Most of the Puranas contain portions of his -torical as well as geographical knowledge. Every Purana treats of five subjects,—the creation of the universe ; its progress, and the renovation of worlds ; the genealogy of gods and heroes ; chronology, according to a fabulous system ; and heroic history, containing the achievements of demigods and heroes. Since each Parana con tains a cosmogony, both mythological and heroic history, they may not unaptly be compared to the Grecian theogonies. In the present state of Hindu belief the Puranas exercise a very general influence. Some of them, or portiona of them, are publicly read and expounded by Brahmans to all classes of people. Most Brahmans. who pre tend to scholarship are acquainted with two or inoro of them ; and particular aections, as the Deva-Mahatmya, are amongst tho most popular works in the Sanskrit languages. Prayers from them have been copiously introduced into all the breviaries ; observances of feasts and fasts arr ' regulated by them ; temples and towns, and mountains aud rivers, to which pilgrunages are made, owe their sanctity to legends for which the Puranaa or the 31ahatroya.s--works asserted, often untruly, to be sections of them—are the only authorities, and texts quoted from them have validity in civil as well as religious law.
The Vishnu Parana is the most complete in the five distinguishing topics, Pancha-lakshana,—the creation of the universe, its destruction and renovation, the genealogy of gods and patriarchs, the reigns of the menus, forming the periods called Manwantaras, and the history of the Solar and Lunar races of kings. The other Puranas all deviate from these.
That the Puranas represent in many instances an older and probably a primitive scheme of Hinduism, is no doubt true : they have preserved many ancient legends, they have handed down all that the Hindus have of traditional history, and they furnish authoritative views of the essen tial institutions of the Hindus, both in their social and religious organization. But in their decided sectorial character, in their uncompromising advocacy of the pre-eminence of some one deity, or of some one of his manifestations, in the boldness with which they assert his pantheistic presence, in the importance they attach to par ticular observances, as fasting on the 8th, 11th, and 14th days of each half month, in the holiness with which they invest particular localities, in the tone and spirit of their prayers and hymns, and in the numerous and almost always frivolous and insipid and immoral legends which they have grafted upon the more fanciful, dignified, and significant inventions of antiquity, they betray most glaringly the puiposes for which they were composed,—the dissemination of new articles of faith, the currency of new gods.
There seem good reasons to believe that the Puranas in their present form accompanied or succeeded a period of considerable religious ferment in India, and were designed to uphold and extend the doctrines of rival sects, which then disputed the exclusive direction of the faith of the Hindus. It began, perhaps, in the 3d or 4th century of the Christian era, having for its object the extermination of the Buddhists, who were thus driven out of India to Ceylon, Siam, Java, China, and Tibet. When the Buddhists, whom all parties considered heterodox, were expelled, their enemies began to dispute amongst themselves. In the 8th or 9th century, a reformer named Sankaracharya is celebrated for having refuted and suppressed a variety of opposing pro fessors, and established the preferential worship of Siva. He instituted in support of his doctrines an order of ascetic mendicants which still subsists, and he is in an especial manner regarded as the founder of a system of belief adhered to by Brah mans of learning, particularly in the south of India. The triumph that he obtained for the deity he exclusively upheld did not long survive him. Early in the llth centuryNianianujar a follower of Vishnu, set up that divinity, noVonly for the belief of the people, but for the nacire substantial benefits of temples and endowments. Tradition records that the great temple of Triveni, one of the largest and richest in the Peninsula, now dedicated to Vishnu, was wrested from the rival votaries of Siva by Ramanuja and his followers. The ascendency of the Vaishnava was not un disputed in the south, and a new Saiva sect, the Lingayites, sprang up in opposition to them ; the contest was carried on with popular.violence, and in one of the disturbances that ensued, the raja of Kalyan was killed and his capital destroyed. The Muhammadan invasion of the south crushed both the contending parties, and the predominance of the same power in Upper India prevented the like violence of collision. The Vaishnava belief there spread with little resistance under the followers of Ramanand, a disciple of Ramanuja, to whom or to whose pupils the greater proportion of the mendicant orders in Hindustan owe their origin, and under two Brahmanical families, one in the west sprung from a teacher named Vallablia, who established themselves as hereditary priests of the juvenile Krishna, and one in Bengal and Orissa, descended from Nityanand and Adwait anand, two disciples of Chaitauya, a teacher with whom the popularity of the worship of Jaganath originated. A particular description of all the different divisions of the popular religion of the Hindus may be found in the 16th and 17th volumes of the Asiatic Researches.