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Puranas and Indian Knowledge Systems

Knowl­edge and sci­en­tif­ic progress play a foun­da­tion­al role in a soci­ety. The knowl­edge of real­i­ty, nature, human life and its prin­ci­ples form an inte­gral part of the var­i­ous social, phys­i­cal, cul­tur­al, eco­nom­ic and envi­ron­men­tal sys­tems devel­oped by it. Through the efforts of peo­ple ded­i­cat­ed to these knowl­edge sys­tems and sci­ences, this knowl­edge and the cul­ture and civil­i­sa­tion is car­ried for­ward.

In the Indi­an con­text, Vedas are the prin­ci­pal sources of knowl­edge and sci­ences (Veda comes from the root ‘Vid’ mean­ing ‘to know’). One needs to have suf­fi­cient knowl­edge and train­ing such as that in Vedan­gas before begin­ning the study of the Vedas. On the oth­er hand, Puranas con­tain the knowl­edge of the Vedas nar­rat­ed in a man­ner that can be under­stood and relat­ed by the mass­es. One can­not imag­ine Bharatiya sam­skri­ti with­out the Iti­haasa and the Puranas. The sto­ries and the tra­di­tions in the Iti­hasa Puranas have been passed down for mil­lenia and have played a sig­nif­i­cant role in keep­ing up the civ­i­liza­tion­al con­ti­nu­ity. The sto­ries are rel­a­tive­ly well known among peo­ple and con­tin­ue to live in their hearts and minds. In this series of arti­cles we will look at Puranas as ency­clopaedic works of Indi­an knowl­edge sys­tems.

Puranas as pop­u­lar knowl­edge forms

To under­stand the rel­e­vance of Puranas as knowl­edge sys­tems, let us take an anal­o­gy. A sci­ence jour­nal or arti­cle or the­o­ry, though avail­able in the pub­lic domain, can only be under­stood and made use of by researchers or sci­en­tists who have pri­or knowl­edge and back­ground in that field. An ordi­nary per­son may not be able to under­stand it or appre­ci­ate the spe­cif­ic details in it. How­ev­er the ben­e­fits of sci­en­tif­ic pur­suit are not lim­it­ed to just those groups of sci­en­tists, but are avail­able to every­body. One may pon­der as to how this hap­pens. It is through sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tion and through the appli­ca­tion of sci­ence into tech­nol­o­gy that has helped dis­sem­i­nate this knowl­edge, the dis­cov­er­ies of sci­ences and their appli­ca­tions to the mass­es. The tech­nolo­gies and frame­works help to apply these prin­ci­ples in dai­ly lives and thus the ben­e­fits of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy reach every­body. Sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tion helps peo­ple under­stand the con­cepts, use it to inter­pret the world around them and keeps us aware and excit­ed about the lat­est dis­cov­er­ies. This in turn builds shrad­dha among peo­ple in the dis­cov­er­ies of sci­ence and also inspires us to engage with it, for exam­ple by tak­ing up fur­ther stud­ies in sci­ence or con­tribut­ing to its devel­op­ment or sim­ply using the tech­nolo­gies. As a soci­ety we see the rel­e­vance of sci­ence and are able to invest in it which in turn ben­e­fits the soci­ety. The val­ues that lie at the heart of sci­ence such as objec­tiv­i­ty and empir­i­cal evi­dence become a part of our thought process, our world­view and the func­tion­ing of our soci­eties’ sys­tems. We thus fol­low a “cul­ture” based on sci­ence.

The Puranas have played a sim­i­lar role in the con­text of Indi­an knowl­edge sys­tems. They are ency­clopaedic works con­tain­ing the quin­tes­sence of the Vedas and var­i­ous Indi­an knowl­edge sys­tems. They adopt a nar­ra­tive-based approach and are in the form of dia­logues among devas, rishis, sages and kings. They are non anthro­pocen­tric and con­tain accounts of var­i­ous beings and cre­ations. Filled with rasa and sto­ries that cap­ti­vate the imag­i­na­tion, they not only con­tain the the­o­ry and prin­ci­ples of sci­ences and the Indi­an knowl­edge sys­tems but also detail out their appli­ca­tions through rit­u­als, tra­di­tions and sam­skaras such that the peo­ple are ben­e­fit­ed from them. They also con­tain accounts of dhar­ma, prac­ti­cal wis­dom, social con­duct, yoga and top­ics of human well­be­ing. It is the grace of Mahar­ishi Vyasa and the guru parampara who have tak­en the sci­ences to every house­hold through pop­u­lar nar­ra­tions and prac­ti­cal meth­ods.

