Hindu scripture is traditionally divided into two basic types, shruti and smriti. Shruti (“that which is heard”) consists of the four Vedas (known collectively as the Veda, made up of the Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda, plus the series of texts appended to each of the Vedas, called Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads.
Smriti (“that which is remembered”) is composed of traditional texts not as directly inspired as shruti, including the Dharma Shastras (legal and ethical texts), the Puranas, and the folk/historical legends known as the Mahabharata and Ramayana.
Somewhere between shruti and smriti are the sutras, which are composed of terse statements difficult to comprehend without an attached commentary. The Vedanta Sutra of Badarayana, for instance, is much less important than the commentaries on it by Shankara and Ramanuja, which defined the phiosophy of Vedanta.
The four Vedas were handed down orally for thousands of years, and although the earliest hymns in the Rig Veda go back to at least before 1500 BC and possibly as far as 4000, the oldest written version in existence dates from only the 14th century. The Vedas were not popular texts but were reserved for the brahman caste, and related largely to the various sacrificial rituals around which early Hindu practice revolved. The Rig Veda, for example, collects 1,028 hymns to various gods, to be chanted at sacrifices (mainly animal). It is composed of 10 sections or books called mandalas (“cycles”). Most of the hymns were addressed to Indra, Agni, and Soma, and were transmitted orally by scholars called pandits, who memorized long texts in Sanskrit. The meaning was less important than getting the sound exactly correct, based on the principle that certain sound combinations, or mantras, could effect powerful changes in the sayer.
The Yajur Veda contains mantras for use in sacrifices, some with explanations of their meaning and proper use in ceremonies. The Sama Veda is largely a revision of hymns and verse from the Rig Veda arranged for singing rather than chanting, and is generally of interest only to scholars. The Atharva Veda is a collection of spells, charms, curses, and incantations not related to the sacrifice, for casting out demons of disease, creating love potions, or seeking success, sometimes using sympathetic magic. Having more of a literary than a religious significance, it was the latest collection to be edited, but its contents are thought to be very ancient.
Brahmanas are prose addenda to the Vedas. As rituals became more complex, the Brahmanas were needed to explain mysteries and symbolism, often in the form of fanciful allegories. The word “brahman” once referred to the supernatural power inherent in incantations, and by extension came to mean the impersonal Source of the universe. Later, the name Brahma was applied to one of the three chief gods (a role taken over from Prajapati), and “brahmana” indicated a priest (sometimes spelled “brahmin”) in charge of the incantations. The Brahmanas were composed beginning around 900 BCE.
Aranyakas are supplements to Brahmanas, mystical reflections and descriptions of significant rites detailed in the Vedas, which often treat sacrificial details as symbolic of esoteric truths.
The Upanishads take up where the Aranyakas leave off, forming the most mystical level of teaching in the Veda. There are 108 canonical Upanishads, of which 13 are significant. Generally dated from c. 700-300 BCE, they may actually have been composed during a wider span of time, perhaps from 1200 BCE – 200 CE, in approximately this order: Brihadaranyaka, Chandogya, Isha, Kena, Aitareya, Taitiriya, Kaushitaki, Katha, Mundaka, Shvetashvatara, Prashna, Maitri, and Mandukya. They sought to move beyond the ritualistic, sacrifice-oriented religion of the Brahmanic period to an emphasis on the kind of realization that could be gained only through intensive self-examination and meditation. These lines from the Mundaka Upanishad make the point:
Ignorant fools, regarding ritual offerings and humanitarian works as the highest, do not know any higher good. After enjoying their rewards in heaven acquired by good works, they enter into this world again. . . . But those wise men of tranquil minds, . . . contemplating that God who is the source of the universe, depart, freed from impurities, to the place where that immortal Self dwells whose nature is imperishable. (1.2.10)
Like the Old Testament, the Vedas often aim to appease a vengeful Deity with sacrifices and hymns of praise, whereas the Upanishads are closer in spirit to the New Testament; in both cases a more mystical, love-oriented theology adds to and supplants old ways of thinking and believing. And like the New Testament, the later Hindu writings also contain expositions on personal ethics and conduct in light of the newer teachings, often in the form of short texts called sutras.
