In addition to the M.B. Vyasa wrote the eighteen PurANas and the eighteen upa-PurANas. These are chronicles and long narratives that popularize the content of the vedas by appealing to the reader's imagination. They are the magnifying glass for the ideas contained in the vedas. One List of the PurANAs is as follows:
Brahma-vaivarta-, MArkaNDeya-, Matsya-, Padma-, GaruDa-, VAmana-, Vishnu-, VAyu-, KUrma-, Linga-, Brahma-, agni-, Bhavishyat-, VarAha-, Skanda-, NArada-, BhAgavata- and BrahmANDa-PurANA.
The corresponding list of the upa-PurANAs is:
sanat-kumAra-, narasimha-, Shiva-dharma-, nandi-, durvAsa-, kapila-, MAnava-, aunasa-, VaruNa-, devi-, MAheSvara-, SAmba-, Saura-, parASara-, MArIca-, Shiva-, devI-bhAgavata- and BRhan-nAradIya-PurANA.
Hundreds of special vratas and specialized forms of worship that are practised in different forms wherever Hindus reside, derive from one or other of these PurANas. The very popular Satya-Narayana-pUjA, for instance, goes back to five chapters in the Skanda-PurANa, dedicated to Lord SubrahmaNya. Incidentally, it is the longest of the PurANas and is only slightly shorter than the M.B. The eighteen PurANas add up to 400,000 Shlokas, four times the size of the M.B. Of these eighteen, Vishnu PurANa, considered as the chief authority almost like the Shruti by the followers of viSishTAdvaita philosophy, was written by ParASara, Vyasa's father. But Vyasa, just as he rearranged the vedas into various branches, also edited the Vishnu PurANa and put it in its present form. The PurANas together form a comprehensive encyclopaedia of all the mythology, legends and history of Hinduism.
Just two simple examples. Sage Vasishta’s wife Arundhati is considered in Indian mythology as the ideal wife embodying all the virtues that a married woman should possess. In all Indian Hindu marriages, among the many rituals, one that is important is the ritual of the bridegroom pointing out the star Arundhati among the Saptarishi-group of stars (known as the Big Dipper in the constellation Ursa Major) to the bride as if to indicate that the couple should be as close to each other in their life as Vasishta and Arundhati were. This ritual is gone through without anybody pausing – nobody has the time! – to understand or question the significance of this ritual. The Sapta rishi is made up of seven stars which are the Seven Great Sages of this era, namely, Atri, Vasishta, KaSyapa, Gautama, BharadwAja, ViSvAmitra and Jamadagni. The Big Dipper is in the form of a bowl (rectangular) made up of four stars and three stars in the curved handle. The two stars in the bowl away from the handle are called the Pointers; they together point to the Polaris which is almost at the Celestial Pole. The middle star in the handle is Vasishta, known as Mizar in Western terminology. Alongside Mizar there is a tiny faintly shining star known by its Arabic name Alcor. In Indian tradition it is known as Arundhati, the model of chastity, the eighth daughter of Kardama Prajapati, son of Creator BrahmA. Vishnu PurANa and Shiva PurANa refer to this marriage ritual. In Shiva PurANa the derivation for the name Arundhati is given in the following couple of shlokas
arundhatIti tasyAstu nAma cakre mahAmuniH /
Shishyaih parivRtastatra mahAmodam-avapa ha //
na ruNadhi yato dharma sA kasmAd-api kAraNAt /
atastriloke viditaM nAma samprApa tat-svayaM //
It says she is so called because she never does anything which is not concordant with dharma. The verb ‘rudh’ means to resist or desist. The word Arundhati comes from this root word.
As a second example, we take Narada’s story of his previous life, as told by himself to Vyasa. This occurs in the Bha. And Narada narrates his own story. (For the context of this see 7.1). It was at the end of the previous kalpa (that is, the previous day of BrahmA – it was called the PAdma kalpa) that Narada was the son of a maid-servant who, as a widow had to eke out her livelihood by doing menial services. It was during one of those days when his mother was working, he came into contact with a group of devotees of the Lord who had congregated for some religious celebration for several days. He as a boy served them well by doing errands for them. They were so satisfied with him that when they left, they blessed him with the supreme knowledge about the Lord. Soon after, his mother died by a snake bite. The boy had no aims in life except to keep thinking about what the devotees had told him and taught him. So he kept repeating the name of God, that they had taught him, for the rest of his life. He just went wherever his feet would take him, ate whatever anybody offered him. Once while sitting at the foot of a tree in a lonely forest on the banks of a river he had the vision of God. The Lord told him ‘I have shown you my Form just to sustain your interest. In your next birth you will remember all this and you would be always able to see Me’. He thereafter just awaited the fall of his body at death. And when it finally came, that was the time of pralaya (deluge) of the last kalpa. When he emerged out of the Lord at the beginning of this kalpa, it was as the mAnasika-putra (son born of the mind) of Creator BrahmA. By a little but dedicated service to the devotees of God he had reached this eminent status of being always in proximity to the Lord.
