BLOG STATUS: Suspended indefinitely starting 18 Jan 2020. See journal page for details.
Last new article published: 18 Jan 2020, "Ishvara Gita: Chapters 1-11": Read here

Subscribe to updates here.

Tamasatva of certain Puranas: Texts with little Vedantic authority

Note: This page is a contribution of the Srivaishnava sampradAya follower who represented the side of Vaishnavism with me against the author of the mahapashupatastra blog page. My own comments are added in italics like this, preceded by three % signs. 

This is a short article regarding the status of the tAmasa purAnAs in vedAntA.

As is well known, the 18 purAnAs are classified into three groups – sattva, rajas and tamas. This classification comes from the purAnAs itself and is accepted by all advaitins, vishishtadvaitins and dvaitins. Yet, some people, frustrated at the fact that all the purAnAs classified as sattva praise Vishnu-nArAyaNa only, have attempted to dismiss this classification using much abused arguments like ‘interpolations’ and ‘vaishnava conspiracy’. 

One must note that the classification is accepted by vaidika acharyas not only based on the slokas that suggest such a classification, but also only on the strength of pramAnAs. Here are some justifications that pretty much seal the classification: 

1) The tAmasa purAnAs contradict Shruti 

A simple rule of vedAntA is that whatever contradicts shruti is rejected and whatever conforms to shruti is accepted. The knowledgeable rishis have stated that the first authority is apAurushEya shruti, followed by the pAurushEya granthas like IthihAsA and purAnA. Among these two, ithihAsA enjoys a greater authority since it is a documented history at the very time of its occurrence, as opposed to purAnAs which speak of histories that happened long time ago.

The shruti identifies the parabrahman as nArAyaNa only by using the chAga paShu nyAyA and the logic of the word ‘nArAyaNa’ being a proper noun. The mahOpanishad statement‘Eko ha vai nArAyaNa asIt, na brahma, nEshana’ differentiates nArAyaNa from Brahma and Rudra (Eeshana), who are mentioned to be absent during pralaya. The nArAyaNopanishad declares that Brahma and Rudra are born of nArAyaNa vide ‘nArAyaNa brahma jAyatE, nArAyaNa rudrO jAyatE’. The satapatha brahmaNa declares that Rudra is born of karma as he refers to himself as ‘anapahatapApmA’. Again, the nArAyaNa suktam declares Brahma and Rudra as vibhUtIs of nArAyaNa vide ‘sa brahma sa siva sEndra’.

The same nArAyaNa suktam also calls nArAyaNa as ‘Shambhu’ (vishwashambhuvam), ‘Siva’ (sivamachyutam), etc. This shows that terms like Shambhu, Siva, Rudra, etc are common nouns that denote nArAyaNa only. Hence, statements like ‘PurushO vai RudrO’ or ‘Siva eva kevalam’ denote nArAyaNa. The husband of pArvati is not denoted by these statements as his birth owing to karma is conclusively establuished by the vedA.

For a detailed proof, refer the section on Shri Rudram in this website.

The tAmasa purAnAs contradict the shruti completely. The story of Brahma and Vishnu unable to find the beginning or end of a flaming Linga as seen in the shiva purAnA and others is not only illogical, but finds no mention in shruti. On the other hand, the sAttvika purAnAs uphold that Brahma was born of nArAyaNa and Rudra was born to Brahma (and hence, born of nArAyaNa, the antaryAmin of Brahma) as well. 

To this, shaivas like Appayya Dikshitar have a unique argument which has now come to be known as the sadA shiva brahma vAdA. They state that the shruti vAkyAs ascribing a birth to Rudra are actually denoting the Rudra who is the samhAra karta, ie, the destroyer. There is a being known as ‘sadA shivA’ or ‘Rudra’ or ‘ParamEshwara’ who is above this Rudra, and also above Brahma and Vishnu. Hence, Brahma, Vishnu and the ‘samhAra rudra’ are born of this sadA shivA.

The above theory has zero basis in shAstrA. There is nothing indicating the existence of two different rudrAs in shruti and smriti. In shruti, nArAyaNa is identified as parabrahman and since this is a proper noun, it is impossible to postulate a ‘sadA shivA/ParamEshwara’ (which is a common noun) and ascribe the name of nArAyaNa to this being. Secondly, the smritis identify only one rudra, who is the husband of pArvati, who is blue necked and the dweller of kailAsA, and who was born of Brahma and who bears the Ganga flowing from the lotus feet of sriman nArAyaNa. There is no pramAnA for existence of two blue necked, pArvati patIs or two kailAsAs, one being born and the other being unborn.

