Importance of Puranas in the Advaita tradition

Jaldhar H. Vyas jaldhar at BRAINCELLS.COM
Sun Apr 9 02:08:37 CDT 2000

On Sat, 8 Apr 2000, Ashish Chandra wrote:

> Namaste everyone,
> According to the Meemansakas, the Puranas are arthavAda. I believe reading
> in the book Hindu Dharma that Puranas are to be given just as much
> importance as the Vedas. Since Advaita tradition has traditionally endorsed
> the Meemansakas' (Purva meemansakas) position  of Puranas being arthavAda,
> how are the two to be reconciled? Our history is gleamed from the two
> Itihaasas. But Puranas too have sections devoted to history of sages and
> kings. Are these considered as arthavAda also that can be dismissed as
> non-history?

This in not exactly true.  The Puranas like the Vedas consist of vidhi
(commands to do something), nishedha (commands to not do something) and
arthavada which consists of explanations of vidhi and nishedha.  Insofar
as injunctions in the Puranas do not contradict the Vedas they are also

> It is often the contention of Hare Krishnas that Advaita is a false
> doctrine, based on some sections of the Padma Purana that they often quote.
> To that we say that Padma Purana is a late creation, most probably
> post-Shankara (or that it was wilely revised), and that the Vedanta
> tradition has relied more on the Upanishads and Vedanta Sutras than Puranas
> themselves, which are anyway considered arthavAda.

By coincidence a follower of the Hare Krishnas emailed
webmaster at making many of those types of arguments.  If
he agrees, I'll post his message and my reply.

On the subject of the Padma Purana, we have to be careful because the
Puranas are part of an oral tradition and are not 100% fixed.  However in
this case it is more obvious that there has been tampering because there
are several different recensions of the Padmapurana and only the one
prevalent in Bengal (which surprise, surprise is the homeland of the
Gaudiya tradition) has this damning evidence against Advaita.  Given the
number of opponents there have been of the "mayavada" why has noone else
noticed this smoking gun?

The specific contention they make is that according to that Purana, Shiva
bhagawan took birth as Shankaracharya to promulgate an "asat-shastra"
This is arthavada because it just provides a "historical" detail.  What is
the injunction it is refering to?  That we should not follow
Shankaracharyas teachings?  Apart from the fact that there is no such
wording anywhere, Advaita Vedanta is not valid because Shankaracharya was
an avatara.  Rather he is considered an avatara because he taught Advaita
Vedanta--the message of the eternal Vedas.

> This can possibly cause
> anyone to turn around and say that we don't believe in the position of the
> Purva Meemansakas regarding the Puranas and hence our objection to Advaita
> stands (no matter how incredibly superficial it may be e.g. some of the Hare
> Krishnas' arguments I have read against Advaita). Besides this is the book
> Hindu Dharma which teaches us to regard the Puranas as being authentic.

Actually Vedantins in general don't agree completely with the Mimamsaka
view.  The Mimamsakas went as far as to say The Upanishads are
also arthavada because they do not enjoin or prohibit actions.  Maharshi
Vyas discusses and refutes this view of Maharshi Jaimini in Brahmasutra
3.4.1-17 and says the threefold classification applies to the karmakanda
only.  As we are talking about karma (doing or not doing something) here
the Mimamsaka analysis applies.

That the Puranas are authentic or not is not the issue but whether they
should be considered authoritative.

> It is another thing to say that Puranas are arthavAda. But is that
> tantamount to saying that the stories in Puranas are not true? I do
> understand that for Advaita, this question of whether or not history is
> depicted in Puranas is of little relevance.

Exactly.  In light of the earlier discussions about fundamentalism it
should be observed a fundamentalist approach does not necessarily mean a
literalist one.  Our commentorial tradition is more subtle than that.  A
historical view *could* be taken of the shastras but that would not make
them any more or less valid.  It is what they say to do or not do which

> I also believe I have read that
> Puranas can cause moksha for those who are not qualified/authorized to study
> the Vedas. While one must not truly bother with things like the historicity
> of an event because faith should possibly suffice, I cannot but help
> thinking that should a doubt were to catch hold of me regarding anything
> that I have read in the Shastras, will that not be ultimately detrimental to
> my faith in the same, and will this not adversely affect my pursuit of Jnana
> and moksha?

If faith is built on unstable foundations it will inevitably become

> For example, when Sruti says that there was once a Dasharadanya
> war, I am to believe it.

Not necessarily, see below.

> However, when the Puranas talk of Raja
> Harishchandra, it is not necessary for me to believe that a person like Raja
> Harishchandra existed - it is enough that I get the message i.e. satyam
> vada. After all, the story of the hare and the lion is also arthavAda. If
> Puranas can also cause Moksha, then why not just take the position that
> Puranas are true when not in conflict with Vedas and false otherwise? Why
> call them arthavAda and leave open the possibility of a loss of faith in an
> aspirant? Sage Jaimini too considered the Upanishads as arthavAda but we
> don't endorse that position. Why this chasm?

There isn't a chasm.  Those portions of Shruti which apparently describe
historical events are arthavada too.  They are also described as itihasa
and purana and are treated exactly the same as the seperate works called
itihasa and purana.

Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at>

bhava shankara deshikame sharaNam

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