Overview Of Scriptures

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Shankara Bharadwaj Khandavalli

Traditional Texts

The sacred literature of India is vast and has evolved over millennia. There are multiple phases in which the evolution and classification happened. The major phases/classes are Vedic, Āgamic, Purāṇic, Sramaṇic, and Buddhist.

The literature and knowledge is found in various practicing traditions/sāmpradāyas and Guru-Śiṣya paramparas. Each tradition goes by a set of Śāstra-s, and a worldview. Knowledge is imparted in two ways: through academic learning, and practice-centric learning. The former involves devoting the early years of one’s life to learning the Śāstra-s. The latter involves formal initiation and teaching the subject relevant for practice, along with relevant Śāstra-s, to the extent necessary for practice.

There are two forms of knowledge: experiential and deductive. The relation between student and teacher, the role of teacher and the nature of teaching and guidance, and the nature of learning, are very different in the pursuit of these forms of knowledge. In experiential knowledge there is a higher degree of faith involved, along with the necessary discrimination until the stage of direct experience.

The root of Sanātana Dharma is the Veda. There are two major streams of literature that developed from the Veda, and which base their authority on it. One of them is the Smṛti literature, consisting of the Vedāngas, Upavedas, and Itihāsa Purāṇa. The second stream is the Āgama literature, consisting of Āgamas and Tantras.

Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika, Sānkhya, Yoga, Mīmāmsa and Vedānta are grouped as Ṣad-darśanas or the six Vedic worldviews. Darśanas and Śāstra-s -- like Yoga and Mantra, and spiritual philosophies -- form the basis for both the streams. Texts such as Itihāsa-Purāṇa that form part of Smṛti-s are commonly valued in both. Dharma Śāstra-s that outline social structure and specify moral and legal codes assume primary importance in Smārta traditions, while they are of secondary importance in Tantra-based traditions. Āgama-based traditions like Vaiṣṇava Pāncarātra and Vaikhānasa respect both Smṛti as well as Śruti.

Every major tradition has elements from both these streams. Art-forms and engineering-based Śāstra-s such as Śilpa, Sthāpatya, and Nāṭya have developed without specific affiliation to any of these streams or any single worship-philosophy. They are applied by various traditions according to their Āgamic prescriptions.

Indian Traditional Scriptures (Śāstra-s)
	|----	Vedic and Smṛti literature    	|
	|		|----	Vedāngas (six)		|
	|		|----	Upāngas (4)		|---- [[Arts]]
	|		|----	[[Upavedas]] (4)		|---- Sciences
	|		|----	[[Darśanas]] (6)		|---- [[Engineering and Technology]]
	|						|---- [[Consciousness Studies]] 
	|----	Āgama literature			|---- Metaphysics and Transcendence
	|		|----	Vaiṣṇava 		|---- Philosophies 
	|		|----	Śaiva			|---- Religious Practices 
	|		|----	Śākta			|---- Social Organization 
							|---- Administration 
Jaina 							|
	|----	Āgamas 					|
	|----	Sūtras 					|
[[Bauddha]]						|
	|----	Piṭakas					|
	|----	Dhammapada				|
	|----	Mahāyāna Sūtras				|
	|----	Tantras 				|
Folk Traditions					|
	|----	Religious Practices			|
	|----	[[Mantra]] and other literature		|


Veda is called Śruti, meaning that which is heard. It is said to be classified by Veda Vyāsa into four major texts – Ṛg Veda, Yajur Veda, Sāma Veda, and Atharva Veda. Each Veda in turn has three portions: Samhita (mantra portion and hymns); Brāhmaṇa (ritual portion); and Araṇyaka (spiritual philosophy). Upaniṣads, the celebrated texts of spiritual philosophy, are found at the end of the Araṇyaka. For the two reasons, that they are found towards the last portion of the Veda, and that they form the summary of philosophy, they are called Vedānta.


Smṛti means that which is remembered. Dharma Śāstra-s, Itihāsa-Purāṇas, and Vedāngas form part of Smṛti literature.

Śabda Pramāṇa

Śruti-Smṛti literature forms a continuum. However, as sources of knowledge, the texts are arranged in a hierarchy. The validity of a text depends on its conformance with a text higher in the hierarchy. Veda is at the root of this hierarchy, and Smṛti-s are valued as secondary to Śruti. Smṛti-s are sources of knowledge in their own right; however, in case of a possible conflict, Śruti’s word supersedes that of Smṛti. Thus Śruti is the independent source of knowledge, which validates itself. Smṛti is the dependent source, which is valid nevertheless, but gains validity by conformance with Śruti. The words of wise and righteous men follow Śruti and Smṛti. In case of lack of available textual authority, this is the valid source of knowledge. In the absence of all the three, Jana Śruti or popular conventions/sayings are the sources of knowledge.

