Sept – Oct 2009: Hindu Sacred Texts and Movements

Arrangement of Hindu Scriptures (shaastraa-s) in a simple, serialized order (for the sake of understanding)

Hymns of Vedas are “revelations” to the rishi-s or sages when were stationed in higher levels of consciousness. Also, most of the books of vedic period were archived by rote and memorization before getting into a written form. For these reasons, they are collectively called as Shrutis (that are heard).

Vedas are collectively called as Shruti-s (“that which are heard”). Samhitaa-s, Brahmanaa-s, Aaranyakaa-s, and Upanishad-s constitute each veda. Each veda is grouped with it’s own Brahmanaa-s, Aaranyakaa-s and Upanishad-s. Hence, when we talk about a veda, we mean a compendium of all these 4 categories of scriptures.

Vedas are “not originated by human” or apourusheya, and eternal or “anaadhi”. The seers or Drishtaa-s were the vehicles of revelations and were not ‘authors’. Unlike in many other cases, these revelations are not moral or ethical injunctions and/or religions dogmas. Rather, most parts of samhitaa-s or core parts of the vedas are poetic and liturgical rendering of the experiences and perceptions of the Rishi-s or sages when they delved into higher realms of consciousness. Thus vedas are said to be mantra-s or potent prayers. They are not sloka-s or verses of adoration.

Even in this 21st century, anybody reaching the levels of Consciousness of those ancient sages may have similar experiences. Rig veda calls this as Kavi Hridaya or Heart of the Sage. This is something not restricted to a time, place or type of human to behold.

Although the four vedaa-s are mistaken as a single collection, they are well separated by time, geography, content, scope, style, meaning etc. The current corpus of texts represent a collection of works initially recorded in various time points, in different parts of then ancient India and by various rishi-s or sages.

People who study the evolution of a language (in this case, Sanksrit) and compare languages, historians of ancient civilizations, experts on the gray-area of pre-history: recorded history interphase try to date the works from the past. Vedas were recorded in a written form much later, sometimes a few thousands years from the original rendition as in the case of Rig Veda. Also, being compilations, they are made up of works that were developed in different times and places by different seers with different states of mind and in different stages of spiritual evolution. For these reasons and many more, the task of putting a date on these books is a difficult and subjective, most times controversial, exercise.

Instead, for laymen students like us, it will suffice to know the overall arrangement and chronological serialization of the Hindu scriptures, or more aptly, Shaastraa-s, as they are called. The arrangement below reflects this notion. There are ongoing scholarly research projects on these subjects in world universities as well as published books of all flavors to any body interested in more. I will put up a reference page some day soon.

Main Vedic works

Samhitaa-s or four core compendiums

Rig Veda samhitaa

     * the oldest of all the vedaa-s and one of the oldest scriptural texts in the world.
     * Almost all parts of Rig Veda are hymnal recordings of mystical experiences of the
       rishi-s or seer sages who present ideas in  complex symbolism.
     * Separated from other parts of shaastraa-s in time and style; it is rendered in an older version of sanskrit.

Yajur Veda samhitaa

     * most parts are of later date to Rig Veda
     * constitute hymns and texts on various kinds of sacrifices and rituals
     * represent a time of vedic lifestyle when rituals started to predominate the
       mindsets of people
     * rich, dense compilation of hymns,and prose that survive today
     * many parts constitute the basis of ritualistic forms of Hindu religion

Saama Veda samhitaa

     * most part of Saama veda's samhitaa borrowed from Rig samhitaa
     * mainly rendered in musical notations
     * recited as part of rituals and liturgy
     * conventions and styles of rendering the hymns are complicated but only few are preserved over time

Atharva veda samhitaa

     * clearly the less predominant, somewhat independent of the four vedas
     * compilation of works of distinctively different  times and usages
     * many hymns and texts on warfare, healing, use of magical power gained thru
       certain rituals  for materialistic gains

Braahmanaa-s and Aaranyakaa-s: Ritualistic, religious and philosophical texts

Brahmanaa-s: vocational manual for braahmins or priests

     * These collections eloboratively describe various fire rituals, protocols for
       austere conduction of rituals, hymns and chants associated with them,
     * provide descriptions of various religious and cultural aspects of vedic lifestyle.
     * collection of philosophical thoughts and treatises that remain to be the
       part of the solid philosophical  foundation of Hindu Dharma per se.

Aaranyakaa-s: “that belong to Aranyaa-s or Forests”

     * These are later expansion and extension of Brahmanaas, delving on to
        the secret meaning of rituals etc
     * Describe rituals that need to be practiced away from "where there are no  roof tops are seen" as in forests"
     * They were taught to disciples by aachaarya-s or scholarly teachers in forests
     * Contemplative parts constitute early upanishads.

