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What is the difference between Vedas, Upanishads, and Puranas?

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  • suyash95 9 days ago | +0 points

    What is the difference between Vedas, Upanishads, and Puranas?

    Sorry guys this is going to be a long one since this issue keeps on cropping up.

    There are three broad categories of Indic spiritual literature.

    • Primary sources which are truly VAIDIK are the Samhitas, Aranyakas, Brahmanas and Upanishads – PERIOD.
    • Secondary sources are the Dharma Shastras
    • Tertiary sources are 18 Puranas and Itihasas (Ramayana and Mahabharata).

    The primary VAIDIK (Vedic) literature consisting of Samhitas, Aranyakas and Brahmanas are “closed canon” which means nothing can be added to them. The Upanishads were open till the middle ages. And the Puranas have been added to and expanded for over 2000 years.

    So we have the orthodox canon of Upanishads known as Vedānta:–

    Major Upaniṣads

    Aitareya, Kauśitaki, Taittiriya, Kaṭha, Maitri, Bṛhadaraṇyaka, Śvetāśvatara , Īśa, Chāṇḍogya, Keṇa, Muṇḍaka, Māṇḍukya, Praśna.

    Then Upanishads kept on being authored and these are the

    Minor Upaniṣads which are not as authoritative as the major Upanishads.

    Ātma-bodha, Nāda-bindu, Nārāyaṇa, Sarva-sāra, Amṛta-bindu, Tejo-bindu, Skanda, Śārīrikā, Garbha, Kali-santarana, Yoga-tattva, Amṛta-nāda, Varāha, Yoga-kuṇḍali, Muktika, Nirālamba, Paingala, Adhyātma, Subala, Tāra-sāra, Bhikṣuka, Haṃsa, Maṇḍala-brahmaṇa, Maitreya, Vajra-sūci, Dhyāna-bindu, Nārada-parivrājaka, Śaṇḍilya.

    There is even an Allopanishad!


    Those who argue that the Puranas and itihasas are “VEDIC” literature base their case on the following statement from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4;10

    ……. niḥśvasitam etad yad ṛg-vedo yajur-vedaḥ sāma-vedo’tharvāṅgirasa itihāsaḥ purāṇaṁ vidyā upaniṣadaḥ ślokāḥ sūtrāṇy-anuvyākhyānāni ….

    Everything that is of that nature and everything that is capable of being connected with Vedic knowledge, such as the Itihasas, Puranas, Vidya, all arts and all branches of learning, secret teachings, verses and poetic compositions, aphorisms, commentaries, anything that you can call knowledge, in whatever way, whatever manner, whatever form - all that is contained there. Everything has come from there (prana).

    And in the Shatapatha 11:5:6:8,9 we have the following statements:–

    And, verily, the precepts (Anuśāsāni), the sciences (vidyāḥ), the dialogues (vākovākyam), the traditional myths and legends (itihāsa-purāṇa) and the accounts of men (Nārāśamsī Gāthās) are honey-offerings to the gods; ……

    And he who, knowing this, studies these day by day he satisfies the gods by dishes of milk and meat; and, being satisfied, they satisfy him by every object of desire, by every kind of enjoyment.


    Śayana the greatest and most renown of Vedic commentators offers the folowing commentary:–

    • Anuśāsāni — are the six Vedāṅgas, or rules of grammar, etymology, etc.
    • vidyāḥ — are the 6 classical philosophical systems and other forms of knowledge related to architecture, archery etc.
    • vākovākyam — special theological or discourses, similar to (if not identical with) the numerous Brahmodya, or disputations on spiritual matters.
    • Itihāsa-purāṇa — the Itihāsa, according to Sāyana, are cosmological myths or accounts, such as— 'In the beginning this universe was nothing but water,' etc.; whilst as an instance of the Purāṇa (stories of olden times, purātana-puruṣa-vṛttānta) he refers to the story of Purāravas and Urvaśī as well as stories of the Vedic Gods like Agni, Indra, Soma et al.
    • Nārāśamsī Gāthās – stories and legends about great men like Janamejaya, Parikshit etc..

    Are the itihasas and Purāṇas mentioned in these verses the same texts we have today?

    The answer is NO. The Vedic yajñas were long affairs drawn out over days, weeks, months and even years. During the intervals in the ritual procedures and in the evenings they would entertain the congregation by telling stories about creation (itihāsa) why? Because the whole function of the yaña was an identification and participation in the Cosmic Cycle of rebirth and renewal.

