Evaluate the contribution of the Puranas in disseminating secular knowledge among the masses in ancient India.

Evaluate the contribution of the Puranas in disseminating secular knowledge among the masses in ancient India. ©


  • Purana means’ old’. According to tradition, the composition of Puaranas began with Sage Veda-Vyasa. There are 18 Mahapuranas (great puranas) and many more Upapuranas (secondary puranas).
  • The origins of the puranas may be overlapped to some extent with the Vedas, but their composition stretched forward into the 4th-5th centuries CE and in some case even later.
  • Most of the puranas were written during the Gupta period though some of them belong to early medieval period as well. For example- Bhagvata Purana (10th century) and Skanda Purana (14th century).

Five characteristics (Panch-lakshanas) of Puranas

  • The Puranas are supposed to have five characteristics (Panch-lakshanas) i.e. they are supposed to discuss five topics:
    • Sarga:
      • original creation of the world;
    • Pratisarga:
      • dissolution and recreation;
    • Manvantaras:
      • the periods of the various Manus;
    • Vamsha:
      • the genealogies of gods and rishis;
    • Vamsanucharita:
      • an account of royal dynasties including the suryavamshi and chandravamshi kings.

Some of the religious content in the Puranas

  • Puranas reflect the emergence of religious cults based on devotion, especially towards the gods Vishnu and Shiva and the goddess Durga.
  • Devotion was expressed through the worship of images of deities in temples, pilgrimage (tirtha) and vows (vrata).
  • Puranas act as vehicles of Brahmanical social and religious values.
  • The Jain Puranas like Adi Purana (9th century) narrates the life of the first tirthankara Rishabha, Harivamsha Purana (8th century) gives a Jaina version of the stories of Pandavas, Kauravas, Krishna, Balrama etc.

Secular knowledge contained in the Puranas

  • The conception of time:
    • The conception of time in the Puranas is mind-boggling.
    • There are four ages or yugas – krita, treta, dvapara and kali.
    • One yuga follows the other and the periodic destruction of the world is followed by its re-creation.
  • Political History:
    • Out of eighteen main Puranas, especially the six puranas – Vayu, Brahmanda, Bhagavata, Bhavisya, Matsya and Vishnu provide useful information on ancient political history.
    • They refer to historical dynasties such as the Haryankas, Shaishunagas, Nandas, Mauryas, Shungas, Kanvas and Andhras (Satavahanas).
    • For example – Vishnu purana, Matsya Purana and Vayu purana talks about the Mauryan age, Satavahana period and Gupta age respectively.
    • The dynastic lists end with the Guptas.
    • The Puranas throw a good deal of light on the evolution of kingship, emergence of the state, inter-state relations, administrative organisation (local, judicial, civil, military, revenue) etc.
  • Historical geography:
    • The Puranas have accounts of mountains, rivers, and places, which are useful for the /study of historical geography.
    • For ex – Markhandeya Purana talks about Vindhyan Ranges and Narmada valley region.
  • Intermingling of culture:
    • The Puranas also reflect the interactions between the people belonging to different cultural traditions.
    • For ex- the interaction between Brahmanical and non-Brahmanical cultural traditions.
  • Other secular information:
    • System of land grant:
      • The verses praising gifts of land are found in Padma, Bhavisya and Brahma Puranas which throws light on the system of land-grant.
    • Urbanisation:
      • Puranas provide information about the foundations, planning, naming, antiquity, growth and decay of towns and cities which are very important for the study of history of urbanisation in ancient India.
      • The Puranic records throw light on the nature of urban settlements by showing the growth of towns as political, administrative, commercial, religious or educational purposes.
        • For ex- Kaushambi and Rajagriha as Capital cities.
    • Origin of Aryans:
      • According to some Puranas, the original homeland of Aryans was Pratisthana from where they expanded all over the gangetic doab.
      • This indicates the indigenous origin of Aryans in contrast to foreign origin hypothesis.
    • Brahmanical social values:
      • The Puranic descriptions of Brahmanical social values like Varnashrama dharma (four-fold stages of life), caste system etc have considerable historical value.
    • Interaction of different cultures:
      • Puranic myths like stories of encounters and interactions between demons, gods and sages are interpreted by historians as allegorical representation of interactions among people belonging to different cultures.
  • The secular knowledge in some specific Puranas:
    • Agni Purana:
      • It has an encyclopaedic character.
      • It deals with subjects like astronomy, geography, grammar, law, medicine, politics etc.
    • Garuda Purana:
      • It has also assumed an encyclopaedic form.
      • There are sections on cosmography, astronomy and astrology, omens and portents, medicine, metrics, grammar, knowledge of precious stones (ratnapariksha) and politics (niti).
    • Vishnudharmottara Purana:
      • It is a supplement to the vishnu purana is also enclyclopaedic in nature.
      • It also talks about the art of painting.
      • It gives an account of the various branches, methods and ideals of Indian painting.
    • Trishashtilakshana Mahapurana:
      • In 9th century by Jinasena and Gunabhadra.
      • It has sections on topics like the interpretation of dreams, town planning, the duties of a warrior, and how a king should rule.
  • During the later Vedic period and afterwards, the women and shudras did not have access to the Vedic texts but Puranas became open for them and they could read and listen to Puranas which helped in dissemination of knowledge to masses.
  • Method of dissemination of secular knowledge of Puranas to masses were mostly through story telling:
    • According to Banabhatta, he heard the stories of Vayupuran in his village in his childhood as the stories of Puranas were read publicly.
    • According to Arthashastra, ”the pauranika, the suta and the magadha” were three officials retained by a king for listening to the Puranas.
    • Indologist like Maurice Winternitz also admits that the pauranikas and aitihasikas were professional story-tellers.

Puranas, with its bountiful of secular knowledge, acted as a chief source of secular knowledge to people particularly when a large chunk of society was denied access to knowledge.  ©

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