sastra (Sanskrit: "sacred text; teaching.") is used to denote education/knowledge in a general sense. The word is generally used as a suffix in the context of technical or specialized knowledge in a defined area of practice. For example, Astra Sastra means, knowledge about "Handling of weapons", Astra means weapons, and sastra is their knowledge. Sastra is also a by-word used when referring to a scripture. Extending this meaning, the sastra is commonly used to mean a treatise or text written in explanation of some idea, especially in matters involving religion.
Hindu texts are typically seen to revolve around many levels of reading, namely the gross or physical, the subtle, and the supramental. This allows for many levels of understanding as well, implying that the truth of the texts can only be realized with the spiritual advancement of the reader.
During their spiritual quest, the ancient rishi experienced sparks of divinity in all things and beings of the world. The vision of the Hindu scriptures is thus a vision of the unity of all existence, summarized as follows:
- There are many ways of conceiving the Brahman (Supreme Reality) and numerous ways of approaching It. To insist that one's own way is the only way is thus wrong and harmful.
- Brahman is the source of goodness and truth. Man's goal in life is to seek union with Brahman. This union can be sought in many ways, all requiring sincerity of purpose, self-sacrifice and discipline.
- The highest religious experience is the one in which an individual transcends the intellect and realizes Brahman immediately.
- There is rita (natural order) inherent in the natural world. There must be dharma (moral order) inherent in human life. Everyone must be responsible for his (or her) actions and their consequences (karma). We cannot blame God for our ills.
- Individual responsibility and one's ethics are a foundation for individual happiness and social stability.
- The universe is a wheel of yajña (sacrifice). At the beginning the Supreme Lord performed self-sacrifice to create the universe and set the wheel in motion. The water sacrifices to form clouds, the clouds sacrifice to make rains, the rains sacrifice to grow food, and the food sacrifices to feed humans. In turn, humans must sacrifice for the welfare of the Mother Earth and all its creatures.
- There is no intrinsic evil in Nature nor any evil force in the world to oppose God. Man commits evil only due to ignorance (mãyã).
- Love, freedom and peace are fruits of the tree of divine consciousness, which can be planted by worshipping God regularly and systematically through yoga, meditation, study of scriptures, by performing religious rites and ceremonies-as enjoined by scriptures-and selfless work.
The Sruti scriptures are of divine origin, whose truths were directly revealed to ancient rishis (sages) in their deep meditations. The Smriti scriptures are of human origin and were written to explain the Sruti writings and make them understandable and meaningful to the general population. Sruti scriptures include the four Vedas (Rig, Yajur, Sãma and Atharva) and the Bhagavad Gîtã, and constitute the highest religious authority. Smrti literature includes Itihasas (epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata), Puranas (historical epics), agama (theological treatises) and darsanas (philosophical texts).
The Smritis, the Itihasas, the Puranas, the Agamas and the Darsanas are only developments of the Veda. Their ultimate source is the Veda. Their one common aim is to enable man to annihilate his ignorance and attain perfection, freedom, immortality, and eternal bliss through knowledge of God or the Eternal. Their purpose is to make man like God and one with Him.
The Vedas are referred to as the shruti. The Vedas are the oldest extant Hindu texts. The ideas expressed in the Vedas were traditionally handed down orally from father to son and from teacher to disciple. Therefore, these ideas had been in circulation for a long time before their codification and compilation, which are attributed to a Rishi named Veda Vyasa (literally, "the splitter of the Vedas," ). He was named that way as it was he who was accredited with forming the large mass of knowledge and hymns of the Vedas and 'splitting' them into comprehensible sections for the rest of humanity.
The Vedas have been divided in various ways. One simple way is to divide the Vedas into two sections according to their subject matter:
- The Karma Kānda ("the action part"), deals with karma, rituals, and sacrifices the purpose of which is to attain material prosperity on earth and the benefits of heaven after death, and
- The Jnāna Kānda ("the knowledge part"), is concerned with the spiritual Knowledge that brings liberation from ignorance and realization of the Ultimate Truth. The Upanishads constitute a major portion of the Jnāna Kānda.
