The Goddess Ambika or Durga Leading the Eight Matrikas in Battle Against the Demon Raktabija, Folio from Devi Mahatmya, Markandeya Purana.

The Puranas (Sanskrit: पुराण purāṇa, "of ancient times") are a genre of important Hindu, Jain and Buddhist religious texts, notably consisting of narratives of the history of the universe from creation to destruction, genealogies of kings, heroes, sages, and demigods, and descriptions of Hindu cosmology, philosophy, and geography.[1]

Puranas usually give prominence to a particular deity, employing an abundance of religious and philosophical concepts. They are usually written in the form of stories related by one person to another. The Puranas are available in vernacular translations and are disseminated by Brahmin scholars, who read from them and tell their stories, usually in Katha sessions (in which a traveling Brahmin settles for a few weeks in a temple and narrates parts of a Purana, usually with a Bhakti perspective).[citation needed]


An illustration of Varaha avatar based on the Bhagavata Purana

Vyasa, the narrator of the Mahabharata, is traditionally considered the compiler of the Puranas.[2] However, the earliest written versions date from the time of the Gupta Empire (third-fifth century CE) and much material may be dated, through historical references and other means, to this period and the succeeding centuries. The texts were probably written all over India.

The date of the production of the written texts does not define the date of origin of the Puranas.[3] On one hand, they existed in some oral form before being written[3] while at the same time, they have been incrementally modified well into the 16th century.[3][4]

An early reference is found in the Chandogya Upanishad (7.1.2). (circa 500 BCE). The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad refers to purana as the "fifth Veda",[5] itihāsapurāṇaṃ pañcamaṃ vedānāṃ, reflecting the early religious importance of these myths, presumably then in purely oral form. Importantly, the most famous form of itihāsapurāṇaṃ is the Mahabharata. The term also appears in the Atharvaveda 11.7.24.[6][7]

According to Pargiter,[6] the "original Purana" may date to the time of the final redaction of the Vedas. Gavin Flood connects the rise of the written Purana historically with the rise of devotional cults centring upon a particular deity in the Gupta era: the Puranic corpus is a complex body of materials that advance the views of various competing cults.[8] Wendy Doniger, based on her study of indologists, assigns approximate dates to the various Puranas. She dates Markandeya Purana to c. 250 CE (with one portion dated to c. 550 CE), Matsya Purana to c. 250–500 CE, Vayu Purana to c. 350 CE, Harivamsa and Vishnu Purana to c. 450 CE, Brahmanda Purana to c. 350–950 CE, Vamana Purana to c. 450–900 CE, Kurma Purana to c. 550–850 CE, and Linga Purana to c. 600–1000 CE.[9]

Common ideas are found throughout the corpus but it is not possible to trace the lines of influence of one Purana upon another so the corpus is best viewed as a synchronous whole.[8]

The All India Kashiraj Trust, formed under Vibhuti Narayan Singh, the Maharaja of Kashi, dedicated itself to publishing editions of the Puranas.[10]


According to Matysa Purana,[11] they are said to narrate five subjects, called Pancha Lakshana pañcalakṣaṇa(Sanskrit:

) ("five distinguishing marks", though some scholars have suggested that these are shared by other traditional religious scriptures):[12][13]

  1. Sarga: the creation of the universe.
  2. Pratisarga: secondary creations, mostly recreations after dissolution.
  3. Vamśa: genealogy of the gods and sages.
  4. Manvañtara: the creation of the human race and the first human beings. The epoch of the Manus' rule, 71 celestial Yugas or 308,448,000 years.
  5. Vamśānucaritam: the histories of the patriarchs of the lunar and solar dynasties.

