Sacred Texts And Sects
The Veda are earliest texts of Hinduism. Written in Sanskrit and for millennia preserved only orally, the oldest portion of the Veda—the Rig Veda, composed about 1200 B.C.E. or before—is also among the oldest known texts of the Indo-European world.
The Vedas are entirely centered on the performance of and speculations surrounding the ancient religion of the Aryans in India, the cult of fire sacrifice. Each of the four Vedas—the Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva—consists of a Samhita (collection of hymns, verses, and chants), a Brahmana (in which the mythical origins, contexts, and meanings of the ritual are explained), an Aranyaka (a forest text, where the more esoteric and secret significances of the rites are detailed), and an Upanishad (comprised of mystical speculations and philosophical ruminations). The Samhitas of the four Vedas are correlated to the functions of the four main priests of the Vedic sacrifice and were composed and preserved by these priests for ritual use. Each of the four Vedas has several recensions due to the varying practices of different ritual schools; some of these recensions have survived—completely or in fragments—and many have not.
The Veda is traditionally thought to be unauthored (either by a god or humans); rather, it is believed to exist eternally in the form of sound. Ancient sages are said to have heard it (or part of it) and then recited it to others. The Veda was, and continues to be, memorized syllable by syllable and transmitted orally by means of an intricate method of recitation. Although ancient India had a writing system by the middle of the first millennium B.C.E., it was only in relatively recent times that the oral Veda was written down.
Hinduism traditionally accorded the Vedic texts the status of revelation, or shruti. All the other sacred texts of Hinduism, no matter the esteem in which they are held by their adherents, are technically classified not as revelation but only as traditional or remembered (smriti). The smriti texts are admittedly authored by great teachers of the past.
The earliest of the traditional texts are collectively known as the Vedangas or limbs of the Veda. Composed mainly from about 700 B.C.E. to about 200 C.E., these works were technical treatises written in the shorthand, aphoristic form called the sutra. The Vedangas make up the six sciences necessary for the correct and exact performance of the Vedic rituals: vyakarana (the study of grammar, linguistics, and philology); nirukta (etymology); chanda (the explanation and practice of verse meters); shiksha (the study of faultless pronunciation); and jyotisha (the science of astronomy and astrology). The sixth limb of the Veda is the Kalpa Sutras, manuals in which the rules for performing the various types of Vedic sacrifice are given. The Shrauta Sutras lay out the rules for performing the most elaborate of these sacrifices, and the Grhya Sutras detail the protocol for executing the simpler rites of the domestic ceremonial performed by the householder himself. Also included are the Shulba Sutras, in which geometrical rules are laid out for the proper construction of the sacred space and altars of the Vedic ritual.
The last component of a Kalpa Sutra (and again, different versions of these texts were composed and preserved by a variety of ritual schools) is the Dharma Sutra (also known as the Dharma Shastra, or Teaching, or the Dharma Smriti). These encyclopedic texts extend the rules governing human activity, which were previously confined to the ritual sphere, to nearly every aspect of daily life, and especially concentrate on the specific obligations or duties (dharma) one has as a member of a particular social class or caste at various stages of life.
The sutra form was also favored by the authors of several other important texts. The Mimamsa Sutras, attributed to Jaimini and dated at about 200 B.C.E., is the root text of the philosophical school of Mimamsa, or enquiry into the cosmic and moral significance of the Vedic sacrifice. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (c. 200–300 C.E.) are the first systematic presentation of the practice and theory of yoga, or psycho-physical discipline. And the Vedanta Sutras of the great teacher Shankara (c. early ninth century C.E.), which are actually commentaries on an earlier text, form the most important enunciation of the highly influential Hindu philosophical tradition known as Advaita Vedanta, which teaches an absolute monistic doctrine of the oneness of all being.
Among the most popular and best-known of the Hindu scriptures are the two great epics The Mahabharata and The Ramayana. Both of these enormous works (The Mahabharata is a collection of over 100,000 stanzas and The Ramayana is about one-fourth of that) were composed, in various recensions, over a period of almost a thousand years between approximately 400 B.C.E. and approximately 400 C.E. Both consist of a heterogeneous assortment of material—mythology, pseudo-historical lore, folktales, teachings concerning religious duty, the meaning of life, and salvation—but both also relate narratives that have come to be regarded as the backbone of the Indian cultural heritage.
The Mahabharata claims to be divinely inspired and all-encompassing. The text tells the story of a legendary battle for rule over India fought between two sides of the same family. After many twists and turns in the plot, the warring parties meet at the battlefield for the climactic battle. It is at this point in the story that perhaps the single most popular Hindu text and one of the world's greatest religious works is found. The Bhagavad Gita, or Song of the Lord, is a discussion of duty and faith conducted by one of the warriors, Arjuna, and his charioteer, Krishna—who is, the reader learns in the course of the text, God in human form.
The Ramayana, attributed to the seer Valmiki, is the story of Rama, the Prince of Ayodhya: his birth and childhood, his marriage to Sita, his unjust banishment and exile into the wilderness, Sita's abduction by the wicked Ravana, Rama's battle with and defeat of Ravana and his rescue of Sita, and Rama's triumphant return to Ayodhya as king. Whereas the characters in The Mahabharata tend to be flawed in various ways, Rama and Sita are widely regarded as ideals of obedience, loyalty, fidelity, strength, courage, and heroism. Both of the great Hindu epics were traditionally recited by bards at the courts of kings but were also often recited or dramatically enacted for the masses as religious performance and popular entertainment. Both have also been made into television serials and videotapes, thus metamorphosing into a somewhat different kind of sacred text.
Beginning in the early middle centuries of the Common Era, Sanskrit texts that codified the worldviews, doctrines, and practices of the various Hindu theistic sects were composed. Chief among these are the Puranas (Stories of antiquity). Centering on one or another of the principal deities of sectarian Hinduism—Vishnu, Shiva, or the Goddess—these texts are traditionally said to comprise five topics: the creation of the world, the dissolution of the world, the ages of the world, genealogies, and the history of dynasties. In actuality, however, the Puranas are as encyclopedic as the epics, replete with all sorts of myths, legends, didactic passages on religious duty and salvation, ritual instructions for temple and image worship, and tales about holy places and pilgrimage sites. Early-twenty-first-century scholarship has indicated that most, if not all, of the Puranas were composed under the auspices of one or another ruler of particular Hindu kingdoms by priests associated with the dominant sect of the region.
Other sectarian texts are known by different names. The 108 sacred texts of the Vaishnava sect known as the Pancaratras are designated Samhitas (collection of hymns, verses, and chants) or Agamas; certain sects worshipping the god Shiva have also produced texts called Agamas; and sects worshipping one or another form of the goddess have composed Tantras—sectarian treatises that are similar in content and purpose to the Puranas but tend to be more purely theological in their orientation and to specify ritual practices to be followed in the temple and at home.
Whereas all the literature discussed above is in Sanskrit, the sacred texts of what might be called popular Hinduism were composed in one or another of the vernacular languages of South Asia. Among the most important of these are the Tamil works of the poet-saints who served as figureheads for the devotional, and often ecstatic and emotional, movements that began in South India as early as the seventh century C.E. Led by the devotees of Vishnu known as the Alvars and the worshippers of Shiva called the Nayanmars, the devotional movement became popular and spread throughout India. The poems and songs of later Hindu saints of north India—Kabir, Caitanya (1485–1533), Surdas (1485–1563), Mirabai (sixteenth century), and others—also depict the longing for God and the bliss of union with the divine in simple yet moving terms.