Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

PURANA: Mythical Discourse and Religious Agency in the Puranic Ecumene

This project receives funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 101054849 (PURANA).

2022 - 2027
Peter Bisschop
European Research Council (ERC) European Research Council (ERC)

Principal Investigator: Peter Bisschop

The Purana project centers around the most voluminous and enduring genre of Sanskrit literature, the Purāṇas. These are ancient texts with a long historical gestation that narrate the wonderful and fascinating myths about the major deities of Hinduism (Viṣṇu, Śiva, Brahmā, the Goddess, etc.). The anonymous texts are also known for their inclusion of myths concerning sacred places, celebrating their (local) deities and salvific potential, and imbueing the landscape with divine agency. Many important Purāṇas were first recorded and circulated in the first millennium CEa time of significant social change marked by the flourishing of regional devotional movements and innovations of temple and image-centered religious practices. However, the genre has remained a living tradition through the colonial period until the present day. Despite the tradition’s immense popularity for many centuries, we know very little about its historical embeddedness. Not only do Purāṇas belong to the genre of anonymous literature, their composers and transmitters disguised their own historicity behind claims of ‘primordiality’, reporting conversations between sages and deities set in an earlier time period. More than just a body of literature, the Purāṇas constitute a dynamic discourse.

Purana makes a critical intervention in the field by tracing the composition, transmission, translation, and agency of the Purāṇas as a transregional and transhistorical process. This process involved multiple actors, audiences, and geographic contextsfrom Hindu scribes and Persian poets to Khmer rulers and local scribes from Benares. We consider the Purāṇas’ mythical discourse to be a crucial factor uniting the religio-political culture of the Sanskrit Cosmopolis, establishing what we call a Puranic Ecumene: a vast part of the inhabited premodern world united by a distinctive mythical discourse and a hegemonic vision of the integration of society and cosmos. Firmly established in the everyday-life of a vast community and narrating the stories of the primordial past, the Purāṇas (literally “ancient”/“old”) served as the perfect means of anchoring the present in the continuing ancient past.

The project has started in September 2022 and runs until 2027—a period during which the team aims to make a major contribution to the field of South and Southeast Asian studies, the humanities, and beyond. Visit the project website for more information: https://purana.pubpub.org

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