Also, this division of ‘sadA shiva’ and ‘samhAra rudra’ involves 1) assuming the existence of two such rudrAs in the first place without any basis, 2) randomly ascribing vAkyas describing a birth to ‘samhAra rudra’ and statements glorifying parabrahman by the name of ‘rudra’ to ‘turIya shiva’, 3) Being unable to equate ‘sadA shivA’ to nArAyaNa, an assumption is made that nArAyaNa is lower to ‘sadA shivA’, which is quite baseless and contradicts shruti, 4) Failure to acknowledge shAstra attributing names like ‘rudra’, ‘shiva’, etc to nArAyaNa only. Thus, this theory is discarded.

Hence, it is established that the tAmasa purAnAs contradict shruti. Since wrong knowledge is a form of tAmas, these purAnAs are classified as ‘tAmasa purAnAs’.  

2) The tAmasa purAnAs contradict smriti 

We restrict ourselves to Gita, rAmAyaNa and mahAbhAratA by the name of ‘smriti’.

The gita clearly has vAsudeva krishNa declaring himself to be parabrahman. And we can also see that terms like ‘MahEshwara’ and ‘ParamEshwara’ are addressed to KrishNa only in the Gita. The tAmasa purAnAs which refer to Vishnu as a servant of Rudra, which belittle Vishnu’s sarvaj~natvam, sarvasaktitvam, etc contradict the Gita in many ways.

Next comes rAmAyaNa. The shiva purAnA has various stories of rAmA worshipping shiva to cure himself of a brahmahatya dosham he incurred by killing rAvana. The vAlmiki rAmAyaNa does not contain a single instance of rAmA worshipping shiva. Rather, the following two pramAnAs are found:

HanumAn tells rAvana thus: 

brahmaa vaa svayambhuuH chaturaananaH rudraa vaa triNetraH tripuraantakaHmahendraH vaa indraH suranaayakah na shaktaaH traatum raamavadhyamyudhi (~sundara khAnda – 51.45) 

Neither Brahma the self-existing god with four faces or Rudra with three eyes and the destroyer of Tripura or Mahendra the god of atmosphere and sky as also the lord of celestials would not be able to protect the one to be killed by Rama in battle." 

When neither Brahma, Rudra nor Indra can defeat rAmA, why should rAmA worship any of them?

When the dharma sAstras say that the killing of a brahmaNa is not a sin in battle, why would rAmA incur brahma hatya dosha by killing rAvana? We see that KrishNa himself ordered the killing of DronAchAryA. But neither the pAndavas, who lied that Ashwattama was dead, nor Drshtadyumna, who killed DronAchAryA, nor KrishNa paramAtmA, who ordered the killing, incurred brahma hatya dosha even though DronAchAryA was a brahmaNa. So, why would such a dosha occur in the case of rAvana?

Thus, the shiva purAnA and other tAmasa purAnAs claiming rAmA to have incurred brahma hatya dosha and worshipping Shiva contradicts vAlmiki rAmAyaNa.

The story of rAmA worshipping shiva is also found in some works like tulasidas rAmacharitmanas. However, vAlmiki rAmAyaNa is utmost pramAnA. No other rAmAyaNa is considered authentic if it deviates from vAlmiki maharishi’s observations. These other rAmAyaNas merely followed the tAmasa purAnAs in their storytelling.

The mahAbhArata also supports that Brahma and Rudra were born of nArAyaNa, vide shanti parva (12.328.5 onwards; refer section on shri rudram). pArvati pati is nowhere declared to be parabrahman. Epithets like Mahadeva, Devadeva etc are applied to pArvati pati on account of his greatness among the devas only.

An example of the deviation that the tAmasa purAnAs show from mahAbhArata can be seen in the instance of Tripura samhArA. We have already seen the inner meaning of Tripura samhArA in the section on shri rudram in this website. 

