In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Purāṇas

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Encyclopedias of Purāṇas
  • Bibliographies
  • Editions of Purāṇas
  • Aids to Purāṇic Studies
  • The Paurāṇika
  • Intertextuality in Purāṇas
  • Reception of Purāṇas
  • The Bhāgavata Purāṇa

Hinduism Purāṇas
Greg Bailey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0043


The Purāṇas constitute a body of literature, divided into several subcategories, dating from the 2nd century CE and continuing until the present day. It is one of the longest-running genres in Indian literature. Purāṇas are composed in both Sanskrit and vernacular languages and constitute the genre that most expresses a distinctively recognizable image of Hinduism, indeed the earliest literary expressions of a religious system that can genuinely be called Hinduism. Three qualities describe the Purāṇas: exuberance, transformation, and bulk. They are exuberant because they celebrate Hinduism as a religiocultural system, centered on devotion to deities, incorporating new religious elements as they have arisen from the 2nd century of the Common Era onward. This process of incorporation has a strong transformative element associated with it such that every major development in religion that has occurred from the first appearance of the Purāṇas as a specific genre has been integrated into a devotional framework. Finally, ranging in size from texts as short as twenty-five chapters, their bulk is highlighted by Purāṇas like the Padma and the Skanda, both as long or longer than the giant epic, the Mahābhārata. Nobody, scholar or adherent of the kind of Hinduism expressed in the Purāṇas, can master the complete bulk of this literature and for this reason the majority of them have been neglected, only some such as the Viṣṇu, the Bhāgavata and the Skanda (in different forms) achieving a high level of popularity.

General Overviews

Overviews of Purāṇic literature take two distinct forms: those that attempt to give both a description of the characteristics of the genre and brief glosses of the texts that are part of it; and those that simply restrict themselves to defining the genre as such. The earliest and best known of the first is the introduction to Wilson 1961 which began wrestling with the definition of the Purāṇa genre by asserting the presence of the five characteristic topics—primary cosmogony, secondary cosmogony and cosmology, genealogy of kings, histories of the world during one patriarch, legends of the reigns of kings—as the standard by which a text that called itself Purāṇa should be adjudged as such. Winternitz 1971 takes a similar approach but is exasperated by the Purāṇas’ apparent incapacity to restrict their content to what deals with the five characteristic topics. A much more sophisticated approach is taken in Rocher 1986, which builds on predecessors in accepting that there is much more to the Purāṇas than the five characteristic topics. Rocher 1986 is thus essential reading for anybody interested in the Purāṇas and especially important for its summary of scholarship up until about 1984. The second form of overview is best represented in Doniger 1993, an edited volume that focuses on individual Purāṇas and the genre as a whole as separate if related domains of analytical concern. Several of the articles in this volume advance especially innovative approaches to Purāṇic studies. Hardy 1993 is excellent for theorizing the Purāṇa as a process of transmission in an actual recitational situation. It shows how localized religious events/places can remain localized while being tied into a pan-Indian tradition, and the Purāṇic narrative can take its place alongside other non-Purāṇic narratives dealing with the same sacred place. Narayana Rao 1993 and Narayana Rao 2004 describe the Purāṇic process in terms of creation, transmission, and dissemination, going beyond the five characteristic topics in defining the Purāṇa as genre. Smith 2016 describes the Purāṇas as “frontier” literature mediating between the Brāhmaṇical high culture and more localized and lower class cultures.

  • Doniger, Wendy, ed. Purāṇa Perennis: Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jaina Texts. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

    Contains a number of highly important theoretical essays on the Purāṇas, utilizing modern literary and social theory. Several articles by Cort and Jaini look at Jaina Purāṇas, but emphasis is placed on process of composition rather than on content.

  • Hardy, Friedhelm. “Information and Transformation: Two Faces of the Purāṇas.” In Purāṇa Perennis: Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jaina Texts. Edited by Wendy Doniger, 159–182. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

    Using Purāṇas that illustrate the origin of sacred places, explores how the literary elaboration of a given location draws on past “mythological” events located in a primordial past. Demonstrates how these “historical” narratives, beginning with past events and leading up to a present situation, are replicated in Jaina Purāṇas and in Buddhist texts.

  • Narayana Rao, Velcheru. “Purāṇa as Brahminic Ideology.” In Purāṇa Perennis: Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jaina Texts. Edited by Wendy Doniger, 85–100. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

    An important article defining Purāṇas as a fundamental mode of transmitting a distinctive Brahmanic ideology, a mode of transmission facilitating the incorporation of literary, cultural, and religious material originally coming from non-Brahmin traditions. Relies on both Sanskrit and vernacular texts.

  • Narayana Rao, Velcheru. “Purāṇa.” In The Hindu World. Edited by Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, 97–115. New York and London: Routledge, 2004.

    Builds on Narayana Rao 1993 in extending the author’s analysis to late-medieval Telugu sources and exploring the tensions and and melding points between pan-Indian and local traditions. Finds this point in the Purāṇic reciter (the paurāṇika), who mediates the Purāṇic narrative between the great Sanskritic tradition and the localized vernacular community of hearers.

  • Rocher, Ludo. A History of Indian Literature. Vol. 2, Epics and Sanskrit Religious Literature, Fasc. 3, The Purāṇas. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1986.

    The first section contains the most extensive summary of Purāṇic scholarship from the beginning of Western and modern Indian approaches to the Purāṇas up until the publication of the book. The second section contains an alphabetic listing of seventy-five texts described as Purāṇas, with descriptions of their contents.

  • Smith, T. “Textuality on the Brahmanical ‘Frontier’ The Genre of the Sanskrit Purāṇas.” Philological Encounters 1.1–4 (2016): 347–369.

    An excellent critical summary of previous research on the Purāṇas, including valuable comments on the fluidity of the genre and the difficulty this creates in defining it as a genre. Also introduces the idea of the Purāṇa as a frontier text—between Brahmin hegemony and popular theistic movements—as a new approach to understanding the genre as a series of constantly changing texts within perceptible generic restraints.

  • Wilson, Horace Hayman. The Viṣṇu Purāṇa: A System of Hindu Mythology and Tradition. Calcutta, India: Punthi Pustak, 1961.

    The first comprehensive introduction to the Purāṇic genre and the individual Mahapurāṇas. Focuses on the five characteristics as the defining features of a Purāṇa. Argues that those Purāṇas that lack material relating to the five characteristic topics or only have it in small amount are defective or have changed considerably from their original form. Original English edition published in 1840.

  • Winternitz, M. A History of Indian Literature. Vol. 1. Translated by Silavati Ketkar. New York: Russell and Russell, 1971.

    Another survey that adds little to Wilson 1961 but continues a common trend among Western scholars of deprecating the extent and apparent random contents of the Purāṇas. Implicit in these critiques is a failure of the Purāṇic narrative to conform to the kind of order familiar to Western scholars. Original German edition published in 1907.

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