The Upanishads ("Sittings Near [a Teacher]") are part of the shruti; these religious scriptures primarily discuss philosophy and "cosmic reality"; they also contain transcripts of various debates or discussions. They are commentaries on the Vedas and their branch of Hinduism is called Vedanta.
Many a Hindu has said that the most succinct and powerful abbreviation of the overwhelmingly diverse realm of Hindu thought is to be found in the Bhagavad Gita. Essentially, it is a microcosm of Vedic, Yogic, Vedantic and even Tantric thought of the Hindu fold. Bhagavad Gita (literally: Song of the God) is a part of the epic poem Mahabharata and is revered in Hinduism. It speaks not only to Vaishnavas but to all people, and it is accepted by the members of all Hindu streams as a seminal text. Indeed, the "tag line" of each chapter of the Bhagavad Gita refers to the book as the "Gita Upanishad" and as a "scripture of yoga," thereby establishing that in this text, Lord Krishna speaks the truths of yoga and the Upanishads for all.
The Gita speaks of cultivating the intellect, properly using the body, and always remaining equipoised in relation to the greater Self. The Bhagavad Gita truly presents itself as a liberation scripture universal in its message.
The Itihasas (Sanskrit for "history" or "thus verily happened") are narrative traditions composed as supplementary Vedic literature to helps explain the rituals of the Vedas and the highly compressed philosophy of the Vedanta-sutras by using historical events of the universe and factual stories of many great sages, and so forth.
The common man cannot comprehend the high abstract philosophy of the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras. Hence, the compassionate sages Valmiki and Vyasa wrote the Itihasas for the benefit of common people. The same philosophy is presented with analogies and parables in a tasteful form to the common run of mankind.
The well known Itihasas (histories) are the epics (Mahakavyas), Ramayana and Mahabharata. They are two very popular and useful Sastras of the Hindus. The Ramayana was written by the Sage Valmiki, and the Mahabharata by Sage Vyasa.
Included in the Itihasas is the Mahabharata, written by Srila Vyasadeva. It is an historical epic about the great kingdom of Bharatavarsa, or the region of India. It contains 110,000 couplets making it the longest poem and greatest epic in world literature. It is divided into 18 sections called parvas, such as the Adi Parva, etc. It is a treasure house of Indian lore and holds within it a code of life for ethical, social and spiritual relations. Throughout this great epic every sort of human situation is described and every kind of emotion is aroused. There is a saying that if it is not in the Mahabharata then it is not to be found.
The Ramayana consists of 24,000 verses, and first written during the time of Sri Ramachandra by the great poet Valmiki, which describes the life of Sri Ramachandra, an incarnation of God, and His wife Sita. This is also a most touching and exciting adventure which explains how Sri Ramachandra lived in the forest and fought against and killed the great asura Ravana and his armies in order to rescue His wife, Sita, who had been kidnapped. Many other stories are included in this storehouse of wisdom that has been an inspiration for thousands of years to all people who have read it. In the incarnation of Sri Ramachandra, God appears as the perfect king and ruler, and inspires all His subjects with the greatest love for Him.
The Purãnas are a vast literature of stories and allegory. There are 18 primary Purãnas, 18 upa-purãnas, and numerous minor Puranas. 18 are considered to be Mahapuranas, or Great Purãnas, and thus authoritative references on the Gods and Goddesses, religious rites and holy places (most of which are in the Indian subcontinent, known as Bharat). Six devoted to worship of Shiva, six to Vishnu, and six to Brahma. The primary Puranas describe these five subjects: sarga (creation), pratisarga (recreation), vamsa (history of the sages), manvantara (periods of Manu), and vamsanucarita (geneology of kings).
