There has always been discussion in the groups on the provenance of the various Puranas. People who would like to take a contrary position would decry them with few unsubstantiated statements such as “Puranas are wrong” or “Puranas are later”.
Therefore, I searched for and found the Royal Asiatic Society proceedings from 1832 which actually discussed the provenance of the Puranas which the various scholars collected and then examined. They continued their examinations over the next eight years before summarizing their findings. Actually, their work was the inspiration of the Tagore Shastri effort for Motilal Banarsidass Publishers group to publish the Puranas in English. Lot of critical work was redone in 1960s and 70s for that point.
I chose the 1832 as a point to look at the work of those scholars for several reasons:
- It is available. Archive.org has lot of complete proceedings and texts beautifully preserved.
- The British civil servants also were very conscientious. The likes of Macaulay, Elphinstone, Smith, Todd and Cunningham shone with their efforts especially in putting information to pen. I would wager that we take all senior employees of current Indian Archeological Survey and all would name Cunningham as their inspiration or someone whose efforts they look upto to emulate.
- 1832 is also the point before the “Eurocentric” philosophies kicked in mid 1840s and muddied the scholarly efforts.
- It is also long before the mass literacy and advent of mass printing press with its easy invention to churn out copious masses of incorrect texts and pauranic fiction. The mountain of copies and texts in front of Tagore and Shastri would have much higher than in front of Wilsonadi Asiatic society.
- The imperial might of British arms also got them access to manuscripts other wise not easily accessible to scholars. When Andhra Mahabharata critical edition was being forged, Osmania had to run pillar and post to get Great temples to open their doors and share the texts with the scholars.
- The interlocutors were not Hindu so not Saivite, nor Vaishanavite, nor Arya Samaji or Devi bhaktas. If you do read their detailed notes, I think they were vaisnavites by the end of their works!!!
One of the major points to understand is that True Puranas are written before Mahabharata. That Mahabharata text we have is one of the oldest and proven pieces of literature points to popularity and fecundity of Mahabharata. As I had mentioned at times, Vyas used Mahabharata as the ship to house the Puranic stories because he was not sure of Puranas’s own ability to stand on their own.
Vyas created a series of Puranas but he is not the only one. Both Siva Purana and Skanda Purana (also maybe Brahmanda Purana) are separate corpus of multiple Puranas and thus, represent atleast three (four) systems of Puranas. From the various Puranas, we get hints that there is a Saura, Tvasthra and maybe even Shakti set of Purana cycles as well. But, over time lot has been lost.
Most Puranas that we have which devote copious amount of text and space to Mahabharata events or Krishna are obviously post Mahabharata in construction. They are not the REAL Puranas. One of the results of the critical survey by Messrs Wilson, Stirling et all is the revelation of the great loss in Hinduism of the large sections of the original Puranas.
It does not mean the texts we do have are not old, or not created by Vyas or are not part of Hindu religious thought.
Vyas created a whole forest of Veda tree Samhitas and Purana samhitas. Radhakrishnan and Rajgopalachari both came up with different research and figure that there would have been 108 Vedas, 108 Puranas et all at one point. Skanda has a six leveled description of Puranas, Upa Puranas, Ati Purana, MahaPuranas, Kula Puranas and Sthala Puranas. There are samhitas, Mahamatyas, Upakhsyana sangrahas and Chandrikas galore that have been created and referred to original information.
(for example The next chapter on Bharadwaja family has the description of A new Veda called Surya Rahasya Veda which is no longer extant. Spoiler alert!)
Then there are Teekas or commentaries!
What messrs Wilsonadi were doing was to measure the existing texts against the rigorous definition provided by AmarKosha, the commentary on Puranas from 56 BC.
So to summarize:
Vayu Purana may perhaps be regarded as one of the oldest and most authentic specimens extant of the original Puráńa of Vyasa. That its second section would have been present and may have been an Itihasa or a full Khila to the Mahabharata is described. What point is more important is that it is the oldest text available. Same goes for Matsaya which would be old but samakalin to older Mahabharata texts.
The smaller Vishnu Purana is one of the best preserved and oldest Puranas in circulation. Matsaya and Vishnu became the standard by which the scholars measured all Puranas. They gave thumbs up to Bhagvada as the pretty good Purana (Todd gave his copy of Bhagvada very high marks for authencity as a Purana). The size of Bhagvada and remnants of Vishnu tally to the size of Original Vishnu Purana as described by Vyas. So Bhagvada Purana may not be original Bhagvada Purana but is a genuine Purana, maybe the original Vishnu Purana.
Brahmand version published by Banarsidass and to some extent Vamana are of higher merit.
So: Vayu, Vishnu, Bhagvada, Matsaya for Puranic text are good. Agni for genealogical and historical data.
Marakandeya, Bhavishya, Bhaishyaottara, Brahmand are good for Mahabharata text if you get the right versions.
Marakandeya is one of the best preserved and almost equivalent to Bhagavada in its authenticity. It is definitely like Harivamsa, an appendix Purana to Mahabharata. It is most likely written by Jaimini. We know that Jaimini wrote or narrated Mahabharata separately and focused on different sections. His Asvamedha is much larger than Vaisampyana’s. (whose asvamedha is not properly preserved.) Bengalis always maintained that there was a full version of Jaimini available, now lost. Marakandeya seems to sit between the end of Vaismapayana AdiParva and Rajasuya parva.
In Mahabharata, Dhritrashtra mentions 33 years elapsed between Khandava Vana and Kurukshetra battle. Markandeya Purana may be Jaimini’s effort and focus on the twenty years between Khandava Vana and the Dyuta.
