Category Archives: The Puranas

The Devi Mahatmya

Many ancient cultures have traditions believing in the power of a mother goddess. Hinduism is one such religion that still has a strong culture of goddess worship that has continued to develop over the years. There are many indications of the importance of fertility and the importance of worshiping feminine power in the remains of the Indus Valley Civilization, which was discovered in the 1920’s. Female figurines as well as seals were found depicting the female figure (Coburn 15).

The Devi Mahatmya is one of the first texts in the Hindu tradition to equate female divinity with the principle of Brahman, which is ultimate reality (Abbot and Foulston 12). It is part of a larger text called the Markandeya-Purana. However, out of all of the texts in the Markandeya-Purana, the Devi Mahatmya has the most commentaries and is mostly viewed on its own as opposed to with the full text. The term Devi Mahatmya translates to “Greatness of the Goddess”. The text is all about the myths of Hindu goddesses and was originally in Sanskrit (Coburn 1). It was likely written in the sixth century and is still used today to worship the goddess (Kinsley 489). The text mostly narrates tales of battles between the goddess (Devi) and various demons, but takes place within a larger story. Throughout the Devi Mahatmya the goddess is referred to by over 200 different names. Several of these names describe characteristics of the goddess, while others convey honour. Many of them refer to goddesses that have been mentioned in other Hindu literature. (Kinsley 490).

The Devi Mahatmya is usually presented in three sections. Each section is about a specific goddess and has its own seer and deity. These three sections contain different chapters and are unequal in length. The first section is chapter 1, the second consists of chapters 2-4, and the third spans chapters 5-14. These three sections that make up the Devi Mahatmya are often surrounded by appendages or angas. These are subsidiary texts that the Devi Mahatmya relies on and they come before and after the main text.  These angas discuss ritual use of the Devi Mahatmya (Coburn 100).

The Devi Mahatmya tells of three battles between the goddess, Devi, and different demons. These three battles make up the three sections of the text. The frame story, which connects these episodes, is that there is a sage that is teaching his two pupils about the identity of the goddess. The sage tells his pupils about the three battles. The first section and battle of the Devi Mahatmya tells how the demons Madhu and Kaitabha were defeated. The second section is about the goddess’ defeat of the demon Mahisa. The third section is the myth of Sumbha and Nisumbha (Coburn 22-24).

In the first section, the goddess is associated with the deity Visnu. The goddess takes on the characteristics of the great male god. When associated with Visnu the goddess is characterized by negative qualities such as sleep and delusion (Kinsley 491). These characteristics are referred to as maya and the goddess is referred to as Mahamaya ten times in this episode. Although maya has negative overtones it also has positive ones such as the ability to create (Kinsley 498-499).  The two demons in this section, Madhu and Kaitabha, are said to have come out of Visnu’s ear to harass Brahma, the creator god. In this story, the goddess is able to awaken Visnu so that he can defeat the two demons. He fought them for five thousand years and then he was finally able to defeat them. He granted their last wish and killed them on land by cutting off their heads (Coburn 39).

The second section of the Devi Mahatmya has the goddess born from the strength and power of many different gods (Kinsley 492). This section is unique because it describes the birth of a completely new god. In this episode, the demon Mahisa conquers the gods and expels them from heaven to wander the earth. Hearing about this, Visnu and Siva became angry and out of a fiery splendor, known as tejas, the goddess was created. The goddess was created from different aspects of each god and given different weapons from all of them (Coburn 40). Together, this new goddess and the other gods had been expelled fought in a battle against Mahisa’s army. They fought until Mahisa’s army begged them to stop and Mahisa was slain. At the end of the battle flowers were released from heaven (Coburn 44). The goddess in this episode is praised by the gods and continued to protect the worlds.

The third section is the longest section of the Devi Mahatmya and consists of the most chapters. This episode begins with the gods going to the Himalayas (Kinsley 491). The demons Sumbha and Nisumbha hear of this great goddess and send two of their generals, Canda and Munda, to abduct her and bring her to him in order to get married. The generals believe that they will be able to take the goddess with ease and little effort. They approach her confidently and with pride forgetting that she is all-powerful. As they approach, the goddess first lets out a mantra that has the power to create and destroy, and then goes on to destroy the two generals. The king demon, named Sumbha, who had given the orders for the goddess to be abducted is angered when he hears that his two best generals have been destroyed by a woman (Amazzone 63). When he attacks, the goddess goes on to destroy both Sumbha and his brother Nisumbha; The Devi Mahatmya makes it very clear that the goddess is universal and all-powerful (Abbot and Foulston 66).

