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Scriptures of Hinduism

The Shruti

As you have probably already observed, the scriptures of Hinduism reflect the major stages of Hinduism's development. At this point, we therefore need to look more closely at these nature of these sacred writings. Obviously, they were compiled and committed to writing over a very long period of time.  Moreover, they reflect the various stages or ways that are found in Hinduism. The sacred writings of Hinduism fall into two broad categories: the shruti and the smriti.

All of the various paths of modern Hinduism honor a collection of ancient scriptures called the Vedas (or "Books of Knowledge"). These texts were composed in Sanskrit and written down by the middle of the first millennium BCE. The Vedas are considered by Hindus to be the "breath of the eternal" heard by the sages  (rishis) in deep meditation. Consequently the term "shrutri" (meaning, "what is heard") is often used to refer to the Vedas. The oldest of the Vedas is the Rig Veda. (See link in sidebar for an excerpt from the Rig Veda). The Vedas consist of four parts which can be visualized as four "layers" with the oldest layer forming the foundation for the other three collections.

  1. The first "layer" is the Samhitas (also called the Vedas). These consist of  collections of  hymns of praise in worship of divine beings referred to as devas. These hymns were composed in Sanskrit (the ancient language of India) and were committed to writing between 1200 and 900 BCE, although the written versions are based on much older oral traditions. They also contain several creation stories.  The most prominent deities are Agni (god of fire), Indra and Soma. Interestingly, the gods such as Vishnu and Shiva who play a major role in later Hinduism only appear as minor deities in the Vedas. It is this layer that reflects what is known as "Vedic Religion" or the way of ritual.
  2. The Brahmanas are organized to correspond to the four Vedas. Committed to writing between 1000 and 600 BCE, these contain directions about performances of the ritual sacrifices to the deities. According to the Brahmanas, sacrifices are the power that strengthens the gods, keeps the universe intact, and brings blessings to one who sacrifices.
  3. Aranyakas - Writings of those who retired to the forests to meditate. The texts seek to explain the meaning behind the rituals. The Aranyakas are really the beginnings of what we are calling the way of wisdom in Hinduism.
  4. Upanishads - Upanishad literally means "sitting near," i.e. a student sitting near his instructor. These philosophical treatises composed 600-400 BCE are second in importance only to the vedas (samhitas).  The oldest of the Upanishads are the Chandogya and Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishads. The Upanishads reflect the full development of Hinduism as a "Way of Wisdom." A major emphasis of the Upanishads is the relationship between the soul of the individual (known as atman) to the transcendent soul or being behind all things (Brahman).The revolutionary answer contained in the Upanishads is that these two are one and the same. One of the most familiar selections illustrates both the conversational and philosophic nature of the Upanishad:

Let the Master teach me more; said he.

Let it be so, dear; said he.

 Bring me a fruit of that fig-tree.

Here is the fruit, Master.

Divide it into two; said he.

I have divided it, Master.

What do you see irk it? said he.

Atom-like seeds, Master.

Divide one of them in two; said he.

I have divided it, Master.

What do you see in it? said he.

I see nothing at all, Master.

So he said to him:

That soul that you perceive not at all, dear,—from that very soul the great fig-tree comes forth.
Believe then, dear, that this soul is the Self of all that is, this is the Real, this the Self. That thou art, O Shvetaketu.


For more information on the Vedas and Vedic religion, view the first part of the video, Hinduism (below).

The Smriti

In addition to the collection known as the Vedas, Hinduism recognizes a second group of writings as essential to its beliefs, practices, and identities. These writings are referred to as "smriti" - that which is remembered. In contrast with the "shruti" (that which was heard), the smriti can be thought of as a combination of divine inspiration and human composition. The writings that make up the smriti are not considered as authoritative as the shrutri. However, they supplement, illustrate, and explain concepts inherent in the Vedas. As we move through studying various religions, you will notice that the concept of secondary scriptures derived from primary scriptures is fairly common.

Most Hindus are more familiar with the smriti than they are with the shruti. In fact, the shruti scriptures are not meant to be studied and comprehended by everyone. Years of training and a command of Sanskrit are necessary to truly study the shruti. In contrast, the smriti are available to each person. Not only are they in the common dialect of the people, the smriti are also in the form of exciting stories and epics. The three main writings that make up the Smriti are the Bhagavad-Gita, the Ramayana, and the Puranas.

