Should the Puranas be Considered Mythology?

A scene from Shiva Purana

by Jayaram V

Question: The Hindu Puranas contain many supernatural events. It is difficult to believe them or take them seriously as true. Should we consider the Puranas mythology or treat them with the same reverence as sacred texts as in case of the Bhagavadgita or the Upanishads?

If the Puranas are construed as mythology, the Bible should also be considered mythology, because both contain creation stories, family histories, religious knowledge, ethical values, and mythical and supernatural events that are difficult to validate or explain rationally or scientifically. By the same standard, every major religious scripture of every religion in the world should also be considered mythology only because they also contain many difficult-to-believe stories. Why we have to label the Puranas only?

The Puranas are religious works. They are rich in spiritual and philosophical knowledge. Their essential purpose is to elaborate upon the wisdom and the teachings of the Vedas, with the help of stories, drama, allegories and case studies, so that people who have no access to the Vedas or to its knowledge can understand them. They served the same purpose in the past when people had limited means to religious knowledge or education. Examples and case studies are used even in today’s education to help students learn the basics or understand difficult topics. In the past, the Puranas served a similar purpose. They helped religious people and students engage their minds in the contemplation of God and pursue religious knowledge in a less stressful way.

The Puranas also served an important role in the progress and popularity of Hinduism, despite that religious teaching and knowledge were confined to fewer castes. In many ways they brought Hinduism closer to the masses, who were denied religious education by the Vedic Shastras. You may consider them the popular literature of Hinduism, but you cannot treat them with any less respect, nor should they be treated as mythology, simply because they contain stories and legends that are difficult to believe.

Ancient people had their own way of telling truths and teaching religious subjects. Their knowledge of the world was limited, because they had fewer means to verify truths or know the world. In their writings, they often relied upon people who traveled to distant lands and brought with them incredible stories, which, in most cases, they might have heard from others or just made up for some reason. It is why many ancient works of history, even those of Greeks and Romans, contain exaggerations and hyperboles. The same can be said of many medieval works also. At the same time, while you cannot totally rely upon them, you cannot also ignore their historical value. They are still useful to study the past, and people still quote from them or use them for research.

Purana means ancient not mythical

Purana means old, ancient or belonging to ancient times. It does not mean mythical or false. Some Puranas do not necessarily deal with past only. They may also speak about future or the coming events such as the Bhavishya Purana. In the traditional Puranas we can discern five types of essential knowledge (pancha lakshana) namely knowledge and history of creation (sarga), dissolution (pratisarga), epochs (manvantaras), ancient lineages (vamsa charitra) and ancient histories (puranam). In other words, Purana itself means ancient or earliest history, and refers to the knowledge and events of antiquity.

However, it does not mean that they are totally reliable or contain accurate information about the past. They are susceptible to human fallibility. Human memory is prone to decay and distortions. People have a problem with their memories. Their perceptions as well as memories are selective, as they are mostly driven by desires and attachments and subject to many mental filters. Indeed, how many people can precisely remember the events of their own childhood? Sometimes, we do not even remember the people we met a few days ago, or what we said just a few hours ago. Then, what can be said about events that happened thousands of years ago in remote antiquity? We now know from studies that when information travels by mouth for a long time, it ends up becoming completely distorted, beyond recognition.

Myth and mithya

The English word Myth is derived from the Greek word Mythos. Its Sanskrit counterpart is Mithya. Both words are probably interrelated or derived from some common, ancient root word. Mythos means a story. Mithya means false, fictitious, untrue or illusion. The English myth refers to any narrative that explains the origin of some practice, tradition or belief and has some historical, religious or supernatural basis to it. It may not be entirely true or may not be true at all, but it does reinforce some cultural and religious beliefs or practices. Mythology usually refers to a collection of such myths. In general usage, a vast body of literature which goes by different names such as folklore, ancient lore, legendary tales, fairy tales, etc., fall under the category. The Puranas are not included in it. They form a separate body of religious literature in Hinduism.

Ancient Indians hardly kept any historical records. They believed that the world was an illusion or unreal (mithya), and the events upon earth had no significance, unless they had some religious or divine purpose. Therefore, they did not focus upon preserving the events of their times. If at all they did it, they did so as a part of a larger narrative, in which facts were liberally intermixed with imagination, embellishments and symbolism, making it difficult to anyone to separate facts from fiction. It is therefore very difficult to reconstruct the history of ancient India purely based upon literary evidence, without encountering roadblocks and dead ends.

The Puranas are memorial works (smriti)

Hinduism has a vast body of literature, which can broadly be classified into Sruti and Smriti. Sruti consists of revelatory scriptures, and Smriti, explanatory or memorial works. Hence, the former is known as God-made and the latter as manmade. The Vedic tradition recognizes only the Vedas as Sruti, thus leaving the remaining literature categorized as Smriti. The Shastras, the Puranas, the Sutras, the Itihasas (epics), Kathas (tales), Gathas (epic tales), the Tantras, etc., are included in this. Ancient India also had works of fiction, with religious undertones. They may be part fiction and part true, and may have their source in the Puranas or in legends associated with historical people, events and places. Some of the notable works which fall into this category are Brihat Katha Manjari, Katha Saritsagaram, Panchatantra, Jataka Tales, Janapadas, Sthala Puranas, etc. Apart from them, there are many other religious and secular works in the native languages of India, which provide valuable information about the times in which they were composed.

In ancient times, storytelling was an important pastime. It served both as the means of education and entertainment. The epics, the Puranas and the stories from works such as the Panchatantra and the Jataka tales, which contained morals and religious knowledge, helped people acquire the basic knowledge of their religion, culture, beliefs and practices. They also provided them with necessary justification to celebrate festivals, perform rituals and observe penances, since listening to the stories that were associated with them formed part of the process. Story tellers drew profusely from them to make their stories interesting.

The misuse of Puranas

European scholars of the past centuries took many liberties with Hinduism and classified the Hindu literature according to their beliefs, convenience and cultural preference. They considered the Puranas fictitious or mythical because they saw in them supernatural events, or events that could not be rationally justified. Some used them to discredit Hinduism, or prove the superiority of Christianity to encourage conversions, ignoring that the Bible was not much different from the Puranas in many salient respects. The Christian missionaries used them to ridicule Hindu gods or find fault with Hindu beliefs and practices. Some missionaries still engage in these tactics, which is rather unfortunate, since it leads to religious discord and disharmony. The Puranas have also been used by a few scholars to reinvent Hinduism or reinterpret its history according to their convenience and ignorance. (The Alternative History of India is a recent example.)

Many Hindu scholars scoff at the idea of including the Puranas and the epics under the category of Mythology. They believe that these works have a historical and religious basis and cannot be equated with the mythology of the Western world. The argument is justified, since the Puranas are religious works, just as the Bible or any other scripture is. They are not works of science but of faith, which provide a glimpse into the bygone eras, in addition to teaching important aspects of the faith. Therefore, they should be treated with respect and with an open mind as religious texts.

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