The Devi Mahatmya is still used in the Hindu tradition today. It is one of the most influential texts in the tradition and is used to worship the goddess at different Hindu rituals and gatherings. One of the gathering in which the Devi Mahatmya is used is the Durga Puja. The Durga Puja is the most popular festival, it is celebrated once a year in Kolkata and devotees get to “gaze upon the Goddess’s face.” (Abbot and Foulston 157). It is one of the largest pilgrimage experiences within Southeast Asia, millions or people take part in this pilgrimage in order to worship the goddess. The festival takes place over nine nights and part of the festival is the recitation of the Devi Mahatmya and her victories over the demons (Amazzone 48).

Although the Devi Mahatmya is an ancient text in the Hindu tradition it still stands out among all of the other texts. It is one of the most influential texts and is unique because it tells tales of the great goddess. It has been used all throughout the Hindu tradition and is still used today at festivals and to worship the goddess.


References and Further Recommended Reading

Abbot, Stuart and Foulston, Lynn (2012) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press.

Amazzone, Laura (2010) Goddess Durga and the Sacred Female Power. Maryland: Hamilton Books.

Coburn, Thomas B. (1991) Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devī-Māhātmya and A Study of its Interpretation. New York: State University of New York Press.

Coburn, Thomas B. (1988) Devi Mahatmya: The Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Hawley, John Stratton and Donna Marie Wulff, (1996) Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley:University of California Press.

Kinsley, David (1978) “The Portrait of the Goddess in the Devī-Māhātmya.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol. 46 No. 4: 489-506. Accessed January 30, 2016.

Kinsley, David (1975) “Freedom from Death in the Worship of Kali.” Numen 22(3): 183-207. Accessed February 3, 2016. Doi: 10.2307/3269544


Related Topics



Markandeya Purana


Durga Saptashati










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Article written by: Ana Ferzacca (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.














The Devi Bhagavata Purana

The Devi Bhagavata Purana is one of two Bhagavata Puranas. It exalts the goddess Devi, and the other praises the god Visnu. The Devi Bhagavata Purana is a more brief form than that of Visnu’s Bhagavata Purana. Devi only speaks half a sloka (a metric style in prose composition; a couplet (Rodrigues 564) propounding herself as the ground of all being (Brown 17).

“All this universe indeed is just I myself; there is nothing else eternal.”

The Devi Bhagavata Purana [DBP] is comprised of 12 books (skandhas), 318 chapters, and 18,000 verses (slokas). It is a Sakta Upa-Purana, the “lesser” Puranas. There are eighteen or nineteen Maha (greater) Puranas, and many Upa (lesser) Puranas that encompass the vast body of Puranic literature (Rodrigues 290). There is conflict over the exact age of the text. An old age would suggest more validity and greatness for some [See Brown “The Problem of Canonicity” (18-24); looks at both religious and academic perspectives and compares differing views of scholars], however, there is evidence that such texts are often edited, adjusted, modified, and expanded upon in order to heighten the status of the text and present it in favour of devotees. There is evidence that the Devi Bhagavata Purana is not an exception to these practices (Brown 20-21).

The goddess Devi is usually portrayed in myths as a warrior whose mount is a lion named Mahasingha, and is known to defeat many demons; however she is also the cosmic mother, especially to her devotees. She is not typically seen as the wife, consort, or sakti of particular male gods (Rodrigues 323). She is beyond being a consort to anyone, though she bears a special relationship to every deity (Hawley & Wulff 32). For her devotees, Devi is independent and embodies the powers of all the gods combined. She is known by many names, most often known as Durga (She who is Formidable), or Candi (She who is Fierce). Other names include Prakrti (matter or nature), Maya (trick or illusion), Sakti (power or ability) (Coburn 20), and Mahamaya (the great matrix of phantasmal reality) (Rodrigues 323). She is also Parvati or Kali, themselves eventually known as individual goddesses. Devi is also associated with a “horde of females known as ‘the Mothers.’” There are hundreds of females part of this group and are known to be fighting, ferocious, and bloodthirsty beings, although the maternal instinct associated with Devi runs deep in all of them (Coburn 21).

