Hindu Mythology, Vedic and Puranic, by W.J. Wilkins, , at sacred-texts.com
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The chief sources of information respecting the modern mythology of the Hindus are the two great Epics—the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata—the Purānas, or "old traditional stories," eighteen in number, and the five principal Tantras.
There is nothing definitely known as to the date of the Epics, beyond the fact that they are later than the Vedas, and earlier than the Purānas. Some place the Rāmāyana as early as B.C. 500, whilst others affirm that it could not have been composed before B.C. 100, and that a considerable portion was added much later. The Mahābhārata is supposed to be fully a century nearer our own time. Unlike the Vedas, they, as well as the Purānas and Tantras, may be read by other than Brāhmans. Each of these books is of immense bulk, and the same stories frequently reappear in them. Yet to this day they retain a firm hold of the faith and veneration of the mass of the people of India. Nor is this to be wondered at when we read such words as these, often repeated in these works: "He who reads
and repeats this holy life-giving Rāmāyana [or the Mahābhārata], is liberated from all sins, and exalted with all his posterity to the highest heaven."
It is almost equally difficult to determine the date of the Purānas. It is, however, believed that none of them are older than the 8th century A.D., though some of the legends incorporated in them may have come from much earlier times. That they are considerably later than the two great Epics is evident from the fact that many, who are described there as men and heroes only, in the Purānas, are said to be divine beings. These books differ from the Vedas in this respect, that whilst the older scriptures treat of the religion common to the Hindus of that period, all of whom worshipped the same deities, each Purāna is chiefly concerned with some one god whose excellences are extolled, whilst others are spoken of in a depreciatory manner. There is a general respect shown to the rest of the gods of the Pantheon; yet the particular deity to whose praise the Purāna is devoted, is declared to be supreme; and of him the others are said to be incarnations. Now Brahmā, now Siva, now Vishnu in some of his many forms, is the great god, whose will is that all men should worship him. It may be that originally the Purānas were written in praise of the three great gods, but as the Hindu conquest extended over the continent, there being no central religious authority, a spirit of sectarianism arose and the writers extolled their own special deity at the expense of the others.
The Purānas may be classified as follows:—
I. Those which are devoted to the praise of Brahmā; viz. the Brahmā; the Brāhmanda, the Brahmāvaivarta, the Mārkandeya, the Bhavishya, and the Vaman.
II. Those which relate to Vishnu; viz. the Vishnu,
the Bhāgavata, the Naradiya, the Garuda, the Padma, and the Vārāha.
III. Those which are chiefly connected with Siva; viz. the Siva, the Linga, the Skanda, the Agni, the Matsya, the Karma. For the Agni Purāna another called the Vāyu is sometimes substituted.
These Purānas are the authority for nearly the whole of the popular Hinduism of the present day. They are largely read by the people. Parts of some and the whole of others have been translated into the vernaculars from the Sanskrit; and where the people cannot read, it is a common practice for their Guru or teacher to read a portion to them at his periodic visits. By this means the contents of these books are widely known.
The fact that each Purāna is devoted to the praise of some special deity, who, according to its teaching, is supreme, whilst other deities, described in other Purānas in equally extravagant language, are slighted, and in some cases their worship forbidden, seems to prove that these books must have been written at different times and in different places, and probably by those who were ignorant of what others had written. And yet the popular belief is that they were all the work of the great sage Vyāsa, the arranger of the Vedas and the Mahābhārata.
The ideal Purāna—and the Vishnu Purāna approaches more nearly to this ideal than any other—should treat of * five chief topics:—"I. The creation of the universe; II. Its destruction and re-creation; III. The genealogy of gods and patriarchs; IV. The reigns and periods of the Manus (rulers over long periods of time); and V. The history of the two great races of kings, the Solar and the Lunar." The Purānas, as at present known,
omit some of these great questions and introduce others. Great discrepancies, too, are found in the different genealogies. *
The last class of religious books to be mentioned here are the Tantras. The word signifies "a means of faith," and they teach that faith in the revelations they record will save from the greatest sin. They are in the form of a dialogue between Siva and his wife. In answer to her questions, the god gives manifold instructions concerning worship. The date of these works is involved in great obscurity; but as far as can be known they probably are not earlier than the 6th century of our era. They form the authority for the faith and ceremonies of the Saktas, as the worshippers of the wife of Siva are called, and are by them regarded as a fifth Veda. The doctrines, or at least a part of the doctrines, of these sects is kept secret and communicated to those only who receive solemn initiation into the mysteries.
In describing the Purānic deities, I shall follow the common order. The Hindus speak of three great gods—Brahmā, Vishnu, Siva, who form what is often spoken of as the Hindu Triad. After giving an account of each of these and their consorts, I shall describe those who are regarded as their incarnations, or descendants; and then proceed to speak of others who have no formal connection with any of them. It will be seen that most of the principal deities are connected with one or other of these three.
91:* Wilson's Preface to the "Vishnu Purāna."
92:* For an outline of the contents of the different Purānas, see Introduction to Wilson's "Vishnu Purāna."