Hindu Sacred Books
The concept of Hinduism being a single monolithic religion is recent, dating back only to the 19th century. Many scholars liken Hinduism to a family of religions, with all affiliated members bearing a family resemblance. Thus any definition of Hinduism is somewhat arbitrary and requires qualification. One such definition is “the followers of Vaidika Dharma,” or those who follow the religious teachings outlined in the Vedas and their corollaries.
Hindu religious literature is divided into two main categories:
- Shruti – that which has been heard
- Smriti – that which has been remembered
- Hinduism has no single scripture but many.
- They include the Vedas and their corollaries sometimes called collectively “the Vedic scriptures.”
- There are two main divisions:
- shruti – that which is heard (revealed truth)
- smriti – that which is remembered (realised truth)
- Sanskrit is the language of most canonical texts, but many subsidiary texts are written in the vernacular.
Shruti is canonical, consisting of revelation and unquestionable truth, and is considered eternal. It refers mainly to the Vedas themselves.
Smriti 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 ofshruti, whereas others say that in making truths accessible, smriti is more important today. Belief in universal truth suggests to some Hindu thinkers that any teaching that corresponds to real knowledge can also be accepted as “Veda.” Hence there are numerous writings considered to be “Vedic,” including many vernacular works. It is important to note that:
- The divide between Shruti and Smriti is often contested.
- The divide is not discrete but can be represented as a continuum, with some texts more canonical than others.
Most key texts are written in classical Sanskrit, considered the sacred language of the gods. The script itself is termed “devanagari” – literally “from the cities of the gods.” (For more information on Sanskrit, please see Sanskrit and Sanskriti). Many subsidiary texts, particularly by medieval bhakti writers, are in local vernaculars, such as Tamil, Brajbasi, Gujarati, and Bengali.
The content of Vedic scripture is divided into three main sections, though the third one, upasana-kanda, is sometimes omitted:
- Karma-kanda – largely dealing with ritual sacrifice aimed at enjoyment (world-accepting)
- Jnana-kanda – philosophical texts aimed at knowledge through renunciation (world-denying)
- Upasana kanda – texts focusing on worship of God and service to him (world-accommodating/transcending)
These three largely correspond to the three main paths – Karma-yoga, Jnana-yoga, and Bhakti-Yoga (see Four Main Paths).
The most important books in the shruti and smriti are listed below. They are here grouped into ten categories to aid memorisation. The main texts within both shruti and smriti are explored in this section.
For popular purposes in the UK, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Puranas and the Bhagavad-gita are most commonly used.
Ten Principal Texts
- Main shruti texts (3)
- The Four Vedas
- The 108 Upanishads
- The Vedanta Sutra
- Main smriti texts (4)
- The Itihasas (histories or epics)
- The Bhagavad-gita (philosophy)
- The Puranas (stories and histories)
- The Dharma Shastra (law books)
- Other texts (4)
- The Vedangas (limbs of the Vedas)
- The Upavedas (following the Vedas)
- Sectarian texts (e.g. agamas, tantras)
- Vernacular literature
- The Epics are the Ramayana and Mahabharata
- The “other texts” are usually classified as smriti. Some consider the Vedangas to be shruti.
- The sectarian texts mainly deal with ritual procedures, and include the Vaishnava Pancharatra, the Shaiva Agamas and Tantras, and the Shakta Devi Shastra and Tantra
Sacred texts are sources of:
- Philosophical concepts
- Information on personal values
- Practical injunctions
- Story and myth
- Prayers and mantras
- Details of worship/liturgy
- Various arts and sciences
- Sacred texts are treated with respect; they are never placed directly on the floor, nor touched with feet or dirty hands.
- Prayers are often recited before using or consulting them.
- Texts are often wrapped in silk cloth.
- Sometimes they are placed in a shrine and offered worship.
- Ancient texts were etched on leaves, such as palm.
- Books are used for recitation, personal study, theological training, pravachan (see Other Forms of Worship) and consultation on matters of spiritual and secular law.
Related Values and Issues
- The differences between belief, opinion and truth
- The need for authority
- In what ways does secular literature fulfill a similar role to scripture e.g. as a means to information?
- Are there any parallels in the need to accept the opinion, advice or judgment of others? How should it be accepted?
- How important is it for a teacher to make any topic accessible to students (as smriti attempts to do)? What are the benefits and possible pitfalls in doing this?
- Veda – knowledge, from the root vit, “to know”
- Vedic – often refers to the period of compilation of the Rig Veda (i.e. the Vedic period). Hindus themselves often use the term to describe anything connected to the Vedas and their corollaries (e.g. Vedic culture).
Meaning and Purpose
- How do we determine the meaning and purpose of life?
- Does written authority play a role?