There are two particularly important festivals associated with the Great Goddess, a spring and an autumn Navaratra (“nine nights”). The spring festival evidences Devi’s associations with fertility, while the autumn celebrations draw in Devi’s marital dimension (Rodrigues 324). Instructions on sacred places, vows, festivals, such as the Navaratra, and proper worship of Devi can be found in the Devi Bhagavata Purana.

“The two nine nights vow called Navaratra are to be observed, one in the autumn and the other in the spring season. These are very dear to Me. He is certainly My devotee and very dear who for My satisfaction performs these and the other Nitya Naimittik vows, free from any pride and jealousy. He certainly gets the Sajujya Mukti with Me.” (DBP 7:38:42-43) [Mukti is freedom/release from samsara/bondage, See Rodrigues (556)]

The Devi Bhagavata Purana is only one of many texts celebrating the Great Goddess. This text takes into account many myths already told in other Hindu sacred texts and elaborates on, retells, and/or adjusts these stories. In the second book and sixth chapter, the birth of the Pandavas [the family in constant rivalry and conflict with their cousins, the Kauravas, from the Mahabharata epic] is told (Rodrigues 230). However, the Devi Bhagavata Purana makes relatively few changes, and avoids direct contradictions with the Mahabharata (Brown 21). The question of which of the two Bhagavatas is more genuine is often raised, and many scholars argue over which has more authority. The Devi Bhagavata Purana could seem, to some, to be completely aware of the “tampering” of certain myths in Visnu’s Bhagavata Purana, and therefore purposely makes fewer changes and goes back to a more ancient standard in order to gain authority over Visnu’s Bhagavata Purana (Brown 21). Puranic works, such as the Devi Bhagavata Purana emerged by the 7th century CE, though many were composed later. (Rodrigues 281), therefore it is a late Purana. There is speculation over its age and its placement as an Upa-Purana versus a Maha-Purana by many scholars, however, at present; it is in the category of an Upa-Purana, despite the conflict.

Mention of Sita, Rama, Laksmana, and Ravana [characters from the Ramayana epic] is made in the third book and twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth chapters. These two chapters describe the birth of Sita, her discovery by King Janaka, the capturing of Sita by Ravana, and Rama’s search for her. The Ramayana makes no mention of Devi worship by Rama; however, a change made in the Devi Bhagavata Purana is that Rama finds solutions to his problems in Devi worship, due to the goddess-centered worship of the text (Brown 167). In the Devi Bhagavata Purana, Rama performs the Navaratra (nine night ceremony devoted to Devi), then Devi appears to Rama, informs him of his previous incarnations [he is an avatara of the god Visnu; the birth of the various avataras of Visnu can be found in the fourth book of the Devi Bhagavata Purana], reveals his purpose to kill Ravana, and promises him the recovery of his kingdom, if Rama continues to worship her (Brown 167-168). [For further information on the Ramayana epic consult Rodrigues (2006) or Valmiki/Goldman (1996)].

The Devi Mahatmya, also known as the Durga Saptasati, is another goddess-centered text that tells of the conception of Devi. The fifth book and eighteenth chapter of the Devi Bhagavata Purana recounts the slaying of the buffalo demon Mahisa by Devi, a retelling of the myth from the Devi Mahatmya (Glorification of the Great Goddess) text. Devi is endowed with the powers and weapons of all of the gods in order to slay the great buffalo demon Mahisa.

“Visnu then addressed all the Devas to give all their auspicious ornaments and weapons, He said: — ‘O Devas! Better give, all you the various arms and weapons, endowed with strength, created out of your own weapons and give them all today to the Devi.’” (DBP 5:8:75)

Certain elements differ in the Devi Bhagavata Purana from the Devi Mahatmya, such as the weapons in which Devi slays Mahisa. In the Devi Mahatmya, she slays him by crushing him with her foot, impaling him with her spear, and beheading him with her great sword (Rodrigues 323). In the Devi Bhagavata Purana, Devi pierces the demon with her trident, and then beheads him with her discus of a thousand spokes.