    The yajna puruṣa (Personification of the yajna) is Vishnu – who is, as is well known, the Preserver, the conserver of the Cosmos. During the yajña one of the priests would take three steps – this would then be explained through the Solar myth of Vishnu taking three steps according to the Veda Samhitā Bhāga.

    One of the central and essential acts of the yajña was the production of fire through churning (agni-manthana). In the evening they would tell the story of the Churning of the Ocean (Samudra-manthana) – one of the most important of all the Hindu myths, as entertainment and a teaching tool.

    So this is how Itihasas and Puranas began as a few simple stories – which, over the course of thousands of years were expanded, transformed into different versions and ceaselessly added to and exaggerated, until we got 18 Mahapuranas and 18 Minor Puranas, all contradicting each other, full of weird and wonderful stuff most of which is colourful rhetoric, all attributed to one Veda-vyāsa – which is a title for “The Compiler” and not a single individual as some may claim.


    The primary function of these two categories of literature is to elaborate and expand upon the esoteric and philosophical statements and doctrines of the Upanishads (Vedānta).
    They were also meant for popularising the teaching of these doctrines to the common people (non-brahmins). Hence every sort of additional subject matter was added to the Puranas turning them into encyclopeadias.

    This is how this system works.

    • A Vedic (Chāṇdogya 3;14:1) dictum:— sarvam khalvidam brahma — All this is indeed Brahma (or Brahman).

    No further explanation is given, so questions arise:–

    What is meant by ALL (sarvam)? And what is The Immensity (Brahma).

    So in one of the later Upanishads, the Nārayaṇa Upaṇiṣad we find the following interpretation given.

    Then Narayana is eternal. Brahma is Narayana. Siva is Narayana. Indra is Narayana. Time is Narayana. Space is Narayana, the intermediate quarters also are Narayana. That which is above is Narayana. That which is below is Narayana. That which is within and that which is without is Narayana. The entire Universe which existed and that which will exist is Narayana. Narayana is the only One that is immaculate, sinless, changeless, indescribable, pure and divine. There is no second. Whosoever knows Him thus, becomes Vishnu.

    So here the BRAHMAN of the Veda is called Nārāyaṇa which means:– nara = all sentient beings and insentient matter, ayana = the ground of. (cf Taittiriya Upanisad Bhriguvalli for definition of Brahman).

    • Now let’s look for a similar explanation in the Puranas, and we find the following in Vishnu Purana Book 2 Chap 12: 36

    From the waters, which are the body of Vishnu, was produced the lotus-shaped earth, with its seas and mountains. The stars are Vishnu; the galaxies are Vishnu; forests, mountains, regions, rivers, oceans are Vishnu: he is all that is, all that is not. He, the lord, is identical with consciousness, through which he is all forms, but is not a substance. You must recognise therefore that the mountains, oceans, and all the diversities of earth and the universe, are illusions of apprehension.

    Now we have Nārāyaṇa equated with Vishnu whose name means “All-pervading consciousness”. The conclusion being, Brahman = Nārāyaṇa = Viṣṇu — all three terms refer to the One undivided Universal consciousness from which the entire cosmos has emerged.

    • So this verse of the Vishnu Purana is considered as AUTHORITATIVE because it confirms and explains a Vedic verse.

    Now all the other legends and narratives about the Creator Brahma arising from Vishnu’s navel, splitting into two, conjugating with his other half Sarasvati and creating the world etc. etc. are all myths, they are simply stories which convey ideas and doctrine to the common people in an entertaining and memorable way — they have no value in and of themselves but only in so far as they are related to the core teaching of the Vedānta.


    No legend or narrative from the Itihasas and Puranas has any authority in informing doctrine, unless it conforms to a statement found in the Upaṇiṣads. If it does, then we accept it – if not we can either reject it or retain it for entertainment purposes. So rather than confusing yourself with reading all the complicated and convoluted myths of the Puranas rather focus your intellectual energy on taking up the study of Vedānta.

    The gateway to the study of Vedanta is the BHAGAVAD GITA which is the essence of the Upaṇiṣads, and the three major and classical commentaries on the Gita are by the three Vedāntāchāryas.

    • Śankaracārya for the Advaita (Non-dual) version.
    • Rāmanujācārya for the Visiṣṭhādvata (qualified non-dual) version
    • Madhvācārya for the Dvaita (Dual) version.

