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Vedic Literature (Hindu Scriptures) & its Classification

Nowhere in the world, human mind has dealt with the various questions of life in such a depth as in case of India.

Max Muller
Vedic Literature Classification Tree
Vedic Literature Classification Tree

Classification of Vedic Literature

The term Veda means ‘knowledge’, and Vedas indicate ‘the books of knowledge’. Composed in ancient Sanskrit, Vedic Literature (Hindu Scriptures) is a vast body of books on the topics of religion, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, politics and many other subjects.

Since the Vedas are a vast set of books, they are classified at various levels based on their origin and contents.

First level of classification of Hindu Scriptures

Shrutis and Smritis

While Shruti means ‘that which is heard’, Smriti indicates ‘that which is remembered’. Shrutis are regarded as divine in their origin. Narrated by the ancient sages as they were revealed to them by God, Shrutis are considered more authoritative than Smiritis. Shruti literature is also treated as akin to natural law, the laws of God, or the foundational truths of the universe.

Smritis were also written by the sages but are based on memory than revelations. These are supplementary to the main body of Vedas, are more flexible in nature, and are to be interpreted in the context of circumstances, i.e. desa (location), kala (time) and patra (personality).

While Shruti literature mainly consists of Vedas and Upanishads, Smriti literature has many further subdivisions and contains most of the Hindus Scriptures. Smriti literature is subdivided into Itihasas, Puranas, Agama, Darshana, Dharma-Shastras, Upa-vedas, Vedangas and numerous Bhakti literatures.

Shruti Literature

Four Vedas and their Subdivisions

1) Rigveda

It is the earliest written Vedic scripture. It is further divided into 10 mandalas (divisions). 2nd to 7th divisions are earlies ones. 1st and 10th are the latest additions. There are 1028 hymns in Rigveda and it mainly includes prayers for seeking worldly prosperity.

Prominent Rishis mentioned in Rigveda are Vashistha, Vamadeva and Gautama. Prominent Gods that are mentioned are Indra, Agni, Varuna, Rudra and Usha.

2) Samaveda

Sama means melody or song. This Veda consists of 16,000 Ragas and Raginis. Also known as the ‘book of chants, Samaveda is evidence of the development and glory of Indian music during ancient period.

3) Yajurveda

Yajna means sacrifice or worship. This Veda is mostly concerned with rites and mantras of different sacrifices. It gives directions for the performance of yajnas. There are two major branches of Yajurveda, i.e. Shukla and Krishna.

4) Atharva Veda

Also known as Bramhaveda, the contents of Atharva Veda are based on ancient folk religious beliefs. The book mentions magical charms and spells. The book is said to have been composed mainly by the common people. It contains information about the family, social and political life of the later Vedic period and also contains the treatment for 99 diseases.

Subdivisions of Vedas

All four primary Vedas (listed above) have been subdivided based on text styles. The four sub-divisions are as follows. These subdivisions are not separate literature. Each Veda is further divided into Samhitas, Bramhanas, Aranyakas & Upanishads, based on text style.

1) Samhita

Describing the (mantras) hymns, prayers and benedictions. These are also the earliest part of these Vedic texts.

2) Bramhanas

Giving a detailed explanation of Vedic rituals, ceremonies and instructions. Bramhanas deal with the science of sacrifices.

3) Aranyakas

They are wilderness texts dealing with the soul, birth and death and life beyond it. They were studied and taught by men in Vanaprastha and the inhabitants of the forest.

4) Upanishads

Up means nearby, and Nishad means to sit down, indicating the way in which this knowledge should be acquired (by sitting near Guru). These compilations mark the culmination of Indian thoughts and are the final part of the Vedas. For this reason, Upanishads are also called Vedanta (the last part of Vedas).

Upanishads deal with philosophical questions like the origin of universe, the spiritual world, life and death, nature of knowledge etc. Upanishads are the crux of Vedic knowledge and seek to explain the aim of human life.

Smriti Literature

Itihasas (epics)

Itihasa literally denotes ‘history’. The two famous Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, are part of the Itihasas.

Mahabharata

Written by Veda Vyas, Mahabharata originally contained 8800 verses and was called ‘Jaya’. Later some verses were added to make it 22,000 verses, and the literature was called ‘Bharata’. In its final rendition, it had 1,00,000 verses and is famously called ‘Mahabharata’.

The incidents mentioned in Mahabharata belong to Dwaparyuga. The famous Bhagwat Gita is also part of Mahabharata.

Ramayana

It is called Adikavya, and it was composed by Maharshi Valmiki. Ramayana consists of 24,000 verses, and the incidents mentioned belong to Tretayuga.

Puranas

Literally meaning Old, Puranas mostly contain stories related to various Gods and worships. These books are meant for the masses, explaining the complex concepts of Vedas and Upanishads through stories and parables.

The famous Bhagawat Purana (Srimad Bhagavatam), which contains the story of Lord Krishna, is also part of it. Other examples include Garuda Purana, Vishnu Purana, Shiva Purana, and Padma Purana.

There are 18 Maha-puranas (most important) and numerous Upa-puranas.

Agama

Meaning ‘that which has come down’, Agama is a collection of scriptures of various devotional schools. It talks about personal and temple worship, rituals and practices.

Darshana

Meaning to see, to experience or to indicate a ‘point of view’, the six schools of Indian philosophy are part of Darshana. These are:  1) Samkhya  2) Yoga  3) Nyaya/Logic  4) Vaisheshika  5) Mimansa  6) Vedanta

Dharma-Shastras

This division of Smriti includes the books like Manusmruti, Yajnavalkya, Parashara etc. These books talk about how to carry out one’s religious duties (dharma) in daily life. It explains the duties of various ashramas, i.e. Bramhacari Ashram, Grihastha Ashrama, Vanaprastha Ashrama, Sanyas Ashrama etc. These books discuss at length the civil and criminal laws, pilgrimages, charities etc.

Upavedas

Upavedas (Applied Knowledge of Vedas), consists of four main texts i.e. Ayurveda, Gandharvaveda, Dhanurveda and Arthashastra.

LiteratureDeals with
AyurvedaScience of health and life. How to cure diseases and prevent it.
GandharvavedaStudy of aesthetics, knowledge of art forms such as singing, dancing, writing, poetry, sculpture etc.
DhanurvedaScience of warfare
ArthashashraPublic administration, governance, economy, politics etc.

Vedangas

These are the supplements of Vedas which would help in understanding and studying Vedas.

LiteratureContents
ShikshaEducation
VyakaranaGrammar
KalpaRitual
NiruktaEtymology (origin of words)
ChandaMatrix
JyotishAstrology

Bhakti Literature

From ancient to contemporary times, the Bhakti literature is also a vast body of religious texts written or composed by various Saints. Often composed in regional languages, these texts are also numerous in nature and talk about simple messages of devotion, dharma, spiritual practices and daily life wisdom. These are most accessible to the people and are part of many family traditions.

Composed in ancient Sanskrit, Vedic Literature (Hindu Scriptures) is a vast body of books on the topics of religion, philosophy & numerous other subjects.

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