The Hindu belief in karma is also demonstrated in the Devi Bhagavata Purana. Karma is the concept of causality in moral action in which good deeds are meritorious (punya) and evil or sinful deeds (papa) have painful effects (Rodrigues 551). The fourth book and second chapter states:

“O best of kings! The fruits of karma must have to be experienced, whether auspicious or inauspicious, be he a Deva, or human being or an animal; anyone who has embodied himself in fine or gross bodies!” (DBP 4:2:34)

The Devi Bhagavata Purana covers many subjects, retells many myths, tells of the benefits of worshipping Devi, instructs how to worship Devi, illustrates hells and the destiny of sinners, explains the origins of the Earth and of other deities, speaks of narratives, explains hymns to Devi, and much more. Although it is an Upa (lesser) Purana, it contains vast amounts of information and requires great study in order to fully comprehend and explain. [The entire English translation by Vijnanananda of the Devi Bhagavata Purana is available online and also in print copy; link attached below.]

Devi’s many devotees are part of the Sakta sect in Hinduism and hold her as preeminent. Devi developed as an independent goddess unattached to any male sectarian tradition, and therefore is the basis of the goddess-based sectarian tradition, Saktism. [For more information on Saktism consult Tigunait (1998) or Rodrigues (2006)]. Devi is Sakti, the power that creates the cosmos. The devotees designated as Saktas form a smaller segment of Hindu population than either Saivas (worshippers of the god Siva) or Vaisnavas (devotees of the god Visnu) (Rodrigues 278-280). Devotees recognize that Devi has an ultimate form (formlessness) and an intimate form (accessible through faith), this presents that the gods themselves cannot know the cosmic form of the goddess without the personal extension of her grace (anugraha), and this can be done only through loving devotion (bhakti) to her (Beane 56). Therefore, devotees are strongly devoted to Devi because only through this loving devotion do they receive Devi’s good graces, any less would have consequences. The benefits of worshipping the goddess Devi and reading goddess-centered texts, such as the Devi Bhagavata Purana, can be recognized in verses from the text itself:

“She regulates the hearts of all and is the Cause of all causes. Without Her worship no one’s desires can be expected to be accomplished. Therefore, O Best of Suras! Worship the Universal Mother, the Prakrti Devi with greatest devotion and with greatest purity for the destruction of your enemy…She will then surely fulfill your desires.” (DBP 6:5:6-31)


References and Related Readings

Beane, Wendell C. (1973) History of Religions – The Cosmological Structure of Mythical Time: Kali-Sakti. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Bhagavata Purana, 2 vols. text and translation. Gorakhpur: Gita Press, 1952-60.

Brown, Cheever Mackenzie (1945) The Triumph of the Goddess: The Canonical Models and Theological Visions of the Devi Bhagvata Purana. Albany: State University New York Press.

_____ (1974) God as Mother: A Feminine Theology in India: An Historical and Theological Study of the Brahmavaivarta Purana. Hartford, Vt.: Claude Stark.

Coburn, Thomas B. (1991) Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devi-Mahatmya and a Study of Its Interpretation. Albany: State University New York Press.

Das, Bhagawan (1962) Krsna: A Study in the Theory of Avataras. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Hawley, J.S & Wulff, D.M. (1998) Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hazra, R. C. (1958-63) Studies in the Upapuranas, 2 vols. Calcutta: Sanskrit College.

Kinsley, David (1986) Hindu Goddesses. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pintchman, Tracy (1994) The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Pulasker, A. D. (1955) Studies in the Epics and Puranas of India. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2003) Ritual Worship of the Great Goddess: The Liturgy of the Durga Puja with Interpretations. Albany: State University of New York Press.

_____ (2006) Hinduism – The eBook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Tigunait, Rajmani (1998) Sakti, the Power in Tantra: A Scholarly Approach. Honesdale: Himalayan Institute Press.

Valmiki, David & Goldman Robert P. (1996) The Ramayana of Valmiki. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Van Lysebeth, André (1995) Tantra: The Cult of the Feminine. York Beach, Me.: Samuel Weiser.

