Hindu Sacred Books

Key Points

The concept of Hinduism being a single monolithic religion is recent, dating back only to the 19th century. Many scholars liken Hinduism to a family of religions, with all affiliated members bearing a family resemblance. Thus any definition of Hinduism is somewhat arbitrary and requires qualification. One such definition is "the followers of Vaidika Dharma," or those who follow the religious teachings outlined in the Vedas and their corollaries.

Hindu religious literature is divided into two main categories:

  1. Shruti – that which has been heard
  2. Smriti – that which has been remembered

Shruti is canonical, consisting of revelation and unquestionable truth, and is considered eternal. It refers mainly to the Vedas themselves.

Smriti is supplementary and may change over time. It is authoritative only to the extent that it conforms to the bedrock of shruti.

There are different opinions about the relative validity and importance of each. Some Hindus stress the foundational importance of shruti, whereas others say that in making truths accessible, smriti is more important today. Belief in universal truth suggests to some Hindu thinkers that any teaching that corresponds to real knowledge can also be accepted as "Veda." Hence there are numerous writings considered to be "Vedic," including many vernacular works. It is important to note that:

  1. The divide between Shruti and Smriti is often contested.
  2. The divide is not discrete but can be represented as a continuum, with some texts more canonical than others.

Most key texts are written in classical Sanskrit, considered the sacred language of the gods. The script itself is termed "devanagari" – literally "from the cities of the gods." (For more information on Sanskrit, please see Sanskrit and Sanskriti). Many subsidiary texts, particularly by medieval bhakti writers, are in local vernaculars, such as Tamil, Brajbasi, Gujarati, and Bengali.

The content of Vedic scripture is divided into three main sections, though the third one, upasana-kanda, is sometimes omitted:

These three largely correspond to the three main paths – Karma-yoga, Jnana-yoga, and Bhakti-Yoga (see Four Main Paths).

The most important books in the shruti and smriti are listed below. They are here grouped into ten categories to aid memorisation. The main texts within both shruti and smriti are explored in this section.

For popular purposes in the UK, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Puranas and the Bhagavad-gita are most commonly used.

Ten Principal Texts

Notes:

Sacred texts are sources of:

  1. Philosophical concepts
  2. Information on personal values
  3. Practical injunctions
  4. Story and myth
  5. Prayers and mantras
  6. Details of worship/liturgy
  7. Various arts and sciences

Related Practices

Related Values and Issues

Personal Reflection

Glossary Terms

Meaning and Purpose