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Understanding Hinduism: V. Foundational Texts of Hinduism

Sacred Hindu Texts

(This is the fifth part of a series of articles on Hinduism. Here are the earlier parts, Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four.)

The foundational texts of Hinduism have, for centuries, been transmitted by means of an oral tradition – teachers taught this to their disciples, who committed every word to memory and then passed it on to their disciples without any variation. Needless to say, many ancient texts have been lost over the years. For ease of understanding, in this article we use the term ‘texts’ instead of ‘works,’ or ‘compositions,’ or ‘treatises,’ but they include both orally composed works and written texts.

While the transmission of knowledge was done orally, ancient India had both orally composes texts as well as written texts. The Vedas were composed orally and strictly transmitted by means of an oral tradition because of the specific accents used in Vedic recitation. The later texts (like Vedāṅgas) that deal with technical details were written down.

So when we say that many texts have been lost, it is not just a physical loss of an ancient manuscript but also the loss of a particular group of people who had learnt a certain text from memory. That said, what remains is a huge repository of knowledge and oftentimes a single lifetime is insufficient to read through all the available treatises – especially given that we have many traditional commentaries on these foundational  texts that run into millions of pages.

Hindu foundational texts are divided into two groups: śruti and smṛtiŚruti (‘that which is heard’) refers to the primary texts, which are Vedas. Smṛti (‘that which is remembered’) refers to the four groups of secondary texts: Upaveda, Vedāṅga, Purāṇa, and Darśana.


The word veda comes from the root vid which means ‘knowledge,’ ‘enjoyment,’ ‘liberation,’ etc. When the word veda is used in singular, it is a reference to knowledge, wisdom, and awareness, which is the foundation of our existence. When the word veda is used in plural, it is a reference to the four VedasṚgveda, Yajurveda, Sāmaveda, and Atharvaveda – which are the foremost revealed scriptures in Hinduism.

The traditional view is that the Vedas are apauruṣeya (of divine origin, coming from a source beyond humans). Whether or not one agrees with this view, one must concede that the internal awareness of our existence, the inner veda is indeed apauruṣeya. The collective consciousness of the ṛṣis (seers, sages, visionaries) of the past – both men and women – makes up the Vedas.

The Vedas themselves proclaim that one has to go beyond mere chanting of the hymns and realize one’s true nature:

ṛco akṣare parame vyoman yasmindevā adhi viśve niṣeduḥ |

yastanna veda kiṃṛcā kariṣyati ya ittadvidusta ime samāsate ||

Ṛgveda Saṃhitā  1.164.39

When the foundational texts of Hinduism themselves declare thus, what further evidence is needed to show that the tradition aims to transcend dogma and pursue absolute knowledge?

The Upaniṣads advise us to understand the true nature of the self where texts, traditions, and identities cease to exist:

atra pitāpitā bhavati mātāmātā lokā alokā devā adevā vedā avedāḥ |

atra steno’steno bhavati bhrūṇahābhrūṇahā cāṇḍyālo’caṇḍyālaḥ

paulkaso’paulkasaḥ śramaṇo’śramaṇas tāpaso’tāpasaḥ |

ananvāgataṃ puṇyenānanvāgataṃ pāpena |

tīrṇo hi tadā sarvāñ śokān hṛdayasya bhavati ||

Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 4.3.22

Krishna shares a similar thought in the Bhagavad-Gita when he says that once a person attains the highest wisdom, the Vedas are insignificant.

yāvānartha udapāne sarvataḥ samplutodake |

tāvānsarveṣu vedeṣu brāhmaṇasya vijānataḥ ||

Bhagavad-Gītā 2.46

Thus the foundational texts of Hinduism do not challenge the universal experience. In fact, it places experience and observation over theory. The proof of the Vedas comes from the non-qualified experiences of the ṛṣis. The contention is that wisdom can be realized by individual experience and not by the text alone. That said, it is possible only for a few people to realize the truths on their own. For the general population, an authoritative source is needed. And what better authority, than a body of knowledge like the Vedas, that agree with universally valid spiritual, rational and human values?

Each of the four Vedas is further sub-divided into four sections: Saṃhitā, Brāhmaṇa, Āraṇyaka, and Upaniṣad. The first three (Saṃhitā, Brāhmaṇa, Āraṇyaka) are called the karma kāṇda as they give more importance to the devotional and ritualistic aspects. The last one (Upaniṣad) is called the jñāna kāṇda as it gives more importance on the contemplative and philosophical aspects. In general, the Saṃhitās deal with bhakti (devotion), the Brāhmaṇas with karma (work, action, ritual), the Āraṇyakas with dhyāna(meditation, contemplation), and the Upaniṣads with jñāna (knowledge, wisdom).

