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Puranas and Acculturation (A Historico - Anthropological Perspective)

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About the Book Besides its gigantic size and encyclopaedic and eclectic nature of its content the Puranic corpus stands apart from, the earlier Brah-manical literature in many significant ways; not the least of them being the fact that whereas the Vedas and the Dharmasastras had been meant for self study and were for the exclusive religious edification of the members of the upper stratum the puranas were required to be recited in popular gatherings and were generally projected as the scri...
About the Book

Besides its gigantic size and encyclopaedic and eclectic nature of its content the Puranic corpus stands apart from, the earlier Brah-manical literature in many significant ways; not the least of them being the fact that whereas the Vedas and the Dharmasastras had been meant for self study and were for the exclusive religious edification of the members of the upper stratum the puranas were required to be recited in popular gatherings and were generally projected as the scriptures of the masses. Their popular base and mass appeal can be judged from the fact that Puranic lore like that of the Epics has over the centuries become deeply ingrained in popular psyche. But whaat is really intriguing is the extraordinary nature of exigency which compelled the Brahmanical leaders to give up their former elitist and almost inflexible stance and not only take notice of the substratum of society but also seek to win them over through a genre of literature specially composed for them. Perhaps what is even more surprising is that though so much has been made provide as written about the Puranas in the past century and a half yet no serious attempt has been made to provide as completely convincing and wholly viable rationale for their composition and subsequent proliferation. The present work aims at removing this lacuna and establishing the purposive nature of the Puranic texts. It also seeks to underline the dialectical nature of relationship that existed between the processes of their composition and the forces of acculturation that became activated and more visible during Gupta/Post – Gopta times due to the mounting demands and pressures of an emergent socio economic order based on agricultural expansion.


About the Author

Dr. Vijay Nath is a Reader in Jankidevi College Delhi University. She secured her Master's and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Delhi. Her articles focusing on socio economic and religious history of ancient India have appeared in a number of well known journals. She is the author of the book Dana; Gift System in Ancient India: A Socio economic Perspective. She has been elected president of ancient Indian History section of the sixty first session of India History Congress.



The Puranic corpus stands apart for its gigantic size and the encyclopaedic nature of its content. But what one finds specially striking about the Puranas is their immense mass appeal, perhaps second only to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Like those of the two Epics, the Puranic sayings and legends too have percolated down to Epics, the Puranic sayings and legends too have percolated down to the grass – roots level, becoming ingrained in the popular psyche. What distinguishes the Epics and the puranas from the rest of the Brahmanical religious texts is the fact that they were meant for the edification of not just the intelligentsia but of the common people, the peasants and the artisans, the housebound housewife and the roving merchants, who were able to relate to them as they never could to the Vedas or the Upanisads, which always remained beyond their physical reach and mental grasp.

But more than their popularity and the impact they continue to exercise on popular mind, one is intrigued by the extraordinary circumstances or rather the nature and intensity of socio-religious compulsions which made it expedient for the Brahmanical ideologues to dismount from their didactic high horse and not only take notice of the substratum of society but also seek to win them over through a specially developed form of religious texts, namely the Puranas. What one finds even more surprising is that though so much has been written about the purans in the past century and a half in fact the volume of secondary works on them easily surpasses the gigantic size of the Puranic corpus itself. Yet no attempt has seemingly been made to provide a wholly viable raison de'etre for their composition and subsequent proliferation.

It may be pointed out here that no literature exists in a cultural void; it both mirrors and often also conditions the very society of which it is itself a product. This is specially true of all sacred literature, which has always given expression to contemporary thoughts and beliefs, at the same time also serving as a powerful mechanism of effecting social control and even social change. It becomes imperative, therefore, to relate the Puranas to the historical processes of change and development which must have been chiefly responsible for their origin and growth.

Despite the problems faced in fixing the exact dates of composition of the major Puranas, the overall consensus reached by scholars, places them within the broad time bracket of third century AD to the end of the first millennium AD, although accretions and deletions continued to be made till about the middle of the next millennium. The main period of composition was marked by transition from an active market-based monetary economy to a closed agrarian system, in which there was maximum pressure on agricultural land, making the reclamation of virgin tracts through the practice of land grants to religious beneficiaries absolutely necessary. The latter were mostly inhabited by indigenous tribes, who had already been driven out of their original habitats due to foreign incursions specially during the early centuries of the Christian era and had been forced to take refuge in the rather inaccessible peripheral Zones. Yet another attempt at encroachment upon their land of purposes of agricultural expansion was therefore, bound to create disaffection and even resistance on the part of the affected tribal Groups.

Our main contention, therefore is that puranas as a special category of sacred texts were composed at this particular juncture to tide over the impending socio economic crisis, described in the Puranas as the evils of Kali-age. The puranas as such were devised as subtle means of winning over and slowly acculturating the disgruntled tribal groups, who tended to hamper agricultural growth a circumstance which was bound to affect the interests of those Brahman beneficiaries of land grants, whose lands lay in the more outlying regions.

Puranas, as the present author is inclined to view them, were went to serve as instruments of disseminating mainstream ideology and cultural traditions, targeting both the marginalised stratum within the varna fold as well as the tribal groups, who because of their fixed tribal ways were prone to hinder developments in the field of intensive agriculture. Moreover, being situated on the periphery of mainstream society, the latter were also more vulnerable to heterbox religious influences, particularly since Buddhism and Jainism had already gained sufficient foothold in the outlying areas, where monastic establishments are known to have come up during the opening centuries of the Christain era.