The Bhagavad-Gita:


The Mahabharata is an extremely long epic that tells of a period of civil war. It was probably composed between 400 BCE and 400 CE.   The 18th book of the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad-Gita ("song of the supreme/exalted one") which tells the story of the god Vishnu who incarnates himself as Krishna, the charioteer for Arjuna.  Arjuna is reluctant to go to war against members of his own family because of the negative consequences that his actions will create. Krishna responds by providing a concise summary of Vedic teachings. As Arjuna surveys the battlefield before him, he sees his own friends and family among the ranks of the enemy. There follows a long dialog between Arjuna and Krishna. Of course, Arjuna does not realize that Krishna is the incarnation of Vishnu. The climax of the Gita is Krishna's revelation of his true nature to Arjuna. Following this revelation, Arjuna submits to the teachings of Krishna and fulfills his duty by leading his army to victory.

Teachings of the Bhagavad-Gita

In addition to insisting that in every situation one must do his duty, Krishna sets forth four paths that one may follow. Each of these paths is referred to as a spiritual path (marga) or yoga.

1. Karma Yoga is the way of action; it is service rendered without any interest in its effects and without any personal sense of giving. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna advises: "Be intent on action, not on the fruits of action."

2. Jnana Yoga is the way of knowledge.Through knowledge and insight one can distinguish between the eternal Self and the temporary one. Once this is achieved, then there is nothing that separates the Self (the atman) from Brahman. Jnana Yoga is reflected in the Upanishads and the Aranyakas. It is also exemplified in the philosophical systems of Hinduism.

3.Raja Yoga is the way of meditation, that is, of being able to remove one's own consciousness from its awareness of this world of maya (illusion) and to focus only on the ultimate reality of the cosmos' unity. Raja yoga is exemplified in the Yoga Suras of Patanjali. This work, dating from about 200 CE, details the physical and ethical disciplines required to reach samadhi.

4.Bhakti Yoga can be defined as intense devotion to a personal manifestation of god. Thus,bhakti yoga is the way of devotion to a god, or, more precisely, the path of the love of a god. The goal is communion with and nearness to the deity. The Bhagavad-Gita considers bhakti to be the best course for the present age: According to Krishna, "Those who worship me, thinking solely of me, always disciplined, win the reward I secure."

Thus, the Bhagavad-Gita recognizes that all four ways are legitimate paths in Hinduism It is not really setting forth a new teaching; rather the Gita articulates and legitimizes various approaches to faithful living in Hinduism It should be noted  that there is a great deal of overlap among these four ways. Devotion to a god (Bhakti yoga) seems to be intimately connected with the notion of obedience to the divinely-established social order (Karma yoga - doing one's duty). Moreover, karma yoga also can be seen to include the way of ritual discussed earlier since the performance of rituals and sacrifices was the duty of the priests. One can also note that the way of meditation (Raja Yoga) is closely associated with Jnana yoga (the way of knowledge) since in some cases true knowledge is transcendent and must be attained by extraordinary means such as meditation. We will say more about the goals of these four ways late in this lesson.

The Ramayana

While the Bhagavad-Gita narrates how Vishnu incarnated himself as Krishna, the Ramayana (the story of Rama) describes how Vishnu incarnated himself as Rama. The Ramayana exists in many versions throughout India and beyond, and is arguably the most popular of the Hindu epics. In the Ramayana, Vishnu incarnates himself as a noble warrior named Rama.  His wife, Sita is an incarnation of the goddess.


The following summary excerpted from pages 44-45 of Hinduism: A Very Short Introduction. (New York Oxford University Press, 1998) by Kim Knott.  (This excellent resource is available online from Greenville Tech's Net Library).