Later Vedic works

Upanishad-s: Texts summarizing Vedic thought

Along with a few other philosophical doctrines,Upanishad-s are noted as Vedaanta (culmination of Veda)

     * There are 12 great Upanishads of original timbre. The rest were add-ons or otherwise popular ones
       from different times.  Altogether there are 108 mainstream upanishad-s.
     * Some upanishad-s like Brihadyaranyakaa and Chaandogyaa are dated to be of earliest times of Yajur veda.
     * Upanishad-s are standing evidence to co-development and parallel practice of vedic ritualism
       and contemplative vedic mysticism
     * The texts associated with the last part of vedic corpus summarize the
       spiritual experiences (epiphany) and intellectual enquiry of the seers.
     * Upanishad-s or texts coming out of being "seated near (a Guru) in a proper place" mark the
       synthesis of old and new vedic and other spiritual schools of that time
     * By practicing the intellectual and spiritual meditative processes outlined
       in the Upanishad-s, the student of Vedaanta progresses near to the Truth.
     * Apart from Bhagavat Gita (itself considered to be an Upanishad), the 12 Upanishads are the portals in to
       Hindu thought for  westerners and western-educated Hindus
     * They were the earliest of vedic works to be translated into a non-Indian
       language: Persian translations were taken to Europe and rendered into Latin.

Vedas are collectively called as Shruti-s (“that which are heard”). Samhitaa-s, Brahmanaa-s, Aaranyakaa-s, and Upanishad-s constitute each veda. Each veda developed it’s own Brahmanaa-s, Aaranyakaa-s and Upanishad-s. Hence, when we talk about a veda, we mean a compendium of all these 4 categories of scriptures.


Vedaangaa-s or major parts / accessories to Vedas

Each “angaa” or part has many books to their archive.

     a) Siksha  Science and Essence of pedagogy, including didactic and practicuum
     b) Vyaakarana grammar, linguistics, phonetics
     c) Chandas Metrics of vedic, post-vedic compositions
     d) Nirukta Vedic dictionary, etymology, meaning of usage, philology
     e) Jyotisha Astronomy, astrology, science of measuring time, mathematics
     f) Kalpa organized science of domestic, purificatory rituals etc.

Upaangaa-s or minor parts / accessories to Vedas

Six Philosophies or Shad Darshanaa-s: 6 schools of metaphysics

These 6 schools of metaphysics are grouped as Shad-Darshanaa-s or Six Philosophies. Interpretation of Upanishad-s, Raja yoga, Gita and other Hindu iconic scriptures are done based on the synthesis of these philosophical thoughts. Upanishad-s as essence of vedas, and these six philosophies together have formed the spirit and structure of Hindu thought for the past 2 millenia

     Mimaamsaa & Vedaantaa Philosophical  texts of  profound    significance
           * Poorva (Early) mimaamsa accepts supremacy of ritualistic interpretation of vedaas
           * Uttara (Later ) mimaamsa also called Vedanta along with major upanishads; Distills Vedic knowledge
                  as Brahma Sutras by Vyaasaa. One of the 3 pillars of Hindu religious philosophy
     Nyaaya & Vaisheshika Science of Logic and Expediency
     Saankhya & Yoga Saankhya is the metaphysical school that is the  foundation for  Patanjali's Yoga Saastraa and many other philosophies.
                       Patanjali's treatise on Yoga teaches Raaja Yoga or King of Yoga-s among other methods.

Puraanaa-s & Itihaasaa-s

     * Puraanaa-s are allegorical stories religious mythologies
     * Compiled in to 18 major works by Sri Veda Vyaasa or Krishna Dwaipaayana, they are meant to carry the
            heavier Truths  to common people as allegorical stories of Gods,incarnations and demons.
     * Another 18 auxiliary puraanaa-s available
     * Itihaasaa-s are historical classics like Vaalmiki's Raamaayana and  Vyaasaa's Mahabhaarata. Mahabhaarata is considered
             to be the fifth veda

Dharma shaastra-s: Books of codified law, ways of living, religion, society etc.

     * These are layers of works with tersely-worded higher level books (Eg. from Manusmriti) and explanatory books
             with detailed  descriptions like Nibhandaa-s
     * Generally called as Smrithi-s (that which are remembered).
     * There are 18 major ones starting from Manu smriti and another 18 minor ones.
     * These are operational manuals for living as an individual, as part of a society and in all other responsibilities.