    So let’s all just shelve the Purāṇas and focus on the core teachings of the Vedas.

  • suyash95 9 days ago | +0 points

    What is the difference between Vedas, Upanishads, and Puranas?

    Vedas & Upanishads

    Traditionally, there are about 12 Upanishads that form integral part of some Veda samhitA, brAhmaNam or AraNyakam. So tradition considers Upanishads as Vedic texts. When AcAryas wrote commentaries they quoted Upanishads, calling them Veda or Shruti. Upanishad refers to a particular form of secret teaching found in the prose part of the Veda.

    So you see, most of these Upanishads are prose texts that naturally form part of the other Vedic prose texts, the brAhmaNas and AraNyakas. These prose texts have always been considered as the first commentaries on the Veda samhitAs (i.e. the metrical verses). The prose texts form an integral part of the definition of a Veda.

    The word “upaniShat” itself means a secret or hidden meaning. This would not make sense unless there is something else that the Upanishad is referring to. In other words, what is the Upanishad an inner meaning of? The answer is: Veda samhitA mantras. The existence of the Upanishad implies the pre-existence of the Veda samhitA, of which the Upanishad is said to be the hidden meaning. So the Upanishad is an integral part of the Veda to fully understand the meaning of the Veda.

    It cannot be said that the Upanishad came later than the Veda samhitA. The assumption is that the “original” came before the “commentary” as is usually seen in the world. However, if you look at the Krishna Yajur Veda, the Taittiriya samhitA is already a mixture of verse and prose. So the “original” and the “commentary” go hand-in-hand like a convenient guide book. So the discussions recorded in the Upanishads were most probably happening at the same time that the rishis were composing the mantras that went into the Veda samhitAs. This is why Taittiriya Upanishad says, “eShA vedopaniShat (एषा वेदोपनिषत्)” — “This is the secret meaning of the Veda”.

    The arrangement into separate parts is only for convenience of study and application.

    To give a modern analogy, the Veda samhitA is like the chemistry textbook, with the theoretical expositions and the chemical equations. The commentaries (brAhmaNam, AraNyakam, upaniShat) are like notes and special instructions given by the professor only in the chemistry lab when doing experiments. Without reading the textbook, a student cannot go and do experiments in the lab. But, without the special instructions in the lab to do the experiments, the student will not understand the theories in the textbook. Both of them go hand-in-hand. Similarly, Veda samhitA and Upanishad go hand-in-hand.

    In summary, Upanishad is a particular section of Veda, and hence the entire corpus can be termed ‘Veda’.


    The relationship of Vedas to Puranas and Smritis is like that of Gangottari (Himalayan source) to the Ganga flowing through the plains:

    Without the source in the Himalayas starting out as ultra-pure and crystal clear icy water in a small concentrated stream, the big, wide turbulent river flowing through the plains to the sea wouldn’t exist.

    On the contrary, not everyone has the capability to climb the Himalayas to go and drink the ice cold water at Gangottari. Most people know Ganga only as the warm wide flowing water conveniently located beside holy towns where they can have a quick dip and feel purified.

    The crystal clear and ultra-pure water from the Gangottari cannot be diverted for irrigation, and has not yet created fertile land with alluvium. But it carries the clay and minerals on its way and deposits them where it can be most useful to most people.

    The water at Gangottari is pure because it is the melt of snow which comes from water evaporated, purified in the atmosphere and returned back to the Himalayas. It is less accessible. But when the same water collects and becomes this wide, warm accessible river at Prayag, more people use it for bathing and washing and dumping garbage. But its very accessibility is the cause for addition of extra stuff in it.

    I hope this elaborate metaphor is clear enough.

    The Vedas contain the fundamental core truths of Hinduism in very concentrated and focused form. It is the record of the expression of esoteric and highly symbolic statements of rishis who strove for enlightenment and vision of the ultimate truth. As such they are very difficult to understand and can be very easily misinterpreted. They require understanding of the archaic Vedic language, along with commentaries and Nirukta, but also “shraddha”, i.e. the trust that they have something of value. Clearly, the majority of people do not have the time, interest or capacity to directly learn from the Vedas.

    The Puranas, Itihasas and Smritis adapt and adopt the concentrated Vedic doctrines and make them accessible to a wider audience. They use more recent language styles that are less esoteric and symbolically loaded so that their meaning is easy to understand. They use stories and narratives to explicitly state the fundamental doctrine or symbolically hint at truths. They include popular ways of worship and make use of common human emotions and relationships to teach wider life lessons about righteous living. There is no doubt that Puranas and Itihasas have a core of authentic history. There is also no doubt that they have fantastical stories and exaggerated tales but these always have an end in a lesson.

