पुराण purāṇa: old, ancient; old legend, ancient history.
The Puranas are an encyclopedic genre of literature in the broader Hindu tradition. The texts deal with a wide variety of subjects, generally categorized under five main headings:
1. “Sarga,” Cosmogenesis or Cosmogony, the creation of the Universe;
2. “Pratisarga,” secondary cosmogonies;
3. “Vaṃśa,” genealogies of gods and sages;
4. “Manvantara,” Anthropogenesis and the races and cycles of Man;
5. “Vaṃśānucarita,” dynastic histories and lineages of divine kings.
The Puranas are referenced and quoted from very often in H. P. Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine, drawing heavily on the Vishnu Purana as translated by Wilson, being one of the few Puranas with a complete English translation at the time. Yet, although these were quoted liberally by her, she also made sure to “remind our Orientalists and those Westerns who regard Wilson’s translations as authoritative, that in his English translation of the Vishnu Purana he is guilty of the most ludicrous contradictions and errors” (SD 1:257fn). This is an issue that in part remains to this day, but over the past century several Indian scholars have put in tremendous work to translate the Puranas into English, giving today’s students a much wider access to the texts (see below for links to translations).
The Puranas are grouped into two major categories: the Mahā- (“great”) and the Upa- (“subordinate” or “secondary”) Purāṇas, with several more texts available outside of these two categories. Both main groups are traditionally listed as 18 in number, but the lists themselves vary—in the case of the Mahā-Purāṇas, the lists vary only slightly; in the case of the Upa-Purāṇas, some of the lists vary considerably.
Through analysis of several sources, tables of these lists can be compiled as such:
(As Listed in 6 Purāṇas)
|11||Liṅga||Laiṅga [Liṅga]||Liṅga||Liṅga||Laiṅga [Liṅga]||Liṅga|
1. In Viṣṇu Purāṇa’s list, numbers 1-7 are set apart, perhaps to indicate special or higher status (i.e. perhaps akin to the Mukhya Upanishads being set apart in the Muktika Canon); numbers 8-15 are listed numerically (i.e. “the eighth,” “the ninth,” etc.); 16-18 are listed as “others,” perhaps indicating lower status.
2. The count in this Purāṇa is given by first syllable, thus: “[Those beginning with] “ma” are two; [with] “bha” are two; [with] “bra” are three; [with] “va” are four; [with] “a,” “na,” “pa,” “ling,” “ga,” “kū,” [and] “ska” are one each.” We’ve arranged these according to the consistent order given in the other sources.
3. Referred to in this Purāṇa as “the highest” or “best of all.”
4. The Śiva Purāṇa claims to have originally consisted of 12 Saṃhitās (“Collections”) and 100,000 verses. 5 of those 12 Saṃhitās are not extant, leaving only 7 remaining. The 5 missing Saṃhitās are said to consist of 52,000 verses. Thus the remaining 7 would consist of 48,000. However, in the manuscripts available today these 7 Saṃhitās consist of only about 24,000 verses. Tradition holds that Vyasa abridged the text.
5. The Vāyu Purāṇa is supposed to consist of 24,000 verses, but extant manuscripts consist of only about 12,000 and vary considerably between themselves.
6. In this Purāṇa the Bhaviṣya is listed 6th, thus bumping down Nārada, Mārkaṇḍeya and Agni to 7th-9th. Padma Purāṇa (5:115:93-97) has the same list and order. We’ve moved Bhaviṣya to 9th simply for the sake of easier comparison with the other lists.
7. Referred to in this Purāṇa as “the essence of all the Purāṇas.”
The above lists show significant uniformity. The 4th spot is the only one with a notable divergence between lists, being given as either the Śiva or Vāyu Purāṇa. It may be that the authors of those lists had the same overall text or collection of texts in mind, but used one or the other of these titles to indicate it. The originals of both the Śiva and Vāyu Purāṇas are not extant, and what is extant are significantly abridged. While debate and further investigations continue among scholars and students, we favor including both of these texts in the list of Mahāpurāṇas, while keeping the count at 18, i.e. we prefer to list the text as “4. Śiva and/or Vāyu.”
(Compiled list drawn from the following sources:
Viṣṇu Purāṇa 3:6:20-23;
Bhāgavata Purāṇa 12:13:3-8;
Brahmavaivarta Purāṇa 133:11-21;
Mātsya Purāṇa 53:13-56;
Kūrma Purāṇa 1:1:13;
Devī Bhāgavata-purāṇa 1:3:2)
4. Śiva and/or Vāyu
The Upa- (“subordinate”) Puranas can be analyzed similarly:
(As Listed in 3 Purāṇas)
|1||Sanatakumāra [Ādi]||1||Ādi||1||Sanatakumāra [Ādi]|
|5||Āścarya||5||Durvāsā [Āścarya]||4||Daurvāsasa [Āścarya]|
|12||Nāndikeśvara9||3||Skānda9 [Nānda?]||3||Māṇḍa9 [Nānda?]|
Note: in the above table, bold text represents Purāṇas that are normally classified as Mahā-Purāṇas. Red text represents a Purāṇa that is given in only one of the lists we’ve utilized.
