The Vishnu Purāṇa is one of the earliest of the eighteen major Purāṇas (“ancient stories”) revered by the Hindus. It is considered to be one of the most important Purāṇas and for this reason is referred to by the name Purāṇa-ratna, which means “Gem of Purāṇas.”
Like some of the other Purāṇas, the Vishnu Purāṇa is presented in the form of a dialogue, in this instance with the sage Parāśara teaching his disciple Maitreya how Vishnu, as the Supreme Being, takes care of his devotees and how one should evolve spiritually for the attainment of liberation.
For a more detailed overview please read the complete text of Vishnu Purāṇa by clicking on the links to chapters or you can read a more detailed overview of each of the 6 Books of Purāṇa below.
Translation of Vishnu Purāṇa done by Horace Hayman Wilson in 1840, edition by me.
Book I , verse ... 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22
Book II , verse ... 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
Book III, verse ... 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18
Book IV , verse ... 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24
Book V , verse ...1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38
Book VI , verse ... 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
The first book of the six, into which the work is divided, is occupied chiefly with the details of creation, primary (Sarga) and secondary (Pratisarga):
the first explaining how the universe proceeds from Prakriti or eternal crude matter; the second, in what manner the forms of things are developed from the elementary substances previously evolved, or how they reappear after their temporary destruction.
Both these creations are periodical; but the termination of the first occurs only at the end of the life of Brahma, when not only all the gods and all other forms are annihilated, but the elements are again merged into primary substance, besides which, one only spiritual being exists.
The latter takes place at the end of every Kalpa or day of Brahma, and affects only the forms of inferior creatures, and lower worlds; leaving the substance of the universe entire, and sages and gods unharmed.
The explanation of these events involves a description of the periods of time upon which they depend, and which are, accordingly, detailed.
The theogony and cosmogony of the Purāṇas, as they appear in the Vishnu Purāṇa, belong to and illustrate systems of high antiquity, of which we have only fragmentary traces in the records of other nations.
The structure of the elemental creation is, in the Vishnu, as in other Purāṇas, taken from the Sānkhya philosophy;
however it is declared, repeatedly, that Vishnu, the Supreme Being, is not only spirit, but also everything that exists – including crude matter and all visible substance, and Time. He is Puruṣa, ‘spirit’; Pradhāna, ‘crude matter’; Vyakta, ‘visible form’; and Kāla, ‘time’.
After the world has been created and fitted for the reception of living creatures, it is peopled by the will-engendered sons of Brahma, the Prajāpatis or patriarchs, and their posterity.
It would seem as if a primitive tradition of the descent of mankind from seven holy personages had at first prevailed, but that, in the course of time, it had been expanded into complicated, and not always consistent, amplification.
How could these Rishis or patriarchs have posterity? It was necessary to provide them with wives:
In order to account for their existence, the Manu Svāyambhūva and his wife Śatarūpā were added to the scheme; or Brahma becomes twofold, male and female; and daughters are then begotten, who are married to the Prajāpatis.
Upon this basis various legends of Brahma’s double nature, some, no doubt, as old as the Vedas, have been constructed.
Svāyambhūva, the son of the self-born or uncreated, and his wife Śatarūpā, the hundred-formed or multiform, are, themselves, allegories:
their female descendants, who become the wives of the Rishis, are Faith, Devotion, Content, Intelligence, Tradition, and the like; whilst, amongst their posterity, we have the different phases of the moon and the sacrificial fires.
In another creation, the chief source of creatures is the patriarch Dakṣa (ability), whose daughters-—Virtues, or Passions, or Astronomical Phenomena—are the mothers of all existing things.
These legends seem to admit of allowable solution, in the conjecture that the Prajāpatis and Rishis were real personages, the authors of the Hindu system of social, moral, and religious obligations, and the first observers of the heavens, and teachers of astronomical science.
The regal personages of the Svāyambhūva Manvantara are but few; but they are described, in the outset, as governing the earth in the dawn of society, and as introducing agriculture and civilization.
How much of their story rests upon a traditional remembrance of their actions, it would be useless to conjecture; although there is no extravagance in supposing that the legends relate to a period prior to the full establishment, in India, of the Brāhmanic institutions.
The legends of Dhruva and Prahlāda, which are intermingled with these particulars, are, in all probability, ancient; but they are amplified, in a strain conformable to the Vaishnava purport of this Purāṇa, by doctrines and prayers asserting the identity of Vishnu with the Supreme.
The second book opens with a continuation of the kings of the first Manvantara; amongst whom, Bharata is said to have given a name to India, called, after him, Bharata-Varṣā.
