Hinduism’s Canon

It is often said of Hinduism that, unlike the Abrahamic religions, it is not a religion of the book; that it does not have a cornerstone scripture serving as congregator. More than being completely erroneous, this is an uninformed canard that implicitly suggests, Hinduism’s true place is more in line with Paganism than with any religion or creed. Books are not just the foundational bricks of Theology; they are also essential for congealing communities of belief. The unifying force of a book is integral to the survival and propagation of organized religion. Additionally and apart from that self-serving purpose; scripture illustrates the philosophy and thought of the religion which in turn, serves as a bulwark for cultural belief and evolution. That texts are important to religion is thus established. However, the notion that ritual use of a single book by all practitioners, is a necessary determinant of established religion is one that must be countered.

Hinduism does not have only one text; it has a whole canon comprising fourteen texts. But, the way in which these texts are used, in and by the faith, is very different from other religions. Hinduism is as much a creed of learning as it is of the Divine. Learning and the advancement of the intellect is deeply intertwined with the practice; deep enough to not be seen as distinct from it. ‘Pramana’ or, the ‘means to knowledge’ has three core elements – perception, inference and textual knowledge or Shabdha. The Hindu Canon is considered to be just one of the ways of realization (of self and divine). It falls under the category of Shabdha.

In Sanskrit; these texts are called Shastras or the Chaturdasha Vidya (Chaturdasha – fourteen; Vidya – learning). There are an additional four that are more akin to subject specializations; but these too are sometimes included raising the number of primary texts to eighteen. All eighteen are extant. Crowning these texts are the Vedas – the prime scripture of Hinduism. The texts are individually distinct in both content and scope and consequently, do not share the same degree of importance. At the same time, however, they also don’t submit to being categorized into a traditional hierarchy of greatest to least. On the contrary, the onus of intellectual hierarchy is on the learner/ practitioner of the faith. Hinduism’s texts recognize the spiritual and intellectual stage of development of the individual and cater to that hierarchy of personal evolution in the reader, the seeker or, believer. Like learning, Bhakthi or belief, is also understood as subjective experience and is treated accordingly. The philosophy of – to each is given a unique place and purpose and to each too, the responsibility to serve it well – is exemplified by the collected works in the Canon. Irrespective of the stage at which a text has unique appeal; not one of these texts ever becomes irrelevant. Just as cliches acquire new meaning when revisited with personal experience; similarly, each text when revisited enhances the reader with new shades and depth of meaning.

To most English readers of Hinduism the classification of these texts can be baffling. In my own experience (admittedly limited), most books do not classify or detail the texts in a simple format that facilitates both understanding and recall. This perhaps is a contributory factor for the in-vogue misrepresentations. From reading collated across numerous sources an easily comprehensible classification is detailed below that should put paid to the myth of the absent book.

It is common to divide the Chaturdasha Vidya into Shruthi and Smrithi. Shruthi (literally, that which is heard) are the older texts learnt by the oral tradition and do not have a known author. Smrithi (that which is memorized and lived by) are auxiliary texts to the Shruthi. They are explanatory decoders of the Shruthi and, unlike them, have identifiable human authors. Many learned authorities differ from this dichotomous division in that, it implies a difference between the two. In reality, the Smrithis are best described as one of many auxiliary texts that contain extensions, additions and commentaries of the Shruthi.

A more felicitous way to classify the texts and their subjects is in the manner of the branching of the tree – main trunk, limbs and branches.

The Prime Scripture: Four Vedas (Rig, Yajur, AtharvanA, SAma)

Each Veda has further divisions based on structure and function. Structurally, there are three sections – SamhitA, BrAhmanA and the AranyakA. Functionally, two – the KarmakAndA and JnanakAndA. The Samhita and the BrAhmanA together comprise the KarmakAndA. These sections concern themselves with recitations, work and worship rituals. The AranyakA along with the Upanishads are intellectual and philosophical expositions of the KarmakAndA.

The text and its divisions have been likened metaphorically to a fruit bearing tree. Wherein the trunk is the Vedas; the forked limbs – the KarmakAndA and the JnanakAndA; the branches – the Samhita; leaves – the BrAhmanAs, flowers – the AranyakAs and finally the fruit of the entire endeavour – the Upanishads.

