The Vishnu Purana is one of the eighteen Mahapuranas, a genre of ancient and medieval texts of Hinduism.
It is an important Pancharatra text in the Vaishnavism literature corpus.
The manuscripts of Vishnu Purana have survived into the modern era in many versions. More than any other major Purana, the Vishnu Purana presents its contents in Pancalaksana format – Sarga (cosmogony), Pratisarga (cosmology), Vamśa (mythical genealogy of the gods, sages, and kings), Manvañtara (cosmic cycles), and Vamśānucaritam (legends during the times of various kings).
Some manuscripts of the text are notable for not including sections found in other major Puranas, such as those on Mahatmyas and tour guides on pilgrimage, but some versions include chapters on temples and travel guides to sacred pilgrimage sites.
The text is also notable as the earliest Purana to have been translated and published in 1864 CE by HH Wilson, based on manuscripts then available, setting the presumptions and premises about what Puranas may have been.
The Vishnu Purana is among the shorter Purana texts, with about 7,000 verses in extant versions. It primarily centers around the Hindu god Vishnu and his avatars such as Krishna, but it praises Brahma and bn and asserts that they are one with Vishnu.
Out of Vishnu this universe has arisen,
in him its exists,
he is the one who governs its existence and destruction,
he is the universe.—Vishnu Purana, 1.14
The Purana, states Wilson, is pantheistic and the ideas in it, like other Puranas, are premised on the Vedic beliefs and ideas.
Vishnu Purana, like all major Puranas, attributes its author to be sage Veda Vyasa. The actual author(s) and the date of its composition are unknown and contested.
Estimates range of its composition range from 1st millennium BCE to early 2nd-millennium CE. The text was likely composed and rewritten in layers over a period of time, with roots possibly in ancient 1st-millennium BCE texts that have not survived into the modern era. The Padma Purana categorizes Vishnu Purana as a Sattva Purana (Purana which represents goodness and purity).
Vishnu Purana opens as a conversation between sage Maitreya and his guru, Parashara, with the sage asking, “what are the nature of this universe and everything that is in it?”
First aṃśa: cosmology
The first Amsha (part) of Vishnu Purana presents cosmology, dealing with the creation, maintenance and destruction of the universe. The mythology, states Rocher, is woven with the evolutionary theories of Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy.
The Hindu god Vishnu is presented as the central element of this text’s cosmology, unlike some other Puranas where Shiva or Brahma or goddess Shakti are.
The reverence and the worship of Vishnu are described in 22 chapters of the first part as the means for liberation, along with the profuse use of the synonymous names of Vishnu such as Hari, Janardana, Madhava, Achyuta, Hrishikesha, and others.
The chapters 1.16 through 1.20 of the Vishnu Purana presents the legend of compassionate and Vishnu devotee Prahlada and his persecution by his demon king father Hiranyakasipu, wherein Prahlada is ultimately saved by Vishnu. This story is also found in other Puranas.
Vishnu is described in the first book of Vishnu Purana as, translates Wilson, all elements, all matter in the world, the entire universe, all living beings, as well as Atman (soul) within every living being, nature, intellect, ego, mind, senses, ignorance, wisdom, the four Vedas, all that is and all that is not.
Second aṃśa: earth
The second part of the text describes its theory of earth, the seven continents, and seven oceans. It describes mount Meru, mount Mandara, and other major mountains, as well as Bharata-Varsha (literally, the country of Bharata) along with its numerous rivers and diverse people.
The seven continents are named Jambu, Plaksha, Salmala, Kusha, Krauncha, Saka and Pushkara, each surrounded by different types of liquids (salt water, fresh water, wine, sugarcane juice, clarified butter, liquid yogurt, and milk).
This part of the Vishnu Purana describes spheres above the earth, planets, the sun, and the moon. Four chapters (2.13 to 2.16) of the second book of the text present the legends of King Bharata, who abdicates his throne to lead the life of a sannyasi, which is similar to the legends found in section 5.7 to 5.14 of the Bhagavata Purana.
The geography of Mount Mandara as east of Mount Meru, presented in this book and other Puranas, states Stella Kramrisch, may be related to the word Mandir (Hindu temple) and the reason of its design, “image, aim, and destination”.bb
Third aṃśa: time
The initial chapters of the third book of the Vishnu Purana present its theory of manvantaras, or Manus-ages (each equals about 4.3 million years).
