THE MARKANDEYA PURANA
by Manmatha Nath Dutt
Introduction General Character: The different works known by the name of Puranas (or old) are evidently derived from the mytho-heroic stage of Hindu belief. They deal with five characteristic topics, which, as Mr. Colebrooke mentions are (1) Primary creation (2) Secondary creation (3) the Genealogy of gods and patriarchs (4) reigns of the Manus and (5) history or such particulars as have been preserved of the princes of the solar or lunar races and of their descendants to modern times. Siva and Vishnu, under one or other form, are almost the sole objects that claim homage of the Hindus in the Puranas. These are the characteristics of the Puranas as given by Amar Sinha, the great lexicographer. But the Puranas, which we see in the present, do not conform to this description. The reason is not far to seek. There has been a considerable addition of subject matter in the shape of interpolation. Sanskrit scholars in India never cared for their own name. But to preserve what is considered by one as his best production in letters is a human instinct. Thus we find fine literary compositions, emanating from the pens of Sanskrit Pundits, time to time shelved in the bulk of great literary works. These interpolations in the original body of a work, made at different periods, present it to us as a completely different book. It is for this reason we find so many heterogenous things in old Sanskrit works. Whatever may be the value of the Puranas as a history or a record of the knowledge of the ancient Hindus their importance as books of religious instruction is undoubtedly very great.
Style: The invariable form of the Puranas is that of a dialogue in which some person relates its contents in reply to the enquiries of another. This dialogue is interwoven with others which are repeated as having been held on other occasions between different individuals. The immediate narrator is commonly Lomaharshana, the disciple of Vyasa who is supposed to communicate what was imparted to him by his preceptor.
Division: The Puranas are commonly stated to be eighteen in number. It is said there are also eighteen Upa or Minor Puranas – but the names of all these are not found. The principal eighteen Puranas are Brahma, Padma, Vishnu, Saiva, Bhagavat, Naradiya, Markandeya, Agni, Bhavishya, Brahma Vaivarta, Linga, Varahar Skanda, Vamana, Kurma, Matsya, Garuda and Brahmanda.
All these Puranas are classed into three groups according to the qualities which prevail in them. The Matsya Puran remarks that those in which glory of Hari or Vishnu prevails are Satwika; those in which the legends of Agni or Siva predominate are Tamasa and those which dwell most on the stories of Brahma are Rajasa. The two representative works of the first group namely Vishnupuran and Bhagavatpuran we have already translated. Markandeya Puran, the subject of our present translation, is the representative of the last group. Truly does professor Wilson remark that the Rajasa Puranas lean to the Sakta division of the Hindus, the worshippers of Sakti or the female principle.
Contents of the Markandeya: “That Purana in which beginning with the story of the birds that were acquainted with right and wrong everything is narrated fully by Markandeya, as it was explained by holy sages, in reply to the question of the Muni, is called the Markandeya containing nine thousand verses.” This is the account given of it in the Matsya Puran. Although according to this account as well as that of other Puranas the original work is said to consist of nine thousand verses, the text, that is now seen, consists only of six thousand and nine hundred verses.
Date: It is very difficult to ascertain the date of these works. Internal evidence – Jaimini applies to Markandeya for an explanation of some of the incidents described in Mahabharata
– establishes the priority of the Mahabharata to the Markandeya Purana. This in not of a piece with the tradition, that having finished the Puranas Vyasa wrote the poem.
Authorship and antiquity: Markandeya Puran is classed in the same category with the Vedas and described as an immediate production from Brahma’s mouth. Although a Purana it is not attributed to Vyasa who is considered as the author of all works bearing that appellation. The Markandeya does not acknowledge him as its composer, editor or compiler. It claims equal honour with the Vedas themselves. It is clearly seen from the Bengal Manuscripts that the Markandeya presents a singular exception to this hackneyed enumeration of the eighteen Puranas and the celebration of Vyasa’s name as the author of them all.
Synopsis: The following is a synopsis of the work. When Markandeya was asked by Jaimini to explain some incidents in the Mahabharata he refers them to some birds living on the Vindhya mountain of a celestial origin and profoundly versed in the Vedas and the knowledge of spiritual truths. Jaimini accordingly goes to them and puts to them the following questions: “Why was Vasudeva born as a man? How was it that Draupadi was the queen of the five Pandavas? Why did Baladeva expiate Brahmanicide? And why were the children of Draupadi killed when they had Krishna and Arjuna to help them?” These are the some incidents – the missing links as it were in the Mahabharata – described in the first portion of this Purana. Besides its independent merit as a work of art imparting moral instructions it has an additional value of filling up the gap in the great epic.
Legend of Vitrasura’s death, Baladeva’s penance, Harishchandra’s ascension to heaven and the quarrel between Vishwamitra and Vasishtha are followed by a discussion regarding birth, death and sin. This is followed by a far more extensive account of hells. It gives a description of the Vedas and the origin of the patriarchal families. There is an account of the Manwantaras which is followed by a series of legends, some old and some new, relating to the sun and his prosperity continued to Vaivaswata Manu and his sons, terminating with Dhama, the son of Narisyanta.
Chandi: The most important section or the episode of the Markandeya Purana is the Chandipatha; a work in very great estimation throughout Bengal, with the votaries of the goddess Kali and other deities to whom sangunary sacrifices are offered. The title Saptasati or seven hundred is attached to it because it consists of seven hundred verses. The whole poem is a detail of the actions and transfigurations of the goddess during her dreadful combats with the demons and dark spirits for the mastery of the universe, which ends with the goddess annihilating their power and restoring the vanquished gods to their respective dominions.
Characteristics: This Purana has a character quite different from that of the other Puranas. It is entirely shorn of that sectarian spirit which is seen in other Puranas. There are rarely to be seen prayers and invocations to any deity. Its leading feature is narrative and it abounds in a number of beautifully written legends.