However, Śabda pramāṇa is not the first of the sources of knowledge. Perception, inference, and logical reasoning are placed ahead of Śabda pramāṇa. Śabda Pramāṇa comes into the picture only while validating what cannot be ascertained through these. Thus it does not supersede reasoning, but aids where it falls short. This is how the whole range of knowledge, religious and scientific, is put into a single continuum, and a system could be created where these forms of knowledge reinforce but do not conflict with each other.

It should also be noted that chronology is not primary in the arrangement of Śāstra-s. While Veda is the older literature, there are portions of Śruti that are more recent than some portions of Smṛtis. It, however, does not alter the fact that Smṛti’s authority is secondary to that of Śruti. There are multiple reasons for this. One of them is the fact that Smṛti’s tone and spirit are intended for a more popular level of knowledge than Śruti which involves higher technical rigor. There is content visible in Smṛtis that is temporal, that is added with the necessary exaggerations to emphasize what is being explained, and so on. Since Śruti is largely free from these, in case of necessary clarity then conformance with Śruti is the basis on which it is determined which portions of Smṛti-s can be treated as superfluous. Jana Śruti is even more dilute in this sense, and has lesser authority.

Smārta Literature

The literature of Smṛti, following tradition, is classified into Aṣṭādasa Mahāsthānas or the eighteen abodes of knowledge. They are the four Vedas (Ṛg Veda, Yajurveda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda); four Upavedas (Āyurveda, Dhanurveda, Gandharvaveda, and Artha Śāstra); six Vedāngas (Śikṣa, Vyākaraṇa, Nirukta, Chandas, Jyotiṣa, Kalpa); and four Upāngas (Nyāya, Mīmāmsa, Dharma Śāstra-s, and Itihāsa-Purāṇas).

Āgamic Literature

Āgamas and Tantras form a vast body of knowledge. The major classes of Āgamic literature available are Vaiṣṇava, Śaiva, Śākta and Gānāpatya. There are many other Āgamic texts such as Saura and Kaumāra, but their practice is much less in spiritual traditions compared to the former.

Other Literature

The two major traditions in India outside the Vedic-Āgamic traditions are Bauddha and Jaina. Both of them have made huge contributions to the Indic knowledge system, to the various art-science based Śāstra-s, worldviews as well as Tāntrika literature. The principal texts of Jaina literature are Āgamas and Sūtras. Major texts of Bauddha literature are the Piṭakas, Mahāyāna Sūtras, Dhammapada, and various Tāntrika texts.

Besides, there is vast literature that can be found in the various regional, folk, and tribal traditions. Most of them have similarity and linkage with the mainstream traditions, but they have their independent practices and lineages. These practices and Devatas are regional, but one can find them to be linked to the mainstream traditions in multiple ways. The Devatas are often treated to be forms of the major Paurāṇika Devatas or characters, and their stories are often linked to Paurāṇika stories through the Sthala-Purāṇas (these form part of Jana Śruti and not part of the eighteen canonical Purāṇas and Upa-purāṇas), and Tantras (these too are not the canonical Tantra texts but the regional ones).

The Primary Vidyas

Many of the Hindu traditional texts are organized into thirty two kinds, and are called primary Vidyas. They are as follows:

  1. Ṛg Veda
  2. Yajurveda
  3. Sāma Veda
  4. Atharva Veda
  5. Āyurveda
  6. Dhanurveda
  7. Gāndharva veda
  8. Tantra
  9. Śikṣa
  10. Vyākaraṇa
  11. Kalpa
  12. Nirukta
  13. Jyotiṣa
  14. Chandas
  15. Mīmāmsa
  16. Tarka
  17. Sānkhya
  18. Vedānta
  19. Yoga
  20. Itihāsa
  21. Purāṇa
  22. Smṛti
  23. Nāstika mata
  24. Artha Śāstra
  25. Kāmasūtra
  26. Śilpa Śāstra
  27. Alankāra Śāstra
  28. Kāvya
  29. Deśa bhāṣa
  30. Avasarokti
  31. Yavana mata
  32. Deśādi dharma

Introduction to Knowledge System

Hindu knowledge system is vast and multilayered. Most of the knowledge in oral or written form is found in the various practicing traditions. The canonical texts that are valued by the various traditions and form their basis are varied. However, the subjects that are dealt in these texts form a continuous stream of knowledge, and each tradition is a part of that stream. It is a continuum, with knowledge of all kinds -- religion, philosophy, sciences, and the arts sharing one base. The most integrated and well-developed structure of knowledge can be found in this system.