This leads to a detail of the geographical system of the Purāṇas, with mount Meru, the seven circular continents, and then surrounding oceans, to the limits of the world; all of which are mythological fictions, in which there is little reason to imagine that any topographical truths are concealed.
With regard to Bharata or India, the case is different:
The mountains and rivers which are named are readily verifiable; and the cities and nations that are particularized may, also, in many instances, be proved to have had a real existence.
The list is not a very long one, in the Vishnu Purāṇa, and is, probably, abridged from some more ample detail, like that which the Mahabharata affords.
The description which this book also contains of the planetary and other spheres, is equally mythological, although occasionally presenting practical details and notions in which there is an approach to accuracy.
The concluding legend of Bharata—in his former life, the king so named, but now a Brahman, who acquires true wisdom, and thereby attains liberation—is, palpably, an invention of the compiler, and is peculiar to this Purāṇa.
The arrangement of the Vedas and other writings considered sacred by the Hindus,—being, in fact, the authorities of their religious rites and belief,—which is described in the beginning of the third book, is of much importance to the history of Hindu literature and of the Hindu religion.
The sage Vyāsa is here represented, not as the author, but the arranger or compiler, of the Vedas, the Itihāsas, and Purāṇas:
His name denotes his character, meaning the ‘arranger’ or ‘distributor’; and the recurrence of many Vyāsas, many individuals who new-modelled the Hindu scriptures, has nothing, in it, that is improbable, except the fabulous intervals by which their labours are separated.
The rearranging, the refashioning, of old materials is nothing more than the progress of time would be likely to render necessary.
The last recognized compilation is that of Krishna Dvaipāyana, assisted by Brahmans who were already conversant with the subjects respectively assigned to them.
The remainder of the third book describes the leading institutions of the Hindus, the duties of castes, the obligations of different stages of life, and the celebration of mourning rites, in a short but primitive strain, and in harmony with the laws of Manu.
It is a distinguishing feature of the Vishnu Purāṇa, and it is characteristic of its being the work of an earlier period than most of the Purāṇas, that it enjoins no sectarian or other acts of supererogation:
no Vratas, occasional self-imposed observances; no holydays, no birthdays of Krishna, no nights dedicated to Lakshmi; no sacrifices or modes of worship other than those conformable to the ritual of the Vedas.
The fourth book of Vishnu Purāṇa contains all that the Hindus have of their ancient history:
It is a tolerably comprehensive list of dynasties and individuals: it is a barren record of events. It can scarcely be doubted, however, that much of it is a genuine chronicle of persons, if not of occurrences.
That it is discredited by palpable absurdities in regard to the longevity of the princes of the earlier dynasties must be granted; and the particulars preserved of some of them are trivial and fabulous.
Still, there is an inartificial simplicity and consistency in the succession of persons, and a possibility and probability in some of the transactions, which give to these traditions the semblance of authenticity, and render it likely, that they are not altogether without foundation.
At any rate, in the absence of all other sources of information, the record, such as it is, deserves not to be altogether set aside. It is not essential to its credibility, or its usefulness, that any exact chronological adjustment of the different reigns should be attempted.
Their distribution amongst the several Yugas finds no countenance from the original texts, further than an incidental notice of the age in which a particular monarch ruled,
or the general fact that the dynasties prior to Krishna precede the time of the Great War and the beginning of the Kāli age; both which events we are not obliged, with the Hindus, to place five thousand years ago.
To that age the solar dynasty of princes offers ninety-three descents, the lunar, but forty-five; though they both commence at the same time.
Some names may have been added to the former list, some omitted in the latter; and it seems most likely, that, notwithstanding their synchronous beginning, the princes of the lunar race were subsequent to those of the solar dynasty:
They avowedly branched off from the solar line; and the legend of Sudyumna, that explains the connexion, has every appearance of having been contrived for the purpose of referring it to a period more remote than the truth.
Deducting, however, from the larger number of princes a considerable proportion, there is nothing to shock probability in supposing, that the Hindu dynasties and their ramifications were spread through an interval of about twelve centuries anterior to the war of the Mahabharata,
and, conjecturing that event to have happened about fourteen centuries before Christianity, thus carrying the commencement of the regal dynasties of India to about two thousand six hundred years before that date.
The circumstances that are told of the first princes have evident relation to the colonization of India, and the gradual extension of the authority of new races over an uninhabited or uncivilized region. It is commonly admitted, that the Brāhmanic religion and civilization were brought into India from without.