History for the modern mind is what is available through archeological research. Due to the fashions set by the western traditions, any research of ancient literature that points to hoary periods several millenia before the common historical era, is looked at with disbelief and therefore not pursued to its logical conclusion. The chronology offered by the PurANas and the scientific concepts of chronology of events do clash with each other. In order to sort this out a more open-ended research which is prepared to look into the PurANas and sthala-PurANas (i.e. the literature that abounds in each pilgrimage centre about that place) as history must be undertaken. It is necessary to stop falling back on the 19th century European viewpoint as if the last words have been said on the ancient scriptures of India. The word purA, in Sanskrit means 'past'. What is past is history. The PurANas are history. Their difference from school books of history is in the fact the PurANas have the single objective of talking only about those events and lives of the past which ennoble you and enable you to become a better man. Since history always repeats itself, the purpose of history should be to learn the lessons of history and do better in the future. The PurANa makes this its major objective and to that end it perhaps plays on your imagination. But instead of looking at the PurANas as history we have tended to relegate it to the dustbin by branding it all as nonsensical fiction!
Question: Don’t the different PurANAs deify different deities and does this not mean that in Hinduism there is a plethora of Gods and Goddesses with an impossible hierarchy?
Before trying to answer the question, let us try to see the legitmacy of the question. The entire mythological set-up embedded in the multitude of PurANas and upa-purANas, if taken at their story-value without any feeling for the under-current of one Godhead, does create chaos in our intellectual understanding. Each purANa is distinctly in favour of a particular deity, whose exploits form its subject-matter and that deity is considered in that purANa as the supreme Reality. The manner in which, each purANa makes all other deities subservient to the one deity extolled in that purANa, lends support to the Vedanta view that there is only one ultimate Godhead and each particular name and form of that Godhead is only an expression of that single Reality.
The Goddess Saraswati (of Learning) and Lord Shiva (of the Trinity) both emanated from Mahalakshmi, one of the three manifestations of the original Mother Goddess. They two represent the first and fourth facets of the six great qualities of Godhead: ‘jnAna-aiSwarya-shakti-bala-vIrya-tejaH’ (meaning, wisdom or enlightenment, wealth, power, strength, potence and brilliance). The Goddess Lakshmi of wealth and Lord BrahmA the Creator both emanated from Maha-Kali, the other manifestation of Mother Goddess. They represent respectively the facets of wealth and potence – the second and fifth of the above six facets. The remaining Lord of the Trinity, Vishnu and the remaining Goddess of the Trinity, namely, Parvati both emanated from Maha-Saraswati -- so they are brother and sister (as tradition knows it almost as a fiat) – the third part of the manifestation of the Mother Goddess and represent the facets, brilliance and power. These details are in Devi-MahAtmyaM, (one of the upa-purANas). The pairings mentioned here are built into the age-old traditional beliefs and practices, namely, Saraswati and Siva both stand for jnAna (knowledge), Lakshmi and BrahmA both have the lotus symbol, and, finally, Lord Vishnu and Goddess Durga (=Parvati) are both the only deities who have each a whole Bhagavata-purANa for themselves.
In the SkAnda-purANa, it is said that Lord Subrahmanya possesses all the six qualities of Godhead, that is in fact what is indicated by His six faces and so He is the supreme Godhead. In the ViSishTAdvaita tradition, the transcendental ultimate Godhead is VAsu-deva – Para-VAsu-deva, as he is referred to – who has all the six qualities. For purposes of the management of the universe, he has three lower forms, which are: SankarshaNa (for the functions of dissolution or destruction), Pradyumna (for the purpose of creation), and Aniruddha (for the purpose of preservation and maintenance). These correspond to the Mahalakshmi, Mahakali and Mahasaraswati of the Devi-Mahatmya narration. These three possess the pairs of qualities, in order: knowledge and strength, wealth and potence, power and brilliance. We also know the fundamental theological assumption of the pairing of the male Trinity and the female Trinity as the three divine couples: BrahmA-Saraswati, Vishnu-Lakshmi, and Shiva-Parvati. Also we are told that BrahmA emanated from Maha-Vishnu’s navel. So the latter is the father of the Creator and Lakshmi is the mother. These details are in Vishnu-PurANa.
Now try to figure out the various relationships among the different gods and goddesses and arrange them in any kind of hierarchy, either relational, or with respect to qualities or in terms of their functions. In fact what we have listed above is an atomic part of the mythology that is current, not just in isolated parts of Hindu literature but as the warp and woof of the very fabric of Hinduism, its religion, philosophy, mythology, folklore, culture and temple traditions. When this is the case, what authority do we have to take all these literally and talk about them in terms of our worldly language, imagery and relationships? The only explanation is the one that comes from the concept that there is only one Godhead, that God cannot be delimited by any single name or form nor can He or She be thought of in terms of our anthropomorphic linkages of dependence and marriages and man-woman-axes of community life. The Vedas cry hoarse in telling us not to attempt any such worldly ways of looking at these divine concepts. Underneath the apparent plurality of the personified powers in the Vedas, there lies a significant and unmistakable consciousness of the eternal infinite Supreme.
Among the eighteen purANas of Vyasa there are some which glorify Vishnu and His manifestations and there are some others which glorify Shiva or allied divinities. Within the context of each purANa that Divinity which is glorified is not only just glorified but talked about as the highest Transcendental Supreme; not only that, the other Divinities, without exception are said to come in person and praise this Lord of that PurANa.One can never understand these unless one subscribes to the theory that there is only one Godhead and each manifestation or presentation of that Godhead for the period of that context is to be considered Supreme. Without this explanation one would only be spending all one’s lifetime trying to find out the impossible rationale out of the apparent chaos!