one instance do the actual Puranas conform to it exactly; that "to some of them it is utterly inapplicable; to others, it only partially applies." To the Vishsnu-Purana, he adds, it belongs more than to any other Purana; but even in the case of this Purmna he shows that it cannot be supposed to be included in the term explained by the commentators. The age of Amara-Sinha is, according to Wilson, the last half of the century preceding the Christian era; others conjecture that it dates some centuries later. On the supposition, then, that Amara-Sinha himself implied by Pancha-lakshana the sense given to this term by his commentators, there would have been Puranas about 1900 years ago; but none of these has descended to our time in the shape it then possessed. Various passages in the actual Purtnas furnish proof of the existence of such elder Puranas. The strongest evidence in this respect is that afforded by a general description given by the Matsya-Purana of the extent of each of the Puranas (which are uniformly stated to be eighteen in number), including itself; for, leaving aside the exceptional case in which it may be doubtful whether we possess the complete work now going by the name of a special Purana, Prof. Wilson, in quoting the description from the Matsya-Purana, and in comparing with it the real extent of the great majority of Puranas, the completeness of which, in their actual state, does not admit of a reasonable doubt, has conclusively shown that the Matsya-
Purana speaks of works which are not those we now possess. We are, then, bound to infer that there have been Puranas older than those preserved, and that their number has been eighteen; whereas, on the contrary, it will be hereafter seen that it is very doubtful whether we are entitled to assign this number to the actual Purana literature.
The modern age of this latter literature, in the form in which it is known to us, is borne out by the change which the religious and philosophical ideas taught in the epic poems and the philosophical Sutras have undergone in it; by the legendary detail into which older legends and myths have expanded; by the numerous religious rites — not countenanced by the Vedic or epic works — which are taught; and, in some Puranas at least, by the historical or quasi-scientific instruction which is imparted in it. To divest that which, in these Puranas, is ancient, in idea or fact, from that which is of parasitical growth, is a task which Sanscrit philology has yet to fulfil; but even a superficial comparison of the contents of the present Puranas with the ancient lore of Hindu religion, philosophy, and science must convince every one that the picture of religion and life unfolded by them is a caricature of that afforded by the Vedic works, and that it was drawn by priestcraft, interested in submitting to its sway the popular mind, and unscrupulous in the use of the means which had to serve its ends. The plea on which the composition of the Puranas was justified, even by great Hindu authorities — probably because they did not feel equal to the task of destroying a system already deeply rooted in the national mind, or because they apprehended that the nation at large would remain without any religion at all, if, without possessing the Vedic creed, it likewise became deprived of that based on the Puranas — this plea is best illustrated by a quotation from Sayana, the celebrated commentator on the three principal Vedas. He says (Rigv. ed. Muller, vol. i, p. 33): "Women and Sudras, though they, too, are in want of knowledge, have no right to the Veda, for they are deprived of [the advantage of] reading it, in consequence of their not being invested with the sacred cord; but the knowledge of law [or duty] and that of the supreme spirit arises to them by means of the Puranas and other books [of this kind]." Yet, to enlighten the Hindu nation as to whether or not these books — which sometimes are even called a fifth Veda — teach that religion which is contained in the Vedas and Upanishads, there would be no better method than to initiate such a svstem of popular education as would reopen to the native mind those ancient works, now virtually closed to it.
Though the reason given by Sayana, as clearly results from a comparison of the Puranas with the oldest works of Sanscrit literature, is but a poor justification of the origin of the former; and though it is likewise indubitable that, even at his time (the middle of the 15th century A.D.), they were, as they still are, not merely an authoritative source of religion for "women and Sudras," but for the great majority of the males of other castes also, it nevertheless explains the great variety of matter of which the present Purinas are composed — so great and so multifarious, indeed, that, in the case of some of them, it imparts to them a kind of cyclopedical character. They became, as it seems, the source of all popular knowledge; a substitute to the masses of the nation not only for theological literature, but for scientific works, the study of which was gradually restricted to the leisure of the learned few. Thus, while the principal subjects taught by nearly all the Puranas are cosmogony, religion (including law), and the legendary matter which, to a Hindi, assumes the value of history, in some of them we meet with a description of places which gives to them something of the character of geography; and one, the Agni-Purana, also pretends to teach archery, medicine, rhetoric, prosody, and grammar; though it is needless to add that its teaching has no real worth.
