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…

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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…