The Hindu tradition has produced a wide range of religious literature, although some are regarded sacred across the broad spectrum of Hinduism, others are considered sacred within different communities or sects. Earlier religious texts predominantly or almost exclusively were composed in Sanskrit. It seems as though, to be considered a credible author it was necessary to be proficient in and compose the work using only Sanskrit. However it does seem this rule was later relaxed and later texts were acknowledged upon acceptance of religious and authoritative sources.
Hindu literature can be classified into two main categories śruti and smriti. Śruti can roughly be translated as ‘that which is heard’, this notably is referring to the divine revelations dealing with higher metaphysical reality. Smriti denotes ‘that which is remembered’, these texts use the tenants of śruti to develop further ideas of Vedic theology. Although smrititi texts are composed by divine personalities they are still authored by man and hence cannot be equated to śruti, in this respect smriti literature is always considered secondary texts.
Śruti, the divine revelations were revealed in deep meditation to seven ancient seers known accumulatively as the sapta ṛṣīs. Initially these realisations were not systematically recorded but rather passed down orally through a disciplic succession. It was then formulated that the collective revelation would be referred to as Veda. The term veda is derived from the root Sanskrit word ‘vid’ meaning knowledge.
However in later times the text was organised and elaborated by Sage bādarāyaṇa into four divisions (ṛg, sāma, yajur, atharva ) which then led to the Sage being named veda vyāsa meaning the organiser of the Veda. Each veda in turn again is subdivided into four. There are four Vedas:
- The Rig Veda -"Royal Knowledge"
- The Sama Veda - "Knowledge of Chants"
- The Yajur Veda - "Knowledge of Sacrificial Rituals"
- The Atharva Veda - "Knowledge of Incarnations"
There are 108 extant Upanishads , of which 10 are most important: Isa, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taitiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka.
The Upanishads focus on spiritual insight and philosophy whereas the Vedas focus on rituals. These texts constitute a major portion of the Jnāna Kānda, and contain much of the Vedas' philosophical teachings. The Upanishads discuss Brahman and reincarnation. While the Vedas are not read by most lay Hindus, they are yet revered as the eternal knowledge whose sacred sounds help bring spiritual and material benefits. Theologically, they take precedence over the Smriti.
The smriti texts form the secondary body of vedic literature. Unlike the sruti, the smriti texts were developed much later and deal with more traditional legends that are prevalent today. Modern Hinduism mainly derives its law, ethics and spiritual practice from these texts. The term smriti translated as ‘that which is remembered’, are mainly composed by revered and spiritual figures who are perceived to be pivotal personalities in the development and propagation of Vedic dharma.
The development of smriti texts offers a number of explanations for its creation. Firstly the texts assisted in codifying religious and social law, even offering a more simplistic and practical form of life. Secondly due to the complex and lofty religious and philosophical import of the Vedas, not all individuals were eligible to learn sruti texts, for this the smriti text offered the religious basis for Vedic life. Thirdly smriti texts allow sectarian traditions to propound their own philosophy using the tenants of sruti supposedly permitting them to be authoritative literature.
As mentioned earlier the smriti texts are exhaustive in nature and hence to accommodate for all the texts is virtually an impossible task. However we could broadly categorise the texts into socio-religious works, philosophical works, historical events and traditional legends.