Purana, 'ancient', a class of Sanskrit writings giving a legendary account of ancient times. They are part of the smriti (non-vedic scriptures,) and follow the itihasa (Epics) in point of time and importance. Much early material is no doubt embodied in the Puranas, but the dates of their composition are comparatively late, ranging from the sixth century AD (Vayu Purana) to the sixteenth century AD (Vamana Purana).
Every genuine Purana is supposed to possess certain lakshana, 'marks', or characteristics, that distinguish this class of writing from all others. There are said to be five such marks, but not every Purana has them all. Each Purana should contain an account of a) the creation of the universe, b) the genealogy of the gods and rishis, c) the rule of the manus d) the destruction of the universe, and its re-creation, with the history of mankind, and e) dynastic legends of the Solar and Lunar dynasties.
The puranas have been called 'the Veda of the common folk', since they present much traditional and orthodox material through myth and legend, story and symbol. The Padma Purana states that listening to them is equal in merit to listening to the Vedas. Collectively, they are encyclopaedic in scope and cover the arts, grammar, lexicography, agriculture, drama, poetics, architecture, sexology, poisons, precious stones, black magic, omens. The Puranas lay great stress on an extravagant form of bhakti (faith), propagating a belief in absurd miracles, and recounting legends of the gods and rishis that enter the realm of gross superstition. They represent a phase of Hinduism that has received the severest censure from Hindu reformers. Swami Dayananda, for instance, was especially vehement against what he called Turanic religion'.
There are eighteen Puranas in all, varying in length and content. They often refer to several gods, but generally each Purana is devoted to the praise and glorification of one deity only. Six of them relate to Vishnu, and in them the quality (guna) of sattva or purity prevails; six are devoted to Shiva, with tamas (gloom) prevailing; and six to Brahma, with rajas (passion) prevailing. In general Vishnu and his incarnations are prominent in most of the Puranas, just as Shiva is prominent in the Tantras.
In addition to the eighteen great Puranas called Maha-puranas, there are between eighteen and eighty-eight Upa-puranas, which are subordinate works of no great merit or
consequence. There are still other modem works allegedly telling of past time, which are also called Puranas. The names of the eighteen great Puranas are as follows:
The six Vishnu Puranas, sattvic in quality:
1)Vishnu Purana, consisting of 7,000 stanzas and bearing all the lakshana' of the true Purana,. Legand has it that it was first communicated by Brahma to Ribhu, who revealed it to the sage Pulastya, and Pulastya passed it on to the sage Parashara, who in turn made it known to his disciple Maitreya, and the text takes the form of a dialogue between Parashara and Maitreya. Its basic teaching is that Vishnu is the creator, sustainer and controller of the world; it is in him that the world exists as a harmonious system, and in truth Vishnu is the world. This Purana is the most perfect and best known of all the works of this class. It gives much valuable information about the Maurya dynasty.
2)Narada Purana (or Naradiya Purana), of 3,000 stanzas in which the sage Narada describes the essential duties of man.
3)Bhagavata Purana (or Shrimad Bhagavatam), the most celebrated of the Puranas is divided into twelve skandha or books. The most important part is the tenth book, which narrates the lift story of Bhagavata or Krishna, especially of his boyhood. It lays great stress on the doctrine of bhakti or faith, and makes the love of the gopis (milkmaids with whom Krishna sported symbolic of spiritual devotion.
4)Garuda Purana, of which there are several versions, although it is doubtful if a genuine original version is in existence. It is named after Garuda the vulture vehicle of Vishnu. It deals with the rites held over the dying, the death moment, the funeral ceremonies, the ritual building up of a new body for the preta or deceased, the judgement, the various after-death states till rebirth. It also deals with sun-worship.
5)Padma Purana, an extensive work, divided into six books, which tells of the time when the world was a golden lotus (padma), and goes on to describe the Creation, and the spheres of earth, heaven and the underworld.
6)Varaha Purana, that it is not older than AD 1000. it was revealed by Vishnu to Varaha (the Boar).
The six Shiva Puranas, tamasic in quality:
1)Matsya Purana, bears some of the marks of the genuine Purana. A heterogeneous mixture, borrowing much from the Vishnu and Padma Puranas, and from the Mahabharata, it was related to Manu by Vishnu in the form of a fish (matsya).
2)Kurma Purana, Vishnu as a tortoise (kurma) explains the purpose of life. It glorifies the worship of Shiva and Durga.
3)Linga Purana, in this work Shiva explains the meaning of virtue, wealth, pleasure and liberation, and the spiritual significance of the Linga. It is largely ritualistic.
4)Vayu Purana, it is devoted to Shiva and his many attributes, and contains material about the sacredness of Gaya.
5)Skanda Purana, related by Skanda, god of war. It does not exist in composite form, but only in fragments.
6)Agni Purana, also called the Agneya Purana, was originally communicated by Agni, god of fire, to the rishi Vasishtha.
The Six Brahma Puranas, rajasic in quality:
1)Brahma Purana, also called the Adi Purana or first Purana, since it generally stands first in all the lists of Puranas. It is also known as the Saura Purana because it is devoted to Surya the sun-god. It was revealed by Brahma to the sage Marichi.
2)Brahmanda Purana, expounds the magnificence of the egg (anda) of Brahma and describes the future aeons. Like the Skanda Purana this does not exist as a composite work, but only in parts and fragments. The popular Adhyatma Ramayana is one such part of this Purana.
3)Brahma-Vaivasvata Purana (or Brahma-Vaivarta), related by Manu Savarna, son of Vivasvat, to the rishi Narada. It is of comparatively late date, and enjoins the worship of Krishna and Radha.
4)Markandeya Purana, quite different in tone from all the other Puranas. It is related by the sage Markandeya and is heard by certain fabulous birds who are versed in the Vedas. These birds repeat it tot the sage Jaimini. It has little to do with sect, ceremonial, or worship of Brahma as such, but is a succession of legends, secular in tone, recommending no particular doctrine, and consisting mainly of original compositions, superior to the Puranas in general.