The Puranas also lay emphasis on keeping a record of genealogies, as the Vayu Purana says, "to preserve the genealogies of gods, sages and glorious kings and the traditions of great men."[14] The Puranic genealogies indicate, for example, that Sraddhadeva Manu lived 95 generations before the Bharata war.[15] In Arrian's Indica, Megasthenes is quoted as stating that the Indians counted from "Dionysos" (Shiva) to "Sandracottus" (Chandragupta Maurya) "a hundred and fifty-three kings over six thousand and forty-three years."[16] The list of kings in Kalhana's Rajatarangini goes back to the 19th century BCE.[17]


The Mahapuranas

Of the many texts designated 'Puranas' the most important are the Mahāpurāṇas. These are always said to be eighteen in number, divided into three groups of six, though in fact they are not always counted in the same way. Combining the various lists Cornelia Dimmitt and J. A. B. van Buitenen have collated twenty names, totalling 429,000 verses:[18]

Purana name Verses number Comments
Agni 15,400 verses Contains details of Vastu Shastra and Gemology.
Bhagavata 18,000 verses Indologist Ludo Rocher considers it to be the most celebrated and popular of the Puranas,[19][20] telling of Vishnu's ten Avatars. Its tenth and longest canto narrates the deeds of Krishna, introducing his childhood exploits, a theme later elaborated by many Bhakti movements.[21]
Bhavishya 14,500 verses Contains a record of prophecies. Portions of the extant text are drawn from the law book of Manu.[22]
Brahma 10,000 verses Describes the Godavari and its tributaries. It is shortest of the Puranas.
Brahmanda 12,000 verses Includes Lalita Sahasranamam, a text some Hindus recite as prayer.
Brahmavaivarta 17,000 verses Describes ways to worship Devis, Krishna and Ganesha.
Garuda 19,000 verses Describes death and its aftermaths.
Harivamsa 16,000 verses Is considered to be itihāsa (epic poetry).
Kurma 17,000 verses
Linga 11,000 verses Describes the magnificence of Lingam, symbol of Shiva, and origin of the universe. It also contains many stories of Lingam one of which entails how Agni Lingam solved dispute between Vishnu and Brahma.
Markandeya 9,000 verses The Devi Mahatmya, an important text for the Shaktas, is embedded in it.
Matsya 14,000 verses Narrates the story of Matsya, the first of ten major Avatars of Vishnu. It also contains genealogical details of various dynasties.[23]
Narada 25,000 verses Describes the greatness of Vedas and Vedangas.
Padma 55,000 verses Describes the greatness of Bhagavad Gita. Hence, it is also known as gītāmāhātmya (lit. the majesty of Gita).
Shiva 24,000 verses Describes the greatness of Shiva, greatness in worshiping Shiva and other stories about him.
Skanda 81,100 verses Describes the birth of Skanda (or Karthikeya), second son of Shiva. The longest Purana, it is an extraordinarily meticulous pilgrimage guide, containing geographical locations of pilgrimage centers in India, with related legends, parables, hymns and stories. Many untraced quotes are attributed to this text.[24]
Vamana 10,000 verses Describes areas around Kurukshetra in North India.
Varaha 24,000 verses Describes various forms prayer and devotional observances to Vishnu. Many illustrations also involve Shiva and Durga.[25]
Vayu 24,000 verses
Vishnu 23,000 verses Describes the many mythic deeds of Vishnu and various ways to worship him.[26]


Puranas are classified according to qualification of persons who can understand them: "Purāṇas are supplementary explanations of the Vedas intended for different types of men. All men are not equal. There are men who are conducted by the mode of goodness, others who are under the mode of passion and others who are under the mode of ignorance. The Purāṇas are so divided that any class of men can take advantage of them and gradually regain their lost position and get out of the hard struggle for existence."[27]

The Mahapuranas are frequently classified according the three aspects of the divine Trimurti[28]:

Vaiṣṇava Puranas: Vishnu Purana, Bhagavata Purana, Nāradeya Purana, Garuda Purana, Padma Purana, Varaha Purana, Vāmana Purana, Kūrma Purana, Matsya Purana, Kalki Purana
Brāhma Puranas: Brahma Purana, Brahmānda Purana, Brahma Vaivarta Purana, Mārkandeya Purana, Bhavishya Purana,
Śaiva Puranas: Shiva Purana, Linga Purana, Skanda Purana, Agni Purana, Vāyu Purana