We also see a connection between these divisions of the Vedas and the four stages of human life (caturāśrama) according to our tradition – the Saṃhitās correspond to brahmacarya, the Brāhmaṇas correspond to gṛhasta, the Āraṇyakas correspond to vānaprastha, and the Upaniṣads correspond to sanyāsa. However, we must remember that these divisions are not water-tight compartments and we find many spillovers in the different sections. The Ṛgveda Saṃhitā is the oldest known treatise in the world. It forms the basis for all other Vedic texts.

The Vedas largely comprise devotional hymns to various gods and elaborate rituals to invoke them. These gods are seen as a manifestation of the one absolute truth that is beyond space and time, name and form, and attributes of any other kind. The gods themselves take various names and forms and are spread over space and time. The core of the wisdom of the Vedas, however, lies in the quest for self-realization and thus realizing the ultimate truth. As an aside to the main track of devotion and self-realization, the Vedas deal with many subjects that one would today label as history, sociology, science, psychology, ethics, philosophy, etc.

A remarkable aspect about the Vedas is the literary quality of the hymns – almost always set to poetic meter, clever phonetic patterns, lucid structure, and meta-worldly syntax. In some sense, this was inevitable because this knowledge was passed on by means of an oral tradition. Everything had to be committed to memory. This is also perhaps the reason why the Vedas are chanted/recited/sung using certain intonations.

  • Ṛgveda

Ṛgveda (ṛk + veda) consists of ṛks (verses).

Saṃhitā: Rigveda Saṃhitā

Brāhmaṇas: Aitareya Brāhmaṇa, Kauṣītaki Brāhmaṇa

Āraṇyakas: Aitareya Āraṇyaka, Kauṣītaki Āraṇyaka

Upaniṣads: Aitareya Upaniṣad, Kauṣītaki Upaniṣad, and nine others

  • Yajurveda

Yajurveda (yajus + veda) consists of yajus (prose).

– Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda

Saṃhitā: Taittirīya Saṃhitā, Maitrayāṇi Saṃhitā, Kaṭha Saṃhitā, Kapisthala Kathā Saṃhitā

Brāhmaṇas: Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa

Āraṇyakas: Taittirīya Āraṇyaka, Maitrayāṇīya Āraṇyaka

Upaniṣads: Taittirīya Upaniṣad, Kaṭha Upaniṣad, Śvetaśvatara Upaniṣad, Maitrayāṇīya Upaniṣad, and 28 others

– Śukla Yajurveda

Saṃhitā: Vajasaneyi Saṃhitā (Mādhyandina), Vajasaneyi Saṃhitā (Kāṇva)

Brāhmaṇas: Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa (Mādhyandina, Kāṇva)

Āraṇyakas: Bṛhat Āraṇyaka

Upaniṣads: Īśa Upaniṣad, Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, and 17 others

[Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda, which is largely in prose, is possibly the original Yajurveda. The Śukla Yajurveda largely comprises a remodelling of the former in metrical patterns. In the Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda, the Saṃhitā portion also has some Brāhmaṇa passages. In the Śukla Yajurveda, there are no Brāhmaṇa passages in the Saṃhitā portion since all those passages have been absorbed by the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa.]

  • Sāmaveda

Sāmaveda consists of sāmans (songs).

Saṃhitā: Kauthuma Saṃhitā, Jaiminīya Saṃhitā, Raṇayanīya Saṃhitā

Brāhmaṇas: Pañcaviṃśa Brāhmaṇa, Saḍviṃśa Brāhmaṇa, Sāmavidhāna Brāhmaṇa, Ārśeya Brāhmaṇa, Devatādhyāya Brāhmaṇa, Chāndogya Brāhmaṇa, Saṃhitopaniṣad Brāhmaṇa, Vaṃśa Brāhmaṇa, Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa, Jaiminīya Ārśeya Brāhmaṇa, Jaiminīya Upaniṣad Brāhmaṇa

Upaniṣads: Chāndogya Upaniṣad, Kena Upaniṣad, and 14 others

  • Atharvaveda

Atharvaveda consists of the teachings of the sage Atharvan.

Saṃhitā: Śaunakīya Saṃhitā, Paippalada Saṃhitā

Brāhmaṇas: Gopatha Brāhmaṇa

Upaniṣads: Praśna Upaniṣad, Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad, Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad, and 28 others


Continued in the next part.

Co-authored by Hari Ravikumar

(The series was earlier published on

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