Saturday, September 30, 2023

Shiva Purana, Vol.1, tr. by Bibek Debroy

Shiva Purana, Vol. 1, tr. by Bibek Debroy

Shiva Purana, Vol, 1 is the first of a three-volume unabridged English translation of the Shiva Purana, accompanied by more than one-thousand explanatory footnotes. 

In the corpus of religious texts in Hinduism, the Puranas are classified as smritis (remembered texts), as opposed to the Vedas, that are classified as shruti (those that are heard and divine and timeless in origin). Purana literally means old. They are encyclopaedia texts on many, many topics. Specifically, a Purana is supposed to cover five topics—sarga (cosmogony), pratisarga (cosmology), vamsha (genealogy), manvantara (cosmic cycles), and vamshanucharitam (accounts of royal dynasties). 

There are eighteen major Puranas, also called Maha Puranas. There are minor, or upa, Puranas, and then there are local, or sthala, Puranas that are devoted to sites of religious importance. The Shiva Purana is, interestingly enough, sometimes not counted as one of the 18 major Puranas, mostly on account of the fact that much of this purana is also to be found in Vayu Purana. However, the Shiva Purana is counted as a maha Purana in most enumerations. 

Unlike the Vishnu Purana, for which no unabridged translation in the English language had been done since HH Wilson’s in the 19th-century, at least two English translations of the unabridged Shiva Purana exist—by J.L. Shastri in 1970 and Shanti Lal Nagar in 2007. Bibek Debroy’s is the third such unabridged translation and is based on the Sanskrit edition published by Nag. Unlike the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, for which Critical Editions exist from the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune and the Oriental Institute of the M.S. University of Baroda, respectively, there is none for the Puranas. Hence the decision to stick with one publisher’s editions for the Puranas is perhaps the most practical option. 

 The 2nd chapter of the 2nd samhita, Vidyeshwara, tells us something about the Shiva Purana. It originally had one lakh verses contained in 12 samhitas, which Vyasa abridged to 24,000 in 7 samhitas (collections). Seven samhitas survived this editing—Vidyeshwara Samhita; Rudra Samhita, with Srishti, Sati, Parvati, Kumara, and Yuddha Khandas (divisions); Shata Rudra Samhita; Koti Rudra Samhita; Uma Samhita; Kailasha Samhita; and Vayaviya Samhita, divided into a Purva Bhaga (first part) and Uttara Bhaga (latter part). Volume 1 ends with the end of Parvati Khanda. The five samhitas that have been lost—Vainayaka, Matri, Rudraikadasha, Sahasrakotirudra, and Dharmasamja. 

For most Puranas, the actual number of extant shlokas is less than what tradition ascribes. For instance, tradition ascribes 23,000 shlokas to the Vishnu Purana. However, most manuscripts today have between 6,000 and 7,000 shlokas. It is therefore somewhat remarkable that the present version of the Shiva Purana contains 24,000 shlokas—as described in the Purana itself. 

The Shiva Purana tells us that the Purana corpus itself had one billion verses, but these were abridged to four lakh verses by Krishna Dvaipayana and other Vedavyases, contained within the eighteen maha Puranas. As is the structure of the Puranas, there is a primary narrator. In the case of the Shiva Purana, it is Romaharshana, one of Vyasa’s disciples. The text progresses through questions and answers. For instance, in response to a question from the sages on the nature of manana (thinking), shravana (listening), and keertana (chanting), Brahma replies and opines that manana is the highest form of devotion, followed by keertana, and then shravana. 

 Puranas tend to have verses that glorify the text and the God they are primarily written for. In that same vein, the entire essence of Vedanta is said to be contained in the Shiva Purana (Ch 2, Samhita 2), and the text describes itself as greater than other Puranas, mantras, peethas, donations, and kshetras. If you have ever wondered why many Gods are worshipped in their various forms, while Shiva is worshipped in both his form and as a lingam, the Shiva Purana, unsurprisingly, gives the answer (Ch 5, Samhita 2). Briefly, it is because Shiva alone is described as nishkala (without form), where he is worshipped as a lingam. As a sakala (with form) God, he is worshipped in the form of his image. Like in the Vishnu Purana, there is a lament about Kaliyuga here also, where Vyasa bemoans to Romaharshana that brahmanas have taken to selling the knowledge of the Vedas, the kshatriyas are more interested in running away than fighting, while the Vaishyas are given to indulging in trade malpractices. 

