A vexing issue for many is the fact that the different scriptures indicate different beings as the Supreme. For example, Śiva purāṇa states Śiva as the supreme, while Viṣṇu purāṇa states Viṣṇu as the supreme. The Devi Bhāgavata mentions Devi as the supreme. Which purāṇa is to be believed? The simple solution for many is to accept advaita-vāda, which states that quality-less Brahman is the supreme reality. Advaita-vāda does away with all designations altogether, and its non-sectarian solution appeals to many. None of the different persons mentioned in the purāṇas are supreme; they are all illusions of māyā in the ultimate sense.
Śrī Jīva Goswami does a thorough analysis of this question in the Tattva Sandarbha and later in the Paramātmā Sandarbha which we examine here.
There are three types of purāṇas
In anuccheda 17 of the Tattva Sandarbha, Śrī Jīva shows that the Matsya purāṇa classifies all the well-known purāṇas into three divisions.
sāttvikeṣu ca kalpeṣu māhātmyam adhikaṁ hareḥ || rājaseṣu ca māhātmyam adhikaṁ brahmaṇo viduḥ | tadvad agneś ca māhātmyaṁ tāmaseṣu śivasya ca | saṅkīrṇeṣu sarasvatyāḥ pitṝṇāṁ ca nigadyate ||
The sāttvika purāṇas (kalpas) primarily glorify Hari; the rājasika purāṇas, Brahma, and the tāmasika purāṇas, Śiva and Durgā, along with Agni. The purāṇas in the mixed guṇas glorify Sarasvatī and the forefathers (Matsya purāṇa, 53.64, 67-68).
The list of the three types of purāṇas is given in the Padma purāṇa by Śrī Śiva (cited in Paramātmā Sandarbha Anuccheda 16) –
“O beautiful lady, know that the Viṣṇu, Nārada, Bhāgavata, Garuda, Padma and Varāha purāṇas embody the perspective born of sattva-guṇa; the Brahmāṇḍa, Brahma-Vaivarta, Mārkandeya, Bhaviṣya, Vāmana, and Brahma purāṇas embody the perspective born of rajo-guṇa; and the Matsya, Kūrma, Liṅga, Śiva, Skanda and Agni purāṇas embody the perspective born of tamo-guṇa. (Padma Purana, Uttara-khanda, 236.18-21).
Only the sattvic purāṇas give complete knowledge
In Anucccheda 18 of the Tattva Sandarbha, Śrī Jīva cites the Gītā which states that “knowledge is born of sattva-guṇa” (14.17) and the Bhāgavata purāṇa which states, “sattva-guṇa leads to realization of the Absolute Truth” (SB 1.2.24). He concludes that the purāṇas in sattva-guṇa are more authentic sources of knowledge of the Absolute Truth. And of the sāttvika purāṇas, the Bhāgavata purāṇa is the supreme. Śrī Jīva establishes this last point with an extensive analysis in the Tattva Sandarbha, which I will not get into here.
The rājasic and tāmasic purāṇas are not inauthentic
Does this mean that the rājasic and tāmasic purāṇas are inauthentic? Śrī Jīva replies that this is not so in Bhagavat Sandarbha Anuchheda 30. The rājasic and tāmasic purāṇas relate events from rājasa and tāmasa kalpas. The purāṇas that establish Viṣṇu as Supreme relate stories from the sāttvika kalpas. In the rājasa and tāmasa kalpas, Viṣṇu appears in the corresponding guṇas, and the particular purāṇa glorifies Him accordingly. Thus, the rājasic and tāmasic purāṇas are not imaginary but relate events as they actually occurred. However, complete and authentic knowledge is only found in the sāttvika purāṇas.
There are three types of purāṇas. An unbiased analysis shows that purāṇas in sattva guṇa alone give authentic knowledge; as such, placing one’s belief in sāttvika purāṇas is not at all sectarian. In all non- sāttvika kalpas, Viṣṇu Himself appears bearing names such as Śiva and so on. As such, the purāṇas describing events from these kalpas are not inauthentic; but they are also not capable of giving a complete vision of the Absolute Truth.