Hindu Scriptures

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Hindu Scriptures are broadly classified into ‘Shruti’ (meaning ‘heard’), ‘Smriti’ (meaning ‘remembered’) and ‘nyaya’ (meaning ‘logic’) based on its origin, not on the mode of transmission. The Shruti scriptures are of divine origin, whose truths were directly revealed to ancient ‘rishis’ (sages) in their deep meditations. The Smriti scriptures are of human origin and were written to explain the ‘Shruti’ writings and make them understandable and meaningful to the general population. ‘Shruti’ scriptures include the four Vedas (‘Rigveda’, ‘Yajurveda’, ‘Samaveda’ and ‘Atharvaveda’) and the ‘Bhagwad Gita’, and constitute the highest religious authority in the Hindu religion.


The Vedas are groups of hymns and chants containing religious and spiritual insights of the ancient sages and seers. The ‘Rigveda’ (collection of lyrics) is the oldest Vedic text and contains 1028 hymns, divided into ten mandals. The ‘Samaveda’ (book of chants) consists of verses directly taken from the Rigveda. The ‘Yajurveda’ (book of sacrificial prayers) deals with the procedure for the performance of sacrifices. The ‘Atharvaveda’ (book of magical formulae) contains charms and spells to ward off evils and diseases.

Each Veda consists of four parts: ‘Samhitas’ (or ‘Mantras’), Brahmanas’, ‘Aranyakas’ and ‘Upanishads’. The ‘Samhitas’ are poetic compositions and hymns of supplication and incantation addressed to the deities. The ‘Brahmanas’ marked the transition from the Vedic to later Brahmanical social order and deal with rules and regulations for proper performance of religious rites, rituals and ceremonies. The important Brahmanas are: ‘Aitareya’ and ‘Kaushitaki’ (‘Rigveda’), ‘Tanda-maha’, ‘Sadvinsa’ and ‘Jaiminiya’ (‘Samaveda’), ‘Satapatha’ (‘Yajurveda’) and ‘Gopatha Brahmana’ (‘Atharvaveda’). The ‘Satapatha Brahmana’, which speaks at length about the ploughing rituals, is the most exhaustive and most important of all the Brahmanas. The ‘Aranyakas’ (“forest books”) provide the symbolic and spiritual basis for the Brahmanas. These are the appendices to the ‘Brahmanas’ and mark the transition from ritualistic to philosophical thought.


The ‘Upanishads’ reveal the knowledge about the Brahman. These are known as ‘Vedanta’, meaning “end of the Vedas”. They are the concluding portions of the Vedas. There are several interpretations of the word ‘Upanishad’. According to some, it is the knowledge derived from the learned, while others like Shankara interpret it as a means to destroy ignorance by revealing the knowledge of the Supreme Spirit. The Upanishads form the concluding part of the Vedic literature and hence came to be known as Vedanta, the quintessence of Vedic thought, vision and wisdom. They are also called ‘Veda Sirsha’, the top ranking in the Vedic lore. Upanishads are more than two hundred in number, but the more prominent and authentic among them are 108 as listed by the ‘Muktika Upanishad’ which also mentions the Vedas to which these Upanishads belong. Of these Upanishads, 10 belong to Rigveda, 19 to Yajurveda, 32 to Krishna Yajurveda, 16 to Samaveda and 31 to Atharvaveda. Adi Sankara commented on eleven of them quoting passages from a few other Upanishads. These Upanishads are ‘Aitereya’ and ‘Kaushitaki’ (pertains to Rig Veda), ‘Chandogya’ and ‘Kena’ (pertains to Sama Veda), ‘Taittiriya’, ‘Katha’ and ‘Svetasvatara’ (pertains to Yajur Veda), ‘Brihadaranyaka’ and ‘Isha’ (pertains to Yajur Veda) and ‘Prasna’, ‘Mundaka’ and ‘Mandukya’ (pertains to ‘Atharvaveda’).

Bhagwad Gita:

Whereas the Upanishads represent the essence of the Vedas, the Bhagwad Gita, the most popular scripture of the Hindus, contains the essence of the Upanishads. The Vedas reflect the dawn of spiritual insight while the Upanishads and the Bhagwad Gita contain the full splendour of a spiritual vision. The ‘Vedangas’ and ‘Upavedas’ are texts that augment the Vedas.


There are six ‘Vedangas’ namely ‘Siksha’ (pronunciation), ‘Jyotisha’ (astrology), ‘Kalpa’ (religious ceremonies), ‘Nirukti’ (dictionary of obscure words and phrases), Chandas (prosody and verse) and ‘Vyakarana’ (grammar). ‘Jyotisha’ is the most famous among them. ‘Kalpa Vedanga’ defines public rituals in the ‘Srauta’ and ‘Sulba’ sutras, domestic rites in the ‘Grihya Sutras’ and religious law in the Dharma Sastras. The other ‘Vedangas’ ensure the purity of mantra recitation, through knowledge of phonetics, grammar, poetry and the way of words.