Agamaa-s and Tantraa-s: Codes for religious practices

     * Mainly based on Shiva, Vishnu and Sakti.
     * Synthesize Mantras, rituals, vedic hymns, Yoga practices and other domains to
             provide   standard protocols for worshipping different forms of God or Devataa-s

All of the above Vedas (4), Vedaangaa-s (6), Upaangaa-s (4), totally 14 are called as Vidyaa-s or knowledge bodies. They form the core scriptural basis of Hindu religion and philosophy for several millenia

Prasthaana Thrayaa or Three Evidences/Foundations is the edifice of metaphysics, philosophy and enlightenment. Twelve Upanishads, Brahma Sutraa and Bhagavad Gita are the three pillars of this Three Evidences. It will be interesting to know that after these 3 works were properly translated, the quality of discussions on Hindu dharma changed completely and due recognition came about naturally among the intelligentsia of the westernized world. Ironically, the three works derive their foundation from the earlier vedic corpus which were once described as “barbaric” and “disconnected”.

Upa-vedas or texts secondary to vedas

     a) Aayur Veda Indigenous medical science based on insight and experimentation
     b) Artha saastraa Science of economics, fiscal responsibility, and governance
     c) Dhanur Veda Military science
     d) Gaandharva veda Science of subtler human relationships and fine arts. Musical treatises
                            on  both Carnatic and Hindustaani schools come under this category.

Texts of special interests

These works exist as part of the some of the categories above and sometimes as individual works followed by specialized groups of professionals

     a) Vaastu Saastra Studies on engineering and architecture for residences
     b) Shilpa Saastra Studies on construction and sculpture, temple architecture
     c) Naatya Sasstra Treatises on Dance and histrionics

Bhakti or devotional literature

     * Bhakti or Love and Devotion to Devataa-s has it's origin in Rig Veda, evolved thru mimaamsa schools and
           matured over the millennia.
     * The vast collection of Bhakti songs, books, dramas, dance dramas, classics, orally
           inherited works are in many languages.
     * This corpus of works spread over 500-600 years across India paved the way for sustenance and persistence of Dharma under attack by
           fundamentalist religions;  renaissance and rejuvenation when the religion and society were trodden upon by intolerance.

Post-Gutenberg or modern renaissance

     * Works of modern Hindu renaissance period can be traced back to the ascendancy of Britishers in India in 1700s when they
           promptly brought the printing press from Europe.
     * Newly printed scriptures were subjected to study and scrutiny for proselytizing purposes by European scholars
     * As a counter-effect, more non-Hindu scholars were captivated by what they encountered and had intellectual conversions.

This had both positive and negative effects.

     * On the negative side, western and westernized Indian scholars made literal translation of vedic literature. This resulted in
           incoherent and unintelligible  rendering of vedic corpus leading to minimizing the significance, branding and  prejudice.
     * Some original names from 19-th century of this kind are Max Muller, Griffith etc.
     * On the positive side, many Hindu and western scholars realized the limitations of westernized translations and toiled to
           provide genuine, unbiased and culturally authentic translations.
     * All of a sudden, access to original books are made easier even to common Hindus with a bit of English knowledge and resulted in Hindus
           waking up to their heritage
     * Swami Vivekanand, Sri Aurobindo, Tilak, Radhakrishnan are some pioneers in this effort.

Social and religious movements

Advent of Western-style education opened up new venues of intellectual expansion. It was only natural that this influenced social changes in a more rapid pace than that happened either in France (18th century), Britain (19th century) or South Africa (20th century). Within a matter of 70 years, stalwarts like Dayananda Saraswathi, Anne Besant, founders of Brahmo Samaj and a few others started organizations like Arya Samaj, Theosophical society, Brahmo Samaj that left lasting changes in the hindu societal practices. Swami Vivekananda started Sri Ramakrishna Mission from Calcutta and Chennai which has blossomed into a worldwide organization. In 1925, KB Hedgewar started Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) which became a powerful force in the political and societal processes. Dr. Hedgewar taught and encouraged a sense of self-respect and pride in being a Hindu. Sri Aurobindo and Mother Mirra’s efforts in the former French colony Pondicherry, is an important center. Organizations started by Swami Sivananda and Swami Chinmayananda continue to this date in taking the ancient philosophical texts to a modern world. Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP) originally conceived by Swami Chinmayananda has become a significant force in the Hindu world across borders and waters.


Now, in addition to popular gurus and teachers of different flavors, there is an intellectual culture of studying Hindu scriptures in various universities of the world. Because of renewed interest in Yoga, Buddhism since the past century or so, the interest in understanding Hindu philosophy and context has been expanding. Now there is illimitable access to the originals and translations, to scholarship and commentaries. There are digital archives of many of the vedic texts. There are e-books of original translations available via simple google search.