Now that we have seen the con­text of the Puranas, let us learn about them in more detail.

Mat­sya Avatara of Lord Vish­nu car­ry­ing Manu and the sap­tar­ishis dur­ing the cos­mic dis­so­lu­tion. The descrip­tion of the dis­so­lu­tion has sev­er­al resem­blances to the great flood described in sev­er­al civ­i­liza­tions includ­ing Chi­nese, Greek, Norse and South Amer­i­can

What are Puranas?

Puranas are bod­ies of works that have been present since ancient times and are ever-new as they con­tain the knowl­edge of the eter­nal prin­ci­ples. The timescales cov­ered in Puranas are vast and there are accounts of mul­ti­ple cre­ations and dis­so­lu­tions. At such grand scales, the essen­tial prin­ci­ples that are not chang­ing, the knowl­edge that helps one to ful­fil one’s purushartha, that devel­ops bhak­ti and gnana towards one’s ish­tade­va and the val­ues and sto­ries that guide one to do acts that are ben­e­fi­cial for every­one and not harm­ful become essen­tial to be pre­served and passed on. True to their name, the puranas and their knowl­edge are time­less.

Since this had been (in exis­tence) before also (Purā api), it is remem­bered as Purāṇam. (Brah­man­da Purana, Sec­tion 1, Chap­ter 1)

Yās­ka in his Niruk­ta 3.19 men­tions the ety­mol­o­gy of Puranas as “purā navaṃ bha­vati iti purāṇaṃ” — “The old becomes new, that is Purana”.

There are 18 Maha­pu­ranas and 18 Upa puranas. Along with them there are sev­er­al Stha­la Puranas as well in var­i­ous parts of Bhara­ta.

One can remem­ber the names of the 18 Maha­pu­ranas through a sim­ple shlo­ka below:

Madwayam Badwayam chai­va

Bratrayam Vacha­tus­tayam


puranani prud­hak prud­hak”||

Ma dwayam — Two of them start with Ma —

  1. Mat­sya Purana

  2. Markandeya Purana

Ba dwayam means two puranas start­ing with Ba

  1. Bha­ga­va­ta Purana or Sri­mad Bha­ga­va­ta Purana

  2. Bhav­ishya Purana

Bra trayam means 3 of them start with the let­ters Bra

  1. Brah­man­da Purana

  2. Brah­ma Vaivar­ta Purana

  3. Brah­ma Purana

Va Cha­tus­tayam means four of them start with Va

  1. Vamana Purana

  2. Vara­ha Purana

  3. Vish­nu Purana

  4. Vayu Purana

ANAPALINGA KUSKani refers to a Purana for each of the let­ters in bold

  1. Agni Purana (A).

  2. Nara­da Purana (NA).

  3. Pad­ma Purana (PA).

  4. Lin­ga Purana (LIN)

  5. Garu­da Purana (GA)

  6. Kur­ma Purana (KU)

  7. Skan­da Purana (SK)

Puranas as fifth Veda

The Puranas have been recog­nised as the fifth Veda by Lord Brah­ma him­self. In the Reva Khan­da, Avantya Khan­da of Skan­da Purana, Rishi Lom­a­har­shana says, “the Purāṇa con­sti­tutes the soul of the Vedas; the well-known six Aṅgas (ancil­lary sub­jects) are the dif­fer­ent limbs; what is found in the Vedas is seen in the Smṛtis and what is seen in both is nar­rat­ed in the Purāṇas. Among all scrip­tur­al trea­tis­es it was the Purāṇa that was remem­bered at the out­set by Brah­mā. There­after the Vedas issued forth from his mouth.”

Sri­mad Bha­ga­vatam verse 1.4.20 says,

ṛg-yajuḥ-sāmātharvākhyā vedāś catvāra uddhṛtāḥ iti­hāsa-purāṇaṁ ca pañ­camo veda ucy­ate

The four divi­sions of the orig­i­nal sources of knowl­edge [the Vedas] were made sep­a­rate­ly. But the his­tor­i­cal facts and authen­tic sto­ries men­tioned in the Purāṇas are called the fifth Veda.