9. The Nāndikeśvara Purāṇa is given in other lists, for instance the Bṛhaddharma Purāṇa (Chapter 21). The inclusion of the Skānda (itself a Mahā-Purāṇa) and “Māṇḍa,” in the Kūrma and Padma respectively, is an oddity. It would seem that the Purāṇa that ought to be included in the list is the Nāndikeśvara or Nānda.
From analysis of the above, along with other lists (i.e. Bṛhaddharma Purāṇa, Chapter 21, etc.) we may perhaps suggest the following summary list: 1. Ādi, 2. Nārasiṃha, 3. Nāradīya, 4. Śivadharma, 5. Āścarya/Durvāsā, 6. Kāpila, 7. Mānava, 8. Auśanasa, 9. Varuṇa, 10. Kālikā, 11. Sāmba, 12. Nāndikeśvara, 13. Māheśvara, 14. Saura, 15. Pārāśara, 16. Mārīca, 17. Āditya, 18. Bhārgava.
Such a summary list is, of course, only preliminary and subject to change as more investigation is done, but at the very least we can get a sense of which Purāṇas were commonly viewed in the second place of importance next to the Mahā-Purāṇas. After the Upa-Purāṇas there are numerous other texts categorized under the name Purāṇa.
(Summary list drawn from analysis of the following sources:
Devi-Bhagavata Purāṇa 1:3:12-16;
Kūrma Purāṇa 1:1:16-20;
Padma Purāṇa 5:115:93-97;
Bṛhaddharma Purāṇa, Chapter 21)
While we have lists and manuscripts of these and numerous other Purāṇas, “there is a tradition given in the purāṇas themselves that they come from a single now lost source. This source is described as the original Purāṇa-saṃhitā. It consisted of 4,000 verses, less than in any of the eighteen purāṇas now extant, but not a small book” (David Reigle, “On the Original Purāṇa-saṃhitā”). For more on the Purāṇa-Saṃhitā see:
Creation Stories: The Cosmogony Account from the Purāṇas, “Part 1. On the Original Purāṇa-saṃhitā,” Purana Samhita by S. P. L. Narasimhaswami, 1945
Original Purana Samhita by V. S. Agrawala, 1966
See: Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology series, Volumes 1-79
1. Brahma Purāṇa
2. Pādma Purāṇa
3. Viṣṇu Purāṇa
4a. Śiva Purāṇa
Shanti Lal Nagar, Siva Maha Purana, 2007
4b. Vāyu Purāṇa
5. Bhāgavata Purāṇa
M. N. Dutt, A prose English translation of Shrimadbhagabatam, 1895-96, 12 Books
C.L. Goswami and M.A. Shastri, Bhagavata Mahapurana, 2006 (Scan: Vol. 1-2)
Bibek Debroy, The Bhagavata Purana, 2019
A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, The Srimad Bhagavatam, 1970–77
Anand Aadhar, Srimad Bhagavata Purana, 2012
6. Nārada Purāṇa
7. Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa
8. Agni Purāṇa
M. N. Dutt, Agni Purana, 1904 (Scans, 1987 ed.: Vol. 1, 2, 3, 4)
9. Bhaviṣya Purāṇa
No complete English translation available.
10. Brahmavaivarta Purāṇa
Shanti Lal Nagar, Brahma Vaivarta Purana, 2003 (Scan: Vol. 1-2)
G. P. Bhatt, Brahmavaivarta Purana, Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology, Vol. 77-79.
11. Liṅga Purāṇa
Shanti Lal Nagar, Linga Maha Purana, 2011
12. Varāha Purāṇa
13. Skanda Purāṇa
G. V. Tagare, Skanda Purana, 1950-1960 (Scans: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20) (reproduced in the AITM series)
G. V. Tagare (49-68), A. S. Balooni & Pratosh Panda (69-71), Skanda Purana, Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology, Vol. 49-71.
See also: The Skandapurāṇa Project
14. Vāmana Purāṇa
O. N. Bimali & K. L. Joshi, Vamana Purana: Sanskrit Text and English Translation, 2005 (Scan: single volume)
15. Kūrma Purāṇa
[Translator unknown], Kurma Purana, [year unknown] (Scan: single volume)
16. Mātsya Purāṇa
K. L. Joshi, Matsya Purana, 2007 (Scans: Vol. 1, 2)