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Understanding Hinduism: VI. Bodies of Knowledge in Hinduism

Bodies of Knowledge in Hinduism

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

  • Upavedas

Upavedas are the secondary (upa) bodies of knowledge (veda). The Vedas are spiritual in nature while the Upavedas are secular. The terms ‘spiritual’ and ‘secular’ are modern constructs but they closely correspond to the way in which the Vedas and Upavedas are composed. However, like all other foundational texts of Hinduism, the ‘secular’ Upavedas too, have at their core, the same spirituality professed by the ‘spiritual’ Vedas. Each Upaveda is said to correspond to a Veda.

The Upavedas and Vedas support the classical concepts of pravṛtti and nivṛtti. Pravṛtti (practice, action, behaviour, profession, coming forth) is focus on the outer world, where we engage in action that pertains to the material world. Nivṛtti (rest, abstinence, cessation, retiring, or turning back) is focussed on the inner world, where we engage in contemplation and self-awareness. While the Upavedas correspond to pravṛtti, the Vedas correspond to nivṛtti.

The Upavedas and Vedas also support the classical concept of puruṣārtha, the four objectives of life: dharma (duty, principle, religion), artha (wealth, cause, motive), kāma (desire, pleasure, passion), and mokṣa (liberation, salvation, release). The Upavedas are largely about artha and kāma; while the Vedas are largely about dharma and mokṣa.

This division between Vedas and Upavedas also hints at the wisdom of the ancient Indians who always managed to bring about a rich synthesis of culture and civilization, where the former is idealistic and the latter is materialistic.

The four Upavedas are explained below.

1. Āyurveda[associated with Ṛgveda]

Āyurveda literally means ‘knowledge of life.’ Modern medicine has largely restricted itself to the treatment of disease. On the other hand, Āyurveda is a holistic science of life that takes into account the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of a person. Accordingly it tries to ensure the health of body, mind, and soul. More than the treatment of a disorder, it gives a blueprint for a blissful life.

A person who is keeping well is called ‘healthy’ in English. A similar term in Sanskrit is svastha, which translates into ‘being composed in one’s own self.’ The terms used for wellness itself suggest the divergence in approach. Āyurveda has details about food and its processing, nutrition, suggestions for a healthy lifestyle, and a holistic picture of lifestyle choices. Āyurveda also includes what we term today as pharmacology, pharmacopeia, psychology, hygiene, chemistry, botany, zoology, and metallurgy.

While dealing with the microcosm and macrocosm, it ponders about the aspects of cosmology too. While dealing with healthy habits and the calendar of an overall healthy life, Āyurveda gets into the details of philosophy, ethics, law, environment, meteorology, agriculture, cooking, traditions, and culture.

The eight subdivisions (aṣṭāṅgas) of Āyurveda include many aspects of medicine and surgery. Āyurveda is the converging point of many physical and normative sciences.

Some of the foundational and authoritative texts of Āyurveda include these:

Śuśrūta Saṃhitā (Śuśrūta)

Caraka Saṃhitā (Caraka)

Aṣṭāṅga Hṛdaya and Saṅgraha (Vāgbhaṭa)


2. Arthaveda[associated with Yajurveda]

Arthaveda is the wisdom of means and methods. The word artha has several shades of meaning where men (women as well), materials, methods, management, and money are all included. We will not do justice to its scope if we translate arthaśāstra as merely ‘economics’ because it includes not only economics but also political science, law, ethics, constitutional studies, defence, management, sociology, trade and commerce, civil and military engineering, etc. All these terms are modern but they very closely correspond to the contents of the Arthaveda texts.

Here are some of the renowned texts of Arthaveda:

Arthaśāstra (Kauṭilya)

Pañcatantra (Viṣṇuśarma)

Yuktikalpataru (Bhojarāja)

Nītikalpataru (Kṣemendra)

Nītisāra (Kamaṇḍaka)

Hitopadeśa (Nārāyaṇa)

Nītisūtra (Somadeva)

Nītivākyāmṛta (Somadevasūri)

Nītisāra (Śukra)

Vyāvahāramayukha (Nīlakaṇṭha)

Rājanītimayukha (Nīlakaṇṭha)

Rājanītiratnākara (Caṇḍeśvara)

According to some sources, Dhanurveda, the science of archery, is counted among the Upavedas. However, we have preferred Arthaveda since it is more far-reaching and substantial. Further, there are no foundational texts specifically under Dhanurveda.

