Pancha Lakshana – the 5 Characteristics of a Purana

The Puranas are of the same class as the Itihasas. All the Puranas belong to the class of ‘Suhrit-Samhitas,’ or friendly treatises, markedly differing in authority from the Vedas which are called the ‘Prabhu-Samhitas’ or the commanding treatises.

Sage Vyasa composed and compiled the Puranas to popularize the thoughts contained in the Vedas. He never meant them to be consumed by scholars, but only by ordinary people like you and me who could hardly fathom the high philosophies of the Vedas. The aim of the Puranas is to impress the teachings of the Vedas upon our minds through concrete examples, myths, stories, legends, lives of saints, kings and great men, allegories, and chronicles of great historical events.

It is clear from this definition that the core of any Purana is the stories making up the scriptures in one form or the other. All of us know there is no shortage of stories in our Dharma. Does that mean that all stories can directly be categorized as Puranas? The answer to that question is a strict NO. While the Puranas may be flexible enough to accommodate all our inferior intellect, the rules that they lay down for categorizing a scripture as a Purana is straightforward and unambiguous.

A text should have 5 characteristics or Pancha-Lakshana to be classified as a Puran. They are

“Sargascha pratisargascha

Vamso Manvantarani cha

vamsaanucharitam chiva

puranam panchalakshanam

The text should be talking about

Sarga: Some scholars say this should be the proper breakdown into chapters, while some others are of the opinion that sarga means creation. So the Purana should have proper distinction about chapters and it should speak about the creation of the universe.

Pratisarga: again some say this relates to sub-chapters. Others opine that it should be about secondary creations, mostly re-creations after dissolution.

Vamsa: It should speak about the great Vamshas or the Genealogy of the great Rishis and the Devatas.

Manvataranicha: It should speak about the Manavantaras or reigns of Manus. Each Manu rules over an eon, each of which is shorter than the preceding ones. Currently, we are in the vyavastha manvantaram.

Vamasanucharitam: It should give a detailed description of the dynasties of Kings who lived and ruled this world – mostly, the great SuryaVamsh and the Chandra Vamsh or the Solar and Lunar Dynasties.

I hope that this post serves as a short introduction about what Puranas are. We will get to know more about them in the coming posts.

Until then…


Srutis, Smritis and us

Before delving into the topics of Puranas, it is essential for us to have a basic understanding of how spiritual scriptures are classified in our Sanatan Dharm. There are the Vedas and Upanishads and then there are Ramayana and Mahabaratha with texts like Vishnu Purana and Shiva Purana tagging along. Often times we wonder why we have so many scriptures with a majority of thoughts and knowledge being repeated redundantly in many of them. Were our ancestors so idle to create so much content? Were they so mad to duplicate content and effort or is there a method to their madness? Read on to find out.

All these scriptures largely carry religious instructions in one form or the other. While there is a tendency to categorize scriptures like Srutis and Smritis and writings such as Kavyas and Natakas under the same umbrella of “Sanskrit Literature”, people in the thick of things will strongly disagree to this single umbrella approach.  Fortunately, our ancestors laid out a strong well-lineated framework for us to follow and learn from.

Religious instructions can come to us mainly in two ways.  Prabhu Samhita and Suhrit Samhita.

The Prabhu Samhitas are strict and compels the follower to follow instructions to the tee without any deviations. These Samhitas are named so since these proclamations are like the ones coming directly from a Prabhu or a higher authority. Whether or not we are able to appreciate this instruction and accommodate it in our practical life voluntarily is immaterial to the giver of the instruction. It has to be done whether we like it or not; and, also, it has not to be done whether we are agreeable to it or not. The Vedas (Sruti) and some parts of the Smritis come under this and are often called as the commanding treatises.

The Suhrit Samhitas are the instructions coming from a friend. Itihasas and the Puranas fall into this category and are also called as Friendly Treatises. These works explain the great universal truths in the form of historical narratives, stories and dialogues. These are very interesting volumes and are liked by all, from the inquisitive child to the intellectual scholar. While the compassionate sages Valmiki and Vyasa presented the high abstract philosophies of the Vedas and Upanishads in tasteful forms of analogies and parables in the Itihaasas, Vyasa composed and compiled the Puranas to impress the teachings of the Vedas on the minds of the masses through concrete examples, myths, stories, legends, lives of saints, kings and great men, allegories and chronicles of great historical events.

Now that we have a very basic idea of the framework of our religious scriptures, we should be able to appreciate them more than before and also be able to face inquisitive queries in a more informed manner.

In the next post we will dive deeper into the world of Puranas.

Ciao, until then…

Srimad Bhagavatham – What is a Purana

Till now, we have seen about Rama from different perspectives – that of his family to friends and enemies, as told in the Ramayana. The next progressive Avatar of Vishnu is Krishna.

Many of us have this understanding that if the Itihaasa Ramayana was for Rama, then obviously the other Itihaasa which is the Mahabaratha is for Krishna. While Mahabaratha features Krishna, contrary to what many think it is not the life story of Krishna. Krishna is just a part of Mahabaratha. if an avatar of Vishnu is just a part of the story, then can you imagine the magnitude of that story called Mahabaratha?

Anyway, if Mahabaratha does not chronicle Krishna, then what does?

Bhagavatha Purana or Srimad Bhagavatham does.

Before we get into the Bhagavatham, let us understand what does the term Purana means. The Puranas, along with the Vedas and Itihaasas form the massive religious bedrock of the ancient Indian tradition. They go back in time to perhaps more than five millennia. The bulk of them is said to have been compiled from an existing ancient tradition by Vyasa whose birth is dated by one perceptive scholar at 3374 BC. The Puranas present the activities of gods, super-men, and humans in a human setting, to illustrate vividly, how the purpose of life is to help the human to rise to the level of the super-human and the divine, and prevent them from descending to the level of the sub-human. The setting is human, and the question is whether it is realistic or real, though of course, there is a larger philosophical question whether this really matters, or what reality is. Yet there is, in the narratives of the Itihasas and Puranas a vast measure of internal, consistent detail, in respect of human dynasties that simply clamors to be recognized as real.

As readers, we can ascertain the genealogies of Rishis and Kings including Krishna and Yudhishtira, since Yudhishtira was a peer who lived at the same time as Krishna. Let us look at these genealogies in more detail when we progressively elaborate on the Puranas in general and Srimad Bhagavatham in particular in the coming posts.

Rama – in the eyes of Brahma

Ravana thinks of Rama as a lowly human. But it is Rama who kills Ravana. But after killing Ravana,  he asks Sita to enter the fire to prove her conjugal fidelity. While Sita is readying herself to enter the fire, Rama is filled with thoughts and melancholy which come out as tears in his eyes. At that instance, Kubera, Yama, Indra, Varuna, Shiva, and Brahma appear on the skies over Lanka and approach Rama. On seeing them he offers them his salutations with folded hands as if he is a mere mortal.

They question him thus, for ignoring Sita like a common man.

“Among the Vasus , you are the Vasu, named Ritadhama the first creator of all the three worlds and the lord of creatures. You are the eighth Rudra among Rudras and the fifth among the Sadhyas. The twin Aswinis are your ears. The sun and the moon constitute your eyes. You are seen at the beginning and at the end of creation. Yet, you ignore Seetha, just like a common man.”

But Rama is still adamant. He says that he thinks of himself as a human being, by the name of Rama and son of Dasaratha. The Gods are perplexed. Who would not be? Here are the gods themselves saying that Rama is none other than the Supreme Being and yet he chooses to think otherwise.

Then Brahma the creator speaks.

“You are the Lord Narayana himself the glorious god, who wields the discus. You are the Divine Boar with a single tusk, the conqueror of your past and future enemies. You are Brahma, the imperishable, the Truth abiding in the middle as well as at the end of the universe. You are the supreme righteousness of people. You are the four-armed. You are the wielder of a bow called Sarnga, the lord of the senses, the supreme soul of the universe, the wielder of a sword named Nandaka, the all-pervader and the bestower of happiness to the earth. You are the origin and the dissolution of all, Upendra the Divine Dwarf and (the younger brother of Indra) as also the destroyer Madhu, the demon.”

Brahma then continues to eulogize about who Rama really is, about how Rama acts as the Sesha, a large serpent in water which holds the three worlds from earth’s bottom, and how Brahma is his heart and Saraswati is his tongue. Brahma concludes by saying that since Rama’s mission of killing Ravana has completed, he should return to his Supreme Abode without further delays.

At last, Rama seems to realize who he really is, but chooses to stay behind on earth to rule his people till his time comes. He wants to fulfill all his duties as a son to Dasaratha by getting consecrated to the throne of Ayodhya to serve his people. By this last act, he re-emphasizes that he is more human than god.

There is an interesting version as to why the Supreme Being took this incarnation to kill Ravana. After all, he could have easily finished the job from his seat in Vaikuntha where he is Narayana.

Rama in the eyes of Ravana

Maricha could not dissuade Ravana with his depiction of the relationship between Rama and Sita. So he changes tact by trying to instill a sense of fear in Ravana. He argues with his king by telling him that Rama guards his wife like the ritual fire and explains what would happen if Ravana tries to steal her from Rama. Maricha says that he tried to steal the literal ritual fire of Vishwamitra which Rama was guarding and asked his king to see what had happened to him. How dare would Ravana be to steal Rama’s wife from him?

Maricha asks Ravana how he could even think of snatching away Sita which was like trying to deceive Surya – the sun God to steal his light from him. He asks Ravana not to harbor any thoughts of even laying his sights on Sita which could immediately bring upon Rama’s wrath upon Ravana. He even goes on to tell Ravana that if the ten-faced king had any issues with the prince of Ayodhya, he should fight the prince face-to-face like a man and die on the battlefield a hero. He is sure that the king of Lanka would die in the battle no matter what the reasons for the battle are!

But Maricha is not able to persuade his king to give up his mad idea, for it is implanted so deep in him by his sister Surpanakha. He rejects all advice like a man with a death wish rejecting medicaments.  According to Ravana, Rama is an iniquitous and an imprudent prince who has forfeited his kingdom, friends, family, relatives and even his mother. His logic is that such a person’s wife cannot be what she is portrayed to be and her relationship with her husband cannot be as strong as depicted from the outside. So he has decided on his next course of action and came to Maricha not to ask him for his suggestions but expecting him to help his king. Ravana is ready to kill Maricha if he does not accede to his plans and makes his stance known. Maricha understands that death is waiting for him either which road he chooses. He knows what Rama’s arrows could do and also knows that Ravana is the victim of lust and all his good advises will never prevail over his king.

So he makes the decision and agrees to Ravana’s plan. Why Maricha agrees to be part of the deceit is a million dollar question that people ask even today. The answer is obvious.

He fully understands the ramifications of his decision. Although it is sure death waiting for him, he knows that it is better to die in the hands of Rama-the Supreme Being than to die by Ravana-a lowly Rakshasa. By his death, he proves who Rama really is!

Rama and Seetha, according to Maricha

Maricha paints a frightful picture of Rama to Ravana on hearing the idea of abduction that Ravana narrates to him. The demon-turned-saint goes on to explain how Ravana would play an important role in the eradication of all demons from the world through Rama’s hands if he goes further with his obsession of abducting Seetha. Maricha goes to the extent of exclaiming whether Seetha had taken birth just to ensure Ravana’s downfall!

He tries his best to dissuade Ravana by telling that Rama is neither ruthless nor un-scholarly and he has not definitely conquered his senses, but at the same time, Rama is identical to the thunderous Mahendra and tempestuous Varuna, the Rain-god. By this extolling, it is pretty clear that Maricha sees Rama both as a human and as God at the same time. He tells Ravana that Rama is the embodiment of righteousness, he is an equable person with truthfulness as his valour, and as with Indra to all gods, he is the king of the entire world.

Maricha wonders how Ravana could believe that he could rob Seetha from Rama which is equivalent to robbing the Sun of his resplendence. By bringing up this analogy, Maricha tells his king that Rama would make his life miserable just like how it would be if the Sun loses his resplendence and stops being the source of light for the world.

Then he explains to Ravana the beauty of Rama’s relationship with Seetha. Every time he talks about Rama’s resplendence, he continues to emphasize that the quality of almost unbelievably majestic beauty is not only inherent in Rama but is also augmented to a great extent due to Seetha’s presence near him. He elucidates on how Rama thinks of Seetha as his dearest and on how she, in turn, has avowed to follow him alone into eternity, wherever Rama went. He compares Mythili to a blazing ritual fire and expounds how she can never be abused just like the ritual fire!

Now Ravana is totally confused and flabbergasted. He is confused because he came to Maricha for help and gets a big lecture on the qualities of the very person whose wife he wanted to abduct. He is flabbergasted because of the fact that the very person  whom he thought would readily help him in his endeavour was expounding the greatness of the couple whose relationship he wanted to destroy.

But Maricha is not finished yet!

Maricha extols Rama’s character

When Ravana talks about Rama to Maricha, he shudders in fright. He starts explaining to Ravana about what happened in Dandaka forest. He starts off by retelling about Rama’s appearance as a 12-year-old boy. He shares with his king on how Rama as a boy of fewer than twelve years of age had demolished him. Unborn are the identities of adulthood like moustache on Rama’s face, and that providential one was magnificent in looks with a peacock-blue complexion, wearing a single cloth, locks of hair, and golden locket, and wielding a bow, and he was irradiating the Dandaka forest with a radiating radiance of his own, and then he appeared like the just risen baby-moon.

Since Maricha knows that he cannot directly praise Rama’s qualities to his king, he infers a couple of things indirectly through this retelling. By alluding to his moustache and his boyish looks which are natural to humans, Maricha infers to Rama as a human being. By inferring that Rama was wearing a single cloth, he clearly conveys that Vishwamitra was treating the brothers just like he would treat any other young scholar. Also, the single cloth clearly means that Rama was not wearing any armor or shield even when he knew that he would be meeting demons like Tadaka, Subahu, and Maricha.

Rama does not sport princely jewelry, but only a single pendant. His cleanly arranged locks of hair show how his mother Kausalya still treats him as a small boy and arranges his hair in neat locks.  By comparing him to a baby moon, Maricha seems to emphasize Rama’s age during the encounter. For Maricha, everything about Rama cries “boyish” during that frightful meeting, except the bows and the arrows that he unleashed on the demon. The hits that he got from Rama still brings him the jitters so much that he tells Ravana that after that day, he has shuddered every time he even heard someone utter the word RA!

With a parched throat, Maricha goes on to say that Ravana is trying to bring ruin to his race and to his country by planning to abduct Seetha and thus earning Rama’s wrath. He pleads to Ravana not to listen to his informers who have misled him so far. He explains that Rama is neither a renegade nor a criminal and that he is in the forest to honor his father’s words. He begs Ravana not to make Rama his implacable enemy and bring total destruction to his kingdom and people!