Saturday, September 08, 2007

What is Hindu literature?

- By Deepa and Janaki Krishnan

If you can't tell the Aranyakas from the Brahmanas, you might want to check out this brief introduction to Hindu religious literature.

The Hindu scriptures are broadly divided as follows:

The Srutis:
  1. The Vedas are collections, of hymns, melodies, rituals and incantations. They are considered the primary texts of Hinduism. According to Klaus Kostermaier, a Canadian professor of religious studies, the beginnings of the Vedic ritual and textual tradition can be traced to 6000 BC in Northwest India.
  2. The Brahmanas are commentaries on the Vedas, explaining the rituals. These were composed in the Brahmanic period (900 BC to 500 BC).
  3. The Aranyakas - literally, forest treatises - are meant for sages living a life of renunciation. Unlike the Brahmanas, which deal with rituals, the Aranyakas deal with the philosophical aspects of the Vedas. The Aranyakas are also from the Brahmanic period.
  4. The Upanishads are mystical contemplations designed to teach the means of liberation from rebirth and suffering. Thus they are also called Vedanta - the end of the Vedas - since they teach the ultimate secret to reach the highest metaphysical state. The oldest of these dates from the Brahmanic period, but some of the recent Upanishads are from the medieval times.
The Smritis:
  1. There are several Smritis, or Codes of Law, whose authority is based on the standing of the author. The most well known of these is the Manu Smriti, thought to date between 200 BC to 200 CE.
  2. The Itihasas - literally, 'histories' - are older than the Smritis. They include the great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The epics were composed between 500 BC to 100 BC.
  3. The Puranas are texts that provide information about the creation of the universe, the genealogies of kings, rules for life, and mythologies of various Gods and holy places. They are thought to date between the 300 CE and 1200 CE.
While the classification of these scriptures is universally accepted, their historical dating is controversial.

The major languages in which these scriptures appear are Sanskrit in the North, and Tamil in the South.

Apart from these, Hindu literature also includes many other treatises - for example, the Sutras are shorter succint versions of Hindism's voluminous primary literature.

The above literature is common to all Hindus. But some Hindu sects have their own sectarian writings - such as the Samhitas of the Vaishnavaites, the Agamas of the Saivaites, and the Tantras of the Saktas.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks, that was a good refresher. i was beginning to forget all of this.