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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Purana

(Sk. “ancient”). A collection of ancient Indian texts which are written in verse and deal with religious and mythological subjects. They are attributed to the legendary sage Vyšsa, who is also said to have written the Mahābhārata. The contents of the Purānas are related to those found in this great epic and to those of Rāmāyana, as well as to the law books called Dharma Śāstra. Their origins can be traced back to Vedic times, but scholars consider that they were compiled in their present form between 500 and 1500 CE from ancient oral traditions. There are eighteen major Purānas, eighteen minor ones called Upa-purānas, and a large number of Sthala-Pur€Šas, which deal with local temples and religious customs.

A Purāna generally treats of primary and secondary creation, genealogy of the gods and seers, and the great ages of mankind. The major Purānas are Viśu, Nāradīya, Śrimad, Bhāgavata, Garuda, Padma, Vārāha, Brahmā, Brahmānda, Brahmā Vāivarta, Mārkandeya, Bhaviya, Vāmana, Matsya, Kūrma, Linga, Śiva, Skanda and Agni. The first six Purānas center around Visu and are called sattvic Purānas; the next six around Brahmā and are called rajasic Purānas; while the last six around ®iva and are termed tamasic Purānas. The most popular among them is the Bhāgavata-Purāna which deals with the life of Krishna, the avatar. Another favorite Purāna is the Viśu Purāna, which mentions, among other things, that at the end of the Kali-Yūga, an avatar (Sk. avatāra, lit. “descent”) from Shamballa shall be born to re-establish righteousness on earth.

Helena P. BLAVATSKY considers the Purānas to contain allegorical and esoteric teachings regarding cosmogony, the races of humanity, avatars, etc. In her writings, she drew parallelisms between the Purānas and the scriptures of other religions. For example, the Praj€patis are identical with the Elohim of the Old Testament. In the Viśu Purāna, the manner of death of Krishna (written Krsna in Sanskrit) had similarities with the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. Krishna was shot with an arrow and died hanging on a tree. The hunter who inadvertently shot Krishna asked for forgiveness, and dying Krishna replied, “‘Go, hunter, through my favor, to Heaven, the abode of the gods’” after which Krishna died. This is similar to the Christian crucifixion story that Jesus told the thief who was also crucified that on that day he will go to heaven with him (IU II:546).

While she mounted a spirited defense of the Purānas against scholarly critics who claim to have discovered many discrepancies and contradictions, she also deplored the superstitions that arise out of a “dead-letter traditions” of these texts that will “yield nonsense”(IU II:51; CW IV:195). 

V.H.C./P.S.H.

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