Hinduism can easily be divided into phases : the VEDIC PHASE and the PURANIC PHASE. The Vedic phase focussed on ritual, while the Puranic phase is about narrative. The Vedic phase continues to be mysterious, even out of reach, while the Puranic phase, with its heroes and villains, seems to make immediate sense.
Historically, the Vedic phase begins 4,000 years ago and wanes after the arrival of Gautama Buddha, 500BCE. The Puranic phase follows the rising appeal of the Buddha and his teachings, something that continues today.
The Vedic phase is associated with the hymn collections (SAMITHAS) ——RIG, YAJUR, SAMA, ATHARVA —– the ritual manuals (BRAHMANAS), and the philosophical texts (ARANYAKAS) and more prominently, the UPANISHADS. The Puranic phase is associated with the great Epics ( the RAMAYANA and the MAHABHARATA), and with chronicles known as PURANAS. There are many Puranas : 18 major ones, 100s of minor ones, including those restricted to a particular place (STHALA – PURANA) or to a particular community (JATI – PURANA). It is through the Puranas, that Vedic Wisdom reaches the common man.
The story goes that a fisherwoman’s son called Krishna Dwaipayana, whose name means “the dark one who was born on an island”, compiled and organised the Vedic hymns, which was why he was given the title of VEDA VYASA, who then wrote the ADI PURANA full of stories that made Vedic Wisdom accessible. From the Adi Purana came the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the many Puranas. Thus,, in traditional lore, Puranas are fruits of the tree that is the Vedas.
The sages see Puranas as an extension of the Vedas, yet modern scholars separate Vedas from Puranas. Some see Vedas and Puranas as two distinct traditions that have nothing to do with each other, but the Mahabharata says, “Study of Epics and Puranas supplements the understanding of Vedas”.
Others see Vedas as ‘superior’ and Puranas as ‘inferior’, a hierarchy that was common amongst Greek Aristocrats, and later Colonists, who preferred philosophy over poetry and saw ‘logos’ as superior to ‘mythos’.
At the heart of the Vedas is BRAHMAVIDYA ——– a deep understanding of human nature, which does not change with time (SANATHAN DHARMA). The sages struggled to communicate this idea. First they used rituals, hence the Vedas. Later, with increased confidence, they used stories, hence the Puranas. The former created an elite club. The latter reached to the general public.
In the 21st century, we are seeing a trend towards anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism. Why do some people insist that the Vedas are seen as different than and superior to the Puranas ? Why do we reject the fruit and prefer the tree ? Does it indulge the ego ? Does that not go against the very point of Vedic Wisdom ?
——– Devdutt Pattanaik.