Some of the salient features of the Hindu knowledge system are:

  • It is not a single book or subject but a network of interrelated subjects
  • It is not a philosophy or ideology but a system of co-existing philosophies and worldviews
  • It is yet a single knowledge system that the diverse worldviews share and forms their basis
  • There are specializations not just in various subjects but on the philosophy of subjects, and the pursuit and teaching of subjects. It is a continuum of physical and metaphysical realms.
  • Some of the knowledge is available in written form, but the bulk of it is still in oral and practicing traditions because of its essentially experiential nature. Though a lot of it is lost, there is still a substantial amount of knowledge available for some of the major traditions to survive.


Traditional subjects are in general referred to as Śāstra-s. Śāstra is the methodical exposition of a subject meant for study, application and development of the subject. It does not necessarily refer to a science. It is a study of the phenomena of the universe through specific means for a specific purpose. It could be a science, an art-form, a philosophy, or a religious methodology. The common elements specified in any Śāstra are:

  • Goal and premise -- the purpose served by the pursuit of the Śāstra
  • A set of postulates/proposition/hypothesis
  • Framework that defines the domain within which the postulates hold valid
  • Pramāṇā-s, the sources for gaining and verifying knowledge
  • The methods to be followed to make the pursuit fruitful

The subjects that are common to the pursuit of any Śāstra are Pramāṇa Śāstra, Bodhana Śāstra, and Vāda.

Pramāṇa Śāstra

Each Śāstra specifies the nature of its knowledge in terms of the knowable or what is to be known, means to knowledge, and means of verifying the knowledge. These three are called prama pramāṇa, and prameya. The subject that deals with these is called Pramāṇa Śāstra. Nyāya and Mīmāmsa, two of the Darśanas expound it in great detail. Each Śāstra specifies the acceptable pramāṇa-s or sources for gaining and verifying knowledge. The acceptable pramāṇas fall in line with the general philosophy, the domain of applicability, and valid modes of explanation of the Śāstra. Different Śāstra-s hold different pramāṇas to be valid. The general superset of pramāṇas contains pratyakṣa (sense perception), anumāna (logical inference), Śabda (the word of Śruti, Smṛti, and wise men), upamāna (comparision), ardhāpatti (presumption) and anupalabdi (non-apprehension/non-perception).

Bodhana Śāstra

Bodhana Śāstra involves teaching methodologies, and the methodical development of a subject.


The regulations, modes and ethics of debate is called Vāda. Nyāya darśana expounds this.

Modes of Explanation in Śāstra-s

Different kinds of knowledge can be differentiated based on the nature of facts, and the valid modes of explanations in those. For instance, in modern science there are four valid explanations: deductive, probabilistic, teleological, and genetic. The last two are valid in life sciences, and not in the physical sciences. For instance, if we say ice floats on water because of anomalous expansion, we can explain it as "anomalous expansion of water between -4 to 4 degrees is the reason", as well as "because of this water is covered with ice in lakes in frozen conditions and this is how water-animals survive.... this is a way of nature to help those beings". The first is valid in physics, and the second -- being teleological -- is valid in life sciences. Such reasoning is often also allowed in philosophy, following theories like "nature's intelligence".

For this reason philosophy and science are two compartments in the modern knowledge system. But traditionally, knowledge is seen as one single continuum. For instance, if we look at the Smṛti-s -- Vedāngas, Upavedas, and Upāngas -- Upavedas are both arts and sciences. Of these, Gāndharvaveda is purely art, Dhanurveda is both art and science, and Āyurveda is a science. In fact, Āyurveda goes by all four explanations including genetic and teleological, but Rasa Śāstra does not go by the latter ones. So, we recognize that there are different types of knowledge, and they differ in the explanations. But the differential factor is that we realize, irrespective of explanations, facts and concepts have to be borrowed across these subjects.

Thus the sciences are grouped under a different class, but they are in the same hierarchy of knowledge. We realize that it is the purpose of the branch of knowledge that differentiates, but not the knowledge as such.

If we find a statement in a philosophical text like an Upaniṣad or a Darśana, we are not likely to find its scientific explanation (as relevantly considered valid in a particular branch of science) in that place, just as we do not find a mathematical, formalistic explanation for Pūrṇamadaḥ in Īsa Upaniṣad. But since we know that our philosophical texts are not detached from, and in fact form both the basis and purpose for scientific texts, we are likely to find its scientific application wherever it is relevant. The application of a philosophical concept is the use of zero and infinity in mathematics.

Similarly, application of the philosophical concept of holism helped a medicinal system like Āyurveda.

Application of the philosophical concept of happiness, and the principle of transcendence, helped an economic theory that says "desires are like burning fire, and the way is to transcend them and not to multiply or fulfill them," in contrast to a modern economic theory that says "growth of the economy only comes through desires and their multiplication". This has huge social implications, and determines how content, moral, and happy the people of a society would be.

