Dharma Series 7: The classification of Hindu scriptures

Indian scriptures are fascinating and intriguing. Did you know that the epic Ramayana has as many as 300 known different versions across India and other Hindu countries in Asia? The versions, the interpretations, and the depictions of the characters is varied across the communities. But Vedas, do they have versions too? No. Is there a specific category of scriptures that gets evolved over the time and regions? Yes. Then how do we classify the Indian scriptures? Let's find out.

There are many ways in which Hindi scriptures can be classified. The one that I'm mentioning here is something that I find easy to understand, and it is broadly classified into six categories - Shruti, Smriti, Itihaas, Puraan, Agama, Darshana.

In this post I'm writing about the first four categories, as they are the popular ones and the ones that appeal to the masses.

1. Shruti means "that which is heard". Vedas are what were heard by humans and not written by them. They are mentioned to be as old as 7000 years. It is the only category which has been passed on by the ultimate consciousness. We call that consciousness God, or superhuman. The four vedas are the only granthas which belong to this category.

The Four Vedas are Rig Vedas(The oldest one), Sam Veda, Yujurveda and Atharvaveda.

Each Veda consists of four parts : the Mantra-Samhitas or hymns , the Brahmanas or explanations of Mantras or rituals , the Aranyakas and the Upanishads.

The Vedas are the oldest books in the library of humans . The truths contained in all religions are traceable to the Vedas.

Each Veda consists of 4 parts, and these parts suit the four stages in a human's life as mentioned in the table below:

There are also four upa-vedas, forming auxiliaries to the four vedas:

  • The Ayurveda - the science of health

  • The Dhanurveda - the science of war

  • The Gandharva Veda -the science of music

  • The Arthasastra - the science of polity

The Vedas are the fountainhead of religion. The Vedas are the ultimate source to which all religious knowledge can be traced.

Interesting fact on Vedas: While history credits Copernicus for proposing the heliocentric model of our solar system, it was the Rig Veda that first noted the central placement of the sun and other planets orbiting it in the solar system.

Rig Veda 1.164.13

“Sun moves in its orbit which itself is moving. Earth and other bodies move around sun due to force of attraction, because sun is heavier than them.”

Rig Veda 1.35.9

“The sun moves in its own orbit but holding earth and other heavenly bodies in a manner that they do not collide with each other through force of attraction.”

2. Smriti means "that which is remembered". They supplement and explain the ritualistic injunctions called Vidhis in the Vedas. They down the laws which regulate national, social, family and individual obligations. It is the ultimate guideline on how to conduct your life as a Hindu. The most common smriti often quoted is the manusmriti. However, there are 18 main smritis.

Interesting note on Smritis: It is also interesting to know that the laws of Manu were intended for the Satya Yuga; Yajnavalkya's were for the Treta Yuga; Sankha's and Likhita's were for the Dvapara Yuga; and Parasara's are for the Kali Yuga. These smritis would often evolve with social positions, time, and clime to keep up with the changes in the society. However, at a certain point in time this evolution stopped. And thus, some of what is taught in these smritis seems outdated and irrelevant to many. Some smritis are ridiculed by the modern day religion critics, without realizing that they were meant for a certain period in history. In today's world, a new Smriti to suit the requirements of this age is very necessary, but who will take up the charge for that, is the question.

3. Itihaas: The common person cannot comprehend the high abstract philosophy of the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras. Hence, the compassionate sages Valmiki and Vyasa wrote the Itihasas for the benefit of common people. There are four books under this heading - The Valmiki-Ramayana , the Yogavasishtha , The Mahabharata and the Harivamsa. These embody all that is in the Vedas, but only in a simpler manner. These are called the Suhrit-Samhitas or the Friendly Treatises.

Interesting note on Itihaas: Mahabharata mentions the concept of cloning, test tube babies, and surrogate mothers. The birth of 100 kids of Gandhari was identical to cloning process. Each ‘Kaurava’ was created by splitting the single embryo into 100 parts and growing each part in a separate kund (container).

4.Puranas: Puranas convey the knowledge of vedas through simple stories that highlight the universal values, such as ahinsa(non-violence), daya(compassion), tap(penance) and daan(charity). They share strong examples of adherence to dharma despite upheavals in the lives of the characters. There are eighteen main Puranas and an equal number of subsidiary Puranas or Upa-Puranas.

One interesting fact about Puranas: I was reading some chapters of Garuda Purana - which talks about karma and rebirth. There was one section which mentions what happens to the foetus in the womb in its ninth months journey. Interestingly, the mention of amniotic fluid, placenta, composition of the fluid is exactly the same as the modern medicine describes. Interestingly, this Puarana was written in first millennium BCE, when there were no ultrasounds or medical facilities to know about such intricate details. How did they know it?

Well, that's what lies beyond our conscious prowess beyond the five senses.

I hope that this post would give you some interesting nuggets of information and pique your interest further into the subject.