Are the Puranas unreliable because they have so many different versions?
Transcription by– Keshavgopal Das & Ambuj Gupta
Question: Because there some many versions in the puranas, is it that the knowledge in puranas is not authentic at all?
Answer: If we take that argument then we are actually taking a position that has not been taken by any of the acharyas. Not just Vaishnava acharyas but even Shankaracharya did not reject the puranas. We may not consider him as top most authority, but even he quotes from puranas in his writings. He may have put the mahavakyas as the highest, that is his hermeneutical strategy. That is his strategy for interpreting or understanding scripture. But he also doesn’t reject that.
Even at the time of the acharyas, if we look at their commentary they do talk about different versions but they do not take the position that the whole body of wisdom has to be rejected. Why is that? It is because if we look at the puranas in general the extent of the interpolation or the variation depends on the rarity or the popularity of the puranas. Something is very obscure purana and then only one-two manuscripts are available then the possibility of change is far greater. If we look at in almost fifteen hundred years ago, Shankaracharya’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita and we look at the Bhagavad Gita today. It’s almost the same. Only difference is 13.1 in the Shankaracharya’s Gita there may not be that verse.
But today in terms of message of Bhagavad Gita there is no difference that happens. That a question just gives a context for why Krishna suddenly starts talking about kshetra and kshetragya . It makes more sense in terms of the flow of the subject but it doesn’t change the message at all. Some people may minimize the Gita as smriti because it comes in the Mahabharata but Gita has remained remarkably consistently same. For a book not to have variation in fifteen hundred years is significant achievement.
Same way if we look at the Srimad Bhagavatam, the Bhagavatam is among the few puranas that have had commentaries in it. The Bhagavatam itself has dozens of commentaries. Many of the puranas not had even single commentary. Specially where the puranas have been commented on then they get preserved more carefully because apart from manuscripts the commentary is also preserved by the followers of particular teachers. In general, the fact that the commentary is written indicates the importance of purana and according to importance things are also preserved. Therefore to see categorically that there are some variations, the puranic body of knowledge is not valid. It is making too big negative generalization from a small fact. It’s like somebody saying that science got some mistake, some calculation wrong or some theory wrong therefore whole science is invalid. It doesn’t work like that. Yes, within the Vedic tradition shruti is considered to be a revelation and smriti is considered to be realization or recollection. So traditionally shruti is considered to be authoritative but smriti is also more authoritative contextually because smriti clarifies the meaning of the shruti. These two bodies of knowledge are not contradictory, they are complimentary and both help illuminate meaning of each other.
Unfortunately because of some content of the smritis is seemingly unacceptable for some people today. But this sort of criticism has not come among the traditional scholars. Specially in Bengal the renaissance started in nineteen hundreds, so when the Indian political leaders started using spirituality as a tool to unify India against British rule so at that time they felt that the Upnishads are much more unifying because they don’t talk sectarian topics. The puranas are divisive because they talk about sectarian ______. This argument has not come primarily from the scriptural study itself. It has come from the social context and it has come because scriptures seem to militate against a particular social strategy that’s seemed feasible at that particular time. This sort of argument is giving higher priority to the social context then the spiritual integrity of the scriptures.
Madhvacharya argues in Vishnu Tattva Nirnaya that the one of fundamental principles veda eka vakyata, the Vedas have one consistent message. The Vedas, the puranas they all have one consistent message.
To summarize, firstly, essentially this argument is not taken by acharyas. Second is argument that comes from a social context which gives the contemporary far more importance than traditional. Thirdly, it goes from a small problem to very big generalization, to a big rejection based on a small problem and that would render large body of knowledge like science as untenable. Lastly, there are puranas, especially those that are commented on where there is significant amount of consistency. Therefore although we may not have full accuracy but there is a large amount of accuracy by which the overall import of these puranas becomes clearer. Thank you.