Scriptures and Texts - Part 'A'
Continued from Part XVII
In the previous parts, at many places citations from the holy scriptures and texts have been made to illustrate jewels of Hinduism. No other human society and religion boasts of an incredibly rich collection of scriptures. Among these are the holiest and most revered four Vedas and early Upanishads about ten in number. Though it is accepted by many saints and scholars that Sri Bhagavad Gita is an epitome and compendium of all Hindu scriptures, and if a person has read and assimilated the marvels of Gita, he (or she) is not required to go through all the Vedas and Upanishads in pursuit of exploration of the Truth of universe, it still remains a matter of interest as also deep learning to explore other Hindu scriptures and texts.
There are approximately 200 Upanishads on various subjects and some of the later Upanishads are detailed interpretations and commentaries on the earlier Upanishads. Other categories of scriptures include Puranas, Agamas, Itihasas, Brahma-Sutras, Mimamsa, Yoga-Sutras, Dharma-Sastras etc. Broadly, the majority of the scripture fall either in the category of the Shruti (that which is heard) - believed to have been revealed by God through various rishis and sages centuries and thousands of years ago, or the Smriti (that which is remembered) as the scholarly contribution of the later rishis, sages and scholars. They are not merely restricted to religious aspect; instead address all areas of the religion and culture including sciences, ayurveda, astrology, yoga, music, dance, architecture, statecraft, social duties and laws.
The four Vedas and early Upanishads essentially fall in the category of Shrutis. The mythological position is that the Vedas were revealed through Brahma’s mouth to the ancient sages and seers. The most prominent and widely appreciated and acknowledged among Hindus are the Itihasas, particularly the Ramayana and Mahabharata - the Bhagavad Gita being the part of Mahabharata, and Puranas, eighteen in number depicting Hindu mythology through various stories and narratives for easier comprehension and consumption of ordinary people. Therefore, the author intends to briefly highlight the categories, subject and contents of the more popular Hindu scriptures and texts in the following paragraphs.
The most of the known and available ancient Hindu scriptures and texts are part of the Sanskrit literature. According to Swami Shivananda* of the Divine Life Society, Rishikesh, the most of the ancient Sanskrit literature falls into six orthodox and four secular sections. Of this, the orthodox section constitutes the authoritative scriptures of the Hindus while the secular section embodies the later writings in the classical Sanskrit literature. The six scriptures are Shrutis, Smritis, Puranas, Itihasas, Agamas and Darsanas while the secular writings are represented by Subhashitas, Kavyas, Natakas and Alankaras.
The Authoritative Scriptures
These scriptures are considered as the direct edict of the gods as heard by the Vedic rishis and sages. The divine knowledge is believed to come to the rishis and sages from none other than Lord Brahma and, in turn, they disseminated the knowledge to the ordinary folks. These Vedic rishis are believed to have been great realised souls with the knowledge of the Cosmic Truth or Brahman. As inspired teachers, they disseminated their knowledge of religion and philosophy through four Vedas and early Upanishads from which not only Hindus but the entire world has drawn inspiration and knowledge in some or the other form. The said Vedas and Upanishads fall under Shruti category of scriptures.
Unlike Abrahamic religions which claim that God had delivered authority through special messengers, the Vedas do not owe such authority to any entity. They represent the spiritual experiences of rishis and seers in realisation of God. The Vedas themselves are authority because they are eternal and represent knowledge of the Universal Truth. Also Vedas are oldest literature of mankind and fountain-head of religion to which all knowledge is ultimately traceable. The Rig Veda is the oldest, the other three being Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda. Each Veda is further classified in four different parts namely, Samhita (hymns), Brahmana (significance of hymns), Aranyaka (interpretation) and Vedanta (Upanishad – the metaphysical dialogue).
As the Vedic literature did not arise from a single source and time, there are speculations about the composition and compilation of Vedas. Although the Hindu culture itself is speculated to be between 4,000 to over 10,000 years old, the conservative Western estimates suggest Rig Veda to be about 3,500 years old i.e. fifteen hundred years before Christ. That they were composed and compiled by different rishis at different points of time is also vindicated by the fact that while the Rig Veda, the earliest scripture, refers to various deities such as Indra, Sun, Wind, Fire etc., the early Upanishads, most likely written by the later spiritual and philosophical thinkers, clearly talk about the Supreme Soul or Brahman.
The Upanishads and the Aranyakas (forest-books) served as appendices to the Samhitas and Brahmanas. Aranyakas most possibly gave insight into early interpretations and doctrines meant for sages during the study in secluded places along with their students that later evolved into more intellectual discussions, detailed and authentic analysis in the form of Upanishads. Though Upanishads are also part of Shruti, they were written over a span of centuries. The early Upanishads may have been written around six to seven centuries prior to the Christian era while the majority other Upanishads at a much later period. The most important Upanishads are Isa, Kena, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Aitareya, Taittiriya, Chhandogya, Brihadaranyaka, Kaushitaki, Svetasvatara and Maitrayani. The essence of spirituality of the Vedas is reflected in Upanishads and Vedanta. Of the two, the Upanishads are texts while the Vedanta represents the philosophy.
Smriti are next in importance to Shruti, which verbatim means one that is remembered. These could be categorised as secondary scriptures and include Brahma Sutras and Dharma Shastras representing codes, law texts and moral stories. The category of literature called Vedangas i.e. Limbs of Vedas and Upa-Vedas are also part of Smriti. They represent ancient sacred codes of conduct among the Sanatana-Varnashrama-Dharmi Hindus. Smritis actually represent the teachings of Vedas supplementing and explaining the ritualistic injunctions mentioned as Vidhis in the Vedas. They stand only next in authority to the Vedas, laying down the codes regulating Hindu national, social, family and individual obligations.
In ancient times, the laws for regulating the Hindu society was codified in the Smritis from time to time. Hence the Smritis contain definitive rules and laws to guide the individual and society as also detailed instructions, according to the customs and practices of the time to all classes of people about their duties and responsibilities in life. The Smritis had unambiguous description of the duties according to the Varnashramas (the four stages of life) and Verna System prevailing at that time. This included the do’s and don’ts according to the person’s birth and stage of life. The chief object of the Smritis was to regulate and guide the life of people in such a way that by following sattvic path, they could purify their heart and mind fot attaining the ultimate goal i.e. moksha (liberation).
As the Smriti texts derive their authority from the Vedas, hence they are also considered authentic. Sutras, literally meaning thread, are manual of instructions in the form of brief aphorisms. The Sutras are mainly divided into three categories. Srauta Sutras are manuals explaining the holy scriptures, Grahya Sutras deal with householders’ religious ceremonies and Dharma Sutras are manuals of human conduct, the more important ones are attributed to the ancient sages Gautama, Baudhayana, Vasishta and Apastamba. It is widely believed that during the course of time, many Shutras were expanded in the form of verses and were identified as Dharma Shastras.
The most famous among the Shastras is the Manuva Dharma Shastra of Manu which is widely also known as Manu-Smriti. It is a complete code book as per Varna System and Varnashrama prevailing during his time. Though it is much debated and questioned Shashtra in the present times yet many laws of Manu-Smriti are still relevant and applicable to Hindu society. Other important Smritis are those of Yajnavalkya and Parasara. Manu, Yajnavalkya and Parasara were the most celebrated sages and law-givers of their time. Manu Smriti and Yajnavalkya Smriti have universal appeal even in the present context for their authoritative works and Yajnavalkya Smriti is often consulted in the matters of Hindu Law.
Human society in general and Hindu society in particular have been constantly changing. Hence several laws of Manu’s time are obsolete now and it is not possible to follow it in spirit and letter. Quite obviously when the society evolves and advances, certain laws become obsolete and redundant requiring amendment or fresh laws. We shall see many contentious laws of Manu Smriti in that perspective. While Shruti is primary authority, Smriti is a recollection and expansion of that experience. Being a secondary authority, if there are any conflict or contradiction between Shruti and Smriti, the former shall prevail.
Badarayana was another Indian sage and philosopher in ancient time who wrote the foundational philosophical treatise on Vedanta school of philosophy sometime during 500 BCE to early CE. Badarayana is widely recognized as the compiler of the Brahma Sutras, also called Vedanta Sutra, Sariraka Mimamsa Sutra and Uttara Mimamsa Sutra. Brahma Sutras were written by him basically to harmonize the contradictory statements found in the Upanishads and present a uniform higher perception. In addition to Sutras and Shastras, the Smriti literature also contain Vedangas and Upa-vedas. Vedangas (Limbs of Vedas) are texts, which amplify and augment the Vedas facilitating their interpretation and understanding. The six Vedangas are Siksha Valli (phonetics and pronunciation from Taittiriya Upanishad), Jyotisha(astronomy and astrology), Kalpa (performance of sacrifice), Nirukti (etymology), Chandas (prosody), and Vyakarana (grammar). The four Upa-vedas are Dhanur-veda (military science), Sthapatya-veda (science of construction and mechanics), Gandharva-veda (arts and music) and Ayur-veda (health and medicine).
The Puranas and Itihasas can be put in the same mythological class and they are characterised with five common features namely history, cosmology (symbolical illustrations of philosophical principles), secondary creation, genealogy and manavantaras. Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa is believed to be the compiler of many Puranas. The ordinary people would find it difficult to understand high spiritual contents of the Vedas and Upanishads. Hence the Puranas were created to popularise the religion of Vedas through narratives, stories, myths, legends, lives of kings, saints and great men, allegories and chronicles of the significant historical events. The chief aim of Puranas remained to convey the essence of the Vedas and motivate people for the devotion to God through examples and illustrations. In a way, the Puranas are not meant for those who apply much logic and rationale but for common man who cannot read or understand high philosophy of Vedas.
There are eighteen main Puranas and these are Vishnu Purana, Naradiya Purana, Srimad Bhagavata Purana, Garuda Purana, Padma Purana, Varah Purana, Brahma Purana, Brahmanda Purana, Brahma Vaivarta Purana, Markandeya Purana, Bhavishya Purana, Vamana Purana, Matsya Purana, Kurma Purana, Linga Purana, Siva Purana, Skanda Purana and Agni Purana. Of these Puranas, six are Sattvic Puranas which primarily glorify Lord Vishnu; another six are categorised as Rajasic Puranas that glorify Lord Brahma; the remaining six are considered Tamasic Puranas glorifying Lord Siva. Then there are equal number of the subsidiary Puranas or Upa-puranas.
The most popular Puranas among the devout Hindus are the Srimad Bhagavata Purana and Vishnu Purana glorifying Lord Vishnu. The Markandeya Purana illustrates the Chandi or Devi mahatmya with the theme of the worship of the Divine Mother. Srimad Bhagavad Purana is a chronicle of the ten famous Avataras of Lord Vishnu to destroy the evil and restore the virtuous for the sake of humanity. The ten Avataras are Matsya (the Fish; saviour of Manu), Kurma (the Tortoise; supported churning of the ocean of milk), Varaha (the Boar; rescued earth from asura Hiranyaksha), Narasimha (the half-Lion-half-Man to kill Hiranyakasipu), Vamana (the Dwarf; to restore power of gods from Bali), Parsurama (the destroyer of the arrogant Kshatriyas), Rama (Hero of Ramayana; killed Ravana), Krishna (Delivered Bhagavad Gita, killed Kansa and other evil doers), Buddha (the founder of Buddhism) and Kalki (yet to come in Kaliyuga).
Since different Puranas have tried to convey essence of religion through narratives and storytelling, one may find that while glorifying the deity in respective Puranas, a lower footage is at times accorded to other deities. For illustration, in Vishnu Purana and Srimad Bhagavad Purana, Lord Vishnu has been glorified in such a manner that one may feel that Lord Shiva has been belittled; conversely it’s true when we talk of Lord Shiva in the Siva Purana. In Hindu mythology, such a contrast exists in some Puranas most probably to strengthen the faith of devotees in the respective gods but in most other Puranas and Itihasas Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva, part of trinity, are shown to have equal mutual respect and appreciation.
Itihasas are also known as the Suhrit-Samhitas or the Friendly Treaties while the corresponding nomenclature of the Vedas is the Prabhu-Samhitas or the Commanding Treaties. They embody the essence of the Vedas but narrated in a much simpler and interesting manner. The same Universal Truth is explained in Itihasas in the form of historical narratives, stories and conversation. The devout Hindus and secular people from even other religions read the fascinating stories of Itihasas with great interest and zeal.
Essentially four books constitute the part of Hindu Itihasas and these are the Ramayana (composer: Valmiki), Mahabharata (composr: Veda-Vyasa), Yogavasishtha and Harivamsa. Of these, the first two are the most popular among the Hindu masses and liked by many out-siders who have some interest in religion and mythology. The two books represent two great Indian epics based on the life of Maryada Purushottama Rama and Yogeshwar Krishna, respectively, supposed incarnation of Lord Vishnu in different epoch, to punish the evil-doers and rescue humanity from their oppression. The essence of Shrutis and codes of Smritis is beautifully incorporated in these books in a for simpler manner for the common man and one gets a clear view of Hinduism in these sublime stories.
The Itihasas are written on the same logic and rationale that the ordinary man cannot understand and absorb the abstract philosophy of the Vedas and Upanishads. Hence, the sages like Valmiki and Veda-Vyasa (also known as Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa) wrote the Ramayana and Mahabharata, respectively, for the use and benevolence of the common people as these epics reflect the same philosophy with analogies and parables in an interesting and tasteful manner. They were originally written in Sanskrit but later attempted in other languages too and even translated in other languages for the universal reach.
The Ramayana is also called the Adi-Kavya or the first epic poem. This is based on the life of Rama, considered as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who is also known as Maryada Purushottama (all-time great and ideal). The story covers his birth, growing with parents and brothers, education and marriage, fourteen years exile with the wife Sita and brother Lakshamana consequent to manipulation by the step-mother, abduction of Sita by the demon king Ravana, consequent war and destruction of demon king and his family, return to Ayodhya and establishment of an ideal reign (Ram-Rajya), with allied characters and events. The epic is narrated in about twenty-four thousand verses and the story line provides ideal role-model of a man and woman, how a person should conduct in family, how one should conduct with his elders, superiors, equals, and subordinates, how a ruler should rule, how a man should lead his life in this world, inter alia including his spiritual pursuits in life.
The Mahabharata is the greatest epic ever written most probably in the world history and it contains approximately one lakh verses. The storyline covers Kuruvansh (the Pandavas and the Kauravas) and Yaduvansh (Krishna and Yadava clan). It is a great war epic of the Battle of Kurukshetra, which broke out between the cousins, Kauravas and Pandavas, the descendants of the Lunar race. Sri Krishna is hero (considered reincarnation of Lord Vishnu) of the great epic who takes the side of the Pandavas in the War as right Dharma. Along with the great storyline, the epic is in fact a condensed form of the knowledge of the Vedas and Upanishads addressing all aspects of the religion, philosophy, mysticism and polity through moral teachings, stories and episodes, discourses, sermons, parables and dialogues. The teachings of the Bhagavad Gita in the form of dialogue between Yogeshwar Krishna and delusional prince Arjuna in the Kurushetra are also part of the same epic.
The text is named after sage Vasistha who finds a reverential reference in the the Rigveda. The text is in the form of a discourse of sage Vasistha to Prince Rama in six parts. The first part presents Rama's anguish with the nature of life and human suffering in the world; the second part describes the character of Rama and aspects of human desire to seek liberation; the third and fourth parts covers self-efforts for the spiritual life, cosmology and metaphysical aspects of the human existence through the embedded stories; the fifth part deals with the meditation and its powers in liberating the individual; and the last part glorifies the enlightened and blissful Rama. Yog Vasistha is structured in the form of stories and fables with the philosophical foundation similar to the Advaita Vedanta.
This text is also known as the Harivamsha Purana is a supplement to Mahabharata and ascribed to Veda-Vyasa with about twelve thousand verses. It is in three parts (books). The first part describes the creation of universe and legendary history of the kings of the Solar and Lunar dynasties. The second part deals with the life of Krishna describing events prior to Mahabharata. The third and final part includes hymns to Vishnu and Shiva suggesting two alternate creation theories and a description of Kaliyuga.
Agamas are another class of popular scriptures representing Texts of rituals and rites of worship. They are defined as the theological treatises and practical manuals for the divine worship. The Agamas are inclusive of the tantras, mantras and yantras describing the techniques of the worship of God in idol form at homes, temples etc. They provide elaborate details of ontology, cosmology, devotion, meditation, moksha, philosophy of Mantras, mystic diagrams, charms and spells, temple-building, image-making, social rules, domestic observances and public festivals etc. In all, there are more than one hundred and fifty Agamas.
The Agamas are broadly divided into three sections namely the Vaishnava, Shaiva and Shakta based on the three corresponding major sects of Hinduism and their doctrines and dogmas. The Vaishnava Agamas glorify God as Vishnu, the Shaiva Agamas glorify God as Shiva and the Shakta Agamas (or Tantras) glorify God as the Mother Goddess Shakti, Chandi or Devi and many other names. Though Agamas do not derive their authority from the Vedas but they are not in conflict either with them and have a wide acceptance. Of the four kinds of Vaishnave Agamas namely the Vaikhanasa, Pratishthasara, Vijnana-lalita and Pancharatras, the last category of Agamas are considered most acceptable among the devotees of Vaishnava sect with Vishnu as the supreme deity. Among the Shaiva Agamas, Lord Shiva is the central deity. Similarly, the Shakta Agamas or Tantras glorify Shakti as the universal Mother Goddess. They dwell upon the Sakti (energy) aspect of God and prescribe different kinds of the ritualistic worship of the Divine Mother.
Darshana texts are in fact the philosophical doctrines of salvation and are very intricate and far-fetched. Therefore, it could be comprehended only by a learned few. Based on the knowledge of the Vedas, six schools of philosophy have been evolved in Hinduism over a period of time. They are classified as six Darsanas or six ways of seeing things; the corresponding literature represent the six systems or six different schools of thought. They are in the form of short aphorisms and a rishi is credited having created and written each school. These six schools are rishi Gautama's Nyaya, Kapila's Sankhya, Kanada's Vaisheshika, Patanjali's Yoga, Jaimini's Purva Mimamsa and Badarayana's Vedanta-Sutra. These are in fact six different doctrines collectively called as Shad-darshana. The entire Darshana literature, though very complex, is philosophical and logical.
The Secular Scriptures
Though the ancient secular literature is very popular among masses but it does not carry the same weightage as the authoritative ones explained in the foregoing. The secular writings are also known as the Prakarana Granthas and they serve as primers for the spiritual studies and experience. The classical example of the literature of this category are Atma Bodha and Bhaja Govindam. Bhaja Govindam, also known as Moha Mudgara (destroyer of dillusion), is a popular 8th century devotional composition in Sanskrit ascribed to Adi Shankara. Atma Bodha is a short Sanskrit text on Advaita Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy attributed to Adi Shankara. The text in sixty-eight verses describes the path to Self-knowledge or the awareness of Atman. The verses in Bhaja Govindam deal with human attachment and ignorance with the wealth, women and other worldly things and path to get riddance from the worldly attachments. Then there are stotras and bhajans (hymns and devotional songs) by many saint-poets as free-floating or in the compiled form that also constitutes part of the secular scripture. The Secular literatures is broadly classified as under:
The Subhashitas are wise sayings, instructions and stories in poetry as well as prose form. Bhartrihari’s Satakatraya comprising of three collections of verses of about 100 stanzas each, the Subhashita-Ratna-Bhandagara and Somadeva Bhatta’s Katha-Sarit-Sagara and Kshemendra’s Brihat-Katha-Manjari fall in the category of Subhashiras. The Pachatantra and Hitopadesa are other examples of this category.
The Kavyas are scholarly compositions in poetry and prose. The classical examples of the Kavyas include Meghadutam, Kumara-sambhava and Raghuvamsha composed by Kalidasa. Among the most famous prose Kavyas in the Sanskrit literature are Banabhatta’s Kadambari and Harshacharita.
Natakas (dramas) are playful yet scholarly acts embodying different Rasas (feelings) mainly through facial expressions. These Rasas include Sringara (beautification), Vira (bravery), Karuna (compassion), Adbhuta (astonishment), Hasya (humour), Bhayanka (fearsome), Bibhatsa (disgusting ), Raudra (terrible), and so on so forth. Among the best known Sanskrit dramas are Abhijnana-Shakuntalam written by Kalidasa, Uttara-Rama-Charita by Bhavabhuti and Mudrarakshasa by Visakhadatta.
These are the compositions of great eloquence and elegance containing ornamental language both in poetry and prose. They are considered as the fundamentals of Sanskrit literature, even better than the Kavyas and Natakas. The Kavyaprakasa by Mammata and Rasagangadhara by Jagannatha are amongst the best Alankara Granthas ever written.
Among the entire disposition of Hindu scriptures, the Shrutis form the root, the Smritis, Itihasas and Puranas represent the trunk, the Agamas and Darsanas are like branches while the Subhashitas, Kavyas, Natakas and Alankaras are like leaves and flowers; if we take Indian culture as a tree. The scriptures show three definitive paths to follow in the quest of spirituality. As discussed in the previous parts, these pathways pass through the routes of Karma-yoga, Jnan-yoga and Bhakti-yoga. The Karma-yoga could be related to the teachings of the Vedas, Jnan-yoga with the learnings of Upanishads and Bhakti-yoga by following Agamas. The sole purpose and objective of all Hindu scriptures is to remove ignorance and illusion of the person, and guide him to achieve self-realization to feel oneness with God.
Continued to Part XIX
* Swami Sivananda (1887 - 1963) was an accomplished spiritual teacher and scholar of Vedanta and Yoga. He founded the Divine Life Society, Rishikesh and authored over 200 books on religion and philosophy. Having derived certain useful points from his works in the current article, the author gratefully acknowledge Swami's spiritual and metaphysical contributions and accomplishment.