The word sutra means “thread,” and the sutras generally consist of short, aphoristic phrases or sentences strung together like beads on a string. Among other things, the sutras set down for the first time ordinances on the four stations of life. For instance, although in the past Hindus practiced polygamy (men were allowed up to four wives) and polyandry (in the Mahabharata, the central female figure, Draupati, is married to five brothers), monogamy became the norm.
The first and most important smriti is the Manu Smriti (also called Laws of Manu, or Manu Samhita) composed between 200 BCE and 100 CE. Perhaps more important in the daily lives of Hindus both past and present, however, are the Puranas (“ancient narratives”). Collections of legends, myths, and moral precepts bearing on everyday life for the common Indian, they may be less sacred than the Veda but no less essential. Finalized between the 4th and 12th centuries, there are 18 principal or Mahapuranas of ancient lore, and 18 secondary or Upapuranas, divided into those concerning worship of Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. The most famous and traditional are the Vishnu and Bhagavata Puranas.
An enormous role is also played in Indian scripture by two heroic sagas known as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, which are more influential on the Hindu mind than any other writings. The Mahabharata, four times as long as the entire Bible, contains material reaching back to 600 BCE, but was updated as late as 500 CE with many revisions and additions. Although it is attributed to Vyasa, also called Krishna Dvaipasebyana, Vyasa means “collector,” and was often used by anonymous rishis — the seers who wrote much of ancient scripture, and who didn’t feel that their identity was important. The Mahabharata was added to over centuries by brahmans who wanted to mix religious information with dramatic action. The most significant interpolation is the Bhagavad Gita, or “Song of the Lord,” which contains much of the theology of later Hinduism.
Overall, the Mahabharata is about warring dynasties, but is also people with wise and holy kings, saintly rishis and forest sages, romantic trysts and supernatural interventions. A key figure is Krishna, an avatar or incarnation of the god Vishnu; becuase Krishna had a history of human births, he was, like Jesus, both human and divine.
The Ramayana is even more popular than the Mahabharata, and only about one-fourth as long. Rama is the seventh avatar of Vishnu, who also appears as a mighty hero and the heir apparent to the kingdom of Ayodhya. To win the hand of the lovely Sita, he has to bend the intractable bow of Rudra, much as Odysseus did in The Odyssey. When Sita is kidnaped by the ten-headed demon king Ravana and taken to Sri Lanka, she is ultimately rescued by Rama with help from an army of intelligent monkeys led by general Hanuman. The monkey king gifted with supernatural powers and a knowledge of healing herbs later became a popular Indian god. Some scholars see the Ramayana as an allegorical account of the Aryan migration into India and the conflicts between agrarian natives and nomadic invaders. The Bhagavad Gita, probably written by the third century BCE or later and set within the Mahabharata, is India’s most important religious text, and was the first to be translated into European languages (by Charles Wilkins in 1785). The setting is the field of the impending historic Battle of Kuruksetra, as Arjuna, the warrior son of Indra, is questioning having to kill his own cousins and teachers in battle. His friend Krishna, the avatur of Vishnu who also serves as Arjuna’s charioteer, offers his response in 18 chapters of verse that essentially promote the joys of selfless action. The leading argument is that bodies can be killed, but not souls, and because warfare is Arjuna’s dharma — the caste duty of a kshatriya — he must perfom it. The Gita teaches “motiveless action,” the practice of focusing “on action alone . . . never on its fruits.” The text defends the caste system, but also introduces several tenets of later Hindu thought: the doctrine of the three gunas, the triangle of forces that make up all objects and beings; the basics of Yoga and Sankhya; and the impersonal God-head called Brahman.
The Kama Sutra, or Aphorisms of Love, by Vatsyayana (c.300 AD) is best known for its graphic descriptions of sexual techniques, but also includes advice on how to dress and how to be a successful man about town.