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Mythical Discourse and Religious Agency in the Puranic Ecumene

Project description

The Puranas as a unifying mythical discourse

The Puranas are among Hinduism’s most important scriptural traditions. Appearing in a variety of forms, their principal subject is the powers and works of the gods. Their recording and circulation began in the first millennium CE, and since then they have been central to South and Southeast Asian cultural development. However, given the anonymity of Puranic composers and transmitters, very little is known about the historical embeddedness of this essential genre of Sanskrit literature. The ERC-funded PURANA project introduces the concept of a "Puranic Ecumene" established and united by the Puranas as a mythical discourse. PURANA will trace the composition, transmission, translation and agency of the Puranas through place and time, identifying multiple actors, audiences and geographic contexts.


The Puranas (Primordial Texts) constitute the most voluminous and enduring genre of Sanskrit literature. These anonymous texts narrate the mythic cycles associated with the major deities of Hinduism (Visnu, Siva, Brahma, the Goddess, etc.). The Puranas have also been integral to processes of ‘place-making’ by creating maps of geography and celebrating the salvific potential of sacred sites in myths that imbue the landscape with divine agency. While many important Puranas were first recorded and circulated in the first millennium CE—a time of significant social change marked by the flourishing of regional devotional movements and innovations of temple and image-centered religious practices— the genre has remained a living tradition through the colonial period until the present day. Despite the tradition’s centrality for cultural production in South Asia, we know very little about their historical embeddedness, as the Puranic composers and transmitters—in accordance with the anonymity characteristic of the genre—disguised their own historicity behind claims of ‘primordiality’ and divinely inspired teachings. More than just a body of literature, the Puranas are a dynamic mythical discourse. PURANA makes a critical intervention in the field by tracing the composition, transmission, translation, and agency of the Puranas as a transregional and transhistorical process involving multiple actors, audiences, and geographic contexts—from Hindu scribes and Persian poets to Portuguese Jesuits and Khmer rulers. Adopting a longue durée perspective, we argue that the Puranas’ mythical discourse underlies and unites 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, a hegemonic vision of the integration of society and cosmos, and a remarkable way of anchoring the present in the continuing ancient past.

Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 2 499 331,00
2311 EZ Leiden

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West-Nederland Zuid-Holland Agglomeratie Leiden en Bollenstreek
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 2 499 331,00

Beneficiaries (1)