At the same time, scientific explanations are found in appropriate places. The explanations used in various subjects depend on the nature and purpose of the knowledge. Zero is not defined or explained in mathematical texts the same way it is in a philosophical text. Eclipses are not explained in a Purāṇa the same way they are explained in an astronomical text. They are explained in relevant ways, with necessary deductions. For instance, Purāṇa says Rāhu and Ketu swallow the Sun and Moon, while Āryabhaṭīya says eclipses are caused by the shadows of earth and moon. It may probably be said that Āryabhaṭīya is too recent a text, but we can find the foundation of the logic in much older Jyotiṣa which says Rāhu and Ketu are Chāya Grahas (shadow-planets) and do not have behavior of their own.

Śāstra – Science and Art

The word Śāstra is representative of the arts, sciences, as well as religious methodologies. Some Śāstra-s are sciences, while some are art-forms. However, the art-forms, too, are called Śāstra-s, both because their origin is based on Śāstra and because their pursuit is a well laid path. There is no clear demarcation between art and science. In fact, as has been said, the pursuit of science is an art, and the pursuit of art is a science. Independent of subject, the pursuit of science and art involves creativity. Though there are differences in the acceptable methods and approaches in each Śāstra, and though there are differences in the states and levels of consciousness that validate truth, both science and art aim at Truth. Truth is for experimental verification in science and for experiential verification in art. However, it is human consciousness that perceives the truth, and the laws of science and art are relative to man's experience of the world and not the world "as it is". This understanding is the basis of Śāstra-s, both the sciences and the arts.

Each art form is a study in consciousness, apart from aesthetics. Nāṭya Śāstra is a study in mudras and abhinaya. Sangīta is a study in nāda and swara. Sculpture is a study in iconometry and abhinaya. But all these are studies not only in themselves, but probe and explain how each of these leads to happiness. There are two primary aspects in art forms: the experience of the artist, and its expression. A performance or a piece of art is an expression of the artist's experience. The pursuit of art is the means to the experience, as it is based on a profound study of the way abhinaya or nāda are to be pursued to attain the highest experience. Thus any traditional art-form is a comprehensive pursuit of happiness.

Truth and beauty are the aspects that science and art aim at. However, in Hindu philosophy truth and beauty are two indivisible aspects of The Permanent - the Divine. Thus science and art are simply two approaches, with the same goal, described in two different ways. There is beauty in truth, and there is truth in beauty. This is the outlook that makes the sciences and arts run into each other, aiding each other, and advancing each other.

Philosophy of Knowledge

In philosophy, truth is seen as multidimensional space, with facts as points in the space. Any domain or area of study is a matrix of such points, which is a set of interrelated facts consistent with each other. Any interdisciplinary study is an overlap/intersection of such sets. However, any such overlap will lose out many points while taking those that are relevant. Also, as we keep specializing more the granularity of facts keeps growing. Any general fact can be presented as a set of specific facts, some of which are always ignored -- mostly because of relevance, though occasionally by error. Thus, the more specific facts become the more incomplete is the knowledge they represent, as they no more accurately apply to the bigger domain but only to a part of it. This is one of the "dangers of specialization". The best way to avoid this is to have one single matrix at the highest level from which all the disciplines evolve, and share a base.

This is exactly what is done in the traditional Indian knowledge system. This is the knowledge of the impersonal, universal, and eternal: the highest form of truth. This is the base from which all other forms of knowledge, religious or scientific evolve. Thus religious and scientific knowledge share the same philosophical base or worldview, and are therefore non-contradicting. In fact they enhance each other, and are complementary. The various layers of knowledge that appeal to various levels and aspects of human consciousness -- emotional, intellectual, psychic, etc., -- come from the same origin and convey similar ideas, thus effecting an integrated and comprehensive system for man's evolution.


Śabda (sound) is a concept where we can clearly observe the evolution of various Śāstra-s from one base. Śabda is the Tanmātra (subtle attribute) of Ākāśa (the sky). In the five elements Ākāśa represents Brahman. Thus Śabda is eternal. The study of the eternal word is Mantra Śāstra. Mantra is word. It has multiple aspects, and the study of each aspect evolved as a Śāstra. The two aspects of the word are dhvani (sound-form) and varṇa (verbal form). The former has two aspects, dhvani (sound) and swara (tone). The latter has four aspects -- Akṣara (alphabet, syllables, and their arrangement); Artha (semantics); Vyākaraṇa (syntax, order and arrangement of words); and Chandas (arrangement of syllables). Each of these aspects is a Śāstra. The sound-energy root is Beeja. Its study is Mantra. Swara has two aspects again, their study being Śikṣa (phonetics), and Nāda (Sangīta-music). The word aspect is another study. It involves the alphabet. Arrangement of alphabets/syllables is Chandas. Arrangement of alphabet into words, and the study of meaning of words is Nirukta. Grammar of the language formed with words is Vyākaraṇa.