Sacred Texts

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

The word "Upanishad"derives from a Sanskrit term that means "to sit near." Specifically, it refers to a student sitting near a teacher and learning directly through questions and answers. The bulk of the Upanishads record such discourses, and the single most pressing question posed by the students to the teachers is: "What is the nature of Brahman?" This is a deceptively simple question. On a basic level, the answer is equally simple: "Everything is Brahman." But behind this simple answer is tremendous theological complexity.

The Upanishads hold that since everything is Brahman, the individual is also Brahman. What separates the individual from the absolute Brahman, and thus from salvation, or moksha (release), is ignorance of this fundamental reality. Individuals think that the things that make them who they are, such as one's relationships, or appearance, or even thoughts, are real. The Upanishad holds that these are merely elaborate illusions. We hold on to these illusions, and it is this holding that keeps us from realizing the ultimate truth, Brahman. Thus the Upanishads advocate an ascetic path. If one wishes to realize the ultimate, then one must detach oneself from all of these unreal things. One must go off and meditate on the reality of Brahman, which begins with meditation on the self, the atman, which is in essence the same as Brahman.

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