Hindu scriptures can be grouped into the following categories:
- The Shruti literature consisting of the Vedas
- The Smriti literature consisting of the Dharma shastras or the law books.
- The Itihasas comprising of the two epics
- The Puranas consisting of the ancient lore
- The Agamas dealing with the mechanics of ritual worship
- The Darsanas dealing with the various schools of philosophical thought.
- The popular literature rendered in the native languages.
Technically speaking, there are only two broad categories namely Shruti and Smriti. All other categories which are derivatives of the Vedas (Shruti) and the Upanishadic wisdom can be grouped under Smriti.
The Vedas are part of the Shruti literature. Shruti means that which is heard. The edas are considered to be divine in origin and not man made. No one truly knows how old they are. Some of the Rigvedic verses were perhaps composed in the early phases of human civilization. For centuries they were passed down from one generation to another through oral tradition. They were probably rendered into written form during the epic period, around 1500 BC.
The Vedas are eternal (nitya) and out of this world (apauruseya). Hindus believe that God brings the Vedas into this world at the beginning of every cycle of creation for the welfare of the mankind and withdraws them again at the end of it. The Vedas are revealed to the mankind through rishis (rsi) or great seers. The rsis were considered to be the mind born children of Brahma, who were created solely for the purpose of introducing the Vedas to the mankind. The word rsi means he who had seen (drs) the Truth.
The Mystery of the Vedas : The Vedas are considered to be very holy, Brahman Himself in the form of words and sounds. Beneath the layers of poetic imagery, colorful visions and seemingly superstitious ritual prayers practices, The Vedas said to contain profound secrets of the worlds, their origins and knowledge of the spiritual realms into which man can ascend by the exercise of his will and transformation of his consciousness. They speak not just of various gods and divine powers of the external world for the purpose of bringing down rains, drive away of the scourge or assuage our fear of storms and tempests, but of various divinities and spiritual entities that exist in our psychic awareness and arise and awake as we progress through various stages of spiritual advancement in our quest for Self Realization.
Although on the surface, the Vedic hymns appear to be mere ritualistic invocations addressed to various gods and goddesses, in reality they are addressed to acknowledge the arrival or descent of specific forces or energies of the higher worlds into our individual consciousness or to invoke their presence. Unfortunately we are no more conversant with the hidden meaning, although we have some vague idea about it, because of the revelations of Sri Aurobindo, in his famous work, the Secret of the Vedas.( To know more about Sri Aurobindo please to the section on Masters).
For centuries the Vedas were kept as a closely guarded secret by the Brahmin Caste and taught only to a select few. (Something like the Microsoft not wanting to share its programming secrets with others!). While this might have enabled the Vedas to survive the ravages of time in their most unadulterated form, and enabled the priestly order to maintain their sway, it also contributed to the decline of the Vedic religion and the conversion of many lower caste people into other religions and sectarian movements. It was after the arrival of the Europeans to the Indian subcontinent that an organized and sincere effort was made to introduce the Vedas to the academic circles of the West in the form of translations and commentaries.
The Vedas are four in number, namely the Rigveda, the Yajurveda, the Samaveda and the Atharvaveda, of which the Rigveda is the oldest and probably composed at a time when the Vedic Aryans were not yet fully settled and were wandering around either in the Indian subcontinent or elsewhere in search of a suitable homeland. The word ‘veda’ means knowledge or wisdom and from the word veda are derived the words vid (to know), vidya (study or education), vidvan (the scholar) and vedavid (the knower of the Vedas). (For more details about the four vedas and their translations, readers are requested to visit our section on the Vedas.)
The Divisions of the Vedas: Each Veda is divided into four parts, namely the Mantra, Brahmana, Aranyaka and Upanishad. The Mantra part contains mantras or hymns addressed to various gods and goddesses, which are chanted during ritualistic prayers or invocations according to a particular rhythm. The Mantra part is concerned mostly with the pronunciation of the words and the vibrations they create in the minds of the invokers and in the physical atmosphere that surround them so as to render the descent of the divine forces easier and swifter. The Brahmana part contains information about rites and rituals and serves as a kind of guide book that explains the method and the manner in which the rituals are to be conducted. The Aranyakas, or the forest books deal with the significance and philosophical back ground of various rituals. The fourth part of the Veda is called the Upanishad. The Upanishads are books of deep spiritual knowledge known as Vedanta. There are hundreds of Upanishads ascribed to the four Vedas of which 12 are considered to be the most important. (To know more about the Upanishads and the list of 108 principal Upanishads please visit our comprehensive section on the Upanishads.)