Certainly, there are tribes on the borders, and in the heart of the country, who are still not Hindus; and passages in the Rāmāyaṇa, and Mahabharata, and Manu, and the uniform traditions of the people themselves, point to a period when Bengal, Orissa, and others were inhabited by degraded or outcaste, that is, by barbarous, tribes.
The most adventurous emigrations, however, took place through the lunar dynasty, which, as observed above, originates from the solar; making, in fact, but one race and source for the whole.
Besides these traces of migration and settlement, several curious circumstances, not likely to be unauthorized inventions, are hinted in these historical traditions:
The distinction of castes was not fully developed prior to the colonization. Of the sons of Vaivaswata, some, as kings, were Kṣatriyas; but one founded a tribe of Brahmans, another became a Vaiṣya, and a fourth, a Śūdra.
It is also said, of other princes, that they established the four castes amongst their subjects.
There are, also, various notices of Brāhmanic Gotras or families, proceeding from Kṣatriya races; and there are several indications of severe struggles between the two ruling castes, not for temporal, but for spiritual, dominion, the right to teach the Vedas.
This seems to be the especial purport of the inveterate hostility that prevailed between the Brahman Vasiṣṭha and the Kṣatriya Viśvāmitra, who, as the Rāmāyaṇa relates, compelled the gods to make him a Brahman also, and whose posterity became very celebrated as the Kauśika Brahmans.
Other legends, again, such as Dakṣa’s sacrifice, denote sectarian strife; and the legend of Paraśurāma reveals a conflict even for temporal authority, between the two ruling castes.
After the date of the great war, the Vishnu Purāṇa, in common with those Purāṇas which contain similar lists, specifies kings and dynasties with greater precision, and offers political and chronological particulars to which, on the score of probability, there is nothing to object.
In truth, their general accuracy has been incontrovertibly established: Inscriptions on columns of stone, on rocks, on coins have verified the names of races and titles of princes—the Gupta and Andhra Rajas, mentioned in the Purāṇas—and have placed beyond dispute the identity of Chandragupta and others; thus giving us a fixed point from which to compute the date of other persons and events.
The fifth book of the Vishnu Purāṇa is exclusively occupied with the life of Krishna:
This is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Purāṇa, and is one argument against its antiquity.
It is possible, though not yet proved, that Krishna, as an Avatara of Vishnu, is mentioned in an indisputably genuine text of the Vedas. He is conspicuously prominent in the Mahābhārata, but very contradictorily described there.
There are, however, no descriptions, in the Mahabharata, of his juvenile frolics, of his sports in Vrindāvana, his pastimes with the cow-boys, or even his destruction of the Asuras sent to kill him -
These stories have, all, a modern complexion; they do not harmonize with the tone of the ancient legends, which is, generally, grave, and sometimes, majestic. They are the creations of a childish taste and grovelling imagination.
These chapters of the Vishnu Purāṇa offer some difficulties as to their originality. They are the same as those on the same subject in the Brahma Purāṇa: they are not very dissimilar to those of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa:
The latter has some incidents which the Vishnu has not, and may, therefore, be thought to have improved upon the prior narrative of the latter. On the other hand, abridgment is equally a proof of posteriority as amplification.
The simpler style of the Vishnu Purāṇa is, however, in favour of its priority; and the miscellaneous composition of the Brahma Purāṇa renders it likely to have borrowed these chapters from the Vishnu Purāṇa.
The life of Krishna in the Hari Vamśa and the Brahma Vaivarta are, indisputably, of later date.
The last book of Vishnu Purāṇa contains an account of the dissolution of the world, in both its major and minor cataclysms; and, in the particulars of the end of all things by fire and water, as well as in the principle of their perpetual renovation, presents a faithful exhibition of opinions that were general in the ancient world.
The metaphysical annihilation of the universe, by the release of the spirit from bodily existence, offers, as already remarked, other analogies to doctrines and practices taught by Pythagoras and Plato, and by the Platonic Christians of later days.
The Vishnu Purāṇa has kept very clear of particulars from which an approximation to its date may be conjectured. No place is described of which the sacredness has any known limit, nor was any work cited of probable recent composition.
The Vedas, the Purāṇas, other works forming the body of Sanskrit literature, are named; and so is the Mahabharata, to which, therefore, it is subsequent.
Both Buddha and Jainas are mentioned in it. It was, therefore, written before the former had disappeared. But they existed, in some parts of India, as late as the twelfth century, at least; and it is probable that the Purāṇa was compiled before that period.
The Gupta kings reigned in the seventh century. The historical record of the Purāṇa which mentions them was, therefore, later: and there seems little doubt that the same alludes to the first incursions of the Mohammedans, which took place in the eighth century; which brings it still lower.