Unlike other major religions in the world, the Hindu’s have many texts that guide and help them to understand life and how to live. Unfortunately majority of the Hindu’s are not aware of the rich storehouse of knowledge that they possess and search in internet and library’s for wisdom and guidance. Here is a short description.
The Sruti and the Smriti are the two authoritative sources of Hinduism. Sruti literally means what is heard, and Smriti means what is remembered. Sruti is revelation and Smriti is tradition. The Srutis are called the Vedas. The Vedas are the eternal truths revealed by God to the great Rishis of India and the foundation of the Hindu religion. The word Veda means knowledge. When it is applied to scripture, it signifies a book of knowledge. The Vedas are the foundational scriptures of the Hindus and the storehouse of Indian wisdom. The Vedas are the oldest books in the library of man and are the ultimate source to which all religious knowledge can be traced. Any other Hindu scripture must agree with the Vedas in order to be considered an authority.
The great compiler of the Veda and Puranas was Vyasa Krishna Dwaipayana who is understood have lived during the period of Sri Krishna around 3000 years ago. The chanting itself has the power to provide material benefit and spiritual apotheosis. Great emphasis, therefore, was laid on correct pronunciation and on memorization. The texts that are used for aiding the memorization and recitation of the Vedas with utmost fidelity, are called ‘Lakshana Granthas’. These texts include Padapathas, Ghanapathas, Kramapatha and other Vikrtis or modifications of the root text, phonetic treatises like Sikshas and Pratisakhyas and so on.
The Veda is divided into four great books: The Rig-Veda, The Yajur-Veda, The Sama-Veda, The Atharva-Veda. Each Veda consists of four parts: The Mantra-Samhitas or hymns, The Brahmanas or explanations of Mantras or rituals, The Aranyakas (philosophical interpretations of the rituals), The Upanishads (The essence or the knowledge portion of the Vedas).
The Mantra-Samhitas are hymns in praise of the Vedic God for attaining material prosperity here and happiness hereafter. The Brahmana portions guide people to perform sacrificial rites. They are prose explanations of the method of using the Mantras in the Yajna or the sacrifice. The Aranyakas give philosophical interpretations of the Rituals. The Upanishads contain the essence or the knowledge portion of the Vedas. They speak of the identity of the individual soul and the Supreme Soul. The subject matter of the whole Veda is divided into Karma-Kanda, Upasana-Kanda and Jnana-Kanda.
The basic teachings of the Upanishads are summed up in six great sayings (Mahavakyas). These are: “I am Brahman” (Aham Brahmasmi). This states the identity of the inmost consciousness of the individual with that of the supreme Divine. “The Self is Brahman” (Ayam Atma Brahma). This also states the identity of the soul with the Absolute but in a more objective and less direct manner. “That thou art” (Tat tvam asi). Whatever we see or think about we are that. “Intelligence is Brahman” (Prajnanam Brahma). Our discernment of truth is the truth itself. “The Universe is Brahman” (Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma). The entire universe is the Divine, which includes our self. “He am I” (So’ham). This shows the identity of the self with the Divine Lord inherent within the natural movement of our breath.
There are four Upa-Vedas or subsidiary Vedas: The Ayurveda (science of life and health), The Dhanurveda (science of war), The Gandharva Veda (science of music), The Arthasastra (science of politics and Economics).
There are six Vedangas to the Vedas: Siksha, Vyakarana, Chhandas, Nirukta, Jyotisha and Kalpas. Siksha deals with pronunciation and accent. Vyakarana is Sanskrit Grammar. Without knowledge of Vyakarana, you cannot understand the Vedas. Chhandas is metre dealing with prosody. (the use of pitch, loudness, tempo in phonetics and rhythm in speech to convey information about the structure and meaning of an utterance). Nirukta is philosophy or etymology. Jyotisha is astronomy and astrology. It deals with the movements of the heavenly bodies, planets, etc., and their influence on human affairs. Kalpa is the method or ritual.
Next in importance to the Sruti are the Smritis or secondary scriptures. The Smriti scriptures are of human origin and were written to explain the Sruti writings and make them understandable and meaningful to the general population. The Smritis have laid down definite rules and laws to guide the individuals and communities in their daily conduct and to regulate their manners and customs. The Smritis have given detailed instructions, according to the conditions of the time, to all classes of men regarding their duties in life. The Smritis are based on the teachings of the Vedas. There are eighteen main Smritis or Dharma Sastras. The most important are those of Manu, Yajnavalkya and Parasara. The other fifteen are those of Vishnu, Daksha, Samvarta, Vyasa, Harita, Satatapa, Vasishtha, Yama, Apastamba, Gautama, Devala, Sankha-Likhita, Usana, Atri and Saunaka. Manu is the greatest law-giver of the race.
The Itihasas (history) – 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 works explain the great universal truths in the form of historical narratives, stories and dialogues. The common man 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. These are very interesting volumes and are liked by all, from the inquisitive child to the intellectual scholar. The Bhagavad Gita, more commonly known as the Gita, is part of the Itihasa scripture Mahabharata.
Puranas – The Puranas were written to popularise the religion of the Vedas. They contain the essence of the Vedas. The aim of the Puranas is to impress on the minds of the masses the teachings of the Vedas and to generate in them devotion to God, through concrete examples, myths, stories, legends, lives of saints, kings and great men, allegories and chronicles of great historical events. The sages made use of these things to illustrate the eternal principles of religion. The Puranas were meant, not for the scholars, but for the ordinary people who could not understand high philosophy and who could not study the Vedas. There are eighteen main Puranas and an equal number of subsidiary Puranas or Upa-Puranas.
The Agamas – Another class of popular scriptures are the Agamas. The Agamas are theological treatises and practical manuals of divine worship. The Agamas include the Tantras, Mantras and Yantras. These are treatises explaining the external worship of God, in idols, temples etc. They also give elaborate details about entology and cosmology, liberation, devotion, meditation, philosophy of Mantras, mystic diagrams, charms and spells, temple-building, image-making, domestic observances, social rules, public festivals etc.
Darsanas -These are the intellectual section of the Hindu writings. Darsanas are schools of philosophy based on the Vedas. The Agamas are theological. The Darsana literature is philosophical. The Darsanas are meant for the erudite scholars who are endowed with acute acumen, good understanding, power of reasoning and subtle intellect. The Itihasa, Puranas and Agamas are meant for the masses. There are six Darsanas and the six schools of philosophy are the six instruments of true teaching or the six demonstrations of Truth. Each school has developed, systematized and correlated the various parts of the Veda in its own way. The Shat-Sastras are: The Nyaya founded by Gautama Rishi, The Vaiseshika by Kanada Rishi, The Sankhya by Kapila Muni, The Yoga by Patanjali Maharshi, The Purva Mimamsa by Jaimini, The Uttara Mimamsa or Vedanta by Badarayana or Vyasa.