Symbolism of the Vedas: The four parts of the Vedas have significance and relevance to the four stages (ashramas) of human life, namely brahmacharya, grihastashrama, vanaprastha and sanyasashrama respectively. How this is so is explained below.
1. Brahmacharya : Brahmacharya is the phase of studentship. During this phase a student of the Vedas is expected to memorize the mantras completely and recite them with utmost accuracy. At this stage in life for a man, the mantra part of the Vedas are important.
2. Grihasthashrama: This is the stage of the householder. During this phase each adult is expected to lead a righteous life and live like Lord Vishnu on earth working for the preservation of his family and society through righteous deeds. For him at this stage, knowledge of Brahmanas carry importance, because they deal with the techniques of karmakanda.
3. Vanaprastha: This is the stage of forest dwelling. During this phase a person leaves his house and properties to the care of his children and retires into the solitude of the forest with his wife, to lead a spiritual life. The knowledge contained in the Aranyakas is useful to him during this phase.. (Interested readers may visit our sacred scriptures section and read the Aitareya Aranyaka available there under the heading the Upanishads.)
4. Sanyasashrama: This is final stage of renunciation in the life of an individual during which he renounces the worldly life completely and spends the rest of his life in the contemplation of God and Self. During this stage the knowledge of the Upanishads is very useful to him.
According to another classification the contents of the Vedas are divided into three parts instead of four. These are the first part known as karmakanda or the procedural part comprising of the Mantras and the Brahmanas, the second part known as upsanakanda or the contemplative part consisting of the Aranyakas and the third part known as Jnanakanda or the knowledge part comprising of the Upanishads.
In contrast to the Shruti literature, which contains revelations, the Smriti literature is a product of human intellect. It contains the works of various individuals who base their information and interpretations upon the Vedas. Smriti means that which is based upon memory. It is the literature produced out of human intellect. It is a sacred literature that is intellectual in origin and meant for the purpose of human welfare. Strictly speaking all scriptures which are not shruti or divine in origin come under this classification.
However, standard classification includes only those works that are based upon the knowledge contained in the Vedas. These are the law books known as dharma shastras. They deal with various aspects of human life and social organization. They instruct how an individual should conduct himself or herself in society in the light of the caste to which the individual belongs. The define the rules and roles for various groups of individuals in the society. The topics range from such issues as the status, duties and responsibilities prescribed for the four main castes, remedies against possible transgression of the prescribed laws and also remedies for divine retribution.
Among the available dharmashastras four are considered to be very important: They are the works Manu, Yagjnavalkya, Sankha, and Parasara. Of these the first one known as Manusmriti is the most popular. Known as Manavadharma shastra, or the scripture of human laws, Manusmriti was considered in ancient Hindu society as the ultimate guide book for human conduct and social and religious behavior. It provided guidelines for the Hindus to conduct themselves in line with their social order and religious duties.
It is also said that these four works were supposed to provide guidance to people during the four great ages called the Mahayugas: the Manusmriti for the first great age called Satyug, the Yagnavalkya-smriti for the second great age called Tretayug, the Sankha-smriti for the third great epoch called Dvaparyug and the Parasara-smriti for the present and the last great epoch called Kaliyug.
In recent times the Hindu law books have drawn widespread criticism from many quarters because of their preferential treatment of certain castes against the others and their narrow minded and one-sided approach to such sensitive subjects as the status of women and the process of creation. (For a detailed study of the Manusmriti please go to our Sacred Scriptures section where you will find a complete translation of this exhaustive scripture)
While we cannot deny the fact that the Law Books were particularly unkind and insensitive to the lower castes and women, it is however important to remember that the dharma shastras do not enjoy the same status as the Vedas. They need not necessarily be accepted as final authority on any issue, unless your own sense of justice agrees with them. Unlike the Vedas they are neither eternal nor fallible since they are products of human intellect and social and political circumstances. They are not derived from the Divine directly. They are produced in a particular age, according to the demands and general awareness of that age. Because of this they are prone to be defective and controversial even, Therefore in the event of any doubt or dispute regarding any information contained in these scriptures, one should check whether the information is line with the tenets of the Vedas and if it is not we can safely set it aside. The Vedas do not discriminate between man and woman. Not do they suggest any caste discrimination. Out of the thousands of hymns contained in the Vedas a few are quoted as the basis for caste systems. These hymns are clever manipulations or inventions and should be discarded.
