Purana (Sanskrit: पुराण purāṇa, meaning "belonging to ancient or olden times") is the name of an ancient Indian genre (or a group of related genres) of Hindu literature (as distinct from oral tradition). Its general themes are history, tradition and religion. While the major puranas are in Sanskrit, puranas exist in other Indian languages also. It is usually written in the form of stories related by one person to another.


There are many texts designated as 'Purana.' The most important are:

  • Mahāpurāṇas and Upapurāṇas, the main Puranic corpus
  • Sthala Purāṇas, scriptures usually extolling the virtues of a certain Hindu temple. They narrate stories of the temple's creation and spiritual history.
  • Kula Purāṇas - Scriptures that deal with the origin and legends of a particular caste.

According to tradition, the Puranas were composed by Vyasa at the end of Dvapara Yuga.

The Darsanas are very stiff. They are meant only for the learned few. The Puranas are meant for the masses with inferior intellect. Religion is taught in a very easy and interesting way through these Puranas. Even to this day, the Puranas are popular. The Puranas contain the history of remote times. They also give a description of the regions of the universe not visible to the ordinary physical eye. They are very interesting to read and are full of information of all kinds. Children hear the stories from their grandmothers, Pandits and Purohits (priests) hold Kathas in temples, on banks of rivers and in other important places. Agriculturalists, labourers and bazaar people (common masses) hear the stories.

The Five Characteristics of Purāṇas

The Puranas are of the same class as the Itihasas and are classified into a Mahā- ("great") and a Upa- ("lower, additional") corpus. According to Matysa Purana, they are said to narrate and deal systematically with five subjects, called Pancha Lakshana pañcalakṣaṇa ("five distinguishing marks"):

  1. Sarga - The creation of the universe.
  2. Pratisarga - Secondary creations, mostly re-creations after dissolution.
  3. Vamśa - Genealogy of gods and sages.
  4. Manvañtara - The creation of the human race and the first human beings.1
  5. Vamśānucaritam - Dynastic histories.

Most Mahapuranas and Upapuranas deal with these subject matters, although the bulk of their text consists of historical and religious narratives. A Purana usually gives prominence to a certain deity (Shiva, Vishnu or Krishna, Durga). Most use an abundance of religious and philosophical concepts in their narration, from Bhakti to Samkhya.

The Eighteen Upa-Puranas

There are eighteen main Puranas and an equal number of subsidiary Puranas or Upa-Puranas. The main Puranas are:

  1. Vishnu Purana,
  2. Naradiya Purana,
  3. Srimad Bhagavata Purana,
  4. Garuda (Suparna) Purana,
  5. Padma Purana,
  6. Varah Purana,
  7. Brahma Purana,

8. Brahmanda Purana,
9. Brahma Vaivarta Purana,
10. Markandeya Purana,
11. Bhavishya Purana,
12. Vamana Purana,
13. Matsya Purana,
14. Kurma Purana,

15. Linga Purana,
16. Siva Purana,
17. Skanda Purana and
18. Agni Purana.

Of these, six are Sattvic Puranas and glorify Vishnu; Six are Rajasic Puranas and glorify Brahma; six are Tamasic Puranas and glorify Siva.

Neophytes or beginners in the spiritual path are puzzled when they go through Siva Purana and Vishnu Purana. In Siva Purana, Lord Siva is highly eulogised and an inferior position is given to Lord Vishnu. Sometimes Vishnu is belittled. In Vishnu Purana, Lord Hari (Vishnu) is highly eulogised and the inferior status is given to Lord Siva. Sometimes Lord Siva is belittled. This is only to increase the faith of the devotees in their particular Ishta-Devata (favourite or tutelary deity). Lord Siva and Lord Vishnu are one.

The best among the Puranas are the Srimad Bhagavata and the Vishnu Purana. The most popular is the Srimad Bhagavata Purana. Next comes Vishnu Purana. A portion of the Markandeya Purana is well known to all Hindus as Chandi, or Devimahatmya. Worship of God as the Divine Mother is its theme. Chandi is read widely by the Hindus on sacred days and Navaratri (Durga Puja) days.

Other Puranas

Besides the two major types of puranas namely the Maha-puranas and Upa-puranas, there are other two Hindu puranas namely, Sthala puranas, Kula puranas and others.

Sthala puranas: These texts narrates the virtues and stories connected with a certain temple or shrine (the word `Sthala` means `Place` in Sanskrit). There are numerous Sthala Puranas, most written in vernaculars, some with Sanskrit versions as well. Most claim to have a Sanskrit origin, and some of the Sanskrit versions also appear in a Mahapurana or an Upapurana.

Kula puranas: These puranas are caste or family oriented. They deal with a caste`s origin myth, stories and legends. The kula puranas is of uttermost importance as it is an important source for caste identity and is usually contested by other, rival, castes. This subgenre is usually in the vernacular language and might at times be oral.

Other puranas: There are many other narratives that go by the name of Purana. Most are written in vernaculars and are usually concerned with mythical and historical narrations. These texts, such as the Padma Purana of Bengal and Assam (narrating the story of the goddess Manasa), are vast in number and scattered all over the Indian subcontinent.

Utility of the Puranas

Study of the Puranas, listening to sacred recitals of scriptures, describing and expounding of the transcendent Lilas (divine sports) of the Blessed Lord – these form an important part of Sadhana (spiritual practice) of the Lord’s devotee. It is most pleasing to the Lord. Sravana (hearing of the Srutis or scriptures) is a part of Navavidha-Bhakti (nine modes of devotion). Kathas (narrative or story) and Upanyasas open the springs of devotion in the hearts of hearers and develop Prema-Bhakti (divine love for God) which confers immortality on the Jiva (individual soul).

[Note: The nine modes of devotion are: Hearing His (God’s) names and glories, singing them, remembering the Lord, worship (service) of His Feet, adoration with flowers, prostrations, regarding oneself as His servant, as His friend, and total self-surrender.]

The language of the Vedas is archaic, and the subtle philosophy of the Vedanta and the Upanishads is difficult to grasp and assimilate. Hence, the Puranas are of special value as they present philosophical truths and precious teachings in an easier manner. They give ready access to the mysteries of life and the key to bliss. Imbibe their teachings. Start a new life of Dharma-Nishtha and Adhyatmic Sadhana from this very day.

[Note; Dharma-Nishtha = steadfastness or establishment in Dharma. Adhyatmic (pertaining to the Inner Self) Sadhana (spiritual practice)]


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 travelling brahmin settles for a few weeks in a temple and narrates parts of a Purana, usually with a bhakti perspective).

The Tamil Puranas

Lord Siva incarnated Himself in the form of Dakshinamurti to impart knowledge to the four Kumaras. He took human form to initiate Sambandhar, Manikkavasagar and Pattinathar. He appeared in flesh and blood to help his devotees and relieve their sufferings. The divine Lilas (sports) of Lord Siva are recorded in the Tamil Puranas like Siva Purana, Periya Purana, Siva Parakramam and Tiruvilayadal Purana.


1. What are Puranas? Are They Myths? – Dr. R.K. Lahiri, PhD


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