Smriti: The Puranas

The Puranas are an important source of popular Hinduism. Purana means “very old” or “ancient,” and the books themselves claim greater antiquity than the Vedas. Nevertheless. scholars consider them to be more recent scripture, dealing with what they term the “later deities” – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

There are many books but eighteen main or maha (great) Puranas.These form three sets of six books, with each set connected to one of the trimurti – Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva. Some Hindus say that each set is suitable for readers influenced by the corresponding gunas (goodness, passion, and ignorance). There are also eighteen Upa (“following” or “subsidiary’) Puranas.

The Puranas deal with creation, genealogies of deities and patriarchs, rules for living, descriptions of various worlds, and many of the popular myths and stories. Some of them, such as the Vishnu-, Bhagavata– and DevibhagavataPuranas are often recited publicly.

Of them all, the Bhagavat Purana (Srimad Bhagavatam) is most popular. It consists of over 18,000 verses divided into twelve cantos (volumes). It specifically glorifies Lord Vishnu, twenty-two of His incarnations, and His devotees. Especially popular is the tenth-canto that tells the much-loved stories of Lord Krishna, both as the cowherd boy of Vrindavan and later as the powerful king of Dvaraka.

Rameshbhai Oza delivering one of his popular recitations of the Bhagavat Purana.

Krishna performing one of his famous lilas(pastimes). Here he defeats Kaliya, the many-headed serpent, by dancing on his hoods.

This poster depicts the popular story of Durga slaying the buffalo demon.

Common Misunderstandings

The stories in the Puranas are all allegorical

The word myth is often used to refer to the stories found in the Puranas. The word should be used with discretion, and we should be careful not to equate it with “fairy tale.” Some Hindus believe that the events described are allegorical, but others believe that they are factual, happening beyond our realm of direct perception and comprehension (i.e. they happen on higher dimensions).

Hindu stories can he interpreted however one likes

Stories are often presented to teach a specific lesson. Though there is room for flexibility, and deeper understanding, we should be careful not to exploit the stories, or trivialise them, simply to promote our own values, or in the name of making them more accessible.