Puranas – Smriti granthas that are also known as the fifth Vedas

In this article we shall discuss the Puranas, having learned about the Shruti granthas in the first three parts of this series (read parts 1, 2 & 3 here), we shall now turn our attention towards the smriti/smruti granthas. Smritis comprise of all those kinds of literature which are a derivative of the Shrutis or have been compiled by acharyas, rishis, and munis based on their understanding and experience of the Shrutis.

This includes all the religious and non-religious granthas. Texts relating to the four upavedas namely Ayurveda (medicine), Dhanurveda (military science), Gandharvaveda (music & other artforms) and Shilpa or Sthapatya Veda (mechanics & architecture), Dharma Shastras, Puranas, Itihasas and all other derivative as well as supplementary granthas are categorized as smritis.

Etymology of Puranas

Puranas are both history and basis of dharma. Scholars say that the Puranas have been edited and tailored to suit the needs of the society from time to time.

Etymologically the term Purana means the record of old events. Various scholars have defined the term variously. While some say that it means as a text which was created in an ancient age, according to other it is one that takes us into the past and yet others state that Purana refers to the text which is a reflection of or carries tales about the ancient civilization.

According to Rishi Yaksha pura navam bhavati iti puranam meaning one whose modernity or relevance in the present does not end despite the text itself belonging to a distant past is known as Purana.

Mahabharat says:

Purana samhitam chakre vyasas satyawati sutah

Meaning: Bhagwan Vyas who was the son of Satyawati authored the Purana Samhita.

This main Samhita was then adapted by each region by making additions and omissions on the basis of the important deities, pilgrimages and major sampradaya (sect) of that region.

Importance of Puranas

When Bhagwan Veda Vyas had already written down the Vedas and even divided them into four branches for the advantage of posterity, then what was the need for composing the Puranas?

The difference between the language and grammar of the Vedas and the spoken language made it difficult for the layman to comprehend the essence and lessons contained in the Vedas. To ensure that the meaning of the Vedas becomes comprehensible to the common people Bhagwan Veda Vyas composed the Purana in the layman’s language using stories.

It is said that the Puranas along with the Itihasas (Ramayana and Mahabharat) have made the core concepts of the Vedas accessible and easily understandable to the common people. It is necessary that people study both the Itihasas and Puranas to ensure that they obtain total knowledge of the Vedic concepts. Hence, the Puranas are known as the fifth Vedas.

The various Puranas

The Puranas are divided into 18 Mahapuranas and Upa-Puranas. The 18 Mahapuranas are Matsya, Markandeya, Bhagvat, Bhavishya, Brahma, Brahmanda, Brahmavaivarta, Varaha, Vaman, Vayu/Shiv, Vishnu, Agni, Narad, Padma, Linga, Garud, Kurma and Skanda.

We shall now briefly take a look at the subject matter of each Mahapurana

  1. Agni – This is an encyclopedic text containing diverse information such as geography, history, polity, economy, flora, fauna etc.
  2. Bhagvat – contains details regarding Bhagvan Vishnu’s avatars, genealogy of various dynasties etc.
  3. Brahma – is said to be the first or the Adi Purana and consists of genealogy, cosmology, cosmic cycles etc.
  4. Brahmanda – it carries details regarding creation, important dynasties, geography, tantra etc.
  5. Brahmavaivarta – it is mainly centred around Bhagwan Krishna
  6. Garud – is said to be a conversation between Bhagwan Vishnu and his vahan It is also encyclopaedic in nature and covers numerous subjects such as rivers and geography of Bharat, other nations, medicines, mineral etc. This Purana also discusses the after-life until one’s rebirth.
  7. Kurma – centres around Bhagwans Vishnu and Shiva and various pilgrimage sites associated with them
  8. Linga – stories related to the origin of the universe, various types of Lingas and other related subjects are discussed in this Purana
  9. Markandeya – talks about Devi Mahatmyam among several other Dharmic topics
  10. Matsya – is yet another encyclopaedic Purana
  11. Narada – discuss the Vedas and Vedangas along with other subjects such as pilgrimages, astronomy etc
  12. Padma – also talks about cosmology, Hindu festivals, geography etc.
  13. Vayu/Shiv – centres around Bhagwan Shiva and carries stories related to Him along with other topics including pilgrimage centres
  14. Skanda – is the longest Purana which details the birth of Bhagwan Kartikeya, talks about pilgrimage sites, rivers, geography etc.
  15. Vaman – is predominantly a travel guide to various pilgrimage centres
  16. Varaha – is a guide book regarding worship of Bhagwan Vishnu but also consists of travel guides
  17. VayuPurana focuses on human life, its stages, rituals to be followed by humans etc.
  18. Vishnu – is a text of the Vaishnava sect with the central focus being on Bhagwan Vishnu

As per those belonging to the Shakta panth Bhagvat Purana refers to the Devi Bhagvat.

The 18 Upa-Puranas are Sanatkumar, Narasimha, Bruhan-Naradiya, Shivadharmottar, Durvasa, Kapil, Manav, Aushanas, Varun, Kalika, Samba, Nandikeshwar, Saur/Saurya, Parashar, Aditya, Maheshwar, Bhargav and Vashishta.

The subject matter of the Puranas

Every Purana consists of five main topics even if each Purana focuses on one of the topics in detail and with others in summary form. The Purana which consists of all the five topics is known as Mahapurana while the one that omits one or more of the topics is called the Upa-purana.

The five main topics are:

Sarg (creation) creation of the universe

Pratisarg (cosmogony & cosmology) destruction and renovation of the universe

Vansh (genealogy) linages of famous Rishis and Kshatriya dynasties (Lunar & Solar)

Manvantar (cosmic cycles) calculation of time and reign of the Manus

Vanshanucharit (linages)genealogy and characterization of kings, heroes and demi-gods

The Bhagavat Purana, however, is said to contain five additional topics. They are geography, how the universe is nurtured, the energy or force that runs the universe, tales of Bhagwan’s avatars, the force that slows down the universe (nirodh), the path to moksha (liberation) and the place where everything seeks shelter after the final destruction of the universe till the process of creation begins again (ashray).

Importance of the Puranas

A popular Sanskrit adage/saying summarizes the message as delivered by Bhagwan Veda Vyas through the Puranas as:

अष्टादश पुराणेषु व्यासस्य वचनद्वयम् | परोपकारः पुण्याय पापाय परपीडनम् ||

Bhagwan Veda Vyas conveys two main messages through all the Puranas as helping others earns punya (merit) and causing trouble or pain to others accrues paap (sin).

Bhagwan Vyas is said to have given the reasoning for the composition of the Puranas as intending to make people walk on the path of Dharma. It is on Dharma that artha (wealth), kama (desires), and moksha (liberation) are dependent.

Bhagwan Vyas has explained in simple terms the dos and don’ts of human life. Puranas are largely about the bhakti Marg and explain the various darshanas as well. Since it is in story form it is easy to comprehend and along with the Itihasas forms the foundation stone for understanding the Vedic granthas.    

In the subsequent part of this series, we shall take a look at other Smriti granthas.

(Featured Image Source: Religionworld.in)


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About the Author

Maitri
A opinionated girl-next-door with an attitude. I'm certainly not afraid to call myself 'a proud Hindu' and am positively politically incorrect. A Bharatiya at heart who loves reading, music, sports and nature. Travelling and writing are my passions.