Araṇyakas literally means ‘forest treatises’.
Each of the four Vedas, the basic scriptures, is generally divided into four parts :
- The Sarnhitā - They are the collections of Vedic hymns.
- The Brāhmaṇa - They are treatises written in prose, dealing with the conduct of sacrifices and other rites associated with them.
- The Āraṇyaka - They form a link between the ritualism of the Brāhmaṇas and the philosophy of the Upaniṣads.
- The Upaniṣad - They deal with philosophical truths and esoteric wisdom.
Whether Āraṇyaka really represent a transitional phase of thought, is difficult to decide since they and the Upaniṣads have almost fused into one another.
Tradition connects the four āśramas (stages of life) with the four divisions of the Vedas.
- The brahmacārin (student of the Vedas)- He is expected to memorize the Saihhitā and know the application of the mantras contained therein, in the various rites and ceremonies.
- The gṛhastha (householder) - He is guided by the Brāhmaṇas in the performance of the numerous sacrificial rites.
- The vānaprasthin (forest recluse)- He is advised to contemplate on the ritual as symbolic of higher philosophic truths.
- The saihnyāsin (monk) - He is to meditate upon the fundamental spiritual truths until he directly perceives them.
This traditional linking of the four āśramas with the four parts of the Vedas can perhaps give us an idea about the basis of the Āraṇyaka thought. Due to the physical infirmity brought on by old age and since the accessories and articles needed for the Vedic rites are not easily procurable in the forest, the vānaprasthin will be hard put to continue them. Moreover, battling with the various vicissitudes of life, will have brought on enough mellowness and wisdom that will make him receptive to philosophic speculations.
However, the attachment to the rites and the eagerness to reap the promised fruits will still be lingering in the mind due to the long association with the deep involvement in those rites. Hence contemplation on the various aspects and stages of those rites as symbols of cosmic truths will be the best exercise for him, conducive to his ultimate spiritual welfare. This is exactly what the Araṇyakas have done.
In fact, the famous Brhadāranyaka Upanisad begins with one such contemplation. Hence they are often classified as follows:
- ‘Upāsanākāṇḍa’ - Section dealing with meditations
- ‘Karmakāṇda’ - Section dealing with the rituals, i.e., Saṅihitās and Brāhmaṇas
- ‘Jñānakāṇḍa’ - Section dealing with spiritual knowledge, viz., the Upaniṣads
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore