101 on Hindu Scriptures

I have been asked many a times by non-hindu friends “We have Bibles and Muslims have Qurans, what is your religious book?” I tell them we don’t have any one religious book but many. Hindu dharma has a very ancient but highly evolved knowledge system. Unfortunately, even we Indians know very little about this priceless treasure we have. For most of us, knowledge of scripture is limited to Ramayana, Mahabharat or Gita. Some others may also talk about Bhagvad Puran and Manusmriti. Though most would know about existence of Vedas and Upanishads, how many of us can authoritatively claim they know what do these books really have in them? For sure, our ancestors were exceedingly intelligent, but to us most of this knowledge is lost. Unlike Christianity or Islam, Hinduism is not merely a religion, but as we call it “Dharma”.  Our ancestors defined Dharma as “Dharnat Dharm Uchyate” (धारणात् धर्म उच्यते). That which upholds and sustains the society is called dharma. In the absence of which the civilization will perish, that indeed is dharma. While religion is a subset of Dharma, it is not really a synonym for it.  Merriam webster defines Religion as follows – :the belief in a god or in a group of gods : an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods : an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group Dharma on the other hand is a way of life. Rajiv Malhotra puts it very well – “Dharma encompasses the natural, innate behavior of things, duty, law, ethics, virtue, etc. Every entity in the cosmos has its particular dharma — from the electron, which has the dharma to move in a certain manner, to the clouds, galaxies, plants, insects, and of course, man. Man’s understanding of the dharma of inanimate things is what we now call physics”.  That indeed is the beauty of dharma – Science, Philosophy, Religion, Social sciences are all interlinked. Never in the history of dharma, have there been clashes between Religion and Science, as it has been witnessed in various face offs between church and scientific thinkers in the west. On the other hand, inquiry into unknown was always encouraged. Not surprising therefore, our ancestors were so advanced in medicine, surgery, architecture, astrology, astronomy, chemistry, mathematics and other sciences So also, unlike one Bible or one Quran, hindu dharma has no one book of religion, but a vast treasure trove of scriptures discussing various eternal laws of nature, human conduct, ethics, universe, life , death & life beyond death. The flowchart below summarizes Dharmic knowledge systems: Shastra_2 Our Hindu scriptures have 2 broad categories: Shruti & Smritis Shruti – as the name suggests “that which was heard”. The 4 Vedas – which are said to be the oldest text in human world, are called Shrutis. It is believed that Vedic Mantras were revealed to our ancient rishis/rishikas in their meditative state, hence these rishis are called “Mantra Drashta” – the seer of mantras”. So also, Vedas are believed to be “Apaurusheya” – that which has not be made by Man. Smritis – simply translates into “that which is remembered”. Smritis encompass all other Hindu scriptures except Vedas. Smritis, unlike Shrutis are “Paurusheya” – written by humans and have authors associated with the books. Smriti draw upon Shrutis with the objective of making vaidik knowledge more accessible to masses. Smritis include a range of scriptures such as

  • Itihas (history) – Ramayana, Mahabharata
  • Dharma Shastras – Texts that talk about laws and customs for the society. E.g. Manu Smriti, Narad Smriti etc
  • Puranas – These are more bhakti related texts narrating stories and extolling “lilas” of Ishta Devatas. E.g Shiv Puran, Bhagvad Puran, Vishnu Puran, Skanda Puran etc.
  • Darshanas (philosophy) – Texts that try to explain the nature of Individual with Nature (Prakariti), with Ultimate reality. The “Shad (6) Darshan” are Samkhya, Purva Mimasa, Uttar Mimasa (Brahma sutras), Vaiseshikha, Nyay, Yoga
  • Upavedas – Texts that expound on various practical sciences. These are Ayurveda (Medicine & health), Dhanurveda (Warfare), Gandharvaveda (Art, music, dance), Sthapatyashastra (Architecture & Engineering), Arthashastra (Politics & Economics)
  • Agamas or Tantras – Texts that deal with rituals of prayer, temple construction, creation of idols and also meditative practices. Major Agamas are Shaiv, Vaishnav and Shakta ( also called Tantra)

  Overview of Vedas (root word विद्, means to know) It is believed that in the beginning, there was only one Veda with all mantras “heard” by  sages. Preserving and propagating this was extremely difficult. In those days, there was still no written script, teachings happened by word of mouth. Hence, Maharishi Vyas divided and classified these mantras into 4 – namely Rigved, Yajurved, Samved and Atharvaved. Every Veda was given to a specific Rishi to preserve and propagate. Rigved was given Paila, Samved to Jaimini, Yajurved to Vaishampaayan and Atharvaved to Sumanta. And that is also why Krishna Dwaipanaya came to be called “Ved Vyas” (व्यस् – to split or to arrange) Vedas have 4 distinct sections

