Origins

Title: A manuscript illustration of the Battle of Kurukshetra, fought between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, recorded in the MahābhārataThe category of scripture known as smrti is vast, encompassing the classic epic texts—the Mahabharata and the Ramayana—as well as a group of texts known as Puranas, and all manner of local myths and legends. The Mahabharata, the "Great story of India," is a huge text of over 75,000 verses, or nearly two million words, composed over a long period, probably between the 5th century B.C.E. and the 4th century C.E. It is a difficult text to classify, since it contains mythology, philosophy, theology, historical events (it is often classified in Hinduism as "ithihasa," or history), ritual, and social commentary. Early on, the text states: "What is found here, may be found elsewhere. What is not found here, will not be found elsewhere."

The central story of the Mahabharata is the dynastic conflict between two sets of paternal cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, each of whom claim the rightful rule of Bharata (India). Their conflict culminates in an epic battle that is eventually won by the Pandavas. Over the course of the narrative, issues of kinship and kingship, familial loyalty and duty, and ultimately good and evil are complexly debated.

Title: Lord Krishna instructing the Bhagavad Gita to ArjunaThe most well-known part of the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad Gita, the "Song of the Blessed One," which becomes one of the most important theological treatises in all of Hinduism. The central message of the Bhagavad Gita is a complex reconciliation of the seemingly contradictory worldview of the Vedas—emphasizing ritual action and duty—and the Upanishads—emphasizing renunciation of worldly involvement and meditation. The text consists of a conversation between one of the Pandavas, Arjuna, and the god Krishna. Krishna resolves the conflict by proposing a new path: that of selfless devotion (bhakti) to the divine (here Krishna). As long as one is selflessly devoted, it does not ultimately matter what sorts of actions one engages in, since they are all, ultimately, part of the divine.

Title: modern illustration of Rama and Sita with the godsThe Ramayana, like the Mahabharata, is a huge text. At its core is the story of the god Rama and his wife Sita, their exile, Sita's abduction by an evil demon (Ravana), Rama's rescue of Sita, and the eventual restoration of their kingdom. Interwoven into the narrative is a mixture of myths and history and theology as well as a particular focus on the proper actions of a dharmic (moral, righteous) ruler.

The Puranas (the word means "Ancient") are a diverse collection of texts that, like the epics, contain mythology, theology, history, and geography. Many of the Puranas focus on a single god or even a single temple, narrating key myths and philosophical/theological principles.

The categories of Shruti and Smrti are essential for understanding the vast array of Hindu scriptures, but it is important to note that not all Hindu scriptures easily fit into these categories. There are also thousands of "lesser," local scriptures—many of them only known in oral form and known only in vernacular languages—that are central to the lives of many, many Hindus.


Study Questions:
1.     How are Hindu texts categorized? What are some examples of each, and why has more authority?
2.     What is the purpose of the Vedas, and how are they divided?
3.     Why might it be problematic to name the Upanishads as Vedic texts? What is their main teaching?
4.     Describe the role of the Bhagavad Gita within Hindu scripture.

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