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Religion Library: Hinduism

Sacred Texts

Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard

title: Rigveda manuscriptThe textual tradition of Hinduism encompasses an almost incomprehensible collection of oral and written scriptures that include myths, rituals, philosophical speculation, devotional poems and songs, local histories, and so on. There are two basic categories of religious texts within this vast collection, Shruti (revealed) and Smrti (remembered). Shruti generally refers to the Vedas, the Brahmanas, and the Upanishads; some Hindus also classify the Bhagavad Gita as shruti. Smrti typically refers to everything else.

Shruti (revealed)Smrti (remembered)
*the Vedas*vast collection of myths, epic texts, and traditions
*the Brahmanas 
*the Upanishads (=Vedanta) 
[*the Bhagavadgita] 

The Vedas form the foundation of Hinduism, the bedrock upon which the entire tradition is built. Indeed, although Hindus of different schools and different sects typically align themselves with different texts, virtually all Hindus recognize the legitimizing authority of the Vedas. There are four primary Vedas—the Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda—that together comprise over 1,000 hymns of praise addressed to the gods, as well elaborate instructions on how to conduct sacrifices to these divine beings, and a huge corpus of myths. Each Veda, in turn, has four divisions. The primary division is called the Samhita, which is the vedic text itself. The other three divisions—the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads—are commentaries and elaborations on the primary vedic text.

  1. the Rigveda: hymns
    (for the chief priest to recite)
  2. the Yajurveda: formulas
    (for the priest to recite)
  3. the Samaveda: formulas
    (for the priest to chant)
  4. the Atharvaveda: collection of stories, spells, and charms

Although technically included in the Vedas, the Upanishads are in fact rather un-vedic scriptures. The principal Upanishads, of which there are traditionally thirteen, were probably composed between 800 and 100 B.C.E. The Upanishads are typically understood by the Hindu tradition as an extension of the Vedas; they are also known, collectively, as Vedanta, the "completion" of the Vedas. However, the Upanishads significantly reject many of the Vedic ideas and practices. The Upanishads largely reject the multiple deities of the Vedas, arguing that all one gets from such ritual is more material. The sages who composed the Upanishads sought something more—ultimate, eternal salvation. Thus they posit a single, eternal, impersonal divine force that animates and permeates the entire cosmos—Brahman.

List of "principal" Upanishads
(there are over 100 others)
  1. Aitareya
  2. Brhadaranyaka
  3. Taittiriya
  4. Chandogya
  5. Kena
  6. Isa
  1. Svetasvatara
  2. Katha
  3. Mundaka
  4. Mandukya
  5. Prasna

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