Itihas means history. Generally the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are included in this category. The Ramayana is the story of Rama and his battle against the evil forces unleashed by Ravana, the arch villain with a mixture of both good and bad qualities arising out of egoism, who abducts Sita, wife of Rama and faces the inevitable. In end Rama kills Ravana and rescues his wife.
The Mahabharata is the story of two brothers, Pandu and Dhritarashtra, their children, namely Pandavas and the Kauravas and the recalcitrant attitude between them for political power which leads to a great war and mighty destruction of both families, resulting in the victory of the righteous Pandavas. Lord Krishna gives his support to the Pandavas and helps them defeat and destroy the Kauravas and their great army.
The Mahabharata is an epic of grand proportions, rich in imagination and human wisdom. At its core are religion and family values. It is difficult to read the epic without realizing the destructive nature of man and the possible dangers for the humanity because of that. The Mahabharata is the longest epic ever written in human history. It teaches us many moral and spiritual lessons and in terms of appeal has a greater appeal than even the Vedas.
The Bhagavad gita is the message of Sri Krishna not just to Arjuna on the battle field but to the entire humanity who have to fight many battles both internally and externally while they live on earth. The book contains great spiritual truths which are relevant even today. It tells us how to conduct ourselves in this world with detachment and freedom of the mind. It speaks about offering the fruit of ones actions to God in order to become free from the cycle of births and deaths. (The complete translation of the Bhagavad gita, and the Ramayana are available from our Hinduism section.)
The Puranas describe the religious events that happened in the remote past, sometimes starting with the story of creation itself. They basically deal with the incarnations of God and the deeds of God in various forms. In many ways they resemble the epics in describing evens. But there is one basic difference. The epics deal with the history of mankind and the events that happened on the earthly plane in the past, while the Puranas deal with divine characters, and events associated with them on different planes, not just on earth.
The emphasis in the Puranas is primarily on the divine. Through inspiring stories and amusing anecdotes and the use of story and drama, they intend to turn our attention towards the divine and engage our minds in the contemplation of God. In a simple but very effective way, they aim to strengthen our faith and lead us on the path of righteous living.
The Puranas and the Itihasas are jointly referred as the Panchama Veda or the fifth Veda. The Puranas have played a very significant role in the past in keeping the religious fervor of the people high. While as books of great antiquity they may not they may not throw much light on the ancient history of Hinduism, it is difficult to ignore their contribution to the gradual evolution of Hinduism into of the most popular religions of the world.
Without them and the two great epics, Hinduism would not have attained this status. What the Vedas could not accomplish, with all their supposed wisdom and philosophy, thanks to a self absorbed and self centered priesthood, that rarely bothered itself with the initiation of the masses into religion, or concerned itself with the spreading of religion, the puranas and the epics managed. They instilled faith in the masses and brought them into the fold of Hinduism.
The number of Puranas vary. But generally 18 main (maha) Purunas and 18 secondary (upa) Puranas are accounted. The mahapuranas are Brahmapurana, Padmapurana, Vishnupurana, Sivapurana, Bhagavatapurana, Naradapurana, Markendeyapurana, Agnipurana, Bhavishyapurana, Brahmavaivartapurana, Lingapurana, Varahapurana, Skandapurana, Vamanapurana, Kurmapurana, Matsyapurana, Garudapurana and Brahmandapurana. Of these the most popular are the Bhagavatapurana, the Sivapurana and Brahmapurana.
In Sanskrit ‘agama’ means acquisition of knowledge. In terms of religious significance, the Agamas are as important as the Vedas. They are also not derived from the Vedas. The Agamas are manuals of divine worship. They deal with such topics as the codes of temple building, image making, and the modes of worship. Saivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism have their own respective Agamas.
Saivism recognizes 28 principal Agamas and 150 sub agamas. Some of them date back to 2nd Century AD. Various schools of Saivism such as the the Saiva Siddhantha school, Tamil Saivism, Kashmiri Saivism and Vira Saivism follow these texts and base their religious activity upon them. The most prominent agama text in Saivism is the Kamika. These texts consider Siva as the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, the Highest Self, the Conscious Principle while Shakti is regarded as the unconscious or the natural principle who is the cause of bondage. The union of Shakti with Siva at the highest level leads to the freedom of the soul (pasu) from the Pasa or the attachment.
The Followers of Shaktism follow 27 Agamas also called Tantras. Shaktism considers the Mother Goddess as the Supreme Self and relegates Iswara, the Divine Father, to a secondary position. In Shaktism the Divine Mother is both the cause of delusion (maya) and the source of liberation. Shaktism gave birth to the practice of Tantric forms of worship which were not generally acceptable to the followers of Vedic methods of worship. The Agamas of Shaktism deal with magical and occult knowledge, besides mechanical, ritualistic, devotional and spiritual aspects of Tantric forms of worship
The Vaishnava Agamas are grouped into four categories namely the Vaikhanasa, Pancharatra, Pratishthasara and Vijnanalalita. Of these, the Vaishanavites consider the Pancharatra Agama as the most important (Swami Sivananda). These Agamas are believed to have been revealed by Narayana Himself. The Pancharatra Agama is again subdivided into seven sub agamas namely, the Brahma, Saiva, Kaumara, Vasishtha, Kapila, Gautamiya and the Naradiya. The Pancharatra Agamas consider Vishnu as the Supreme Lord of the Universe and devotion to Vishnu as the sure path to liberation. According to another opinion, the Vaikhanasagama is the most ancient and most important Agama and all the Agamas practically and literally copied all their information from this sacred Agama. It is believed that the Vaikhanasa Agama was originally compiled under the guidance of sage Vaikhanasa during the early Vedic period. Sri Madhavacharya held Pancharatra texts in high esteem and equated them with the Vedas and the epics, while Sri Shankaracharya had a different opinion.
According to another classification the Agamas are five types namely:Sakta Agamas, Soura Agamas, Ganapatya Agamas, Saiva Agamas and Vaikhanasa Agamas
The Darsanas deal with the various schools of philosophical thought that prevailed in ancient India. Darsana means vision or perception. There are six darsanas grouped into three pairs based upon their approach to the concept of the existence or non existence of Absolute God. These are :
1.Nyaya and the Vaisheshika
2.The Sankhya and the Yoga
3. The Mimansa and the Vedanta
These six darsanas actually represent six different streams of philosophical thought that prevailed in ancient India. Each school had its own founder and a principal scripture as its original source. Thus the Nyaya Sutras were written by Gautama, the Vaisheshika Sutras by Kanada, the Sankhya Karika by Iswara Krishna, the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, Mimamsa Sutras by Jaimini and Vedanta Sutras by Badarayana. In course of time a great deal of literature gathered around these six schools of thought much of which was in the form of commentaries (bhashyas) of the original six works.
The Popular literature consists of the works produced in the vernacular languages, other than Sanskrit, such as Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Kannada, Bengali, and so on by eminent scholars over a period of more than three thousand years. Included in this category are both the translations from the Sanskrit and also original works. Since it is not possible to deal with the entire list we are mentioning a few important works. Tamil is the oldest of the Dravidian languages and in terms of antiquity it may be as old as the Sanskrit itself. A lot of devotional literature was composed in Tamil by the Nayanars and Alvars in the early Christian era. The Sangam literature is a true reflection of the greatness of Tamil as an excellent medium of devotional literature. In Kannada, another Dravidian language, the Virasaiva movement led to the composition of Vachakam containing the sayings of Basava. In the north notable works in the vernacular languages included the Ramacharitmanas of Tulisdas and the Sursagar of Surdas, both in Hindi, Chatanyamrita of Sri Chaitanya and Mangal kavyas in Bengali, the devotional compositions of Namdev in Marathi, the poems of Mirabai in Gujrathi, the Gitagovinda of Jaidev and so on. Both the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were translated into many local languages.
We may include in this categories specialized works such as commentaries (bhashyas), dictionaries (nighantuvus), poetic works (kavyas and prabandhas), moral litergies (niti satakas), Shastras, plays, etc.
The period starting from the 17th Century till date also witnessed the birth a great deal of religious literature, not only in Indian Languages but in foreign languages, especially English. Worth mentioning here are the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, Swami Dayananda Saraswathi, the great mass of literature generated by Theosophical Society of India, the works and teachings of Sri Aurobindo, Swami Shraddananda, Swami Sivananda, the works of Sri Prabhupada, Sri Acharya Rajneesh, Sai Baba, J.Krishnamurhty and so on.