  1. Samhita: Hymns/prayers
  2. Brahmanas: Rituals for prayers & yagnas – these explain samhitas in detail
  3. Aranyakas: “Text from wilderness” – that which discussed certain rituals in further detail and moves towards spiritual philosophy ?(theology)
  4. Upanishads: “Knowledge is obtained sitting at the feet of a realized teacher” (Philosophy)

The Samhita and Brahmana sections are collectively called “Karma Kand” – that which deals with ritual sacrifices (yagna). Aranyakas and Upanishads together make “Gyan Kand” – that which deals with knowledge of the world and beyond. The division of these four sections is not so distinct in all Vedas, for example in Taittreya Upanishad, verses of rituals and knowledge are interspersed. There is also a third “Kand” called Upasana Kand – that deals with Bhakti, and draws verses from the 4 sections above.The priests that perform pujas in the temples, homes etc. are usually trained in karma-kand. The discourses on spirituality, philosophy which have forever enthralled the seeking Indian mind appear in Gyan Kand (or Upanishads). As per hindu dharma, the very motive of every “jeev” (every living being) is to realize the ultimate truth of his being and become one with the immaculate, omniscient “brahma” – that Cosmic energy from which we come and finally merge into. When that realization happens, man rises above happiness & sorrow, success & failures and lives in a state of perfect bliss. Simply put, he learns to live life as it comes – accepting both good and bad, success and failures, having understood their ephemerality. It doesn’t imply that man give up all activity and do nothing, it means living the moment, putting your best foot forward and doing activities for the greater good without being too concerned or attached to the results, because it is this  attachment that breeds insecurity and sorrow. The highest state is reached, when Man’s false sense of “I” melts away and he discovers the ultimate underlying one-ness in the universe, in spite of unimaginable diversity of names, forms and attributes; when man identifies himself/herself and all that around him, with the all-pervading cosmic energy.  “Aham brahma asmi” (I am That Brahma) is the ultimate truth. Upanishads are the texts which facilitate this discovery process. Upanishads, unlike any other religious text – do not talk about any one God – neither Vishnu, nor Shiva, neither Ram nor Krishna. They inquire into questions of life and death, life beyond death, creation & destruction, ethics and value system etc. In fact, some of the theories which science has started dabbling into only now, have been already propounded in the Upanishads from a more philosophical perspective. For example, Prashna Upanishad talks about 2 opposite particles that make up all matter, which science now calls the protons and electrons. Even some concepts of quantum physics, god particle etc., have already been touched upon in Upanishads. There were 108 Upanishads, of which 10 are called mukhya Upanishad. Adi Shankaracharya and many other great seers have written extensive commentaries on these. The 10 mukhya Upanishads are

  1. Isha Upanishad
  2. Prashna Upanishad
  3. Katha Upanishad
  4. Taittriya Upanishad
  5. Mundaka Upanishad
  6. Keno Upanishad
  7. Mandukya Upanishad
  8. Chandogya Upanishad
  9. Aiteraya Upanishad
  10. Bhrihadaranyka Upanishad

The concept of Prasthana Trayi (or  प्रस्थानत्रयी)  The aim of this write-up is to give the reader a bird’s eye view of the range of Dharmic scriptures. These texts (especially Smritis) have various authors affiliated to different schools of philosophy. One of the most significant aspects of development of these knowledge systems was intensive debating and discussions amongst the various schools to establish their point of view. Obviously, many different opinions were bound to exist. The question was, how to validate or negate an opinion. There needs to be a standard or frame of reference. It was thus unanimously accepted that three books will be ultimate authority on Dharma. This concept is called “Traya prashthana” – three authoritative primary sources of dharmic reference). These three are

  1. Vedas & Upanishad
  2. Brahmasutras (Uttar Mimasa Darshan) and
  3. Bhagvad Gita (Bhagvad Gita – though a smriti technically, as it appears in Mahabharat, is also considered as one of the Upanishads)

If a proposed principle stood the scrutiny of any of these three, it was considered valid. A more general rule was, whenever Smriti is in conflict with Shruti, Shruti prevails. To conclude, here’s what the great Quantum Physicist Schrödinger had to say about Vedas  “The unity and continuity of Vedanta are reflected in the unity and continuity of wave mechanics.  This is entirely consistent with the Vedanta concept of All in One”.

ॐ शान्तिः ||



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