Why not study the Vedas or the Vedānta-sūtras instead of the Purāṇas?

The Vedas are four- Ṛg , Yajur , Sāma , and Atharva. The Vedas alone are accepted as apauruṣeya – without human origin and hence a valid means to acquire knowledge of that which is beyond the material world.

What is the status of the Purāṇas and Itihāsas ? Are they part of the Vedas or separate? If they are outside of the Vedas, how can they be authentic? If they are part of the Vedas, then what is the need to study them separately? Why not study the Vedas themselves? Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī has examined these questions in some detail in the Tattva Sandarbha, and Śrī Babaji’s commentary is particularly helpful, as discussed below.

What works constitute the four Vedas?

First, the four Vedas mentioned above actually are divided into further branches. Śrī Babaji cites the Kūrma Purāṇa to show that Śrī Vyāsa’s followers divided the four Vedas into 1,130 branches:

eka-viṁśati-bhedena ṛg-vedaṁ kṛtavān purā
śākhānāṁ tu śatenaiva yajur-vedam athākarot
sāma-vedaṁ sahasreṇa śākhānāṁ prabibheda saḥ
atharvāṇam atho vedaṁ bibheda navakena tu

Long ago, the Ṛg Veda was divided into 21 branches, the Yajur Veda into 100 branches, the Sāma Veda into 1,000 branches, and the Atharva Veda into 9 branches. (Kūrma Purāṇa , Pūrva 52.19–20)

Each of the branches of each Veda is further divided into four parts called Saṁhitā, Brāhmaṇa, Āraṇyaka, and Upaniṣad. So strictly speaking, the word ‘Veda’ refers to 1,130 Saṁhitās, 1,130 Brāhmaṇas, 1,130 Āraṇyakas, and 1,130 Upaniṣads.

Why not study the Vedas or the Vedānta-sūtras?

Śrī Jīva writes in Anuccheda 12 of the Tattva Sandarbha-

tatra ca veda-śabdasya samprati duṣpāratvād duradhigamārthatvāc ca tad-artha-nirṇāyakānāṁ munīnām api paraspara-virodhād veda-rūpo vedārtha-nirṇāyakaś cetihāsa-purāṇātmakaḥ śabda eva vicāraṇīyaḥ | tatra ca yo vā veda-śabdo nātma-viditaḥ so’pi tad-dṛṣṭyānumeya eveti samprati tasyaiva pramotpādakatvaṁ sthitam | tathā hi mahābhārate mānavīye ca—itihāsa-purāṇābhyāṁ vedaṁ samupabṛṁhayet [ma.bhā. 1.1.267] iti | pūraṇāt purāṇam iti cānyatra | na cāvedena vedasya bṛṁhaṇaṁ sambhavati | na hy aparipūrṇasya kanaka-valayasya trapuṇā pūraṇaṁ yujyate |

Because at present it is difficult to study the Vedas in their entirety, and because their meaning is highly abstruse — and further yet, because even the great thinkers who have commented on the meaning of the Vedas interpret them in contradictory ways, we should study only the Itihāsas and Purāṇas, since they are Vedic in nature and are conclusive in determining the meaning of the Vedas. Moreover, with the help of the Itihāsas and Purāṇas we can infer the meaning of the unavailable portions of the Vedas. Thus, at present, only the Itihāsas and Purāṇas are the appropriate sources of valid knowledge.

Only about 11 Saṁhitās, 18 Brāhmaṇas, 7 Āraṇyakas, and 220 Upaniṣads are currently available. This constitutes less than 6% of the original Vedas. Śrī Jīva’s point is clear- the Vedas, not being present in their entirety, are very difficult to study in their completeness.

Another problem he notes is that their meaning is difficult to understand. The Sanskrit of the Vedas is very difficult and requires learning extra vocabulary and rules of grammar, which in itself means years of study. Indeed, before studying them, one is supposed to study their six “limbs,” called Vedāṅgas. These six limbs are as follows:

  • śikṣā – pronunciation
  • kalpa- the process of performing sacrifice
  • vyākaraṇa – grammar
  • nirukta – meanings of difficult words used in the Vedas and their derivations
  • jyotiṣa – the influence of the planets on human actions related to dharma
  • chandas – Vedic meters.

Each of these limbs requires serious study.

Why not study the Vedānta-sūtras then, which are considered the final word on the Vedas? Śrī Jīva notes that the Vedānta-sūtras are explained differently by different commentators. Because they are very terse, it is difficult to ascertain which meaning is intended by their author.

But despite all this, the question remains- why study the Purāṇas at all? As they are different from the Vedas, how can they be considered valid means of knowledge about transcendence?

The Purāṇas are apauruṣeya

Śrī Jīva cites the the Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad to show that the Purāṇas are also apauruṣeya or without a human author, and therefore, a valid means of transcendental knowledge:

ṛg-ādibhiḥ samam anayor apauruṣeyatvenābhedo mādhyandina-śrutāv eva vyajyate evaṁ vā are’sya mahato bhūtasya niśvasitam etad yad ṛg-vedo yajur-vedaḥ sāma-vedo’tharvāṅgirasa itihāsaḥ purāṇaṁ [bṛ.ā.u. 2.4.10] ity ādinā

Mādhyandina-śruti implies the oneness of the Itihāsas and Purāṇas with the Ṛg and other Vedas in terms of the transhuman [ apauruṣeya ] nature all these works share: “My dear Maitreyī, the Ṛg , Yajur , Sāma , and Atharva Vedas , as well as the Itihāsas and Purāṇas, all appear from the breathing of the Supreme Being” ( BAU 2.4.10

The Purāṇas can be thought of as supplementary works that explain the meaning of the cryptic and terse Vedas.

The Purāṇas are the fifth Veda

Some Mīmāṁsakas claim that the words Purāṇa and Itihāsa do not refer to separate works but to specific passages in the four Vedas. They further suggest that these passages were lost with time, and so Śrī Vyāsa compiled new works which are available to us as the modern-day Purāṇas and Itihāsas. In Anuccheda 13, Śrī Jīva refutes this by citing verses that the Purāṇas are the ‘fifth’ Veda. Śrī Jīva cites some of these:

itihāsa-purāṇāni pañcamaṁ vedam īśvaraḥ |
sarvebhya eva vaktrebhyaḥ sasṛje sarva-darśanaḥ || [bhā.pu. 3.12.39] iti |

Then the all-seeing Lord Brahmā brought forth the fifth Veda — the Purāṇas and the Itihāsas — from all his mouths. ( SB 3.12.39)

api cātra sākṣād eva veda-śabdaḥ prayuktaḥ purāṇetihāsayoḥ | anyatra ca—purāṇaṁ pañcamo vedaḥ | itihāsaḥ purāṇaṁ ca pañcamo veda ucyate [bhā.pu. 1.4.20] | vedān adhyāpayāmāsa mahābhārata-pañcamān [ma.bhā. 12.340.11] ity ādau |

And elsewhere it is said, “The Purāṇas are the fifth Veda,” “The Itihāsas and Purāṇas are called the fifth Veda” ( SB 1.4.20 ), and “He taught the Vedas along with the fifth of their number, Mahābhārata ” ( MB 12.340.21).

ṛg-vedaṁ bhagavo’dhyemi yajur-vedaṁ sāma-vedam ātharvaṇaṁ caturtham itihāsaṁ purāṇaṁ pañcamaṁ vedānāṁ vedaṁ

Another reference is found in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad of the Kauthumīya School of the Sāma Veda : “Venerable Sir, I have studied the Ṛg , Yajur , Sāma , and Atharva Vedas, and also the Itihāsas and Purāṇas, which are the fifth Veda” ( Kauthumīya Chāndogya Upaniṣad 7.1.2).

Śrī Jīva notes,

If the Itihāsas and Purāṇas were not Vedic, it would have been inappropriate for the preceding verses to include them as the fifth Veda, since normally one counts together only items of the same kind.

In Anuccheda 14, Śrī Jīva further explains that the Purāṇas are derived from the original Yajur Veda. Thus, there is no question that the Purāṇas are Vedic, because the Vedas themselves, in several places, explicitly state that this is so.

The Purāṇas are also different from the four Vedas

Can the Purāṇas not be considered as just part of the four Vedas then? No, because they are referred to as the fifth above, but also because they are considered part of Smrti and not Śruti. That is, the word order of the Purāṇas is not fixed, unlike the Vedas which have a fixed word order. In fact, special techniques have been developed to ensure there is no deviation in the word order of the Vedas, such as pada-pāṭha , krama-pāṭha , ghana-pāṭha , and jaṭā-pāṭha. The word order or sequence in the Purāṇas is allowed to change from yuga to yuga. We have examined some of this in a previous article.

Further, the four Vedas are written in Vedic Sanskrit, which necessarily involves three different tonal accents: udātta (high), svarita (intermediate), and anudātta (low). The meaning of a word can be changed if the accent is changed. This is seen in the example of Vṛtra, who was generated by the chanting of a mantra ( indra-śatro vivardhasva ) during a sacrifice. Vṛtra was supposed to kill Indra, but during the sacrifice the priests pronounced the mantra with the wrong accent. The result was just the opposite of what was intended — Indra killed Vṛtrāsura.


  • The Purāṇas are different from the four Vedas
  • They have the same origin as the Vedas and are therefore apauruṣeya
  • They act as a supplement to the Vedas and are referred to as the fifth Veda
  • As the vast majority of the Vedas are now lost, the Purāṇas show the way today

Categories: Epistemology

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4 replies »

  1. Some sects do say Purāṇas are symbolic. In other words stories of Purāṇas aren’t real ………. What about that !

  2. It has been seen that these five things only partly form the contents of the Puranas handed down to us. Whereas some contain much more than what is included in the five characteristics, others scarcely touch upon these subjects, but deal with quite different things. What is especially significant of almost all Puranas is their sectarian character, i e. their being dedicated to the cult of some god or other, of Lord Vishnu or Lord Shiva, is completely ignored by the old definition.

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