The shiva purAnA while describing the destruction of tripurA, states that Vishnu became the arrow, misled the asurAs and positioned the earth in the form of an ox because of his subservience to Rudra. However, this theory is completely contradicted by the mahAbhAratA, which states the following while describing the destruction of Tripura: 

The universe is similarly said to consist of Vishnu. Vishnu is, again, the Soul of the holy Bhava (Rudra) of immeasurable energy. For this the touch of that bow-string became unbearable to the Asuras.
In consequence, however, of the pressure caused by the weight of Soma, Agni, and Vishnu that were in that shaft, as also of the pressure caused by the weight of Brahman and Rudra and the latter's bow, that car seemed to sink. Then Narayana, issuing out of the point of that shaft, assumed the form of a bull and raised that large car.
(MahAbHArata, Karna Parva, Chapter 34) 

The relevant verses are given below: 

viṣṇuś cātmā bhagavato bhavasyāmita tejasaḥ 
tasmād dhanurjyā saṃsparśaṃ na viṣehur harasya te 

from the Shanti Parva of Mahabharata, and 

tato madhye divyashabdaH prAdurAsInmahIpate |
R^iShINAM brahmaputrANAM mahatAmapi bhArata ||3-133-62
sa eSha sha~NkarasyAgre ratho bhUmiM pratiShThitaH |
ajeyo jayyatAM prAptaH sarvalokasya pashyataH ||3-133-63

atha viShNurmahAyogI sarvatodR^ishya tattvataH |
vR^iSharUpaM samAsthAya projjahAra rathottamam||3-133-70

in the Tripuravadha Vrittanta chapter of the Bhavishya parva of Harivamsa (appendix to the Mahabharata).

Thus, the mahAbHArata clearly states that Vishnu was the Self, ie, the antaryAmin of Rudra and that was the reason why his bow had incomparable tejas. The various assistances such as nArAyaNa assuming the form of a bull etc are related to the parabrahman aiding the chEtana by his anugraham during bhakti yOgA, as explained in the section on Shri Rudram.

The shiva purAnA which states that Vishnu was subservient to Rudra during Tripura samhArA, clearly is against the mahAbHArata which states that Rudra accomplished the destruction of Tripura because Vishnu was his inner self, ie, antaryAmin. 

Thus, the tAmasa purAnAs contradict mahAbhArata as well.

The Gita, rAmAyaNa and mahAbHArata were composed by krishNa, vAlmiki and vyAsa respectively. The tAmasa purAnAs thus contradict the words of krishNa, vAlmiki and vyAsa. 

Since knowledge that contradicts whatever is taught by great authorities in authentic works is a form of tAmas, these purAnAs are classified as ‘tAmasa purAnAs’. 

3) The tAmasa purAnAs do not recommend proper brahma-jignyAsa 

The Sattvik Puranas always begin with a neutral question. For example, consider the Bhagavata Purana: 

Please, therefore, being blessed with many years, explain to us, in an easily understandable way, what you have ascertained to be the absolute and ultimate good for the people in general. (Bhagavata Purana) 

But now, consider the Skanda Purana: 

Please narrate to us the greatness of Lord Shiva, who carries a trident in his hand. We would like to hear about the merit achieved by worshiping him and meditating upon his pastimes. (Skanda Purana) 

As you can see, the Bhagavata begins with a question that is quite general, ie, what is the greatest good for all and then only goes on to talk about vAsudevA, the son of devaki. But in the Skanda Purana, the rishis asked a specific question, rather than a general one, and had a biased opinion about Shiva already in their mind, so they started with a question asking the greatness of Shiva rather than an unbiased enquiry of the ultimate truth. 

See the introduction to Shiva Purana, where the sages pose the question to Romaharshana: 

You have taught us a lot, but we are still not satisfied.  You have had the fortune of studying under Vedavyasa and there is nothing that you do not know, past, present or future.  Tell us about Shiva, we do not know very much about Shiva. (Shiva Purana) 

The same biased inquiry again. This proves that the nature of brahma jignyAsa in the tAmasa purAnAs is kuTarka and tAmasic as opposed to the sAttvika purAnAs. 

Since knowledge gained by a biased question is obviously biased and hence a form of tAmas, these purAnAs are classified as ‘tAmasa purAnAs’.  

4) The confusion of the tAmasa purAnAs 

The same tAmasa purAnAs that belittle Vishnu also contain statements like ‘In Sri Vaikunta, the supreme abode, the liberated serve the Lord and his devotees’ (shiva purAnA)’. Similar statements like ‘Achyuta is superior to Brahma and Rudra’ occur in other tAmasa purAnAs.

This shows that these purAnAs are confused with respect to the knowledge they advocate. They mix the right meanings of ShAstra (such as the above quotes) now and then with the largely tAmasic portions. In contrast, the sAttvika purAnAs like Vishnu and Bhagavata PurAnAs are consistent with respect to the supremacy of Vishnu.  

