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Hindu scripture
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Hindu scripture

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1 Hindu scriptures

Hindu scriptures

Hindu scripture is overwhelmingly written in Sanskrit. Indeed, much of the morphology and linguistic philosophy inherent in the learning of Sanskrit is inextricably linked to study of the Vedas and relevant Hindu texts. Hindu scripture is divided into two categories: Shruti- that which is heard (i.e. revelation) and Smriti- that which is remembered (i.e. tradition, not revelation). The Vedas constituting the former category are considered scripture by all Hindus. The post-Vedic Hindu scriptures form the latter category; the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are notable epics considered scripture by many sects. A sort of cross-over between the religious epics and Upanishads of the Vedas is the Bhagavad Gita, considered to be revealed scripture by almost all Hindus today.

Hindu texts are typically seen to revolve around many levels of reading, namely gross/physical, subtle and supramental. This allows for many levels of understanding as well, implying that the truth of the texts can only be realized with the spiritual advancement of the reader. For a look at the important texts of Hinduism, see Hindu scripture.

The Vedas

The Vedas are referred to as the Shruti. Scholars who have made a study of world scriptures maintain that the Vedas are the oldest extant religious texts. The ideas expressed in the Vedas were traditionally handed down orally from father to son and from teacher to disciple. Therefore, these ideas had been in circulation for a long time before their codification and compilation, which are attributed to a Rishi named Veda Vyasa (literally, "the splitter of the Vedas," ). He was named that way as it was he who was accredited with forming the large mass of knowledge and hymns of the Vedas and 'splitting' them into comprehensible sections for the rest of humanity. On the basis of both internal and external evidence, scholars have suggested various dates for the origin of the Vedas, ranging from approximately 1000 BC to as far back as 5000 BC, with most scholarship accepting a range between 1000 and 1200 BC. For analysis of their contents, see Vedas.

The Upanishads

While the Upanishads are indeed classed within the fold of the "Vedas," their actual importance to Hindu thought has far exceeded that of possibly any other set of Hindu scriptures, and even resulted in the Bhagavad Gita, which is a self-proclaimed yoga upanishad. Thus, they deserve a look that is independent from the samhitas and brahamans, whose excessive ritualism the Upanishads famously rebelled against. They form Vedanta and are the basis of much of Classical Hindu thought.

The Upanishads ("Sittings Near [a Teacher]") are part of the Hindu Shruti; these religious scriptures primarily discuss philosophy and "cosmic reality"; they also contain transcripts of various debates or discussions. There are 123 books argued to be part of the Upanishads; however, only 13 are accepted by all Hindus as primary. They are commentaries on the Vedas and their branch of Hinduism is called Vedanta. See Upanishads for a much more detailed look at the mystic backbone of Hinduism.

The Upanishads are acknowledged by scholars and philosophers from both East and West, from Schrödinger, Thoreau and Emerson to Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi and Aurobindo Ghosh, to be superlatively beautiful in poetry and rich in philosophy.

Post-Vedic Hindu scriptures

The new books that appeared afterwards were called Smriti. Smrti literature includes Itihasas (epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata), Puranas (mythological texts), Agamass (theological treatises) and Darshanas (philosophical texts).

The Dharmashastras (law books) are considered by many to form part of the smrti. From time to time great law-givers (eg Manu, Yajnavalkya and Parashara) emerged, who codified existing laws and eliminated obsolete ones to ensure that the Hindu way of life was consistent with both the Vedic spirit and the changing times. However, it must be noted that the Dharmashastras have long been discarded by many groups of Hindus, namely those following Vedanta, Bhakti, Yoga and Tantra streams of Hinduism.

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 epics are Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, and Krishna, the chief protagonist in the Mahabharata. Unlike the gods of the Vedic Samhitas and the more meditative, mystic and ethical Upanishadic ideas regarding the all-pervading and formless Brahman, the avatars in these epics are more developed personalities, loving and righteous intermediaries between the Supreme Being and mortals.

The Bhagavad Gita

Many a Hindu has said that the most succinct and powerful abbreviation of the overwhelmingly diverse realm of Hindu thought is to be found in the Bhagavad Gita. Essentially, it is a microcosm of Vedic, Yogic, Vedantic and even Tantric thought of the Hindu fold. Composed between the fifth and second centuries BCE, the Bhagavad Gita (literally: Song of the Lord) is a part of the epic poem Mahabharata and is revered in Hinduism. It is not limited to Vaishnavs, as some people incorrectly assume, since it is accepted by Tantrics and non-denominational yogins of all Hindu streams as a seminal text. Indeed, the Bhagavad Gita refers to itself as a 'Yoga Upanishad,' thereby establishing itself as more than just a text based on Krishna, but rather one that speaks of truths through Krishna.

What holds the devotee's mind foremost is Krishna's repeated injunction to abandon the mortal self to the infinite love of the Lord. He spoke to not only to the mind and to the Hindu's innate sense of Dharma, but called for overwhelming love, that to love God was to love the immortal Self, and to find some harmony in oneself was to be at peace with the entire cosmos. It speaks of cultivating both the intellect and the body, but always to remain equal in perspectival intuition of the greater Self. The Bhagavad Gita truly sought to be a liberation scripture universal in its message.

[For greater depth, go to the Bhagavad Gita article]

The Puranas

The Puranas are a vast literature of stories and allegory. Eighteen are considered to be Mahapuranas, or Great Puranas, and thus authoritative references on the Gods and Goddesses, religious rites and holy places (most of which are in the Indian subcontinent, known as Bharat). See Puranas for a discussion of their vast contents and cosmological, philosophical, allegorical and mythological perspectives.

Other Hindu texts

Other famous texts of Hinduism include those of the bhakti yoga school (loving devotion to God) such as the Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas (an epic poem on the scale of Milton's Paradise Lost based on the Ramayana), the Gita Govinda of Jayadeva (a religious song of the divine love of Krishna and his consort Radha) and the Devi Mahatmya (the tales of Devi, the Hindu mother goddess, in her many forms as Shakti, Durga, Parvati, etc.).

See Also * List of sutras


Early Hinduism | Hinduism | Hindu Philosophy
Primary Scriptures: Vedas | Upanishads | Bhagavad Gita | Itihasa | Tantras | Sutras
Concepts: Brahman | Dharma | Karma | Moksha | Maya | Punarjanma | Samsara
Schools & Systems: Vedanta | Yoga | Tantra | Bhakti
Rituals: Aarti | Darshan | Puja | Satsang | Thaal | Yagnya
Hindu Teachers/Gurus and Saints: Sankara | Ramakrishna | Vivekananda | Aurobindo | Ramana Maharshi | Sivananda
Denominations: Vaishnavism | Shaivism | Shaktism | Neo- and quasi-Hindu movements