Sacred texts

Scholars tend to prefer to talk of ‘sacred texts’ rather than ‘Hindu scriptures’ as the term ‘scripture’ is misleading. ‘Scripture’ is a term best known in a Protestant Christian context and may carry with it certain connotations: that there is one fixed holy book, that it is all divine revelation, and that individuals read it in their own language on a regular basis to guide their lives. It also implies that the text is written, whereas in Hindu tradition there is a stress upon sound as divine energy and the most ancient Hindu texts, the Veda, originally transmitted orally, are recited (in Sanskrit) rather than read for religious purposes.

Hindu sacred texts are divided into two categories: shruti (‘that which is heard’; revelation) and smriti (‘that which is remembered’; tradition). Shruti refers to the Vedic texts which are believed to be eternal and to have been ‘heard by’ (or ‘revealed to’) rishis (sages) and passed on orally from teacher to pupil, whereas smriti texts are believed to have historical origins and human authors. The need for smriti can be explained by the Hindu tradition of the four ages – we are now living in the Kali Yuga or age of decline when the Veda is no longer observed or understood, and its meaning must be conveyed in simpler ways. In addition, traditionally only men from the three higher classes who had been initiated had access to the Veda, whereas smriti is available to members of both genders and all classes. So, although shruti is technically the more sacred and important, in practice smriti are better known by more people.

The term ‘Veda’ (knowledge), normally refers to four collections of texts the Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva Vedas though there are some references to three Vedic collections excluding the Atharva Veda and the title of ‘fifth Veda’ is sometimes applied to other prestigious texts such as the Mahabharata. These collections were built up in layers. The most ancient layer, dating back maybe as much as three and a half or four thousand years, is that of the Veda Samhitas (or somewhat confusingly just ‘Vedas’ for short), which are usually described as hymns or poems and contain mantras or ritual utterances. When people refer to, for example, the ‘Rig Veda’, they usually mean these ancient texts rather than the later additions. Each of the four Veda Samhitas were originally passed down through and recited by different categories of priests with different roles in the context of ritual, which included fire sacrifices. To each of these were added Brahmanas, ritual commentaries that explain why and how rituals should be performed while introducing other topics. The next layer, the Aranyakas or forest treatises, a name hinting at renunciation of everyday life, are still to some extent about ritual but start to focus more on knowledge than Brahmanas. The composition of the final layer, the Upanishads, around 600 BCE, was contemporaneous with the shramanas, not long before the time of the Buddha, and a thousand years later than the earliest Vedic texts. The Upanishads are esoteric works that concentrate upon knowledge as in knowledge of the self and the universe, and reflect the world of the ascetic renouncers more than that of ritual priests.

These different types of literature can be regarded as variations on a ritual theme beginning with the Samhitas where sacrifice is performed to obtain favours from the gods, through to the Brahmanas where the sacrifice takes on a cosmic significance as the means of sustaining the universe, and ending with the Aranyakas and the Upanishads where sacrifice is interpreted symbolically as a self-offering thereby locating the power of the ritual within the individual. While sacrifice is a thread running through the Vedic texts, there are major differences in outlook when comparing the Samhitas and the Upanishads. The Samhitas are concerned with this-worldly benefits such as the birth of heirs, the acquisition of wealth and the enjoyment of a long life before entering the realm of the ancestors. In contrast, the Upanishads are concerned with an other-worldly goal of liberation from the cycle of repeated births and deaths. Both are important since the Samhitas still feature in life-cycle rituals and the Upanishads in philosophical debate.

Although in fact what counts as Vedic is not as clear as it seems at first, the boundaries of smriti are even more questionable than those of shruti. Included in the rather ill-defined category of smriti texts are the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Puranas, also the Samhitas (in a non-Vedic sense), the Agamas and the Tantras, and the Dharmashastras. The Ramayana relates the adventures of Prince Rama, most famously the defeat of the demon king Ravana who had abducted his wife, Sita, while the couple were in exile in the forest. The main narrative of the Mahabharata chronicles a dispute between royal cousins, the Pandavas and Kauravas, over the succession to the throne of the Kurus that leads to a great battle in which the Pandavas triumphed but at appalling cost in human life. It contains the Bhagavad-Gita, a text that claims to be an Upanishad and which has become probably the most popular of all Hindu texts, in which Krishna instructs Arjuna, the third of the Pandava brothers, when the great warrior experiences a crisis of conscience on the eve of the battle. The Puranas are compendia of mythological material, frequently dedicated to the worship of one particular deity in the context of the existence of the many other deities. The Samhitas, Agamas and Tantras have a more sectarian character, lacking the wider currency of the Puranas. The Samhitas tend to be Vaishnavite in orientation, the Agamas Shaivite and the Tantras Shakta. The Dharmashastras address the area of dharma or duty, developing from moral guides for human conduct into legal tracts.

Although lacking the prestige of shruti, smriti is influential nonetheless. The Ramayana has inspired later literary compositions such as Tulsidas’ Ramcaritmanas and been performed in the popular folk drama, the Ramlila; both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana have been serialised on Indian television to mass audiences and turned into stage and film/television productions for international audiences beyond India; the Bhagavad-Gita has become a publishing phenomenon, not just in India and for Hindus, but globally for a diverse readership; the myths found in the Puranas feature in various forms of devotional art and are the staples of Hindu festivals while the Samhitas, Agamas and Tantras continue to underwrite the distinctive beliefs and practices of particular traditions; the Dharmashastras were declared by the British colonial rulers to be the basis of Hindu personal law, giving the Laws of Manu more importance and a wider application than they had previously.

Further texts may also be regarded as sacred, even if they are not usually considered to be what elsewhere would be labelled scripture. Among them are vrat kathas, the narratives that explain why a vow should be taken involving a particular form of practice to achieve a desired object. Vrats are often performed by women. One example became popular as the result of a 1975 film, which told the story of a woman, Satyavati, who prayed to a goddess called Santoshi Ma (the Mother of Satisfaction) and was granted a happy reunion with her husband. Women make simple offerings and fast on Fridays in the hope that wishes will be granted by Santoshi Ma.

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Hindu Worldview Traditions


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