Author: A Composition
Translator(s): Shrimunnilal Gupta
Publisher: Gita Press
ISBN/UPC (if available): N/A
The word purana means old or ancient. Thus the puranas are old and ancient texts that have come down to us through the ages. They have stories about famous people and descriptions of religion and society of those times. The Vishnu Purana has twenty-three thousand shlokas. As Puranas go, this is about average. These shlokas are divided into six major sections. Tradition says that the Vishnu Purana was composed by the sage Parashara. In reality, several people must have contributed to the composition of the Vishnu Purana down the ages. Each added his own compilations and stories. In that sense, the Vishnu Purana, and the other Puranas do not have a single author.
The definition of a Purana is, in fact, quite precise. To be considered a proper Puranas, a text to has to cover five subjects. These are known as the five characteristics of a Purana. Traditionally, a purana must firstly describe the primary creation of the universe; this is known as sarga. But once the universe is created, it is periodically destroyed and created again. A purana must secondly describe this process of periodic destruction and creation; this is known as pratisarga. A purana must thirdly list out the genealogies of gods and saints, this is known as vamsha. Fourthly, a Purana must catalog the various manvantaras, this is, the many different eras that the earth or the universe has passed through. And finally, a Purana must have a history of the royal dynasties, vamshanucharita.
Around this core skeleton of the five subjects, any Purana normally contains matters of religious concern, customs, ceremonies, sacrifices, festivals, duties of the various castes, different types of donations, details of constructions of temples and images and descriptions of places of pilgrimage.
Eighteen mahapuranas are divided into three groups and each group has six texts. The Hindu Trinity consists of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma is regarded as the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. Since all three are important gods, all these are given due emphasis in any Purana. But the relative emphasis often varies from Purana to Purana.
Texts which talk a lot about the incarnations of Vishnu are regarded as Vishnu Puranas, and are called Sattvika Puranas. Texts which emphasize creation more are regarded as Brahma Puranas and are called Rajasika Puranas. Texts which give a lot of importance to norms and rituals are regarded as Shiva Puranas, and are called tamasika Puranas.