Since confusion arises from and is a form of tAmas, these purAnAs are classified as ‘tAmasa purAnAs’. 

%%% Note: In this context, I would like to point out the following extract from Madhva's Brahma Sutra Bhashya (Translation by Prof. Pandurangi) first adhyaya, first pada, first sutra (1.1.1) :

"Also in the Skanda Purana celebrating the supremacy of Siva, this is said:
'O, Undecaying One, the moment thou shouldst, in wrath, turn thy face away from them, Brahma, Isana, and other gods would be doomed to miseries worse than those inflicted upon the basest of the base';
and in the Brahma Vaivarta Purana which seeks to extol Brahma, it is said:
'Neither I nor Siva nor others can lay claim to even a small fraction of his power. As a child sports with its toys, so does Achyuta with us.'
And no such statement is to be found in the works declaring the supremacy of Vishnu,...   

5) Following the path of the wise with respect to the purAnAs  

The Bhagavad Gita states that it is not enough if the shAstra states something. One must first look to see if great personalities accept this and follow it in practice. Then, one must emulate such mahAtmAs.

In accordance to this, one can clearly see that Sri Adi Shankara has never used the tAmasa purAnAs in his bhAshyas as authority. 

%%% Note: By this, we mean that Adi Shankara, in his prasthAna traya bhAShyas where any discussion of the nature of Brahman is taken up, never uses the sections in Tamasa Puranas that celebrate the supremacy of Siva and others, such as Shankara Samhita, Suta Samhita, Shiva Gita, Shiva Sahasranama, Devi Mahatmya, etc. 

No vedAntin with the exception of Appayya Dikshitar (whose theories were soundly refuted) have ever given weight to the absurd stories contained in the tAmasa purAnAs nor given them authority. And nobody has opposed their decision to do so as well, which shows that such a practice was well accepted at that time as traditional. 

But this does not mean we must reject the tAmasa purAns wholly. They are authoritative so long as they do not contradict shruti.  

Puranas are classified into Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. The Rajas and Tamas puranas are not authentic because they are veda virodha. But this does not mean they are entirely to be rejected. There are often sattvik portions in rajasa and tamasa puranas which are accepted. Examples include the ones stated in point 4) of this article, such as praise of Vishnu as parabrahman as well as some portions such as Sri VenkatAchala mAhAtmyam and BrindAranya Kshetra mAhAtmyam in BrahmAnda purAna and others. Indeed, sri rAmAnuja, sri parAshara bhattar as well as srI mAdhva have quoted these sAttvic portions from the tAmasa purAnAs.

Similarly, the sAttvik puranas are not of the form of pure sattva, but only mishra sattva (sattva mixed with rajas and tamas). So, even the sAttvik puranas may contain a little amount of Rajas and Tamas. For instance, some chapters of Padma Purana are veda virodha. But for the greater part, that purana is sattvik. Since the tamasic and rAjasic portion of this purAnA are minimal, and sAttvik portion is greater, the purAnA is classified as ‘sAttvik’ overall.

This is also why Vishnu and Bhagavata Puranas are praised as the greatest of even the Sattvik puranas, because they are the most sattvik of all. The tAmasic/rAjasic content in them is almost nil. 

6) The position of the purAnAs and their validity  

The purAnAs have a lower position than the IthihAsA and Shruti. But they are accepted so long as they do not contradict the Veda and IthihAsA. 

The classification and the slokas that describe such a classification are not interpolations. They are genuine as can be seen from this article.

The reason for such tAmasa purAnas to exist is very simple. Our tradition is not like a school or college where everything is spoon-fed and force-fed to learners. Rather, the rishis acknowledge that there are different classes of people who adhere to certain convictions based on vAsaNa-s and karma-s. The vedA prescribes the syEna yaga for killing one’s enemies and bhagavan himself has misled asurAs as buddha. The Brahma SutrAs are not immediately crystal clear to all because they purposely hide the truths from unqualified people, thereby demanding a commentary tradition. Since people with certain inclinations would be unwilling to accept the ultimate truth straightaway, the venerable teachers have propagated even wrong knowledge such as anya devata arAdhana to ensure that these people do not fall into atheism and other worse paths, but atleast retain conviction in these anya devata and the wrong stories in the tAmasa purAnAs. Eventually, by the favour of these very devatas and mainly by the grace of Achyuta, they will come to a birth where they realise “vAsudeva sarvam idam”.

Therefore, the authority of the trifold classification of purAnAs is established.