Study of the Puranas

The history we learn in schools and colleges tells us mainly about the rise and fall of kingdoms, wars and invasions, and similar political topics. The purpose of history is to enable people in the present to build for the future, profiting from the experience of the past. The conception of history is in accord with the saying "history repeats itself". It is wrong to think that there can be history only for politics. Every subject has a history behind it.

History is called Itihaasa in Sanskrit. In this country associate Itihaasa with to works, the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha. The embody the history of religion, culture, dharma, and the their traditions. The term Itihaasa is derived by the combination of keywords, iti, he, and aasa - iti (in this manner), he (they say), aasa (it happened). Aitihyam means tradition, and it is derived from Itihaasam. Aitihyam has become Aiteekam in Tamil.

Besides the two Itihaasas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, there are 18 Puraanas, which also expound our religion, custom, culture and traditions. They are very old works as the name Puraana it self signifies. There are also a large number of works giving that local traditions of a number of places. They are called Sthala Puraanas. In the olden days, palm leaf manuscripts of Itihaasas, Puraanas, and Sthala Puraanas were treasured by householders. If any volume showed signs of decay , it was copied down on new leaves, and the old manuscript consigned to the waters of the Kaveri on the 18th day of the month of Adi (2nd of August). That is how all these ancient works came to be preserved so long. But owing to the indifference of people in subsequent periods, the manuscripts were not recopied, and consequently, a bulk of them got decayed and were lost to us. What could be salvaged are preserved in the Oriental Manuscripts Library, the Saraswati Mahal Library(Thanjavur),an dthe Adyar Library. The Theosophical Society has rendered an invaluable service by collecting and preserving quite a good number of these vaulable manuscripts. But unfortunately many of the Sthala Puraanas have been permanently lost to us.

It seems to me that these Sthala Puraanas contain more ethical and moral lessons and historical facts than even the Puraanas themselves. If we carefully examine the Puraanas we will be able to find one Puraana supplemented another. A diligent student, by a co-ordinated study, can bring to light many truths. The tendency of English-educated persons is to regard the Puraanic stories as mere fiction. That is not a correct approach to these valuable works. Have not recent discoveries of fossils established the existence, at one time, of huge monsters and men of immense proportions? Do not freaks of nature occur even now? Why then should we brush aside the Puraanic stories as unbelievable? While benefiting from the ethical and moreal lessons which these stories convey, let us also keep an open mind regarding the characters potrayed in these stories.

In some Puraanas and Sthala maahatyams, we find a reference that Sri Rama installed a Linga, in order to wash of the sin of Bramha Hathi which came to be attached to him, as result of killing Ravana, a Bramhin. Though by killing Ravana, Sri Rama performed a righteous act of protecting innocent and good men from the tyranny of a bad man, and though as an incornation of God no sin can ever attach to him, yet as a model human person, he did this act of expiation as a sin. According to Sthala Puraanas, Sri Rama is stated to have installed the Linga of Iswara at Rameswaram, Vedaranyam, and at Pattesvaram, near Kumbakonam, to expiate respectively the doshas (wrongs) of Bramha-Hathi, Veera-Hathi and Cchaya-Hathi, resulting from the killing of Ravana. There is inter-relation between the Sthala Puraanas of these three places and the Ramayana. One version of the Kaveri Puraana attaches sanctity to the Amma Mantapam on the banks of the Kaveri at Srirangam, and the center figure in the story is King Dharma Varma of Nichulapuri(Uraiyoor). According to another version of the same Puraana, sanctity is attached to Mayuram and the principal characters in that version are Natha Sarma and his wife, Anavadyai. It is noteworthy that the bathing ghat or "lagadam" (a curruption of Thula ghattam), on the banks of Kaveri at Mayuram and those at six or seven other places are architecturally similar. In this version of Kaveri Puraana, there is a reference that Natha Sarma and his wife visited other places of piligrimage like Kedaara and Kasi. There is bathing ghat none as Kedaara Ghatta at Banaras, and Sthala Puraana of the place also mentions about the visit of the Natha Sarma couple to the ghatta. I am mentioning all these facts to show that one Puraana supplements another and that diligent research in to these Puraanas and Sthala Puraanas will yield valuable historical facts.

If our religion survived many vicissitudes in the past, it is because of our temples and the festivals associated with them. The spiritual, moral, and ethical principles expounded by the Vedaas have survived and spread through the Puraanaas. They teach the basic truths in a manner which appeals to the heart. Let us not, therefore, be indifferent to these great works of religious literature, but treasure them, study them, conduct researches in them, and there by benifit ourselves and the world.

February 4, 1958.