Puranas and evidence of pre-Aryan culture/history
I scanned some material from the second chapter in Danielou’s history of India. His views on the Indus civilization are beside the point.
Here a good student/scholar of Sanskrit literature simply assumes without agenda that the facts are telling him something about the sources of the Puranas.
It is a decisive, and unwitting, perception of the facts of the case in a Hindu fan a generation before the Aryan migration debate, which he would find incomprehensible.
What do we know about the Indus civilization? The principal documents furnished by archaeology are-besides objects of everyday use-engraved seals bearing images and written characters. Although the script, of which several different readings have been proposed, has not been definitively deciphered, some conclusions can be drawn about religion and culture. However, we may find many facts, mixed with mythological elements, in the ancient historical works of the Hindus-the Puranas (Ancient Chronicles) and the ltihasas (Legendary Accounts)-referring with certainty to a very ancient civilization that can only be the great Dravidian civiliza¬tion. A critical study of these texts, either transcribed from oral tradition or translated at a later date into Sanskrit from forgotten languages, makes it possible to gather a great deal of data on protohistorical India.
No literary document concerning the ancient Dravidian civiliza-
tion exists today in its original form. The ancient poems in the Tamil language, forming what is known as the first Sangam (Poets’ Club), are probably much later than the Vedic period, although according to Tamil tradition they are very ancient indeed. We do possess, ~wever, other sources of information that are important, though secondhand. We must not forget that the Vedic Indians were illiterate, which was certainly not the case of the inhabitants ofIndia previous to themY It was therefore inevitable that the development of Aryan culture should be almost entirely founded on the historical, religious, and scientific literature of their predecessors. Part of this literature survived the per¬secutions of many centuries, thanks to oral transmission. History and religion were kept alive by a special clerical class, similar to the Celtic bards. These depositories of sacred literature were known as Sutas. The Vttyu Purana (I, 31-32) explains the role of the Suta. “The suta’s duty, as understood by men of property in former times, was to preserve the genealogies of the gods, sages, prophets, and the most glorious kings, as well as the traditions of great men.” The Magadhas were another kind of bard, and all the Puranas agree in attributing the bardic insti¬tution to the “first king,” Prithu, who gave his name to the earth (Prithivi) .
Each development of Sanskrit thought has drawn on pre-Sanskrit sources. Late Vedic literature (1000 B.C.E.) provides many details of the elements of ritual, philosophy, and religion that come from this ancient culture. Its influence can also be found in the arts and sciences, medi¬cine, astronomy, and mathematics. Our greatest interest will, however, lie in the Puranas whose subject matter refers almost entirely to pre¬Aryan history, cosmology, and religion. In a phenomenon peculiar to India, texts, narratives, rites, and techniques that had remained hidden for centuries suddenly reappear quite ordinarily in life and culture at various periods, as though nothing had happened. The Puranas were translated into Sanskrit at a relatively late period, when the ancient Shaivite religion had been totally assimilated by Brahmanism. It is not
known from which language the Puranas were translated, but it was cer¬tainly an ancient Dravidian language, probably different from Tamil. There are, however, Tamil versions that in some cases are older than the Sanskrit ones. Orally-transmitted Puranas also exist in several Indian tongues among the Shaivite populations who are nowadays considered to be of lower caste.
The Puranas are vast works somewhat like the Bible, containing genealogies-of kings as well as dynasties of sages-going back to the sixth millennium B.C.E., together with information about wars, towns, customs, law, science, and the arts. There are eighteen main Puranas and eighteen secondary ones, some of which are of considerable bulk. The Skanda Purana alone has twenty volumes. Almost none of this literature has been translated into European languages, and it has been the subject of very little critical study. Some of the Puranas have not even been printed in their entirety. As far as the Puranas that belong to the oral tra¬dition are concerned, we know next to nothing about them.
Besides the Puranas, there also survive two great epic poems, the Itihasas (Legendary Accounts), called the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, both of which refer to events that occurred before or at the start of the Aryan invasions. Although they have been rewritten and adapted in Sanskrit, they too contain highly important information about pre-Vedic India. The Mahabharata alone comprises eighteen books. Its current form is considered to be a summary of a still larger work, traces of which can be found in the various oral versions or existing manuscripts.
The few studies made on the texts of the Puranas and Itihasas for the purpose of seeking information about pre-Aryan India have given inter¬esting results, among which the works of Pargiter and Heras must be mentioned. However, most of the critical work required to separate the original elements from later additions still remains to be done-and the task is immense. The Puranas contain numerous references to countries and civilizations outside India, located throughout the seven continents (sapta-dvipa) .
The texts of the Puranas were later adapted to make them conform to the theological conceptions of the Aryans, who considered the Vedas
as revealed texts representing the original source of all knowledge and all religion. Such adaptations, however, had little effect on the body of information contained in the Puranas. The extreme antiquity of these texts was recognized; the fact that Parashara, the narrator of the Vishnu purana, is deemed to be the grandson of the sage Vashishtha, who com¬posed the seventh chapter of the Rig Veda, is probably merely a justifica¬tion for including these texts-so profoundly non-Aryan in spirit-among the sacred literature of the Hindus. According to the Atharva Veda, Parashara was a contemporary of Parikshit, the famous king of the Aryan Kurus. The Atharva Veda (XI, 8, 7) speaks of “those who know the Puranas” as another way of saying “a scholar.”
Unlike the Vedas-the prerogative of a very limited priestl)” class-the Puranas were and have remained the basis of popular religious literature for all Indians except for the Mundas. They represent the ancient tradition, common to all the Indian peoples, that survived the Aryan invasion and eventually assimilated it. Some of the Puranas in their present form belonged to everyday literature in the fourth century B.C.E. Megasthenes quotes certain elements from them. In his Artha Shastra (fourth century B.C.E.), Kautilya advises the princes to read them. “These are the same Puranas that have existed since Vedic times . . . the contents of which are found almost exactly in the ancient parts of the existing Puranas.”28
The Puranas gradually incorporated later elements from various cul¬tures, including the Aryan culture, which is perfectly in accord with their character as historical books to which new chapters were ceaselessly added. This is why the great commentator of the Vedas, Sayana, men¬tions the history of Pururava and the nymph Urvasi as a typical example of the Purana literature. These two-who are mentioned in the Rig Veda (X, 95)-are considered to be the ancestors of the great race of the Ailas,