3. Gāndharvaveda [associated with Sāmaveda]

Gāndharvaveda is the wisdom of enjoyment through arts and crafts. Gandharvas are a group of divine artistes and musicians from whom the name is derived. In almost all the Vedas we find references to arts, crafts, artistes, and artisans. The Yajurveda mentions twenty-eight types of arts and crafts. The number of arts and crafts increased over time and later literature mentions the famous sixty-four arts (chaturṣaṣṭi kalā).

Gāndharvaveda includes not just the fundamental arts like poetry, music, dance, theatre, painting, and sculpture but also secondary arts like flower arrangement, magic, juggling, carpentry, riddle-solving, storytelling, etc.

Texts of Gāndharvaveda include these:

Kāmasūtra (Vātsyāyana)

Nāṭyaśāstra (Bharata)

Kāvyālankāra (Bhamaha)

Kāvyadarṣa (Daṇḍin)

Dhvanyāloka (Ānandavardhana)

Śṛṅgāraprakāśa (Bhoja)

Sarasvatikaṇṭhābharana (Bhoja)

Vakrokti Jīvita (Kuntaka)

Vyakti Viveka (Mahimabhaṭṭa)

Kāvyaprakāśa (Mammata)

Kāmasūtra (written by sage Vātsyāyana in the period between 400 BCE and 200 CE) methodically discusses love and love-making with an overall awareness towards a person’s life and society. Apart from the obvious erotic content, it is a great treatise on sociology, aesthetics, ethics, medicine, anthropology, and psychology.

Nāṭyaśāstra (written by sage Bharata in the period between 200 BCE and 200 CE) is a comprehensive encyclopaedia of all performing arts as well as literature and architecture. It deals with the emotions, sentiments, and moods of theatrical communication which include the physical, verbal, emotional, and material (costumes, stage props, etc.) modes; regional and national approaches; realistic and idealistic methods of presentation; local and universal preferences of creativity; vocal music, instrumental (string, percussion, and wind) music, and lyrics; grammar, figures of speech, stylistics, and prosody; stage construction, building sets, and architecture; costumes, jewellery, and make-up (colour codes, production of colours, and painting); and the education of the actors, dancers, and connoisseurs.

Even today the Nāṭyaśāstra serves the cultural ethos in general and theatre in particular not just in India but also Asia.

4. Sthāpatyaveda [associated with Atharvaveda]

Sthāpatyaveda is the wisdom of engineering. The word sthāpati was used to designate a master engineer who always stood behind the creation of any engineering marvel. Under him were sūtradhāras (design engineers), śilpis (sculptors), kārukas (artisans), takṣas (carpenters), karmāras (blacksmiths), kalādas (goldsmiths, silversmiths), kulālas (potters), tantuvāyas (weavers), etc.

Sthāpatyaveda includes the basic disciplines such as physics, mathematics, and chemistry. Their applied forms like mechanical engineering, civil engineering, chemical engineering, hydraulics, mechanics, dynamics, etc. also form a part of it. Sthāpatyaveda is a holistic representation of both physical sciences and their technologies.

Texts of Sthāpatyaveda include these:







  • Vedāṅgas

Vedāṅgas are the limbs (aṅgas) of knowledge (veda). They are the six auxiliary disciplines which are essential to study and understand the Vedas – phonetics, grammar, prosody, etymology, astrology/astronomy, and ritual.

1. Sikṣā (phonetics, phonology)

Sikṣā is the study of pronunciation. Language, in its basic form, is spoken. And speech, which is a complete form of expression, needs proper pronunciation. Without this, the intended meaning may not be conveyed. Apart from the general rules of pronunciation, Sikṣā reveals the sophistication of the Sanskrit language and of the Vedas. Modern phonetics owes much to this ancient branch of learning.

Texts on Sikṣā:

Ṛgveda Pratiśākya (Śakala Śākhā)

Śukla Yajurveda-Pratiśākhya

Taittirīya (Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda) Pratiśākya

Atharvaveda-Pratiśākya (Śaunakīya Śākhā)

Śaunakīya Caturādhyāyika (Śaunakīya Śākhā)






2. Vyākaraṇa

Vyākaraṇa is the study of grammar. Sanskrit grammar, especially the system of Pānini, is universally known for its perfection, richness, depth, brevity, science, and beauty. Vyākaraṇa is not limited to a description of syntactical aspects but elevates the study to the level of philosophy. Since the late 19th century, the Sanskrit grammatical tradition has greatly influenced global linguistic studies.