    They are our traditional encyclopedias, into which all useful sundry was added over time. Just like encyclopedias, their information is partial and introductory. They include material from all branches of knowledge of ancient India such as architecture, civil engineering, metallurgy, medicine, poetry, drama, music, dance, eroticism, painting, sculpture, agriculture, animal husbandry, etc. They may have material that may be outdated for us in terms of application, but they show us the core of Hindu culture and knowledge. They are not to be despised or denigrated.

    The Vedas (shruti) and Puranas/Itihasas (smRti) maybe two categories of texts, but they are closer to each other than any other two pieces of literature. The smRtis worship the Vedas as the breath of the Supreme Spirit (यस्य निःश्वसितं वेदाः यो वेदेभ्योऽखिलं जगत् निर्ममे — yasya nihshvasitam vedAh, yo vedebhyo’khilam jagat nirmame — The one whose breath is the Vedas, who created the entire universe through the Vedas; वेदोऽखिलो धर्ममूलम् — vedo’khilo dharmamUlam — The Vedic corpus is the source of our dharma, etc). Tradition also assigns the same person who arranged the Vedas — Veda Vyasa — as the direct/indirect inspiration behind the 18 major Puranas, and as the de facto author of Mahabharata. And Purana as a category existed side-by-side with the Veda since the beginning. Even in Chandogya Upanishad, Narada includes itihAsapurANam in his enumeration of all the categories of knowledge he has acquired. In the Brahmana texts, we frequently see that during major yajnas, when there were breaks between rituals, a special person who was well-versed in the ancient legends and stories would narrate them (gAthAh & purANAni).

    The so-called Puranic deities are not strangers to the Veda. Shiva and Vishnu are present as major deities even in the Rig Veda, and even more prominently in the Yajur Veda. There has always been blurring of the names and functions of deities since the very beginning. Shiva and Rudra are the same, Vishnu has characteristics of Indra, Varuna and Surya. Agni in the Veda (e.g. RV 2.1) is identified with all gods and goddesses including Indra, Rudra, Vishnu, Sarasvati, Bharati, Ida, etc. Yaskacharya says in his Niruktam that the gods are “itaretarajanmAnah” — “born from one another”. This has always been the guiding principle regarding the philosophy of multiple Hindu deities.

    The problem in modern times is that we have started to think like Abrahamic religions, with their rigid insistence on demarcation by names. In contrast, Vedic/Hindu god names are all functions. For example, in the Rudra Namakam of Yajur Veda, the characteristics of Rudra are mentioned in a series where each characteristic ends with a “namah”. E.g. “rudrAya namah”. In this series, we have “shivAya namah”, “shivatarAya namah”. So Rudra is not just “Shiva” but also “Shivatara”.

    If you look behind the names of deities, there is continuity in the spiritual philosophy. The most important truth of the Vedas is the ultimate unity between the individual and the universal. This truth is also propounded in the Puranas. The institution of yajna is still in full force in the Puranas. As for Bhakti, it is only explicitly amplified in the Puranas, whereas in the Vedas, we implicitly see in the Vedic hymns the same kind of personal attachment to a deity, for example, between Vasishtha and Varuna. The Vedas contain the seeds for all the ideas and philosophies of later Hinduism.

    By dwelling on these inconsequential differences, we are missing the forest for the trees. For example, the Arya Samaj has gone to ridiculous lengths to peel away all the layers of the onion by rejecting Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads, and sticking to Veda samhitas as the only original text. It is their loss, because they are rejecting all the beautiful dialogue in the Brahmana, Aranyaka and Upanishad texts which elaborate the same ideas that exist in germ form in the samhitas.

    Referenced/related answers:

    1. Were Upanishads later embedded to the Vedas?
    2. What do the Vedas say about the Vedas?
    3. What do the Puranas, the Itihasas and the Bhagavad Gita mean to a Hindu who has understood the Vedas and the Upanishads?
    4. What is the difference between the Upanishads and the Vedic religion?

    Interesting topics:

    1. How important is Shruti considered in Hinduism?
    2. Why don't the unconfident Brahmins of India get on with it and admit the truth, that Vedic Sanskrit is derived from Avestan? Why keep this a secret?