In the previous article I have written about the Upanishads and shown the method of seizing on their true and complete meaning. Like the Upanishads, the Puranas are authoritative scriptures of the Hindu dharma. Like the ‘Sruti’ (the audible word), the ‘Smriti’ (the divine word remembered) is an authoritative scripture though not of the same order. If there is any conflict between the ‘Sruti’, the direct evidence, on the one hand, and the ‘Smriti’ on the other, then the authority of the latter is inadmissible. The revelations of the Rishis who were accomplished in Yoga and endowed with spiritual insight, and the Word which the Master of the Universe spoke to their purified intelligence, constitute the ‘Sruti’. Ancient knowledge and learning, preserved through countless generations, is known as the ‘Smriti’. This kind of knowledge in transmission might have suffered change, even deformation through different tongues, various minds and, under altered conditions, might have been modified by new ideas or assumed new forms suitable to the needs of the times. Therefore, a ‘Smriti’ cannot be considered to be as infallible as a ‘Sruti’. The ‘Smriti’ is not a superhuman creation but the product of the limited and variable ideas and intelligence of man.
The Puranas are the most important among the ‘Smritis’. The spiritual knowledge contained in the Upanishads has, in the Puranas, been transformed into fiction and metaphors; we find in them much useful information on Indian history, the gradual growth and expression of the Hindu dharma, the condition of the society in ancient times, social customs, religious ceremonies, Yogic methods of discipline and ways of thinking. Apart from this, the composers of the Puranas are either accomplished yogis or seekers of Truth. The Knowledge and spiritual realisations obtained by their sadhana remain recorded in the respective Puranas. The Vedas and the Upanishads are the fundamental scriptures of the Hindu religion, the Puranas are commentaries on these scriptures. A commentary can never be equal to the original. My commentary may be different from yours but none of us have the right to alter or ignore the fundamental scripture. That which is at variance with the Vedas and the Upanishads cannot be accepted as a limb of the Hindu dharma; but a new idea even if it differs from the Puranas is welcome. The value of a commentary depends on the intellectual capacity, knowledge and erudition of the commentator. For example, if the Purana written by Vyasa were still existing, then it would be honoured as a ‘Sruti’. In the absence of this Purana and the one written by Lomaharshana, the eighteen Puranas that still exist cannot all be given the same place of honour; among them, the Vishnu and the Bhagwata Purana composed by accomplished yogis are definitely more precious and we must recognise that the Markandeya Purana written by a sage devoted to spiritual pursuits is more profound in Knowledge than either the Shiva or the Agni Purana.
The Purana of Vyasa being the source-book of the later Puranas, there must be, even in the poorest of them, much information unfolding the principles of the Hindu dharma and since even the poorest of the Puranas is written by a seeker of Knowledge or a devotee practising Yoga, the thought and knowledge obtained by his personal effort is worthy of respect. The division created by the English educated scholars who separate the Vedas and the Upanishads from the Puranas and thus make a distinction between the Vedic dharma and the Puranic dharma is a mistake born of ignorance. The Puranas are accepted as an authority on the Hindu dharma because they explain the knowledge contained in the Veda and the Upanishads to the average man, comment upon it, discuss it at great length and endeavour to apply it to the commonplace details of life. They too are mistaken who neglect the Vedas and the Upanishads and consider the Puranas as a distinct and self-sufficient authority in itself. By doing this, they commit the error of omitting the infallible and supernatural origin and of encouraging false knowledge, with the result that the meaning of the Vedas disappears and the true significance of the Puranas is also lost. The Vedas must ever remain the basis for any true understanding of the Puranas.
(Dharma, No. 17, December 1909)