 Each Purana is also classified based on the deity it primarily praises—Brahma, Vishnu, or Shiva. The Shiva Purana is, unsurprisingly, a Shaivite purana. It however reveres all Gods. In Rudra Samhita, Parvati Khanda, Ch 49, the Gods say that Brahma is the rajasic form, Vishnu the sattvic form, and Rudra the tamasic form of Shiva. One of the early stories detail a dispute between Brahma and Vishnu. Brahma is often described as having emerged from Vishnu’s navel in the form of a lotus. From this arises a dispute over the relative supremacy of the two Gods. To stop this escalation, Shiva manifested himself as an infinite column of fire. Vishnu took on the form of a boar and decided to get to its bottom while Brahma took the form of a swan and went upwards. Vishnu returns, unsuccessful. Brahma, meanwhile, persuades a ketaki flower falling down to bear witness in front of Vishnu that Brahma had ascended the pillar’s peak. An enraged Shiva proclaims that Brahama would not henceforth be worshipped on account of this mendacious act. As for the ketaki flower, it is cursed to never be used to worship Shiva. 

 The Shiva Purana covers several topics, and one such is the days of the week. Most will know that each day of the week is associated with a particular deity or figure—Sunday is known as Ravi vaara, associated with the Sun God, while Thursday (Brihaspati vaara) and Friday (Shukra vaara) are named after the preceptors of the Gods and Asuras, respectively. The Shiva Purana tells us there is another naming convention that also existed (Ch 14, 2nd Samhita)—after Shiva, Kumara, Vishnu, Brahma, Indra, Yama, and Aditya. For each day was also assigned different Gods and Goddesses to worship, using different objects. Much of the first volume dwells on a detailed account of Shiva’s marriage to Uma, the reasons for their separation and Uma’s decision to forsake her body, her rebirth as Parvati, and her marriage to Shiva is presented in the Sati and Parvati Khandas of Rudra Samhita. 

 Bibek Debroy tells us that the Shiva Purana is a difficult text to translate, read, and understand because of its coverage of several concepts like Shakti, the rituals and practice of Shaiva dharma, the five aspects of Shiva—Sadyojata, Vamadeva, Aghora, Tatpurusha, and Ishana, and several other topics. Nevertheless, the unabridged text is as good a way of getting introduced to these concepts as any. 

 This being an unabridged translation, there is not much scope for interpretation, discourse, or commentary. Hence explanatory footnotes. This first volume itself has more than one thousand such footnotes; some brief, some running into several lines. By having them as footnotes, rather than endnotes, their utility is substantially enhanced. Second, there is a greater use of Sanskrit words than in earlier translations. These are, for lack of a better word, untranslatable in English, like the word dharma, which is sometimes inaccurately and incompletely translated as duty. For example, avadhuta is used as-is, but is accompanied by an explanatory footnote. The same is the case with tarka-mudra, or guhyakas, who are semi-divine species and companions of Kubera, and so on. 

 As with his previous translations of the Puranas (Bhagavad Purana, Markandeya Purana, Brahma Purana, Vishnu Purana), Bibek Debroy’s translation of the Shiva Purana is written in an easy-to-understand language, with copious footnotes, and marked by a scrupulous attention to consistency in the use of terms. The greater use of Sanskrit terms that do not have an exact or reasonably accurate translation in English is eased for the reader through the use of explanatory footnotes. For those looking for a distortion-free, unabridged translation of the Shiva Purana, this is highly recommended.

Book details:
Publisher‏: ‎ Penguin Classics (29 May 2023)
Language: ‎ English
Paperback: ‎ 738 pages
ISBN-10: ‎ 0143459694
ISBN-13: ‎ 978-0143459699

This review was first published on News18 on 25th September, 2023.

© 2023, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.