One purpose, however, and that a paramount one, is not included in the argument by which Sayana endeavored to account for the composition of the Puranas; it is the purpose of establishing a sectarian creed. At the third phase of the Hindu religion, two gods of the Hindu pantheon especially engrossed the religious faith of the masses — Vishnu (q.v.) and Siva (q.v.), each being looked upon by his worshippers as the supreme deity, to whom the other, as well as the remaining gods, was subordinate. Moreover, when the power or energy of these gods had been raised to the rank of a separate deity, it was the female Sakti, or energy, of Siva who, as Durga, or the consort of this god, was held in peculiar awe by a numerous host of believers. Now, apart from the general reasons mentioned before, a principal object, and probably the principal one, of the Puranas was to establish, as the case might be, the supremacy of Vishnu or Siva, and, it may be likewise assumed, of the female energy of Siva, though the worship of the latter belongs more exclusively to the class of works known as Tantras. There are, accordingly, Vaishnava-Puranas, or those composed for the glory of Vishnu; Saiva-Puranas, or those which extol the worship of Siva; and one or two Puranas, perhaps, but merely as far as a portion of them is concerned, will be more consistently assigned to the Sakta worship, or that of Durga, than to that of Vishnu or Siva.
"The invariable form of the Puranas," savs Prof, Wilson, in his preface to the Vishnu-Purana, "is that of a dialogue, in which some person relates its contents in reply to the inquiries of another. This dialogue is interwoven with others, which are repeated as having been held on other occasions, between different individuals, in consequence of similar questions having been asked. The immediate narrator is commonly, though not constantly. Lomaharshana, or Romaharshana, the disciple of Vyasa, who is supposed to communicate what was imparted to him by his preceptor as he had heard it from some other sage... Lomaharshana is called Suta, as if it were a proper name; but it is, more correctly, a title, and Lomaharshana was 'a Sata,' that is, a hard or panegyrist, who was created, according to the Vishnu-Purana, to celebrate the exploits of princes, and who, according to the Vayu and Padma Puranas, has a right, by birth and profession, to narrate the Puranas, in preference even to the Brahmins." The number of the actual Puranas is stated to be eighteen, and their names, in the order given, are the following:
1. Brahma-; 2. Padma-; 3. Vishnu-; 4. Siva-; 5. Bhagavata-; 6. Naoradiya-; 7. Markandeya-; 8. Agni-; 9. Bhavishya-; 10. Brahma-vaivaroita -; 11. Linga-; 12. Varaha-; 13. Skanda-; 14. Varaha-; 15. Kurma-; 16. Matsya-; 17. Garuda-; and 18. Brahmanda-Purana.
In other lists, the Agni-Puradna is omitted, and the Vayu-Purana inserted instead of it; or the Garuda and Brahmanda are omitted, and replaced by the Vayu and Nrisinha Puranas. Of these Puranas, 2, 3, 5, 6, 10, 12, 17 and probably 1, are Puranas of the Vaishnava sect; 4, 8, 11, 13, 15, 16. of the Saiva sect; 7 is, in one portion of it, called Devimahatmya, the text- book of the worshippers of Durga; otherwise,, it has little of a sectarian spirit, and would, therefore, neither belong to the Vaishnava nor to the Saiva class; 14, as Prof. Wilson observes, "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." The Bhavishya-Purana (9), as described by the Matsya-Purana, would be a book of prophecies; but the Bhavishya-Purana known to Prof. Wilson consists of five books, four of which are dedicated to the gods Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, and Twashtri; and the same scholar doubts whether this work could have any claim to the name of a Purana, as its first portion is merely a transcript of the words of the first chapter of Manu, and the rest is entirely a manual of religious rites and ceremonies. There are similar grounds for doubt regarding other works of the list.
