By Swami Harshananda
For over two millennia, the purāṇas— the most popular scriptures of Hinduism— have proved to be a source, not only of knowledge and wisdom but also of spiritual solace. Of the eighteen Mahāpurāṇas, the Visnupurāna is, perhaps, the earliest compilation (assigned to the period 100 B. C.-A. D. 400) and accords well with the five general characteristics of the purāṇas like sarga (creation), pratisarga (intermediate creation) and so on (See PURĀNAS.).
Though the Visnupurāna is said to have contained 23,000 verses, the printed texts as available now have only 6400 verses spread over 126 chapters, arranged in the form of six aiṅśas or Books.
Unlike the other purāṇas where generally the Sūta Romaharṣaṇa narrates the stories after being questioned by some sages, this purāṇa is narrated by the sage Parāśara (father of Vyāsa and grandson of Vasiṣṭha) to his disciple Maitreya.
Though most of the work is in poetry,
it has elegant prose passages also. In fact,
it has all the characteristics of a good literary classic.
It has three commentaries: Ātmaprakāśa by Śrīdhara (15th century A. D.); Vaisnavākūtacandrikā by Ratnagarbha; and, Visnucittiya by an unknown author.
The contents of the six arnśas may now be given briefly as follows:
First Arhśa (22 chapters; 1412 verses)
The 24 cosmic principles and the creation of the world; creation of beings like the prajāpatis, pitrs and devas; stories of Dhruva and Prahlāda; greatness of Viṣṇu.
Second Arhśa (16 chapters; 789 verses)
Geographical details of this earth and of the 14 worlds; Navagrahas or the nine planets; some astronomical details of stars and planets; stories of Jaḍabharata, Rbhu and Nidāgha.
Third Arhśa (18 chapters; 830 verses)
Manvantaras, Manus and their sons; Vyāsa and division of the Vedas; the four varṇas and the āśramas; on śrāddha (obsequial rites) in detail.
Fourth Arhśa (24 chapters; 1353 verses)
Lineages of Vaivasvata Manu and Ikṣvāku; story of Śrī Rāma; descriptions of Somavamśa, Yaduvamśa and Kuru-varhśa (i.e., the kings of those lineages); kings of the future up to the kings of Magadha; kalidharma or the characteristics of the Kali-age.
Fifth Arhśa (38 chapters; 1517 verses)
Story of Krsṇa in great detail; mutual
destruction of the Yādavas; coronation of Parikṣit; final journey of the Pāṇḍavas.
Sixth Arhśa (8 chapters; 498 verses)
Interesting and long description of the behaviour of the people in the Kali-yuga; greatness of the Kaliyuga since worship and singing the glories of Lord Kṛṣṇa are enough to attain liberation; description of pralaya or dissolution of the world; eulogy of this purāṇa.
The Visnupurāna has some special features which may now be dealt with under appropriate headings:
The philosophy of the Visnupurāna is practically the same as the Vedānta of the Upaniṣads.
God the Absolute, though called Viṣṇu here, is not just the Viṣṇu of the Trinity responsible for the sustenance of the created world. He is Parabrahman, of the nature of jñāna (knowledge or consciousness) and absolutely pure. The appearance of this world as an entity separate from him is only an illusion (1.2-6).
Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Maheśvara of the Trinity are actually the three aspects of this Paramātman as associated with the three guṇas (rajas, sattva and tamas)
(vide 1.2.56 and 66; 1.4.15; 1.9.56).
The description of the process of creation is similar to that of the Sāñkhya philosophy (1.2.28-70). However, in this purāṇa Viṣṇu is the original and absolute cause. The world evolves out of him— called Viṣṇu (1.1.31) or Krṣṇa (4.12.4)— through his power called pradhāna or prakrti.
Even the infinite numbers of the jīvas
(individual beings) are the reflections of
the one Viṣṇu seen due to avidyā or nescience.
The purāṇa accepts the karma (or actions) sanctioned by the scriptures and bhakti or devotion to God (Viṣṇu) as the primary means of mokṣa or liberation. Niṣkāmakarma (selfless action) purifies the mind. Viṣṇu gets established in such a mind. Dhyāna or meditation on the beautiful form of Viṣṇu along with the repetition of the dvādaśākṣarīmantra (mantra of twelve syllables viz., orh namo bhagavate vāsudevāya) will lead to jñāna and mokṣa.
However, the role of bhakti has been highlighted, through the story of Prahlāda.
Vamśāvalis or Lineages
Another speciality of this purāṇa is the long lists of kings and their lineage belonging to the famous Sūryavaṁśa (Solar race) and the Candra or Soma vaiṅśa (Lunar race).
It is interesting to note that both these races start from Viṣṇu Himself!
The prominent kings of the Sūryavaṁśa include the following ones: Vivasvān, Manu, Ikṣvāku, Māndhātā, Hariścandra, Bhagīratha, Daśaratha, Śrī Rāma and Agnivarṇa. The last king, Maru by name, is said to be in yoga, living even now in the village Kalāpa. He will restart the vaiṅśa in the next Kṛtayuga!
Another branch of the Sūryavaṁśa started with Nimi (the son of Ikṣvāku) in which the Janakas such as Janakavaideha and Sīradhvaja Janaka, were the prominent ones. They excelled in spiritual
In the Somavaṁśa or the Candra-variiśa, the following kings were famous: Candra, Budha, Purūrava, Nahuṣa, Dhan-vantari, Yayāti, Yadu, Duṣyanta, Kuru, Jarāsandha, Kauravas and Pāṇḍavas. Śrī Kṛṣṇa belonged to the Yaduvaihśa.
Mahāpadmananda was the last king of the race descended from Jarāsandha.
Like Maru of the Sūryavarhśa, Devāpi of the Candravaṁśa is said to be the last king still alive in yoga in the same village Kalāpa. He will restart the race in future.
Description of Kaliyuga
Though the Visnupurāna gives a long description of the Kaliyuga, the age wherein people become unrighteous and evil to the core (vide 5.1.10-58), it also points out the three advantages that people have in that age. They are: People get the highest spiritual benefits just by singing the names and glories of God; women get all the merit of the good deeds by serving their husbands sincerely; śūdras attain religious merit by performing their duties well.
The Visnupurāna and the Bhāgavata
The Bhāgavata seems to be an elaboration of the stories and ideas contained in the Visnupurāna. Whereas the latter deals only with five avatāras or incarnations out of the well-known ten, the Bhāgavata deals in detail with all the ten and a few more. Though bhakti or devotion finds an important place in the Visnupurāna, in the Bhāgavata it is allpervad-ing. However, it has to be conceded that the language of the latter is quite archaic and tough whereas that of the former is simple and elegant.
The Visnupurāna has certain special features. Its language, though simple and elegant, is also highly poetic. Descriptions of nature are not only beautiful but also contain excellent similes bearing on philosophical and ethical principles (vide 5.10.2-15). There are verses praising Bharatakhanda (India) as karmabhūmi (the land of good deeds) and that one is born here only out of religious merit (2.3.23, 24).
There are also verses pregnant with worldly wisdom which have been used as subhāṣitas (maxims) (vide 4.10.26, 27).
There is no doubt that the Visnupurāna has been a beacon light for the well-known classic, the Bhāgavata.
See also BHĀGAVATA and PURĀNAS.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore