Vedic Scriptures

Hinduism has no single scripture but many. They include the Vedas and their corollaries sometimes called collectively “the Vedic scriptures” written in the Sanskrit language.

There are two main divisions:

  • Shruti (that which has been heard) is canonical, consisting of revelation and unquestionable truth, and is considered eternal. It refers mainly to the Vedas themselves.
  • Smriti (that which has been remembered) is supplementary and may change over time. It is authoritative only to the extent that it conforms to the bedrock of Shruti

There are different opinions about the relative validity and importance of each. Some Hindus stress the foundational importance of Shruti, whereas others say that in making truths accessible, Smriti is more important today.

The Vedas are divided into 4:

  1. The Rig Veda is the most important and the oldest and it is divided into 10 books with a total of 1028 hymns in praise of various deities. It also contains the famous Gayatri mantra and the prayer called the Purusha Sukta (the story of Primal Man).
  2. The Yajur Veda is a priestly handbook for use in the performance of yajnas (sacrifices).
  3. The Sama Veda consists of chants and melodies to be sung during worship and performance of yajna.
  4. The Atharva Veda contains hymns, mantras and incantations, largely outside the scope of yajna.

Within each of these 4 books there are 4 types of composition or divisions:

  • The Samhitas are literally “collections”, in this case of hymns and mantras.
  • The Brahmanas are prose manuals of ritual and prayer for guiding priests. They tend to explain the Samhitas.
  • The Aranyakas are literally “forest books” for hermits and saints. They are philosophical treatises.
  • The Upanishads are the books of philosophy and are also called “Vedanta”, the end or conclusion of the Vedas.

 

There are also 2 important bodies of supplementary literature, related closely to the Vedas themselves:

  1. The Vedangas which expound the sciences required to understand and apply the Vedas:
  • Kalpa: Ritual detail
  • Siksha: Pronounciation
  • Vyakarana: Grammar
  • Nirukti: Etymology
  • Chandas: Meter
  • Jyotisha: Astronomy/Astrology
  1. The Upavedas (usually considered Smrti) which deal with 4 traditional arts and sciences:
  • Ayur-veda: Medicine
  • Gandharva-veda: Music and dance
  • Dhanur-veda: Military
  • Shilpa-veda: Architecture
  • Within the category of Smriti there are 4 main subcategories:
  • The Itihasas include “histories” and great epics like the Mahabharata (110.000 verses) and the Ramayana, which are the most popular texts for Hindus. The Mahabharata includes the Bhagavad Gita (700 verses) which is a philosophical Smriti text and the most widely read book by Hindus. (It comes closest to what the Bible is for Christians and the Koran for Muslims).
  • The Puranas include 18 Maha (great) Puranas and many Upa (subsidiary) Puranas. The Bhagavata Purana is the most popular and very important for Vaishnavas of all denominations.
  • The Dharma Sastras are “law books” which include the famous Manu-smriti and the Vishnu-smriti.
  • The Sutras are books of concise truths or aphorisms and include the Shrauta sutras, Shulba-sutras, Grihya-sutras, Vedanta-sutras, etc.

Finally the writings and commentaries of the great Acharyas or Theologians are also considered Vedic scriptures.

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