Hindu Scriptures are divided into two divisions
Shruti (‘what is heard‘) is a canon of Hindu scriptures, the earliest of which may have existed in written form as early as 5000 BCE. Shruti is said to have no author; rather, it is believed to be a divine recording of the “cosmic sounds of truth”, heard by rishis.
There are several ways to define Shruti. It is most commonly defined to be comprised of the four Vedas: the Rig-Veda, Atharva-Veda, Sama-Veda, and Yajur-Veda. Some add certain sub-divisions within the Vedas, such as the Aranyakas, Brahmanas, and Upanishads, to the set of works distinctly labeled as Shruti. In addition, the Mahabharata (an Itihasa, or History, also part of the “friendly scripture” class) is considered by some to be Shruti and is sometimes called the fifth Veda. Sometimes the Bhagavad Gita, a chapter within the Mahabharata, is separately considered as worthy of the Shruti status.
Important Hindu scriptures that are not considered Shruti are called Smriti.
The Smritis are divided into:
- Itihasa (historical books like the Ramayana and Mahabharata)
- Purana (non-chronological historical and genealogical accounts)
- Dharma Shashtra (Religious doctrines)
- Sutra (Philosphical euphemisms)
- Tantra (Ritual)
Itihasa (Sanskrit: thus verily happened) refers collectively to the more epic Hindu scriptures, detailing the actions of divine in carnations on earth while interspersing them with often large sections of philosophical and ethical discourse. They are often classified as ‘Hindu’ or ‘Indian’ ‘mythology,’ though the label does not capture the centrality of religious and spiritual affiliations of the texts that ring true today for most Hindus. A parallel would be to term the Old Testament ‘Christian mythology’.
The most important of these are the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, of which the Bhagavad Gita is part. They also include the puranas, the most famous of which is the “Srimad Bhagavatam,” a text especially important to Vaishnavs though also seen as holy by most Hindus.
Growing in popularity is also the vernacular Hindi version of the original Ramayana, called Ramcharitmanas, written in the 1500s by Goswami Tulsidas, which contains the popular prayer Hanuman Chalisa.
There are eighteen Puränas and six each are rendered according to the three modes of nature, which are goodness (sattva), passion (rajas) and ignorance (tamas):
Sutra in Sanskrit is derived from the verb siv, meaning to sew. It literally means a rope or thread, and more metaphorically refers to an aphorism (or line, rule, formula), or a collection of such aphorisms in the form of a manual. In Hinduism the ‘sutras’ form a school of Vedic study, related to and somewhat later than the Upanishads. They served and continue to act as grand treatises on various schools of Hindu Philosophy. They elaborate in succinct verse, sometimes esoteric, Hindu views of metaphysics, cosmogony, the human condition, moksha (liberation), and how to maintain a blissful, dharmic life, in a cosmic spin of karma, reincarnation and desire.
One of the most famous of the Sutras is the Vedanta-sutra also known as Brahma-sutra.