Texts on Vyākaraṇa

Aṣṭādhyāyī (Pāṇiṇi)

Vārtika (Vararuci)

Mahābhāṣya (Pantañjali)

Vākyapadīya (Bhartṛhari)

Mādhavīyadhātuvṛtti (Sāyaṇa)

Siddhāntakaumuḍi (Bhaṭṭojidīkṣita)

3. Chandas

Chandas is the study of prosody and poetical metre. Sanskrit has a rich variety of poetic metres both in quality and quantity. Often the metrical pattern of a poem is aligned with the meaning and context of the content. The study of Chandas is also essential to understand the verbal utterances of hymns from the Veda.

Texts on Chandas

Chandas Śāstra (Piṅgala)

Vṛtta Ratnākara (Kedārabhaṭṭa)

Chandonuśāsana (Hemacandra)

Chandonuśāsana (Jayakīrti)

4. Nirukta

Nirukta is the study of etymology. Every word in Sanskrit can be decoded through deconstruction, thus leading to its meaning. This study of etymology is auxiliary to the study of grammar. Grammar tries to develop a word while etymology tries to analyze it.

Texts on Nirukta

Nighaṇṭu (Yāska)

Nirukta (Yāska)

Amarakośa (Amarasiṃha)


Vaijayanti kośa (Yādavaprakāṣa)

5. Jyotiṣa

Jyotiṣa includes astronomy and astrology. The former is the factual description of celestial bodies and their behaviours; while the latter is the interpretation of their influences on humans.

Jyotiṣa heavily relies on mathematics, which was well-developed in ancient India. A calendar is essential for our day-to-day life and so also is our understanding of time and space. At least for this basic purpose, Jyotiṣa is very valuable. Astrology is a probabilistic system that developed by empirical means and has its own place in the scheme of things. Four sections that come under this Vedāṅga are: Jyotiṣa, Gaṇita, Siddhānta, and Hora.

Texts on Jyotiṣa

Vedāṅga Jyotiṣa (Raladha)

BṛhadSaṃhitā (Varāhamihira)

Bṛhadjātaka (Varāhamihira)

Āryabhaṭīyam (Āryabhaṭṭa)

Sūryasiddhānta (Bhāskara)

Siddhānta Śiromaṇi (Bhāskara)

6. Kalpa

Kalpa is the study of rituals and covers a vast expanse of knowledge. It includes the study of ethics, sociology, polity, traditions, and worship, among others. Kalpa has four main groups of texts:

Dharmasūtras – rituals, duties, and responsibilities at a societal level

Gṛhyasūtras – household rituals and duties

Śrautasūtras – rituals and worship of the Vedas

Śulbasūtras – details of the construction of the altar for yajña (Vedic fire ritual)

Texts on Kalpa


Vasiṣṭha (associated with Ṛgveda)

Āpastamba (associated with Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda)

Baudhāyana (associated with Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda)

Viṣṇu (associated with Śukla Yajurveda)

Gautama (associated with Sāmaveda)


Aśvalāyāna (associated with Ṛgveda)

Kauṣītaki (associated with Ṛgveda)

Sāṅkhāyana (associated with Ṛgveda)

Gobhila (associated with Sāmaveda)

Khadira (associated with Sāmaveda)

Jaiminīya (associated with Sāmaveda)

Kauthuma (associated with Sāmaveda)

Baudhāyana (associated with Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda)

Hiranyakeśi (associated with Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda)

Mānava (associated with Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda)

Bhāradvāja (associated with Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda)

Āpastamba (associated with Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda)

Vādhula (associated with Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda)

Kapisthala Kathā (associated with Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda)

Pāraskara (associated with Śukla Yajurveda)

Kātyāyana (associated with Śukla Yajurveda)

Kauṣika (associated with Atharvaveda)


Aśvalāyāna (associated with Ṛgveda)

Sāṅkhāyana (associated with Ṛgveda)

Lāṭyāyana (associated with Sāmaveda)

Drahyāyana (associated with Sāmaveda)

Jaiminīya (associated with Sāmaveda)

Baudhāyana (associated with Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda)

Hiranyakeśi (associated with Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda

Bhāradvāja (associated with Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda

Āpastamba (associated with Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda

Kātyāyana (associated with Śukla Yajurveda)

Vaitana (associated with Artharvaveda)


Baudhāyana (associated with Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda)

Mānava (associated with Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda)

Āpastamba (associated with Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda)

Kātyāyana (associated with Śukla Yajurveda)

  • Smṛti

A consolidation of the Gṛhya and Dharma sections of Kalpa and their further expansion are a group of eighteen primary texts called Smṛtis and eighteen secondary texts called Upasmṛtis.










