(Sāyaṇa Ācārya (XIV century), Vedārthaprakāśa; quoted in Giuliano Boccali, Stefano Piano, Saverio Sani. The literatures of India. Turin, Utet, 2000, p. 219)
“Nāma vā ṛgvedo yajurvedaḥ sāmaveda ātharvaṇaś caturtha itihāsapurāṇaḥ pañcamo vedānāṃ ved pitryo rāśir daivo nidhir vākovākyam ekāyanaṃ devavidyā brahmavidyābhāvidāvakyavidyāva nhūjanāva nāvaidāva saravaidāva saravaidāva saravai
“Names, namely the Ṛgveda, the Yajur-Veda, the Sāma-Veda and finally the Atharvaṇa as the fourth, the itihāsa and the purāṇa as the fifth, the Veda of the Vedas, the ritual for the hands, the calculation, the divination, the knowledge of the times, logic, rules of conduct, etymology, knowledge of the Gods, knowledge of the Supreme Spirit, the science of weapons, astronomy, the science of snakes, spirits and geniuses; all these are but names. But consider carefully what ‘name’ means. “
These texts therefore and probably have their roots in the distant past, being a real receptacle of traditional knowledge, originally narrated by bards called sūta.
All Purāṇa therefore have numerous stratifications, as well as several parts in common with each other, as well as interpolations and continuous revisions:
“The Purāṇa have been continuously revised and updated over time until the time of the first printed editions that appeared around the end of the nineteenth century. Hence the uncertainty and recklessness of any hypothetical dating.”
(Antonio Rigopoulos, Introduction to translated texts, in ancient Hinduism, vol. 1 (edited by Francesco Sferra). Milan, Mondadori, 2010, p. CXCVI-CXCVII)
The oldest list of eighteen main Puranic texts (called Mahāpurāṇa) is contained in the Mahābhārata (although there remains the doubt of an interpolation of the text): the set formed of these works plus the other great Indian Itihāsa, the Rāmāyaņa, is it has been defined as a fifth Veda, and for the massive scope of their ethical and religious teaching, and for the historical and cultural importance that these texts have assumed over the centuries. They are often referred to in the literature with the compound Itihāsa-Purāṇa.
Alongside this list of major works, various lists were compiled listing eighteen minor or secondary Purāņas, called Upapurāṇa, which are actually present in much greater numbers and deal with the most varied topics, which often cannot be traced in the Mahāpurāṇa.
It is traditionally stated that the topic addressed by the Purāṇa is the pañcalakşaņa, ie the “five distinctive characteristics” listed below:
In truth, these themes are present only minimally in the works and represent more than anything else an attempt at the theoretical canonization of Puranic literature.
It can be said that the Purāṇa are mainly based on mythological texts that ultimately tend to lead to the glorification of one deity rather than another (the most celebrated are Vişņu, often in the form of avatāra, Śiva, the Śakti and finally Brahmā ), but also to exalt the saving and purifying power of certain sacred places, time periods, devotional practices (bhakti) and qualities of the spirit. These texts, called Māhātmya (contraction of mahātman, not literally translatable as “greatness”), constitute the prevalent part of many Purāṇas; they are then associated with other types of text, such as the Gītā (divine songs that have as their model the famous Bhagavadgītā), the strota (laudative hymns) and various stories of an edifying nature. All these textual typologies are independent of each other but are associated together to form that composite framework which is the Purāṇa, although, at least as regards some Māhātmyas, there are attestations of their autonomous redaction.
The ultimate goal set by the Purāṇas is the acquisition of a phala (lit. “fruit”, in this case translatable as “spiritual merit”). It can be obtained in the most varied ways (in individual works you can often find specific indications): mainly through reading, listening to the text and devoting devotion to the god celebrated in it, but also by following the indications given on pilgrimage to sacred places. and even simply by owning it or giving it to a Brahmin.
«Writing, always considered inferior to oral transmission, is suitable for these edification texts aimed at social categories to which access to the Vedas was and is denied. Hence the meritorious nature of the creation of copies of the Purāṇic text, a practice that has been attested throughout the centuries. “