The Puranas (Puranic texts or literature) are narrative works concerning ancient Hindu kings, sages, heroes, and the gods. The term Purana literally means «something that is old.»

There are eighteen major Puranas, eighteen minor ones, and a host of related appearing from 300 to 1200 AD. The material within the Puranas is called «tradition» because it supposedly originated in pre-Vedic times, except for the few Puranas mentioned in the Vedas, being handed down by word of mouth from teacher to student, or priest to disciple.

The original stories, legends, and myths were considerably altered in the course of transmission, being shaped by the brahmin redactors for their own purposes to illustrate the themes important to the priestly caste. Nonetheless, much non-Vedic material has been retained. Two of the great Hindu epics, Ramayana andMahabharata, are also known as Puranas. Most of the works are concerned with the gods Shiva and Vishnu and have much to do with their cults in medieval India.

These works serve to form sort of a biblos of modern Hinduism, in their synthesis of legend and myth emerging from the submerged masses to mingle with priestly teachings about ritual, theology, and philosophical speculation, all told against the background of the public and private lives of deities and kings in their wars, loves, and even sexual exploits. The Puranas were recited to large popular audiences, portions of them being read, chanted, or acted in temples to the accompaniment of song and music. A.G.H.


Rice, Edward, Eastern Definitions: A Short Encyclopedia of Religions of the Orient, Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1978, p. 286