The five ‘Upavedas’ expound profound sciences: ‘Arthaveda’ unfolds statecraft; ‘Ayurveda’ sets forth medicine and health; Dhanurveda discusses military science; ‘Gandharvaveda’ illumines music and the arts and the ‘Sthapatyaveda’ explains the Science of mechanics and architecture. The Ayurveda is derived from the Rig Veda; the ‘Gandharvaveda’ is derived from the Samaveda, the Dhanurveda originated from Yajurveda and the ‘Sthapatyaveda’ originated from the Atharvaveda.

‘Smriti’ includes ‘Itihasas’ (epics), ‘Puranas’ (moral stories) and ‘Agamas’ (emanated scriptures) while Vedanta-sutras (Vedanta aphorisms) are classified as ‘Nyaya’. ‘Smriti’ and ‘Nyaya’ always agree with ‘shruti’. ‘Agamas’ are rules for the ritual, rites and the worship of Gods. There are five ‘Agamas’ which deal with the worship of Ganesha, Shakti, Surya, Shiva and Vishnu respectively. The Agamas, too, have ancillary texts, such as the ‘Upagamas’ and ‘Paddhatis’, which elaborate the ancient wisdom. In addition, the ‘Kama Sutra’ explores the erotic pleasures.

‘Shhadarshana’ are six systems of Indian philosophy, which were composed between the 6th and 3rd century B.C. These ‘Darsanas’ are in the form of ‘sutras’ (aphorisms), which are short, definite and free from doubts. They are Jaimini’s ‘Purva Mimansa’, Patanjali’s ‘Yoga’, Medhatithi Gautama’s ‘Nyaya’, Kanada’s ‘Vaisheshika’, Vyasa’s ‘Uttar Mimansa’ and Kapila’s ‘Sankhya’. Though each ‘sutra’ is just a few lines, huge commentaries have been written on each one of them. The ‘Sankhya’ is the oldest system and finds a mention in the Bhagwad Gita. This does not believe in God and teaches that the miseries of the world are due to the union of ‘Purusha’ (man) with ‘Prakriti’ (world attributes). The ‘Nyaya’ School is similar to the Greek philosophy of Aristotle. The ‘Vaiseshika’ philosophy believes that the world is created from the atoms of earth, water, fire and air. The ‘Yoga’ system aims at attaining ‘Kaivalya’ by controlling the mind by following the ‘Astanga Yoga’. The philosophy of ‘Purva Mimamsa’ deals with the ‘Samhitas’ and ‘Brahmanas’.

The ‘Sutras’ comprises of a manual of instructions that was created between the 7th and 2nd century B.C. It encompasses the ‘Vedangas’, ‘Nirkuta’ of Yaksha, ‘Asthadhyayi’ of Panani (a book of grammar), ‘Srauta Sutra’ (details of ceremonies to be practised by priests), ‘Griha Sutra’ (domestic sacrifices and rites) and ‘Dharma Sutra’ (customary law and practices).

The ‘Itihasas’ comprises of the two epics: the ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’, which are the stories of the two incarnations of Lord Vishnu – Rama and Krishna respectively. ‘Ramayana’ was first written by Valmiki while ‘Mahabharata’ was written by Sage Vyasa. The Bhagwad Gita is the epitome of the Hindu philosophy and is found in the ‘Mahabharata’. Vyasa also wrote the eighteen ‘Puranas’ and eighteen ‘sub-puranas’. There are also ‘Kaavyas’ which are based on stories derived from the ‘Itihasas’ and ‘Puranas’. Among them, ‘Raghuvamsa’, ‘Meghadoota’ and ‘Shakuntala’ are very famous. Kautilya’s ‘Arthashastra’ is another important book of the period, which deals with the statecraft.

There are also ‘Prakarana Granthas’ which are considered to be primers or an introduction for spiritual studies. Among them are ‘Atma Bodha’ and ‘Bhaja Govindam’ (also known as ‘Moha Mudhgara’). Besides the scriptures, there are ‘stotras’ and ‘bhajans’ (devotional songs and hymns). ‘Sahasranamams’ (1008 names of each deity) are among the popular ‘stotras’. The Dharmashastras include Manu Smriti, Yajanavalkya, Narada, Brahaspati and Vishnu Smritis. The Manu Smriti deals with the concept of civil laws and administrative justice. It also discusses the concepts of stages and regulations of life, which is divided into four stages: ‘Brahmacharya’, ‘Grihasharam’, ‘Vanashram’ and ‘Sanyas’.

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