And many others

  • Āgama

A consolidation of the Śrauta and Śulba sections of Kalpa and their further expansion are a group of texts called Āgamas. They include numerous and voluminous texts dealing with the temple tradition. Āgamas deal with the construction of temples, their art and architecture, the iconography of the images and their aesthetics, as well as the daily, fortnightly, monthly, and annual rituals and festivals observed in the temples. Above all, they discuss the underlying philosophy of the entire system.

The Āgama literature is divided into śaiva (pertaining to the god Śiva), vaiṣṇava (pertaining to the god Viṣṇu), and śākta (pertaining to the goddess Śakti). The Bauddha and Jaina Āgamas may be included under this heading since they have their roots in the same ancient tradition.


Śaiva Āgamas





Vaiṣṇava Āgamas

Pāñcarātra Āgamas

Sāttvata Saṃhitā

Ahirbudhnya Saṃhitā

Lakṣmī Tantra

Vaikhānasa Āgamas

Śākta Āgamas




Jaina Āgamas

Bauddha Āgamas          

  • Purāṇas and Itihāsa

Purāṇas consist of old episodes and stories mainly meant for the education of the ordinary people. They deal with lofty theories and fantastic stories that deal with the creation, sustenance, and dissolution of the cosmos; the lineage of gods, sages, and kings; numerous anecdotes of great people; the innumerable religious and secular practices that are good for individuals and society; details about pilgrimages and festivals; titbits about sciences and arts; etc.

Purāṇas also deal with geography, local traditions, history, and folklore of India with great spiritual insight. To use a modern example, Purāṇas were the Wikipedia of those times.

Unlike the Vedas, the Purāṇas were being constantly revised and updated. There are eighteen Mahāpurāṇas (further divided into brāhmavaiṣṇava, and śaiva,), eighteen Upapurāṇas, and eighteen Upopapurāṇas.

The Itihāsa literature may be placed under this heading. The Itihāsa (literally translates into ‘history’) literature consists of the two great epics from India – Valmiki’s Rāmāyaṇa and Vyasa’s Mahābhārata.

Apart from this, the Purāṇa literature also includes Sthalapurāṇas that pertain to local traditions in different places, taking elements from the local folklore and from traditional stories of the Purāṇas. Needless to say, Sthalapurāṇas are disorganized groups of stories often restricted to the region of their origin. However, it is noteworthy that the Indian tradition does not merely tolerate local values and customs but embraces them.

Purāṇa Texts


Brāhma Purāṇas



Brahma Vaivarta



Vaiṣṇava Purāṇas










Śaiva Purāṇas








  • Darśana

While the English language uses the word ‘philosophy,’ Sanskrit uses the word darśana, ‘point of view.’ There are six classical schools of Indian philosophy (ṣaddarśana) but the three atheistic schools (Jaina, Bauddha, Lokāyāta/Cārvāka) are also usually included in the list. Of the ṣaddarśana, the Nyāya (epistemology) and Vaiśeṣika (ontology) systems largely deal with the physical level; the Sāṅkhya(method of reasoning) and Yoga (union of body, mind, and soul) systems largely deal with the spiritual level; the system of Pūrva Mīmāṃsa deals with the preparation for philosophical pursuits and explains the philosophy of rituals; and the system of Uttara Mīmāṃsa deals with philosophical pursuit and gives means for transcending rituals. Pūrva Mīmāṃsa is prescriptive and more oriented towards karma (action) while Uttara Mīmāṃsa is introspective and more oriented towards jñāna (knowledge).

Darśana texts



Sāṅkhyapravacana Sūtras (Kapila)

Sāṅkhyakārikā (Īśvarakṛṣṇa)


Yoga Sūtras (Patañjali)


Nyāya Sūtras (Gautama)


Vaiśeṣika Sūtras (Kāṇaḍa)

Tarkasaṅgraha (Annaṃbhaṭṭa)


Tattvacintāmaṇi (Raghunātha Śiromaṇi)

Pūrva Mīmāṃsa

Mīmāṃsa Sūtras (Jaimini)

Ślokavartika (Kumarilabhaṭṭa)

Bhāṣyasbṛhati (Prabhākarmata)

Bhaṭṭadīpika (Khaṇḍadiva)

Uttara Mīmāṃsa

Brahma Sūtras (Bādarāyaṇa)





These five groups of texts – Veda, Upaveda, Vedāṅga, Purāṇa, and Darśana – lay the foundation for the knowledge and the wisdom of our heritage and cover the concrete and the abstract, the secular and the spiritual.

Continued in the next part.

Co-authored by Hari Ravikumar

(The series was earlier published on


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