According to the Padma Purana,[30] the texts may be classified in accordance with the three gunas or qualities; truth, passion, and indifference:

Sattva ("truth; purity") Vishnu Purana, Bhagavata Purana, Naradeya Purana, Garuda Purana, Padma Purana, Varaha Purana
Rajas ("dimness; passion") Brahmanda Purana, Brahma Vaivarta Purana, Markandeya Purana, Bhavishya Purana, Vamana Purana, Brahma Purana
Tamas ("darkness; ignorance") Matsya Purana, Kurma purana, Linga Purana, Shiva Purana, Skanda Purana, Agni Purana

The Upapuranas

The Upapurāṇas are lesser or ancillary texts: these are sometimes also said to be eighteen in number, with still less agreement as to the canonical titles. Few have been critically edited. They include: Sanat-kumara, Narasimha, Brihan-naradiya, Siva-rahasya, Durvasa, Kapila, Vamana, Bhargava, Varuna, Kalika, Samba, Nandi, Surya, Parasara, Vasishtha, Devi-Bhagavata, Ganesha, Mudgala, and Hamsa.[31]

The Ganesha and Mudgala Puranas are devoted to Ganesha.[32][33] The Devi-Bhagavata Purana, which extols the goddess Durga, has become (along with the Devi Mahatmya of the Mārkandeya Purana) a basic text for Devi worshipers.[34]

There are many others all over the Indian subcontinent.[35]

Sthala Puranas

This corpus of texts tells of the origins and traditions of particular Tamil Shiva temples or shrines. There are numerous Sthala Puranas, most written in vernaculars, some with Sanskrit versions as well. The 275 Shiva Sthalams of the continent have puranas for each, famously glorified in the Tamil literature Tevaram. Some appear in Sanskrit versions in the Mahapuranas or Upapuranas. Some Tamil Sthala Puranas have been researched by David Dean Shulman.[36]

Kula Puranas

These Puranas deal with a caste's origin myth, stories, and legends (the word kula means "family" or "tribe" in Sanskrit). They are important sources for caste identity though usually contested by rival castes. This subgenre is usually in the vernacular and may at times remain oral.[37] These have been little researched, though they are documented in the caste section of the British Census of India Report and the various Gazetteers.[38]

Jain and Buddhist Puranas

Jain Puranas deal with Jain myths, history and legends and form a major part of early Kannada literature.[39] [40] The best known is the Mahapurana of Acharya Jinasena. The Buddhist scriptures have no mention of puranas. But the Tibetan and Nepalese Buddhist revere nine works as puranas which are styled as Navadharmas (nine dharmas). The so called “nine dharmas” are no canon of any sect, but a series of books which have been composed at different periods and belong to different persuasions. These nine works are: Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita, Gandavyuha, Samadhiraja, Lankavatara, Tathagataguhyaka, Saddharmapundarika, Lalitavistara, Suvarnaprabhasa and Dashabhumishvara. All these scriptures are also designated Vaipulyasutras. Among other works, Swayambhu Purana narrates the mythological history of Nepal and describes Buddhist pilgrimage sites inside the Kathmandu Valley.


