Vishnu Purana: Source Code of the Divine

A light and engaging translation that captures and conveys the soul of the Vishnu Purana

Published: 02nd October 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st October 2022 03:40 PM   |  A+A-

Avatars of God Vishnu

Incarnations (Avatars) of God Vishnu

Express News Service

Religious belief and identity are almost a calling card in India today. Sanatan Dharma (like all other religions) is vast and mystical, such that exhaustive knowledge of its foundational texts is extremely rare.

Common folk largely know our religion through abridged/ fictional versions of mythological tales from itihasa, through rituals and festivals, through word of mouth or personal interpretations —borrowed or one’s own.

This despite a true seeker having access nowadays to ancient texts of the land: Vedas, Upanishads and Puranas. Right up to recent times, the learned and scriptural scholars memorised, recited, commented upon and engaged in fierce, arcane debates on their interpretations and true meanings.

Sanskrit currently survives only among isolated clusters and demands scholarship to demystify these resources. Translation then seems our only recourse.

Noted economist Bibek Debroy has set himself the monumental and impossibly onerous task of rendering into English a punishing collection of ancient sacred texts. He is only the second person to translate unabridged, both the Mahabharata (in 10 volumes) and the Valmiki Ramayana
(in three volumes).

Part of this project is Harivamsha, Bhagavata Purana, Markendaya Purana, Brahma Purana, Vishnu Purana and Shiva Purana.

The translation is never easy, but that from Sanskrit is especially an uphill battle as it is a language of compaction and resonances, and so, trimming a shloka to its most relevant meaning also entails losing a host of other nuances in the process. Secondly, the context, historicity or even cross-textual references are so removed from the knowledge we currently hold.  

Immense credit to the translator for keeping the flow as light and engaging as the original may allow and for capturing and conveying intact the soul of the Vishnu Purana. The format is simple. There are six parts to the text. Neither the parts nor the chapters they contain have an even number of shlokas,
are of even length or of evenly distributed subject matter.

Classical texts, almost always, follow a question-and-answer format, where an informed though the leading question is answered in minute detail. In this, Sage Maitreya questions Sage Parashara on various elements of cosmogony and of the divine.

Largely, these deal with systems of belief such as cosmology, creation myths, understanding space and time, classification of beings real or supernatural, qualities of nature and of gods, with special emphasis on Lord Vishnu as the sustainer aspect of Parameshvara, various myths around him and his incarnations as well as short histories of gods and men loosely connected to the theme.

In essence, this text functions as a concise encyclopaedia of perhaps the most evolved research and thought of the time and a 360-degree portrayal of Lord Vishnu in myriad forms aggregated from various oral or lost sources and tales.

Be warned that this is not a text the modern reader reads today. This is unabridged and not tweaked to be reader-friendly. Most of the text is dense, crammed with information or thought-provoking assertions that require mulling over and assimilation.

Some bits clash with modern science, and therefore, compounded in difficulty—especially the understanding of time, since it is both scientific in terms of moments, minutes and detailed measures as well as calculated in terms of Brahma’s days, Brahma’s years and parardha of Brahma’s life. No thread is straightforward.

Sanskrit terms pepper the text because despite being common nouns in the original texts, there is simply no English or the recent cultural equivalent of the term and must be used as is. Nonetheless, a treasure trove; a slow-paced perusal of the text is an eye-opener, an education in itself.

To the average reader who demands stories from all ancient texts, the parts that deal with specifics rather than abstractions work better. A large chapter is devoted to the story of Lakshmi and there are chapters dedicated to Dhruva, Prithu, Prachetas, Prahlad and Narasimha, Vedavyasa and Krishna Dvaipayana among others.

Vishnu flits in and out of stories and elucidation concepts with ease. Large tracts deal with the geographies of the world as also of heaven and of hell. Intermittently, there are instructions on moral codes and model behaviours.

Some chapters demystify rites such as shraddha or death ceremonies, also pinda and other forms of ancestor worship. A germinal story of the background to the Mahabharata, other ancient kingdoms and their lineage also feature in the text.

Part V is almost fully dedicated to Lord Krishna’s history, praise and worship. If returning to the source to know, understand and recalibrate personal knowledge of the essential foundations of Sanatan Dharma is on your bucket list, the best investment would be the scholarly collection of translations that is Debroy’s gift of an ancient heritage to all.

Vishnu Purana
Translated By: Bibek Debroy
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 608
Price: Rs 599


Disclaimer : We respect your thoughts and views! But we need to be judicious while moderating your comments. All the comments will be moderated by the editorial. Abstain from posting comments that are obscene, defamatory or inflammatory, and do not indulge in personal attacks. Try to avoid outside hyperlinks inside the comment. Help us delete comments that do not follow these guidelines.

The views expressed in comments published on are those of the comment writers alone. They do not represent the views or opinions of or its staff, nor do they represent the views or opinions of The New Indian Express Group, or any entity of, or affiliated with, The New Indian Express Group. reserves the right to take any or all comments down at any time.

flipboard facebook twitter whatsapp