If the entire number of works, nominally, at least, corresponding with those of the native list, were taken as a whole, their contents might be so defined as to embrace the five topics specified by the commentators on the glossary of Amara-Sinha; philosophical speculations on the nature of matter and soul, individual as well as supreme; small codes of law; descriptions of places of pilgrimage; a vast ritual relating to the modern worship of the gods; numerous legends; and, exceptionally, as in the Agni-Purana, scientific tracts. If taken individually, however, the difference between most of them, both in style and contents, is so considerable that a general definition would become inaccurate. A short description of each Purana has been given by the late Prof. H. H. Wilson in his preface to his translation of the Vishnu-Purana; and to it, as well as to his detailed account of some Puranas in separate essays (collected in his works) we must therefore refer the reader who would wish to obtain a fuller knowledge of these works.
The age of the Puranas, though doubtless modern, is uncertain. The Bhagavata., on account of its being ascribed to the authorship of the grammarian Vopadeva, would appear to yield a safer computation of its age than the rest; for Vopadeva lived in the 12th century, or, as some hold, 13th century after Christ; but this authorship, though probable, is not proved to a certainty. As to the other Puranas, their age is supposed by Prof. Wilson to fall within the 12th and 17th centuries of the Christian sera, with the exception, though, of the Markandeya-Purana, which, in consideration of its unsectarian character, he would place in the 9th or 10th century. But it must be borne in mind that all these dates are purely conjectural, and given as such by the scholar whose impressions they convey.
Besides these eighteen Puranas or great Puranas, there are minor or Upapuranas, "differing little in extent or subject from some of those to which the title of Pursna is ascribed." Their number is given by one Purana as four; another, however, names the following eighteen:
1. Sanatkumara-; 2. Narasinha-; 3. Naradiya-; 4. Siva-; 5. Durvasasa-; 6. Kapila-; 7. Manava-; 8. Ausanasa-; 9. Varuna-; 10. Kalika-; 11. Samba-; 12. Nandi-; 13. Saura-; 14. Parasara-; 15. Aditya-; 16. Maheswara-; 17. Bhagavata- (probably, however, a misreading for Bhargava); and 18. Vasishtha-Upapurana.
Another list, differing from the latter, not in the number, but in the names of the Upapuranas, is likewise given in Prof. Wilson's preface to the Vishnu-Purana. Many of these Upapuranas are, apparently, no longer procurable, while other works so called, but not included in either list, are sometimes met with; for instance, a Mudgala- and Ganesa-Upapurana. The character of the Upapuranas is, like that of the Purunas, sectarian; the Siva-Upapurdna, for instance, inculcates the worship of Siva, the Kalika- Upapurana that of Durga or Devi.
Both Puranas and Upapuranas are for a considerable portion of their contents largely indebted to the two great epic works, the Mahabharata (q.v.) and Ramayana (q.v.), more especially to the former of them. Of the Puranas, the original text of three has already appeared in print: that of the Bhagavata in several native editions, published at Bombay, with the commentary of Sridharaswamin, and partly in a Paris edition by Eugene Burnouf, which remained incomplete through the premature death of that distinguished scholar; that of the Markandeya-Purana, edited at Calcutta in the Bibliotheca Indica, by the Rev. K. M. Banerjea; and that of the Linga-Purana, edited at Bombay; for, regarding a fourth, the Garuda- Purana, edited at Benares and Bombay, it seems doubtful whether that little work is the same as the Purana spoken of in the native list. Besides these, small portions from the Padma, Skanda, Bhavishyottara, Markandeya, and other Puranas have been published in India and Europe. Of translations, we have only to name the excellent French translation by Burnouf of the first nine books of the Bhagavata, and the elegant translation of the whole Vishnu-Purana, together with valuable notes, by the late Prof. H. H. Wilson, which is now in course of republication in his Works, in a new edition, amplified with numerous notes, by Prof. F. E. Hall. For general information on the character and contents of the Pturanas, see especially Wilson's preface to his translation of the Vishnu- Purana (Works, vol. 6:Lond. 1864); Burnouf's preface to his edition of the Bhagavata (Paris, 1840); Wilson, Analysis of the Puranas (Works, vol. iii, Lond. 1864, edited by Prof. R. Rost); Banerjea, Introduction to the Markandeya (Calcutta, 1862); and Muir, Original Sanscrit Texts on the Origin and History of the People of India (Lond. 18581863), vols. i-iv; Hardwick, Christ and other Masters (see Index in vol. ii); Muller, Chips, ii, 3, 75, 316; Clarke, Ten Great Religions (see Index).