Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Shiva Purana: Sense and Sensibility

The term Purana refers to large body of later Hindu texts (ca. 300-1500 CE) composed by various authors who uniformly chose to leave out their own names and glorify the name of the ancient sage, Vyasa. Therefore, per tradition, all the Puranas are attributed to Sage Vyasa.

Like the other major Puranas, the Shiva Purana is a veritable compendium of myths and legends, with a particular focus on Shiva. By the Puranic age, it had become commonplace to take mystical concepts and doctrines and weave stories around them. Therefore, the Shiva Purana, like other Puranas, contains a significant amount of Vedic and Agamic theology that is allegorically and linguistically hidden in its overt themes. Experts believe that the original Shiva Purana was composed by ascetics of Pashupata lineages, and completed circa the 6th century CE.

What makes the Shiva Purana unique, however, is that two vastly different published versions are currently available. One published version of the Shiva Purana [Vangavasi Press Edition] contains six samhitas (books):

(1) Jnana Samhita
(2) Vidyeshvara Samhita
(3) Kailasa Samhita
(4) Sanatkumara Samhita
(5) Vayaviya Samhita
(6) Dharma Samhita

This version of the Shiva Purana is divided into 290 chapters and contains roughly 12,000 verses, and was published based on manuscripts found in eastern India.

The other published version of the Shiva Purana [Venkatesvara and Pandit Pustakalaya Editions] contains not six, but seven samhitas:

(1) Vidyeshvara Samihta
(2) Rudra Samhita
(3) Shatarudra Samhita
(4) Kotirudra Samhita
(5) Uma Samhita
(6) Kailasa Samhita
(7) Vayaviya Samhita

This version of the Shiva Purana is divided into 451 chapters and contains roughly 24,000 verses, and was published based on manuscripts found in northern and southern India.

Clearly the first version is much shorter than the second. And perhaps more importantly, not even the lists of samhitas from the two versions coincide with one another. Why is this?

Some say that the answer to this riddle is in the Shiva Purana itself. Within the text of the Vidyeshvara and the Vayaviya Samhitas, both of which are common to both versions, it is explained that the original Shiva Purana contained 12 samhitas totaling 100,000 verses. Furthermore, the Vidyeshvara (II:49-56) and Vayaviya Samhitas list the names of 12 samhitas and the original number of verses in each:

(1) Vidyeshvara Samhita (10,000)
(2) Rudra Samhita (8,000)
(3) Vainayaka Samhita (8,000)
(4) Uma Samhita (8,000)
(5) Matri Samhita (8,000)
(6) Rudra-Ekadasha Samhita (13,000)
(7) Kailasa Samhita (6,000)
(8) Shatarudra Samhita (3,000)
(9) Sahasrakotirudra Samhita (11,000)
(10) Kotirudra Samhita (9,000)
(11) Vayaviya Samhita (4,000)
(12) Dharma Samhita (12,000)

Glancing back at the list of samhitas in the currently-available published versions, we find that all but the Vainayaka, Matri, Rudra-Ekadasha and Sahasrakotirudra Samhitas are available in one version or another. So, presumably these aforementioned samhitas have been lost with time.

Now, the other lingering questions that come to mind are: whence did the Jnana and Sanatkumara Samhitas come (neither is listed as part of the original text); and why were different collations of samhitas found in different areas? The only rational answer to these questions is that the Shiva Purana has been growing and changing since the text was first put into writing. In different areas, different samhitas were written down, but never were all the books collated to form one complete version. It may indeed be true that there were many more samhitas in existence, which were lost over time. But as some were lost, others were being written.

The above is not an exercise in futility. The point here is to show, using the Shiva Purana as an example, that the Puranas have been for most of history, a dynamic class of literature, and not static like the Vedas. It is well known to scholars of ancient Indian literature that the Puranas (and Itihasas) have been slowly growing and developing over the centuries. In fact, most Puranas have multiple authors and recensions, myriad interpolations, and sometimes even self-contradictions.

Most certainly, all this should not prevent us from enjoying the Puranic legends or celebrating them, as they enrich the living tradition of Hinduism. But we must keep in mind always that no Purana, however holy, is to be considered as a primary or authoritarian text, at least from the standpoint of Shaivism.

Aum Namah Shivaya.

Related posts: Theology of the Shiva Purana; Theology of the Shiva Purana II

© Agnideva, 2007. All rights reserved.


Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

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