Vijnanananda, Swami (trans.) (1921-23) The Srimad Devi Bhagavatam. Allahabad: Sudhindra Nath Vasu.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Bhagavata Purana












Mahabharata Epic

Ramayana Epic



Devi Mahatmya








Durga Puja


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by Brianne Graham (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Bhagavata Purana

The devotion and worship of Krsna is one of the most influential and widespread series of cults in the Hindu tradition. One of the most important texts regarding this devotion is the Bhagavata Purana. One the most basic level, the Bhagavata Purana concerns the exploits of many of the incarnations of Visnu. In particular, the narrative devotes its longest section to the deeds of the avatar Krsna.

The Bhagavata Purana is said to have been composed by the sage Vyasa. Vyasa is often credited as the author of the Puranas, the Mahabharata, and the Upa-Puranas (Prasad 1). The identity of Vyasa is a controversial subject among scholars, and most modern scholars tend to treat Vyasa as a mythological figure. This is because the sheer amount of writing attributed to him would seem impossible for one man to compose in a lifetime (Prasad 3). Therefore most scholars agree that Vyasa is in fact a number of different authors, however the exact identity of the authors is still subject to debate.

There is also debate among scholars regarding the actual date of composition of the Bhagavata Purana. According to Sheo Shanker Prasad, there are currently three dominant theories regarding the Bhagavata’s date of origin. The first theory is that the famous grammarian Vodadeve composed the Bhagavata sometime in the 13th century CE (Prasad 38). According to Prasad, this theory is declining in favor mainly because there would seem to be direct references and even commentaries written concerning sections of the Bhagavata, which would seem to have been composed prior to the 13th century (Prasad 40). The second theory concerning the composition date of the Bhagavata claims that it was composed sometime during the sixth century CE. This theory is also falling out of favor with scholars, due mainly to the fact that it claims that there are quotations and references to the Bhagavata in other works dating from the seventh and eighth centuries. These claims are currently being debated because some speculate that the passages in question may simply have been later additions to such early texts in order to make them compatible with the Bhagavata narrative (Prasad 41). The more modern consensus seems to be with the third theory expressed by Prasad. This theory speculates that the Bhagavata Purana was composed sometime between 900-1000 CE (Prasad 39). Prasad argues that the Bhagavata must have been composed sometime between the Devi-Bhagavata [c. 950 CE] and Sriharsa’s Naisadhiya-carita [c.1020-1080 CE] and thus had to have been composed sometime between 950-1080 CE (Prasad 43-44). This theory is also supported by a number of modern scholars, including Bimanbehari Majumdar (Majumdar 61-63). Despite the modern shift towards the theory that the Bhagavata was composed during the tenth century, there is still no absolute consensus among scholars as to the actual date of composition, and event the most popular theories rely on a great degree of speculation.

The story contained within the narrative itself opens with a group of rsis who wished to enter heaven. To achieve this, they began performing a complicated and tiring yajna, but due to the nature of the ritual, they were forced to take a break (Sharma 7). While they were resting, the rsis were joined by the great sage Suta, himself also a rsi. The members of the original group performing the yajna wished to learn more about Krsna, and acknowledging Suta as the most knowledgeable concerning the life of Krsna, asked him to teach them (Sharma 7). Suta responded by telling the Bhagavata Purana.

At its most basic level, the Bhagavata Purana is the tale of the deeds of avatars of the god Visnu. Here we find one of the more distinguishing features of the Bhagavata, namely that it describes 24 incarnation of Visnu, whereas other texts tend to only refer to ten incarnations (Sharma 7). Visnu’s avatars described in the Bhagavata Purana are as follows: The first was described as a celibate Brahmin; the second was a wild boar or varaha; the third was the great sage Narada; the forth incarnation was actually two people, Nara and Narayana; the fifth was the sage Kapila; the sixth was Dattatreya, son of the sage Atri and his wife Anusuya; the seventh was Yajna, who “held the title of Indra during the first manvantara” (Sharma 8); the eighth was Rishabha; the ninth was king Prithu; the tenth was a fish; the eleventh was a turtle, named Kurma; the twelfth was Dhanvantari; the thirteenth was a beautiful woman; the fourteenth was a narasima, or half-man half-lion; the fifteenth was a vamana, or dwarf; the sixteenth was Parashurama; the seventeenth was Vedavyasa, whose real name was Krsna Dvaipayana, who received name Vedavyasa because he reorganized the Vedas so that they might be easier understood by man [reorganized into the current four volumes]; the eighteenth was Rama [from the Ramayana]; the nineteenth and twentieth were Baladeva and his younger brother Krsna; and the twenty-first was the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (Sharma 7-9). The twenty-second avatar described by Suta was not yet born, but would be named Kalki (Sharma 9). While Suta claims there are twenty-four incarnations, he only describes twenty-two (Sharma 9). The bulk of the narrative of the Bhagavata Purana is composed of the exploits of the various avatars of Visnu.