The Iti­hasa-Puranas have been hailed as the fifth Veda and con­tain the essence of Vedas in many oth­er texts includ­ing the Chan­do­gya Upan­ishad, Brhadaranya­ka Upan­ishad and oth­ers.

Mahar­ishi Veda Vyasa – the com­pil­er of Puranas

Puranas have emerged from the Lord him­self and the orig­i­nal Puran­ic lore is said to con­tain 100 crore vers­es. In the Dva­para Yuga, Lord Narayana takes avatara as Mahar­ishi Veda Vyasa and divides the orig­i­nal lore into parts. In the present Dva­para Yuga, Shree Krish­na Dvai­payana (Ved Vyasa) abridged the orig­i­nal lore to 4 lakh vers­es and divid­ed it into 18 books for the ease of under­stand­ing of every­body. These have been passed down sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly through the guru-shishya parampara.

Mahar­ishi Veda Vyasa

Pan­cha­lak­shanas of puranas

We have looked at the def­i­n­i­tion of Puranas as that which is ancient yet always new. In addi­tion, Puranas are said to have pan­cha­lak­shanas or 5 char­ac­ter­is­tics. The Amarkosa (The­saurus of Sam­skri­ta) defines the pan­cha­lak­shanas as:

“sar­gaś­ca prati­s­ar­gaś­ca vaṃśo man­van­tarāṇi ca vaṃśānu­car­i­taṃ cāpi purāṇam pañ­calakṣaṇam”

Pan­cha­lak­shanas of Puranas

The Pan­calak­shanas are:

  1. Sar­ga – Cre­ation

  2. Prati­s­ar­ga – Sub­se­quent cre­ations and dis­so­lu­tion

Sec­tions on Sar­ga and Prati­s­ar­ga describe the ori­gin of the uni­verse, the var­i­ous tattvas (ele­ments) that make up the uni­verse and how they evolve. The cre­ation of phys­i­cal real­i­ty and the earth is described. There­after, the cre­ation and evo­lu­tion of var­i­ous beings from Lord Brah­ma is described.

In the Indi­an view, cre­ation is a cycli­cal phe­nom­e­non that occurs repeat­ed­ly along with dis­so­lu­tion. The Puranas describe var­i­ous kinds of dis­so­lu­tions of the uni­verse and how recre­ation hap­pens again. These chap­ters cov­er top­ics in the Indi­an knowl­edge sys­tem that we study today in the sub­jects of physics, cos­mol­o­gy, chem­istry, evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gy, geol­o­gy and earth sci­ences.

  1. Vam­sa – Geneal­o­gy and accounts of rishis and devas – their ori­gin, sto­ries from their lives and lin­eages. Puranas are non anthro­pocen­tric in nature and thus look at the human ori­gin and his­to­ry in con­text of the his­to­ry of oth­er beings. One reads about the co-evo­lu­tion and inter­ac­tion between dif­fer­ent beings in the evo­lu­tion of real­i­ty.

  2. Man­van­tara – The cos­mic units of time and the timescales at which var­i­ous events unfold are described in the Puranas. This sec­tion also talks about Manu (prog­en­i­tor of human beings) and his lin­eage, the code of con­duct and social prac­tice as described by Manu. It also describes the var­na-ashra­ma dhar­ma (the duties of peo­ple belong­ing to var­i­ous class­es and at var­i­ous stages of their life).

  3. Vam­sanuchari­ta – Geneal­o­gy of kings, dynas­ties and sto­ries from their lives. We learn about the dynas­ties that have ruled and sto­ries from their lives illus­trat­ing the prin­ci­ples of dhar­ma, artha, kama and mok­sha. Along with Vam­sa, these sto­ries help to tell the civ­i­liza­tion­al his­to­ry of Bhara­ta and also illus­trate best prac­tices that help one to pur­sue one’s swad­har­ma.

A clos­er look at these pan­cha­lak­shana reveals them to be top­ics which are stud­ied today in the sub­jects of cos­mol­o­gy, biol­o­gy, physics, chem­istry, his­to­ry, polit­i­cal sci­ences, eco­nom­ics, anthro­pol­o­gy and much more… We will look at the pan­cha­lak­shanas in detail in the sub­se­quent arti­cles.

