Sacred Texts of Hinduism
Hindu religious literature is divided into two main categories: ‘Shruti’ and ‘Smriti’; Shruti – that which has been heard (revealed truth); and Smriti that which has been remembered (realized truth). Shruti consists of unquestionable truth and is considered eternal. It refers mainly to the Vedas themselves. Smriti is supplementary and may change over time. It is authoritative to the extent that it conforms to the bedrock of Shruti. If Shruti is ‘direct experience’, Smriti is ‘tradition’ – the experience remembered.
The Sruti is composed of the four Vedas – the Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sarna Veda and Atharva Veda. The Vedas form the oldest sacred texts of Hinduism.
The term Veda comes from the root Vid, i.e., to know. The word Veda means knowledge. When it is applied to scripture, it signifies a book of knowledge. Each of the four Vedas may be divided into two sections: The Mantra portion, also called the Samhita, is a collection of hymns to be used in Vedic sacrifices; the Brahmanas portion contains specific rules and regulations for the sacrifices as well as prose commentaries explaining the meaning of the mantras and rituals.
The Upanishads contain highly philosophical and metaphysical writings about the nature of, and the relationship between, the soul (atman) and Brahman. The Upanishads are often referred to collectively as Vedanta (lithe end of the Vedas”), not only because they appear physically in the concluding pages of each Veda, but also because the mystical truths they express are seen by many as the culmination of all the other Vedic knowledge.
The Smriti: Post-Vedic Hindu scriptures The books that appeared after the Vedas were called Smriti. Smrti literature includes Itihasas (epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata), Puranas (mythological texts), Agamas (theological treatises) and Darshanas (philosophical texts).
The Mahabharata and Ramayana are the national epics of India. The Mahabharata, attributed to the sage Vyasa, was written down from 540 to 300 B.C. The Mahabharata tells the legends of the Bharatas, a Vedic Aryan group. The Ramayana, attributed to the poet Valmiki, was written down during the first century A.D., although it is based on oral traditions that go back six or seven centuries earlier. The Hindu philosophy reflected in the epics is the doctrine of avatar (incarnation of God as a human being). The two main avatars of Vishnu that appear in the epic are Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, and Krishna, the chief protagonist in the Mahabharata.
Puranas contain a narrative of the history of the Universe, from creation to destruction, genealogies of the kings, heroes and demigods, and descriptions of Hindu cosmolog philosophy and geography. There are many texts designated as ‘Purana’. The most important are Mahapuranas. There are 17 or 18 canonical Puranas, divided into three categories, each named after a deity: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Darshanas: Darshanas represent six schools of Hindu Philosophy. Blavatsky (Theosophy, 1931) calls these six schools ‘Demonstrations’. They are like the six fundamental points; each of them presents but one view of truth; not one of them in itself is complete. Each of these six schools demonstrates completely the whole of the world-process from one particular angle of vision.
The same universe, the same world-process, the same panorama is looked at from one side and then another.
The Dharmashastras (law books) are considered by many to form part of the Smriti. From time to time great lawgivers (e.g. Manu, Yajnavalkya and Parashara) emerged who codified existing laws to ensure that the Hindu way of life was consistent with both the Vedic spirit and the changing times. Manu Smriti (The Laws of Manu) is a body of rules for ritual and daily life compiled probably between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200.
The Bhagawad Gita
The Bhagavad Gita (literally: Song of the God), usually considered part of the sixth book of the Mahabharata (dating from about 400 or 300 B.C.), is a central text of Hinduism, a philosphical dialogue between the Lord Krishna and the warrior Arjuna. This is one of the most popular and accessible of all Hindu scriptures. The Gita discusses selflessness, duty, devotion, and meditation, integrating many different threads of Hindu philosophy; it is a microcosm of Vedic, Yogic, Vedantic and even Tantric thought of the Hindu fold. It speaks not only to Vaishnavas but to all people, and it is accepted by the members of all Hindu streams as an influential text.
Indeed, the “tag line” of each chapter of the Bhagavad Gita refers to the book as the “Gita Upanishad” and as a “scripture of yoga,” thereby establishing that in this text, Lord Krishna speaks the truths of yoga and the Upanishads for all.