It is second oldest after Vayu. Older than Vishnu and Bhagvada.
Jaimini also wrote Brahmanda Purana. So, Jaimini Parvas we have plus these Puranas are sections of Real Jaimini Bharata now lost.
Bhavishya and Bhavishyottar Puranas are the two more Mahabharata texts rather than Puranas. They are wholly devoted to Mahabharata. One of them is told by Krishna no less. We have half of these sections left and critical editions of these Puranas await. Then there is Vamana Purana supposed to have been recited after Kurukshetra.
Vaisampayana Mahabharata we have is Adi Parva 10K slokas, Sabha 4.5K, Vana 13K plus Bharavi KirataArjuniya, Virata 4K, Udyoga 7K, Bheeshma 6K, Drona 12K, Karna 4K, Salya 4K, Shanti 16K, Anushasana 12K slokas, Ashwamedha 4k slokas.
These 12 are nice sized books. Then we have Sauptika 700 verses, Stree 700 verses, Mausala 300 verses (though Puranas hint at 77 chapters, we have 8) Ashramavasika 700 verses, Mahaprasthanika 200 slokas and Swargarohana 200 slokas.
These six books are pamphlets compared to other Parvas. Indonesian Mahabharata which left in 1st century AD does not even see these as Parvas, it counts 7 main ones plus the 4 War Parvas. It replaces Anushasana with Indraprastha Parva.
We also are missing 10000 slokas in this count, 17000 on most counts.
Both Vyasa and Sootji in their counting do not include Sauptika and couple of these pamphlets. They give hints of great “Mine of Knowledge” Arani Parva and “Great store of Dharma” Teachings to Galava as well as “Veda ritual descriptions” in Aishika parva which follows Stree.
This part is speculation. The Bhavishottar Purana narrated by Krishna could be the “Water reeds” Parva or missing Parva which details all the rituals. Bhavishya and Vayu could be the extended Parvas Mausala and post Mausala. Anushasana is put together by Buddhist editors from Ajagara and other locations and is probably in large part the original Arani Parva next to Vana. The Skanda samhita on Dharmaraja could be the Teachings to Galava and real Anushasana Parva. The Markandeya and Brahmanda Puranas are probably fillers or slokas or missing Parvas.
Remember 18 means Dharma and the editor kept on using 18 wherever he can.
Back to Puranas
Brahma Purana was rejected by Messrs Wilsonadi as they identified it as a text of Purushottam kshetra mahamatya rather than Purana.
Brahma Purana was researched by among others Chatursena who found the right version and later was researched by Tagore and Shastri who also validated the versions and restored the much larger Brahma Purana to primacy it deserves in the list of Puranas. I have not read this large 20K sloka version so I cannot comment much on it. Chatursena and KM Munshi quote extensively in their commentaries from it so I would assign the Brahma Purana high status.
Same issue is with Narada Purana. They did not have a good copy in 1832 but Tagore and Shastri worked and got a very good one. I am still reading it. I cannot comment much. I picked up several variants at haridwara and other places and can tell you, there are lot of adulterated Puranas out there. Banarsidass copies and their value rises in my estimation when I read this “novels”.
Same goes for the Garuda Purana. 1830s they did not have a good copy. The Tagoreadi effort unearthed a tolerable copy. I found one at Cambridge library for example which I really did not like.
Padma Purana is huge mass of literature, some ancient, some adulterated. The efficacy of Padma Purana is lower but its corpus of stories is much larger, ShastriAdi did a great job on it to make it worth quoting from.
Padma Purana also housed and protected two of Kalidasa’s plays Raghu Vanshama and probably Rama Ashwamedha just as Bharavi and Bhasa found shelters inside the Mahabharata. The Uttara Khand of Padma Purana housed or houses an ancient commentary on Geeta.
Agni Purana as we have now is as ancient Encyclopaedia but not a Purana. Portions of true Agni Purana was printed by the ShastriAdi.
Brahma Purana was restored by later effort and can join Vayu, Vishnu, Bhagvada, Matsaya for Puranic texts.
Of the Upa Purans, 31 better ones are identified. Devi Bhagvata is very common and meets the rigorous rules for the Puarana as stated by Amarkosha. Of course, the presence of Maha-Devi Bhagvata et all hint at various versions and sectarian conflicts.
Nanda Purana is common in most lists. Kalika is widespread. Parasara Purana got a critical edition in 1890s and won the Court case where by suddenly many lowercastes and Untouchables were recognized as Brahmins by Court.
Chatursena identified some high quality Puranas including Nishada and series of Ganga Puranas (which were also looked at by 1832 scholars as probable Brahma Purana subsitutes).
KM Munshi worked on Malla and other Janapada Puranas. Indiana university library housed critical editions of Kosala, Mithila and couple of other sub-Puranas.
Another popular and rigorous set of stories are housed in Nilamata Purana (Brihadsva of Nalopakhyan fame narrates it) and Karaga Purana (on which I will write soon which has connotations of being or descended from Varaha and Brahmand Puranas). These are rather Epics than Puranas.
Then there is Shivarahasya Purana which is some 100000 slokas in size. We will discuss this again when we get to Upanishadas!.
So to summarize:
Vishnu, Bhagvada, Matsaya Very Good Very Good.
Marakandeya, Brahmand Good.
Bhavishya, Bhaishyaottara depends on right text you get hold of. Older the better.
Brahma, Garuda and Narada. Very good.
As a special mention Vishnudharmottara Purana probably older than the text of Vishnu Purana we have. It focuses on liberal arts.