This is premised upon the Hindu belief that everything is cyclic, and even Yuga (era, ages) start, mature and then dissolve. Six manvantaras, states the text, have already passed, and the current age belongs to the seventh.
In each age, asserts the text, the Vedas are arranged into four, it is challenged, and this has happened twenty-eight times already. Each time, a Veda-Vyasa appears and he diligently organizes the eternal knowledge, with the aid of his students.
After presenting the emergence of Vedic schools, the text presents the ethical duties of the four varnas in chapter 2.8, the four Ashrama (stages) of the life of each human being in chapter 2.9, the rites of passage including wedding rituals in chapters 2.10 through 2.12, and Shraddha (rites in honor of ancestors, faith) in chapters 2.13 through 2.16.
The Vishnu Purana asserts that the Brahmin should study Shastras, worship gods and perform libations on behalf of others, the Kshatriya should maintain arms and protect the earth, the Vaishya should engage in commerce and farming, while the Shudra should subsist by profits of a trade, service other varnas and through mechanical labor.
The text asserts the ethical duties of all varnas is to do good to others, never abuse anyone, never engage in calumny or untruth, never covet another person’s wife, never steal another’s property, never bear ill-will towards anyone, never beat or slay any human being or living being.
Be diligent in the service of the gods, sages, and guru, asserts the Purana, seek the welfare of all creatures, one’s own children and of one’s own soul.
Anyone regardless of their varna or stage of life, who lives a life according to the above duties is the best worshipper of Vishnu, claims the Vishnu Purana. Similar statements on ethical duties of man are found in other parts of Vishnu Purana.
The text describes in chapter 2.9, the four stages of life as brahmacharya (student), grihastha (householder), vanaprastha (retirement) and sannyasa (renunciation, mendicant).
The text repeats the ethical duties in this chapter, translates Wilson. The chapters on Shraddha (rites for ancestors) describe the rites associated with death in the family, the preparation of the dead body, its cremation and the rituals after the cremation.
The third book closes with the legend of Vishnu, through Mayamoha, helping the Devas win over Asuras, by teaching the Asuras heretical doctrines that deny the Vedas, who declare their contempt for the Vedas, which makes them easy to identify and thereby defeat.
Fourth aṃśa: dynasties
The fourth book of the text, in 24 long chapters, presents mythical royal dynasties, starting with Brahma, followed by solar and lunar dynasties, then those on earth over the Yugas (eras), with Pariksit asserted as the “current king“.
The text includes the legends of numerous characters such as Shaubhri, Mandhatri, Narmada, sage Kapila, Rama, Nimi, Janaka, Buddha, Satyavati, Puru, Yadu, Krishna, Devaka, Pandu, Kuru, Bharata, Bhisma and others.
Fifth aṃśa: Krishna
The fifth book of the Vishnu Purana is the longest, with 38 chapters. It is dedicated to the legend of Krishna, as an avatar of Vishnu.
The book begins with the story of Krishna’s birth, his childhood pranks and plays, his exploits, his purpose of ending the tyranny of the demon-tyrant king of Mathura, named Kansa.
The Krishna story in the Vishnu Purana is similar to his legend in the Bhagavata Purana, in several other Puranas and the Harivamsa of the Mahabharata.
Scholars have long debated whether the Bhagavata Purana expanded the Krishna legend in the Vishnu Purana, or whether the latter abridged the version in former, or both depended on the Harivamsa estimated to have been composed sometime in the 1st millennium of the common era.
Sixth aṃśa: liberation
The last book of the Vishnu Purana is the shortest, with 8 chapters. The first part of the sixth book asserts that Kali Yuga is vicious, cruel and filled with evilness that creates suffering, yet “Kali Yuga is excellent” because one can refuse to join the evil, devote oneself to Vishnu and thus achieve salvation.
The last chapters, from 6.6 to 6.7 of the text discusses Yoga and meditation, as a means to Vishnu devotion. Contemplative devotion, asserts the text, is the union with the Brahman (supreme soul, ultimate reality), which is only achievable with virtues such as compassion, truth, honesty, disinterestedness, self-restraint and holy studies.
The text mentions five Yamas, five Niyamas, Pranayama and Pratyahara. The pure and perfect soul is called Vishnu, states the text, and absorption in Vishnu is liberation.
The final chapter 6.8 of the text asserts itself to be an “imperishable Vaishnava Purana“.