  1. ^ Puranas at Sacred Texts
  2. ^ The Puranas by Swami Sivananda
  3. ^ a b c Johnson 2009, p. 247
  4. ^ Singh 1997, p. 2324
  5. ^ Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 2.4.10, 4.1.2, 4.5.11. Satapatha Brahmana (SBE, Vol. 44, pp. 98, 369). Moghe 1997, pp. 160, 249
  6. ^ a b Pargiter 1962, pp. 30–54
  7. ^ Moghe 1997, p. 249 and the Satapatha Brahmana and SBE Vol. 44, pp. 98, 369
  8. ^ a b Flood 1996, p. 359
  9. ^ Collins, Charles Dillard (1988). The Iconography and Ritual of Śiva at Elephanta. SUNY Press. p. 36. ISBN 978-0-88706-773-0.
  10. ^ Mittal 2004, p. 657
  11. ^ Matsya Purana 53.65
  12. ^ Rao 1993, pp. 85–100
  13. ^ Johnson 2009, p. 248
  14. ^ Vayu Purana 1. 31-2.
  15. ^ Majumdar & Pusalker 1951, p. 273
  16. ^ Pliny: Naturalis Historia 6:59; Arrian: Indica 9:9
  17. ^ Elst 1999, with reference to Bernard Sergent
  18. ^ Dimmitt & van Buitenen 1978, p. 373
  19. ^ Thompson, Richard L. (2007). The Cosmology of the Bhagavata Purana 'Mysteries of the Sacred Universe. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. p. 10. ISBN 978-81-208-1919-1.
  20. ^ Monier-Williams 1899, p. 752, column 3, under the entry Bhagavata.
  21. ^ Hardy 2001
  22. ^ Winternitz, Maurice; Winternitz, Moriz; Sarma, V. Srinivasa (1 October 1981), A History of Indian Literature: Introduction, Veda, epics, Purāṇas and Tantras, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., p. 541, ISBN 978-81-208-0264-3
  23. ^ Dalal, Roshen (2011). Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide. Penguin Books India. p. 250. ISBN 978-0-14-341421-6.
  24. ^ Doniger 1993, pp. 59–83
  25. ^ Wilson, Horace H. (1864), Works: ¬Vol. ¬6 : ¬The Vishṅu Purāṅa: a system of Hindu mythology and tradition ; 1, Trübner, p. LXXI
  26. ^ Lochtefeld, James G. (2002), The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism: N-Z, The Rosen Publishing Group, p. 760, ISBN 978-0-8239-3180-4
  27. ^ Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 1.2.4 All the Vedic literatures and the Purāṇas are meant for conquering the darkest region of material existence. The living being is in the state of forgetfulness of his relation with God due to his being overly attracted to material sense gratification from time immemorial. His struggle for existence in the material world is perpetual, and it is not possible for him to get out of it by making plans. If he at all wants to conquer this perpetual struggle for existence, he must reestablish his eternal relation with God. And one who wants to adopt such remedial measures must take shelter of literatures such as the Vedas and the Purāṇas. Some people say that the Purāṇas have no connection with the Vedas. However, the Purāṇas are supplementary explanations of the Vedas intended for different types of men. All men are not equal. There are men who are conducted by the mode of goodness, others who are under the mode of passion and others who are under the mode of ignorance. The Purāṇas are so divided that any class of men can take advantage of them and gradually regain their lost position and get out of the hard struggle for existence.
  28. ^ Nair, Shantha N. (2008). Echoes of Ancient Indian Wisdom: The Universal Hindu Vision and Its Edifice. Delhi: Hindology Books. p. 266. ISBN 978-81-223-1020-7.
  29. ^ The Puranic Encyclopedia
  30. ^ Padma Purana, Uttara-khanda, 236.18–21
  31. ^ R. C. Hazra, Studies in the Upapuranas, vol. I, Calcutta, Sanskrit College, 1958. Studies in the Upapuranas, vol. II, Calcutta, Sanskrit College, 1979. Studies in Puranic Records on Hindu Rites and Customs, Delhi, Banarsidass, 1975. Ludo Rocher, The Puranas - A History of Indian Literature Vol. II, fasc. 3, Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1986.
  32. ^ Thapan 1997, p. 304
  33. ^ Purana at Gurjari
  34. ^ Mackenzie 1990
  35. ^ `Verbal Narratives: Performance and Gender of the Padma Purana, by T.N. Sankaranarayana in Kaushal 2001, pp. 225–234
  36. ^ Shulman 1980
  37. ^ Handoo 1998, pp. 125–142
  38. ^ See for example Castes and Tribes of Southern India vol. I–V, Thurston Edgar. Cosmo Publication, Delhi.
  39. ^ Jaini, Padmanabh S. (1993). "Jaina Puranas: A Puranic Counter Tradition." in Doniger 1993, pp. 207–249
  40. ^ Cort, John E. (1993). "An Overview of the Jaina Puranas". in Doniger 1993, pp. 185–206


Further reading