Some Puranas such as the Bha­ga­va­ta Purana also men­tion anoth­er 5 lak­shanas: Utaya (links between deities, sages, kings and var­i­ous liv­ing beings), Ishanakutha (tales of Bha­ga­van and his avatars), Nirod­ha (ces­sa­tion), Muk­ti (spir­i­tu­al lib­er­a­tion) and Ashraya (Refuge).

Puranas as ency­clopae­dia of Indi­an knowl­edge sys­tems

The Puranas cov­er a wide range of knowl­edge sys­tems and are not lim­it­ed to the pan­calak­shanas alone. Even a quick glance through the table of con­tents of the Puranas or a sum­ma­ry of top­ics of Puranas on the Wikipedia page of Puranas tells us of the ency­clopaedic nature of these works. Some of them include archi­tec­ture, econ­o­my, pol­i­tics, diplo­ma­cy and gov­er­nance, phi­los­o­phy, lit­er­a­ture, gram­mar, poet­ry, music, geog­ra­phy, geol­o­gy, dis­eases and med­i­cines, nutri­tion and food, tem­ples and tirtha stha­las, yoga and much more! Cer­tain top­ics are dis­cussed in greater detail in cer­tain puranas. For exam­ple, the Agni Purana and the Mat­sya Purana dis­cuss in great detail about tem­ple archi­tec­ture. The Brah­man­da Purana dis­cuss­es cre­ation elab­o­rate­ly. Thus each Purana has its own style of nar­ra­tion and focus on the top­ic of con­tents.

In today’s con­texts we have seen the emer­gence of nar­ra­tive based cur­ricu­lums such as Big His­to­ry that attempt to syn­the­sise the knowl­edge from var­i­ous sub­jects into a coher­ent nar­ra­tive or sto­ry­line. Such cur­ricu­lums have attract­ed glob­al atten­tion and have seen wide­spread adop­tion. In the Indi­an con­text, sev­er­al thou­sand years ago, the Iti­haasa and the Puranas had adopt­ed a nar­ra­tive based approach and inte­grat­ed var­i­ous knowl­edge sys­tems into their sto­ries. They adopt a non anthro­pocen­tric view and con­tain accounts of oth­er beings as well. The timescales adopt­ed in them are huge and chal­lenge our per­cep­tion and under­stand­ing of time. The diver­si­ty and com­plex­i­ty of infor­ma­tion encod­ed in the Puranas makes them a won­der­ful and engag­ing source of knowl­edge. They fol­low an inquiry-based approach and pro­ceed as a series of ques­tions and answers. Some chap­ters detail out the the­o­ry and con­cepts, in oth­ers the knowl­edge is encod­ed in the form of sto­ries. One also finds the antic­i­pat­ed ques­tions or doubts that one may have answered in the Puranas as one pro­ceeds with them.

Thus we see that the Puranas are an ency­clopae­dia of knowl­edge in the sci­ences, social sci­ences, arts, human­i­ties, med­i­cine and oth­er top­ics stud­ied in mod­ern knowl­edge sys­tems today. While we are used to the world­view and knowl­edge of the mod­ern sci­ences, Puranas offer a good start­ing point to devel­op an overview and dive deep­er into spe­cif­ic knowl­edge streams into the Indi­an knowl­edge sys­tems and world­view for com­mon peo­ple. They are an excel­lent source of infor­ma­tion to the enthu­si­as­tic mind on var­i­ous top­ics on Indi­an cul­ture and knowl­edge sys­tems. While Vedas require a back­ground to study and under­stand, any­one with shrad­dha and inter­est can start explor­ing the Puranas. Read­ing the Puranas is not just read­ing sto­ries or learn­ing infor­ma­tion but a har­mo­nious amal­ga­ma­tion that gen­er­ates mean­ing for one­self. May we seek the bless­ings of Mahar­ishi Vyasa and the guru parampara to become supa­tras of this won­der­ful knowl­edge and tra­di­tion.




  3. Swa­mi Shiv­anan­da on Puranas:



  6. Puran­ic Ency­clopae­dia by Vet­tam Mani



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