Understanding of Purans

The Ved, the Mahabharat, The Ramayan and the Puran’s may be said to constitute India’s cultural history, particularly of the Hindus. Whyile the epic poems Ramayan and Mahabharat come under the category of Itihas (history) in Sanskrit literature, Puran form a separate class. Importance of Puran to Indian Culture is not so much because of their literary merit as because, through them, we can trace the evolution of Indian thought in all aspects of life: Political, social and religious. The influence of Puranas on the religious life of Hindus is beyond question, is both extensive and intensive. This is evidenced from the fact that mere study and recitation of Purans are considered as acts of piety by large sections of Hindu community even today.


The word Puran means ‘old’ implying an ancient legend or tale. True to this meaning, Purans were in existence since very early times and predate Mahabharat. This is inferred from occurrences of the term Puran in many ancient texts such as the Brahmanas and the Upanishads where it is used in the sense of cosmogonic enquiries and ancient tales. In Upanishads, Purans have been called the fifth Ved (Panchama Ved). The Mahabharat refers to the Purans and recounts several tales (ancient legends, stories of gods, pedigrees of sages) from them. Apasthamba Dharmasutra contains quotations from Puran which are not to be found in the current Purans. These very old and original Puranic works were, however, lost.

Current Modern Purans:-

In place of the lost old Purans, what we have to day are 18 large treatises (Tri-shat) that are designated as Purans. They are the major Purans, are all written in Sanskrit verses and their lengths vary greatly; Skanda being the longest with 81,000 verses and Markandeya (9000 verses) the shortest. According to Bhagavata Purana, the total number of couplets in all the eighteen Purans is 4,00,000.

Following is the list of 18 Purans:-

  1. Bramha
  2. Padm
  3. Vishnu
  4. Shiv
  5. Ling
  6. Garud
  7. Narad
  8. Bhagavat
  9. Agni
  10. Skand
  11. Varah
  12. Bramh – Vaivarta
  13. Matsya
  14. Kurm
  15. Markandeya
  16. Bhavishya
  17. Vaman
  18. Bramhand

There are lists which omit one or more, and replace them by another such as, for instance, Vayu Puran takes the place of Agni or Shiv Puran. According to Vishnu and some other Puran, there was originally only one Puran i.e. Puran Samhita by Maharshi Vyas, and from this one the 18 Purans have grown. All the Purans seem to have received additional revisions since each one of them enumerates the entire system.

The above 18 purans are classified in 3 main categories depending on which of the 3 qualities of Purity or Truth (Sattv), Blind passion (rajas) and Impurity, gloom or ignorance (tamas) is dominant and which god from the Hindu Trinity of gods is glorified.

Satv category includes following :-

  1. Vishnu
  2. Narad
  3. Garud
  4. Varah
  5. Bhagvat
  6. Padm

Rajas category includes :-

  1. Bramh
  2. Bramhand
  3. Bramha-Vaivarta
  4. Markandey
  5. Bhavishya
  6. Vaman

Tamas (ignorance) category includes following:-

  1. Shiv
  2. Ling
  3. Skand,
  4. Agni
  5. Vayu,
  6. Matsya
  7. Kurm

Date of the Purans:-

These 18 Purans were written over different periods of time or ages and the circumstances of their composition were different. No dates are attached to them, but there are evidences to show there Purans to be not that very ancient as the word Puran might suggest.

Contents and Characteristics of Purans:-

All the Purans are written in the form of dialogue between an expounder and an enquirer. As example, Pulastya receives the Vishnu Puran from Bramha, makes it known to Parasara (expounder) who narrates it to Maitrey (enquirer). The compositions of the Purans are not homogeneous like the Mahabharat to which they are indebted much in matter and spirit. Most of these Purans were originally sung by bards like the Sut Puranik who belonged to the class of people called Sutas. Later on, priests, finding them popular and of much use for a number of things, took control of them, modified them and finally monopolized them.

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