The Puranas are a class of literary texts, all written in Sanskrit verse, whose composition dates from the 4thcentury BCE to about 1,000 A.D. The word “Purana” means “old”, and generally they are considered as coming in the chronological aftermath of the epics, though sometimes the Mahabharata, which is generally classified as a work of itihas (history), is also referred to as a purana. Some scholars, such as van Buitenen, are inclined to view the Puranas as beginning around the time that the composition of the Mahabharata came to a close, that is about 300 A.D. Certainly, in its final form the Mahabharata shows puranic features, and the Harivamsa, which is an appendix to the Mahabharata where the life of Krishna or Hari is treated at some length, has sometimes been seen as a purana. The special subject of the puranas is the powers and works of the gods, and one ancient Sanskrit lexicographer, Amarasinha, writing in the fifth or sixth century A.D., defined a purana as having five characteristic topics, or pancalaksana: “(1) The creation of the universe; (2) Its destruction and renovation; (3) The genealogy of gods and patriarchs; (4) The reigns of the Manus, forming the periods called Manwantaras; (5) the history of the Solar and Lunar races of kings.” No one purana can be described as exhibiting in fine (or even coarse) detail all five of these distinguishing traits, but sometimes the Vishnu Purana is thought to most closely resemble the traditional definition. Around the time when the puranas first began to be composed, the belief in particular deities had become established as one of the principal marks of the Hindu faith, and to some degree the puranas can be described as a form of sectarian literature. Some puranas exhibit devotion to Shiva; in others, the devotion to Vishnu predominates.
There are eighteen major puranas, as well as a similar number of minor or subordinate puranas. One method of the classification of puranas deploys the traditional tripartite division of the gunas or qualities which tend toward purity (sattva), impurity or ignorance (tamas), and passion (rajas). Thus, there are those puranas where the quality of sattva is said to predominate, and these are six in number: Vishnu; Narada; Bhagavata; Garuda; Padma; and Varaha. According to another scheme of classification, these are also the puranas in which Vishnu appears as the Supreme Being. A second set of puranas, also six in number, are described as exhibiting qualities of ignorance or impurity (tamas), and in these Shiva is the God to whom devotion is rendered: Matsya; Kurma; Linga; Shiva; Skanda; and Agni. In the third set of six puranas, the quality of rajas or blind passion supposedly prevails: Brahma; Bramanda; Brahmavaivarta; Markandeya; Bhavishya; and Vamana. The list of eighteen is sometimes enlarged to twenty, to include the Vayu Purana and the Harivamsa. Yet clearly this mode of classification, which shows every sign of sectarianism, is inadequate, since none of the puranas is devoted exclusively to either Vishnu or Shiva. Among these puranas, the Vishnu Purana and the Bhagavata Purana (also known as the Bhagavatam) are, with respect to their standing as works of devotional literature, preeminent; and the Bhagavata Purana is even the supreme work of Krishna devotional literature. Since each of the eighteen major puranas enumerates the other puranas, it is reasonable to surmise that all the puranas were revised at one point. Their length varies considerably: the Skanda has 80,000 couplets, while the Brahma and Vamana Puranas have 10,000 couplets each.
Though all the Puranas have been translated into major Indian languages as well as English, only a few of them, principally the Vishnu Purana and the Bhagavatam, can safely be described as being widely known. Nonetheless, the stories told in the Puranas are part of the common currency, and in this respect the Puranas can rightfully be spoken of as the scriptures of popular Hinduism. It is the Puranas that British scholars had in mind when they mocked the literature of the Hindus as fanciful, hyperbolic, and absurd. Genealogies in which certain kings are said to rule for thousands of years, or conceptions of time where tens of thousands of years are said to be a mere instant, were not calculated to make the British regard the Puranas as a set of rational religious texts. However, it requires a very different imagination, as well as interpretive strategy, to read the Puranas. To suppose that Hindus truly believe in “330 million gods and goddesses” is to fail to understand the place of numbers in the Indian imagination, and the hermeneutic, interpretive, and creative work that numbers do. The Puranas are works that most eminently represent the deep mythic structuring of Indian civilization, and they are properly viewed as expanding upon, modifying, and transforming the orthodox Brahminism of the Vedas, principally by the introduction of the idea of bhaktior devotion. It is the Puranas which, it is no exaggeration to say, assisted in the transition from Brahminism to Hinduism, particularly a Hinduism that was more receptive to folk elements, popular forms of devotion and worship, and everyday arts, crafts, and sciences. The Puranas carry story about the gods who had become the objects of people’s devotion, as well as about the modes of worship of these gods; these gods are no longer Vedic gods, but the gods who form the Hindu trinity. Besides them, the Puranas speak of the battle between the devas and the asuras, and one can doubtless read the narratives as allegorical accounts of the struggle within each person between the forces of ‘light’ and the forces of ‘darkness’. The Puranas delineate the religious obligations by which each person is bound, and as such they are a guide to dharmic living. Though the Puranas are a vast repository of Hindu lore, religious practices — yoga, vows, puja, prayers, sacrifices — and everyday customs, they are not without a sense of humor and irony, and they complement the metaphysical austerity of the Upanishads, the magical and sacrificial lore of the Atharva Veda, and the sacerdotal orthodoxy of the Rig Veda.