Auxiliary subjects: The primary division called AngAs; the secondary, called UpAngAs.

The six AngAs:

  • 1. Shiksha – Phonetics
  • 2. VyAkarana – Grammar
  • 3. Chandas – Prosody
  • 4. NirUktA – Etymology
  • 5. JyotishA – Cosmology and science
  • 6. KalpA – Application manuals

The four UpAngAs

  • 1. MImAmsA – Is an exegesis of the Vedas. It’s also one of the six systems of thought or DarshanA. MimAmsA has two divisions along the lines of the Kandas of the Vedas – the Purva-mImAmsA and the Uttara-MimAmsA. The two differ from each other and from Vedanta on the role and nature of Ishvara – God.
  • 2. NyAyA – Logic or reasoning. Is also one of the six systems of thought or DarshanA
  • 3. PurAnAs – Eighteen in number. The collected chronicles and legends of history that are used to elaborate the philosophy and the teachings of the Vedas. The PurAnAs are some of the most important texts of Hinduism; both that they are beloved and are in more common use by the multitude than the other texts.
  • 3a. ItihAsA – The Epics: RAmAyanA and MahAbhArathA. The importance of these two to the Hindu Canon is so great that they have often been called the Fifth Veda
  • 4. DharmashAstrAs – are the SmrithIs. They are auxiliary texts that serve as explanatory reference, manuals and commentaries on the Shruthi. In this respect; they are very similar to KalpA and are an extension of it. Law, the conduct of rituals, personal conduct are elaborated in detail here.

Unlike the Abrahamic books, the Hindu canon does not assert an eternal and insurmountable distinction between God and man. The purpose of these texts is not directed at cementing the influence of the creed but at the intellectual and spiritual growth of the individual. When and if approached in the prescribed method of learning, the seeker is gradually steered away from belief, ritual and materialism to seek and realize the divinity within. The religion, thus, actively promotes a movement from the religious to the philosophical.

Hindu Philosophy is not an esoteric external rumination but an active process (incorporated in daily living) of contemplation, realization and renunciation. In socio-political terms, the religion steers the growth and/or shift of the individual from the practice of duties as conservative householder to those of a progressive intellectual. Once the structure for belief and thought is mastered, the believer is set free to explore his learning in pastures of his own creation, even if, that exercise leads him to denounce the very faith. There are no condemnations here of heretics, apostates and agnostics. Even the denial of faith is approached as its mere converse and is respected and welcomed as a contributory advancement of thought.

Viewed through the lens of time, it is fairly reasonable to assume that a single book of God might struggle to withstand the test of humankind’s insatiable quest for the unknown. That, it continues to thrive as the oldest living religion, perhaps suggests that the multiplicity of Hinduism’s texts is a theological example of successful evolutionary survival.

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Hinduism’s Canon

2 thoughts on “Hinduism’s Canon

  1. hickspat says:

    Absolutely wonderul! Dr Meena, I do not want to seem always effusive but frankly, your writing – profound, masterful yet subdued, witty and so enjoyable – really lifts my spirits, in addition to impoving my understanding of life and the world. Well done. Hinduism is somewhat ignored in the West – Buddhism its offshoot, is more popular – among other things, for reasons of being too dense and complex. It has no doubt offered exemplary values to the world of non-violence and ahimsa in addition to yoga, ayurveda and a way of imparting meaning to an otherwise seemingly purposeless existence. I also associate India with joyous festivals, marriages, celebrations and color – no doubt influenced by Hindusim. This short thesis on such a difficult subject is remarkable in that it condenses what it very hard to condense, it is informative for the non-Hindu (and, I suspect the modern Hindu as well) and as always, it is well written in your inimitable quiet and jolly style :) Thank you. All best, Pat
    ps: I am delighted I found your blog and I have recommended you to several of my friends who all so far share my opinion.

    1. Many thanks again Pat. It makes a big difference to have dedicated readers like you who make not just the time to read but to leave a note in response. I greatly appreciate your input. Will try harder to write more frequently and do keep visiting :)

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