As previously stated, the largest individual section of the Bhagavata Purana concerns the exploits of the avatar Krsna. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of this section of the Bhagavata is that is perhaps the earliest Sanskrit text concerning the childhood of Krsna (Sharma 6). This section describes the birth of Krsna and his older brother Baladeva as the result of Brahma’s prayers to Visnu that he might end evil’s hold on the world (Sharma 15). In this tale, Kamsa, king of the Yodvas, forces Krsna into hiding as a child. It describes his youthful exploits playing with cow herders and playing the flute (Sharma 15-16). The Bhagavata also describes Krsna’s return to Mathura and his slaying of Kamsa, as well as other divine acts [such as lifting a mountain with one finger] (Sharma 16). The story of Krsna is often seen as the most important part of the Bhagavata and is consequently one of the most studied sections.

One such study was composed by Vallabhacarya sometime in the late 15th or early 16th century CE. In his introduction to his translation of Vallabhacarya’s work, James D. Redington notes that chapters 29-35 of book ten of the Bhagavata were of particular interest to Vallabhacarya and others due to the aesthetic implications of Krsna’s “love games” with women of the cow herder caste (Redington 1). Vallabhacarya notes the implication of Krsna as the ideal male, as well as the aesthetic implications of the Gopis [cow herder women with whom Krsna played his games] as examples of ideal feminine beauty (Redington 2).

A more modern study by Richa Pauranik Clements argues for the social importance of the Krsna tales in the Bhagavata. Clements, like Vallabhacarya, found importance in the “love games” of Krsna and the Gopis, and claims that the Bhagavata sometimes implies a reversal of common Hindu dharmic ranking, namely that the narrative often seems to place the dharmic duties of the Sudra class [that “of service and devotion” (Clements 26)] as the most favored (Clements 26). However the author also notes that the narrative retains traditional varna distinctions as well. This is demonstrated, according to Clements, by the fact that while Krsna has sexual intercourse with women of the Sudra class, he can only marry a member of his own (Kshatriya) class [it is also worth noting, according to Clements, that Krsna does not seduce a member of the higher Brahmin class] (Clements 26).

The Bhagavata Purana is an intricate and expansive work that describes the deeds of the avatars of one of the chief Hindu deities, Visnu. For this reason alone it could be seen as significant, however, it has proven to also be one of the most important texts in regards to the worship of one particular avatar, Krsna.



References and Further Recommended Reading

Shastri, J.L. ed. (1970) Ancient Indian Tradition & Mythology: (Puranas in translation). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Clements, Richa Pauranik (2002) “Embodied Morality and Spiritual Destiny in the Bhagavata Purana.” International Journal of Hindu Studies Vol. 6 No. 2, p. 111-145.

Majumdar, Bimanbehari (1969) Krsna in History and Legend. Calcutta: University of Calcutta Press.

Prasad, Sheo Shanker (1984) The Bhagavata Purana: A Literary Study. Delhi: Capital Publishing House.

Preciado-Solis, Benjamin (1984) The Krsna Cycle in the Puranas: Themes and Motifs in a Heroic Saga. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Sharma, P.R.P. (2007) Encyclopedia of Puranas. New Delhi: Anmol Publications Pvt. Ltd.

Vallabhacarya (1479-1531?) Vallabhacarya on the Love Games of Krsna. James D. Redington, trans (1983). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.


