Stories from the Puranas which have been described by A.K. Ramanujam as ‘encyclopaedias of Hindu mythology’7 have been part of children’s lore since time immemorial. Purana literally means ancient and the eighteen Puranas contain knowledge of ancient historical and religious traditions. They explain the teachings of the Vedas and were meant for the common man. Veda-Vyasa is acclaimed as their author because Purana Samhita (collection of the Puranas) developed under Parasarya Badrayan who belonged to the charan or academy of which Veda-Vyasa was the founder teacher. However, they must have been compiled by many authors. F.E. Pargiter, author of Ancient Indian Traditions, dates them to the beginning of the fifth century B.C. Most of the present versions of the Puranas belong most likely to the Gupta era when much patronage was given to literature and the arts. The oldest are the Matsya, Brahmand and Vayu. The Bhagawat Purana is considered especially important because it contains stories from the life of Krishna.
Containing 400,000 shlokas, the Puranas have documented important historical information like the genealogies of rulers, the relations between the various Indian states, the names of medieval rulers and the Muslim invasions. The Bhagawat Purana even mentions the coming of the British (goranda). These stories explain scientific truths and the evolution of man, the development of civilization and ethical behaviour. That larger issues were at the back of the authors’ mind is demonstrated by the fact that an attempt has been made to create a composite society by displaying a spirit of tolerance, by for example, mentioning Buddha and Parsva as incarantions of Vishnu. The Puranas also detail other subjects of religious interest like explaining the significance of holy places and rivers. But they were not what is defined as ‘closed literature’ like the Vedas and Upanishads. They were a part of oral literature, meant to be recited to the masses by the Sutas and were consequently flexible and could change form during their narration.
Rich in fantasy, the Puranic myths did hold listeners enthralled. Who could resist stories about gods and goddesses, their followers and worshippers, demons and other beings with supernatural powers strong enough to challenge the gods, the forces of nature? They contain stories like the myth of creation by Brahma, that of the great flood which is common to many cultures, having been mentioned in the Bible and the Koran and also by the Sumerians. The story of the Dasavatar or the ten incarnations of Vishnu, is another important myth. Then the churning of the ocean, the birth of the Ganga, Prahlad and Hirayankashipu, Yayati, Kacha and Sukracharya, Devyani and Sharmishta and countless other myths and legends are all to be found in the Puranas. These stories have been told and retold again and again to children and still remain favourites. Furthermore, while the above stories are rooted in Hindu religious beliefs, their strong story element has led to their receiving wide exposure through various mediums. Thus they have become part of the collective cultural consciousness of Indian children belonging to other religions as well, who are almost equally familiar with them.