The agama are an enormous collection of Sanskrit scriptures which, are revered as theological treatises and practical manuals of divine worship. The Agamas include the Tantras, mantra and Yantras. Agamas deal with the philosophy and spiritual knowledge behind the worship of the deity, the yoga and mental discipline required for this worship, and the specifics of worship offered to the deity. All the Agamas treat of (i) Jnana or Knowledge, (ii) Yoga or Concentration, (iii) Kriya or Esoteric Ritual and (iv) Charya or Exoteric Worship. They also give elaborate details about ontology and cosmology, liberation, devotion, meditation, philosophy of Mantras, mystic diagrams, charms and spells, temple-building, image-making, domestic observances, social rules, public festivals, etc.
Manuals of Philosophy
A 'sutra' is a distinct type of literary composition, based on short aphoristic statements, generally using various technical terms. The literary form of the sutra was designed for concision, as the texts were intended to be memorized by students in some of the formal methods of scriptural and scientific study (Sanskrit: svādhyāya). Since each line is highly condensed, another literary form arose in which commentaries (Sanskrit: bhāṣya) on the sutras were added, to clarify and explain them.
The Vedangas (limbs of the Vedas) are six – Siksha (phonetics), Kalpa (Pronunciations and the usage of the Mantras), Vyakarana (grammar), Nirukta (etymology of words), Chandas (prosody),and Jyotisha (astrology and astronomy).
These are in the nature of texts prescribing or codifying social and religious norms during different stages of evolution of society. Dharma Sastras or Smritis, are the fourth supplementary Anga of the Vedas. A number of Smritis are known to exist.Some of them are the Manusmriti, Vishnu, Angirasa, Daksha, Shatatapa, Gautama, Yagnavalkya, Yama, Vasistha, Samvarta, Parasara, Shanka etc.
Although popularly known as epics, the Ramayana of Valmiki and the Mahabharata of Vyasa may be classified under the head Dharma Sastras for the purpose of this survey. The famous Bhagavad Gita is a portion of the Mahabharata.)
The Tevaram and the Tiruvachakam which are the hymns of the Saiva saints of South India, the Divya-Prabandham of the Alvar saints of South India, the songs of Sant Kabir, the Abhangas of Sant Tukaram and the Ramayana of Sant Tulasidas- all of which are the outpourings of great realised souls- are wonderful scriptures. They contain the essence of the Vedas.
The Subhashitas are wise sayings, instructions and stories, either in poetry or in prose. Examples are Bhartrihari’s three centuries of verses, the Subhashita-Ratna-Bhandagara and Somadeva Bhatta’s Katha-Sarit-Sagara or Kshemendra’s Brihat-Katha-Manjari. The Pachatantra and the Hitopadesa also belong to this category.
These are highly scholarly compositions in poetry, prose or both. The greatest of poetical Kavyas are those of Kalidas (The Raghuvamsa and Kumara-sambhava), Bharavi (The Kiratarjuniya), Magha (The Sisupalavadha), and Sri Harsha (The Naishadha). The best prose Kavyas in the whole of Sanskrit literature were written by Bhattabana (The Kadambari and Harshacharita), the great genius in classical Sanskrit. Among those containing both poetry and prose, the Champu-Ramayana and the Champu-Bharata are most famous. These are all wonderful masterpieces which will ever remain to glorify India’s literary calibre.
The Natakas (dramas)
These are marvelously scholastic dramas embodying the Rasas (expressions, mostly facial) of Sringara (decorate or beautify), Vira (brave), Karuna (compassion), Adbhuta (astonishment), Hasya (laugh), Bhayanka (fearsome), Bibhatsa (disgusting or loathsome) and Raudra (terrible). It is told that none can write on the ninth Rasa, viz., Santi (peaceful). It is attainable only on final Liberation. The best dramas are written by Kalidasa (Sakuntala), Bhavabhuti (Uttara-Rama-Charita), and Visakhadatta (Mudrarakshasa).
These are grand rhetorical texts, treating of the science of perfection and beauty of ornamental language and of effective composition with elegance and force, both in poetry and in prose. These are the fundamentals of Sanskrit Sahitya (literature), even superior to the Kavyas and the Natakas. The best Alankara Granthas (Granthas = volumes) are those of Mammata (Kavyaprakasa) and Jagannatha (Rasagangadhara).
- Bhagavad Gītā
- Upa Vedas
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