For proving the above proposition the author had to first look into the problem of the real identity of the Purana composers. This was necessary for ascertaining the nature and degree of socioreligious pressures which were working behind Purana composition, and also for determining the kind of motivation which led the composers to undertake the exercise.

Our study of the Puranas moreover shows that the subject of ethnography has received undue focus which is quite at variance with their intrinsically religious framework. The Puranas, in fact, are replete with details about the various ethnic segments, their respective nomenclatures, habitational zones, spatial movements and cultural traits and beliefs. Such excessive preoccupation of the Purana composers with tribes, both indigenous and foreign, can be explained and rationalised only in terms of the contemporary historical developments.

The Purana composers have also deftly utilised the language of myth and allegory for transforming current happenings into mythological events of great antiquity and common usages into sacred rituals imbued with great spiritual merit and also backed by Vedic authority.

The composers have moreover adopted a new style of writing based on narration and story-telling with frequent interrogatory interjections by Puranic characters seeking clarification and further elaboration. This was apparently done to cast the Puranas into a more popular mould, which could make their texts easily comprehensible even to the non-literate segments of society. The only reason why the composers should have opted for such a style could be that they were addressing a totally different set of audience, which not only lacked intellectual finesse but was wholly rooted in the folk tradition, in which mythology and rituals play a seminal role in augmenting group identity and in defining and reaffirming social role and status.

A Significant development which marked Puranic religious tradition, distinguishing it from both the Vedic and the Smarta tradition, were certain innovative ritual formations such as temple-centric worship tirhas, vratas, pujas, etc which gave to it a broader base and appeal. For the first time within the Brahmanical frame work, caste and gender based differentiations were to a very large extent waived aside in such ritual-observances. How far this exceptionally lenient attitude towards lower caste-orders and women was inspired by gender-parity and an egalitarian ethos which characterise tribal society is of course, a moot point, but which if true would definitely suggest some extraordinary expedient circumstances.

Some Puranic constructs, which had been formulated long before the extant Puranas came into existence, but which with the help of mythology were given a new orientation and a sharper edge as deterrants to all kinds of deviant behaviour, were such concepts as mahapataka (sin), praYaScitta (expiation), naraka (hell or purgatory), and srapa (the curse of a sage or a brahrnana). Most of these ideas are found to be common to the tribal belief-system, a fact which perhaps explains why the Purana composers employed them as effective means of making the simple-minded folk conform to an alternate behavioural pattern which was laid down specially for them in the Puranas.

A closer scrutiny of Puranic content, moreover, reveals that a few ideological formations have received a new thrust in the Puranas, for example, the element of bhakti or devotion with which the Puranic tradition is found to be completely suffused. Similarly the excessive attention paid to the careful nurturing of plants and trees in the Puranas, seems to reflect the fear and threat of deforestation, a natural concommitant to too much agricultural expansion. The exceptional importance given to the guru or perceptor in the Puranic rituals likewise was perhaps meant to redefine his role as the most visible agent of acculturation.

In the present study a macro approach had to be necessarily adopted with deductions being mostly based on an overview of Puranic content. For arriving at the latter, original Purana texts, specially the Mahapurana, had to be extensively scanned. Support for such deductions was further sought through secondary works dealing either directly with the Puranas or with the contemporary socio-economic and cultural developments. The author has also greatly benefited from insights furnished by recent anthropological and ethnographic studies. Similarly epigraphic and architectural data has been also utilised wherever required for purposes of corroboration and for providing the necessary historical background.

In the end, the author would like to acknowledge her profound debt to all those scholars who have over the decades, contributed to the understanding of the Puranas and without the insights provided by whom, the present work would not have been possible. The author is specially indebted to Professor R.S. Sharma for his continual guidance and inspiration. She is also appreciative of the moral support given to her by her numerous friends and colleagues and would specially like to mention the names of Professor D.N. Jha, Professor K.M. Shrimali, Dr. V.K.Jain, and Dr. B.P. Sahu in this regard. The author is equally grateful to the librarian and staff of the National Museum Library for their unstinted co-operation and help. Finally she would like to say a word of thanks to her husband, her two daughters-Nidhi and Bhavi, her sons-in-law Sai and Hitesh and grandson Prithu for continuously boosting her sagging spirits.




  Preface ix
  Abbreviations xv
1 Introduction 1
  The Corpus of Puranic Literature 1
  Tribes and the Problems of acculturation 22
2 Composers of the Puranas: Their Real Identity 51
3 Tribes in the Puranas and the Epics 73
4 Acculturation Processes Mythicised 91
  The Kaliyuga paradigm 94
  Creation myth 97
  Developments related to Puranic pantheon 98
5 Some New Ritual Formations 118
  Mahadanas 119
  Tirthas 125
  Temple worship 136
  Deva puja 140
6 Certain Ideological Constructs as Mechanisms of social Control 157
  Mahapataka 160
  Concept of Naraka or hell 160
  Prayascitta 163
  Srapya 164
7 Some areas of Puranic Focus 168
  Guru 168
  Bhakti 173
  Trees and forests 176
8 Puranas and Epics as Instruments of Brahmanisation 194
  Bibliography 208
  Index 244


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Item Code: NAK128 Author: Vijay Nath Cover: Hardcover Edition: 2001 Publisher: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd. ISBN: 9788121509954 Language: English Size: 9.0 inch x 6.0 inch Pages: 273 Other Details: Weight of the Book: 471 gms
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