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Lecture | LIAS Lunch Talk Series

And then it stopped – the impact of print culture on the perception and growth of Purāṇas

Thursday 30 November 2023
LIAS Lunch Talk Series
Matthias de Vrieshof
Matthias de Vrieshof 3
2311 BZ Leiden
1.04 (Verbarium)


The Purāṇas are one of the most voluminous genres of Sanskrit literature. They narrate stories of the past (purāṇa, lit. ‘ancient’), particularly about some of the most prominent Hindu deities, such as Viṣṇu, Śiva, Devī and Brahmā. They also include teachings, often associated with a particular god, as well as glorifications of places, endless lists of lineages, and much more. They are known for their fluidity, flexibility and ability to adjust to new circumstances and new contexts over the course of centuries. This has led to multiple versions of one Purāṇa. In fact, “the” Purāṇa does not exist.

When we are dealing with the genre, we do, nevertheless, often speak of “the” Purāṇa, referring to its available edition. However, with the lack of critical editions of most Purāṇas, Purāṇa scholars have to work with printed editions from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, about which very little is known. There is no information on the manuscripts on which the text is based (number, location, date), only a handful variant readings per page is recorded (representing an impossible situation in the case of this literary genre) and there is no information on the editorial procedures followed.

In this talk, I will focus on one text, the Bhaviṣyapurāṇa (‘the Purāṇa of the future’) in order to reveal these challenges of printed editions. I will share some major discrepancies between the text of the edition and the text as found in manuscripts, illustrate the impact the edition had both on the manuscript tradition and on what we consider “the” Purāṇa, conclude with some propositions on how to deal with this situation, and open the floor to learn from each other.

About the speaker

Sanne Dokter-Mersch holds a postdoctoral position at Leiden University in the ERC project PURANA, studying the composition and transmission of the Bhaviṣyapurāṇa. She is specialized in Sanskrit, Purāṇa literature, classical Hinduism, in particular early Śaivism and Vaiṣṇavism, Sanskrit manuscripts and mythological narratives. In 2021, she finished her PhD thesis, ‘Revealing Śiva’s Superiority by Retelling Viṣṇu’s Deeds: Viṣṇu’s Manifestation Myths in the Skandapurāṇa’, in which she combined textual criticism with narratology to explore the adoption of narratives on Viṣṇu in a Śaiva Purāṇa.

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