Dasharatha, the king of Ayodhya, by means of sacrifice, is blessed with several sons born to his three wives. Rama, the eldest and much beloved by Ayodhya's citizens, is to succeed him as king. However, Rama's step-mother, Kaikeyi, fearing for herself and her own son Bharata, exacts a promise from Dasharatha that Rama be banished to the forest and Bharata installed as ruler. Rama, obedient to his father's reluctant request, agrees to go. Sita, his devoted wife, won by Rama in a conquest of strength, and Lakshmana, his loyal younger brother, demand to be allowed to accompany him. They leave the city, followed soon after by Bharata who pleads with Rama to return. Rama will not break his vow, and Bharata returns to Ayodhya, placing Rama's sandals on the throne and ruling as regent in his absence.

 Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana settle in a hermitage after wandering in the beautiful forest and meeting its ascetic inhabitants. They are discovered there by the sister of the demon Ravana, who tries to entice Rama and destroy Sita. Wounded by Lakshmana, she hurries to her powerful brother, ruler of Lanka, and tells him what has occurred. Ravana, stirred by the account of Sita's beauty, determines to capture her. With the help of another demon, who as a deer lures away the two brothers, Ravana kidnaps Sita by disguising himself as a holy man. He takes her to his city in Lanka.                                                                                                                                                                     

Rama and Lakshmana enlist the help of the monkeys to find and free Sita. Rama first helps the monkey prince, Sugriva, whose situation mirrors his own. Sugriva then sends his monkeys in search of Sita. It is the divine monkey Hanuman who finds her on Lanka and assures her of her forthcoming release. He is captured but escapes, returning to Rama with his intelligence of Sita's whereabouts. Rama and his army of helpers cross to Lanka on a bridge of monkeys, destroy Ravana, and return valiant with Sita. Rama is reluctant to accept Sita because of the time she has spent in Ravana's household. She undergoes an ordeal by fire to persuade him of her virtue.         

Rama becomes king on their return to Ayodhya, but rumours continue about Sita's chastity. Unwillingly, Rama banishes her and she takes refuge with Valmiki (by whom this account is told). She gives birth to Rama's twin sons and later leaves the world, disappearing into the earth from which she first arose. The grieving Rama then ascends to heaven with his followers.




The Teachings of the Ramayana

Several observations can be made based on this brief summary.

First, the Ramayana's focus is on Rama as the ideal man: the one who does his duty even when it seems to be unreasonable or detrimental. Sita plays a similar role and stoically accepts the responsibilities and demands placed on her by society.  The implication is that order can be maintained in society only when individuals faithfully perform the duties imposed on him or her by caste and society.

A second observation echoes ideas in the Bhagavad-Gita:  Vishnu incarnates himself in order to maintain the cosmic order. While his actions demonstrate the maintenance of the social order, his defeat of the demon Ravana suggests that social order and cosmic order are intimately connected. To disrupt one is to disrupt the other; to maintain one is to maintain the other.

Another theme found in the Ramayana is the notion of cooperation with the gods.  Rama (Vishnu) is able to defeat evil with the help of Hanuman. Some have seen in this fact the suggestion that human-divine cooperation is necessary for deliverance. Others have suggested that Vishnu can deliver his followers with or without human cooperation.  In either case, Vishnu's devotees worship him as a god who can and does effect deliverance.


The Puranas

As noted above, the Puranas (ancient tales) are a loose collection of poetic tales of the gods Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu. Of these the most popular are the ones pertaining to Vishnu's incarnation as Krishna. The tales focus on Krishna as a child and young man; in other words, Krishna before he became the charioteer for Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita. As a child, he is mischievous and adorable; as a youth he is a cow-herd and talented musician whom young women find irresistible. Consequently, in the Puranas, Krishna has many erotic encounters with gopis (milk maids). . When he is called away on a heroic mission, the texts describe the grief and longing of the young women.

What is the meaning of this depiction of such erotic love? Typically, it is thought to represent the longing devotion of the worshipper for the god Krishna. As one scholar explains:

"The infatuation of the gopis for the divinely adorable cow-herd is given a symbolic meaning; even their transports of love, the thrilling sensation at the roots of the hair, the choking emotion, and the swooning are said to give a true picture in sensuous imagery of the exaltation produced in the worshiper who is looking upon the image of Krishna and thinking of his love."



Test Yourself


Use the self-test below to check your understanding of the Hindu Scriptures. This will not count as a grade.

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