Related Topics







Varna system


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Article written by Daniel Lavigne (Spring 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Puranas

The Puranas are a group of eighteen religious Hindu texts consisting of 400,000 slokas. Their composition dates back to the 4th century CE (Wilson 22 & 24). They are often considered to be the fifth Veda. They are listed as follows, in respective order: Brahma, Padma, Vaishnava, Saiva, Bhagavata, Naradiya, Markandeya, Agneya, Bhavishya, Brahma Vaivaarta, Lainga, Varaha, Skanda, Vamana, Kaurma, Matsya, Garuda, and Brahmanda Purana (Wilson 23). They are the main source of Hinduism’s mythology, but include history as well. They are not considered to be authoritative texts of Hindu belief, but are used as guides for worship (Wilson 5). There are also another group called the Upapuranas, which are also eighteen in number. They are considered to be lesser texts, and are not as studied due to their inferior status. The Puranas focus on mainly non-vedic deities: namely Visnu, Siva, and Devi, all of which are equated with Brahman, rather than Vedic deities (Wilson 13). The sage Vyasa is said to have composed the texts. As a result, it is similar to the epic the Mahabharata and is considered to be smrti. However, the Puranas focus on mainly on bhakti practices, rather than dharmic practices. In the Mahapuranas, the practice of worship (puja) is described as a form of worship that anyone can do, regardless of class or gender. These include forms of puja such as ascetic observances (vrata) and pilgrimages (Singh 219).

The Puranas were one of the first texts to be converted from oral representation to the written word (Brown 76). They can be classified in many different fashions, including general classifications dependent upon their general teachings. Classification based on the teachings of three qualities (alluded to in the Matsya Purana) are widely accepted (Wilson 19-22). The three qualities are: truth (Satta/Sattika), ignorance (Tamas/Tamasa), and passion (Rajas/Rajasa), which are also the three gunas of Sankyha philosophy. Six Puranas represent each quality, thus the eighteen Puranas can be classified as three groups of six, corresponding with the quality they focus on. The Puranas that collectively represent Sattika are the Vaishnava Puranas. Tamasa is represented by the Saiva Puranas and Rajasa by the Brahmanda Puranas (Wilson 20). The Matsya Purana does not explicitly classify which Puranas are specific to each quality, but does give indications that sections within the Mahatmya Purana that refer to Hari or Visnu are considered to be Sattika; sections devoted to Agni or Siva are Tamasa; and sections which concentrate on Brahma are Rajasa (Wilson 20-21). More specifically, within the Vaishnava grouping are the Vishnu, Srimad Bhagavata, Naradiya, Garuda, Padma and Varaha Puranas. The Puranas included in the Saiva grouping are the Siva, Linga, Skanda, Agni, Matsya, and Kurma Puranas. The Brahmanda grouping includes the Brahma, Brahmanda, Brahma Vaivrata, Markandeya, Bhavishya and the Vamana Puranas (Wilson 20).

The Puranas can also be classified based on their narration of five main subjects, which are known as Pancha Lakshana (Wilson 10). The five properties are: Sarga (creation), Pratisarga (renewal or recreation), Vamsa (genealogy of the deities), Manwantara (period of time of the Yugas), and Vamsanucaritam (tales of genealogical figures, heroes, and deities) (Wilson 7). The Puranas also include descriptions of the cosmology and philosophy. Each of the eighteen Puranas do not necessarily teach about each of the Pancha Lakshanas. They may include some of them or none at all. They also use stories of deities to demonstrate their teachings (Vansanucaritam). Therefore, each of the Puranas differs in the material it covers. The Puranas are not entirely coherent in the information they provide, but have greater efficacy when viewed as a whole.

A general description of the teachings contained in each of the Puranas is given below: the Brahma Purana describes Sarga, tells of the Manvantaras, describes how yoga should be performed and dedicates much to Krsna (Wilson 28-29). The Padma Purana includes accounts of genealogy and cosmology and bhakti (Wilson 30). The Visnu Purana describes Sarga (Wilson 32). The Saiva Purana includes details of Vamsa and Manvantaras (Wilson 37). The fifth Purana, the Bhagavata Purana, tells the history of Krsna (Wilson 43). The Narada Purana is composed of prayers to Visnu (Wilson 53). The Markandeya Purana describes Sarga, Manvantaras, and Durga, but in an un-religious way. It is merely a sequential history (Wilson 56-58). The Agni Purana does not include accounts of the Pancha Lakshana. It focuses on medicinal therapies as described in the Sausruta as well as grammar (Wilson 55-56).

The ninth Purana, the Bhavishya Purana includes details of Pratisarga, in addition to dedication to numerous deities, religious rites and ceremonies, vratas and caste duties (Wilson, 58). The Brahma Vaivarta Purana mainly includes prayers dedicated to Krsna (Wilson, 66). The eleventh Purana, the Linga Purana deals with Sarga and Pratisarga (Wilson 68). The Varaha Purana focuses on pilgrimage sites (Wilson 71). The Skanda Purana deals with the importance of temples and their construction, not a topic directly related to any Pancha Lakshana (Wilson 74). It is said that the Vamana Purana is very un-puranic in nature. There are brief references to Sarga and Manvantaras, but it is generally lacking the five teachings of the Puranas (Wilson 76). The fifteenth Purana is the Kurma Purana, which refers to Sarga and Manvantara , with the use of Vamsanucaritam in its first section (Wilson 79). The Matsya Purana also includes Sarga as well as caste duties and vratas (Wilson 82). The Garuda Purana’s main objective is the description of vratas. It does briefly talk about Sarga, but it is not the main focus (Wilson 84). The last and eighteenth Purana is the Brahmanda Purana. This Purana also seems to be a misfit, not coinciding with the general Puranic nature. It gives description of worship, but does not focus on any of the Pancha Lakshana (Wilson 86). Regardless of the way in which the Puranas are organized, they still have the same teachings and importance. Each is unique, but complementary to one another. Although some of the Puranas have more teachings than others and therefore may be considered more significant (such as the Visnu Purana), it is important to view all eighteen books as a whole.

References and Further Readings.

Brown, Mackenzie C. (1986) Purana as Scripture: From Sound to Image of the Holy Word in the Hindu Tradition. History of Religions 26, no. 1 (August): 68.

Dimmitt, Cornelia & van Buitenen, J. A. B., eds. and trans. Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978.

Klostermaier, Klaus K. (1994) A Survey of Hinduism. 2nd Ed. Albany: SUNY Press.

Matchett, Freda. (2005) The Puranas: Blackwell companion to Hinduism. p 129-143. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications.

Singh, Shalini. (2005) Secular pilgrimages and sacred tourism in the Indian Himalayas. GeoJournal 64, no. 3 (November):215-223.

Wilson, H. H. (2006) The Vishnu Purana: A System of Hindu Mythology and Tradition. Read Books Publications.

Related topics:

Sanskrit Literature

Non-Vedic Deities

Pancha Lackshana

Bhagavad Gita


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Written by Erin Stewart (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

Related Readings (On the Puranas and Puranic Mythology)

Ali, S. M. (1966) The Geography of the Puranas. New Delhi: People’s Publishing House. Bhagavata- Purana, 2 vols. text and translation. Gorakhpur: Gita Press, 1952-60.

Bhattacharji, Sukumari (1970) The India Theogony: A Comparative Study of Indian Mythology from the Vedas to the Puranas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Devi-Bhagavata Purana, The Srimad. Swami Vijnananda (ed. and trans.) Allahabad: Panini Office. Reprint. Oriental (1986).

Dimmit, C., and J. A. B. van Buitenen (eds. and trans.) (1978) Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Dowson, J. A. (1961) Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion, Geography, History and Literature. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Gangadharan, N. (1980) Lingapurana: A Study. Delhi: Ajanta Books International.

Gyani, S. J. (1966) Agni Purana: A Study. Benares: Chowkhamba. Hazra, R. C. (1958-63) Studies in the Upapuranas, 2 vols. Calcutta: Sanskrit College.

O’Flaherty, Wendy D. (1976) The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

_____ (1975) Hindu Myths. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Pargiter, F. E. (1962) The Purana Text of the Dynasties of the Kaliage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Prakash, Om (1977) Political Ideas in the Puranas. Allahabad: Panchanda Publications. Pulasker, A. D. (1955) Studies in the Epics and Puranas of India. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Rocher, Ludo (1986) The Puranas. History of Indian Literature, Vol. 2 Fasc. 3. Jan

Gonda (gen. ed.) Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.

Shastri, J. L. (trans.) (1970-71) Siva Purana, 4 vols. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Wilson, H. H. (1961) Visnu Purana. Reprint. Calcutta: Punthi Pustak.