Reading literature of any religion could be overwhelming, but Hinduism takes it to a whole new level. There are so many different parts to the literature that we don’t know where to really start and how to interpret. There are Vedas, Upanishads, Aranyakas, Brahamanas, vedangas, upvedas, Shastras, Puranas, Ithihasa, sutras, and numerous smritis.
Many parts seem contradictory, Puranas have stories of Gods fighting each other, getting angry, acting mean, making reader wonder what is going on. So, in order to make it easy be browse through and understand, we wanted to do a quick writeup to give a top level picture along with motivation behind it this kind of arrangement.
Hinduism believes in a gradual spiritual progression of the individual and in order to support that, it provides a conceptual framework or foundation for every stage of the journey. This helps people to focus on current stage of their journey. It also ensures that people do not overreach and misunderstand higher concepts, and become either misguided or resigned.
In order to support this spiritual progression, literature too has been arranged to provide much needed support at various level, by arranging into four major sections, Shrutis, Smrutis, Shastras and Puranas/Itihasa.
Shrutis describe core principles of Hinduism along with various predefined paths people can choose for spiritual progress. This part of the religion is considered eternal, or untouched by Human, and assumed to be received by hearing, hence the name Shruti (meaning “as it is heard”, unaltered, pure).
Shrutis are Authoritative text, i.e. opinions mentioned in Shrutis are considered final. Shrutis include, four Vedas namely, Rig-Veda, Sam Veda, Krishna/Shukla Yajurveda, and Athervaveda, along with associated Upanishads, Brahmanas and Aranyakas.
Bhagwadgita, even though part of puranic/Itihasa literature, it is considered as Shruti by many scholars, as it was told by Srikrishna, and provides a summary of what is available in Shrutis.
From the ancient times, even though Shrutis are transferred orally, they are considered to be un-altered, due to strong verbal/recitation practice which makes it almost impossible to break.
Smriti and Shastras
Smriti and Shastras provide basic guidelines to people on how to lead a normal life (which may or may not be leading to spiritual progress) and maintain a order in the society.
This part of the literature is not always religious, as the main goal of these is to create and maintain a progressive society, as thought right by a king or his advisors. By definition, they are supposed to be revised with the changing time, sometime explicitly or sometime getting replaced with the law of land. For example, in today’s world these Shastras have been replaced by our constitution.
This way, Hinduism has kept “social rules” and “core concept” separate, and allowing social rules to change without affecting the core concepts, helps Hinduism to not go “out of touch” with social realities, and changing times.
Puranas/Itihasas, like Bhagwatpuran, Devipuran, Mahabharat, Ramayan give stories and explanation to help normal people get interested into Spiritual progress. The intent is also to provide examples, so that when a situation arises, these stories will help us in making a decision in selecting good vs. bad. Also various personalities in these puranas act as an idol for the society, providing a way which others can follow.
It is said that Vyasa, after diving the Vedas into four parts, was still sad, as the knowledge in the Shruti is so complicated that not everyone can take benefit of it . This is where he thought and created various puranas, which are more like stories that normal people can understand. These stories in Puranas provide pointers to the core concept in Shruti, so that if people get interested, they can understand the real concept behind it.
Various puranas also have concepts of Vratas that people can follow, to get material benefits and happiness. These Vratas while providing physical comfort, help attracts people into reading it, giving them opportunity to make spiritual progress.
For example, The Satyanarayana puja is a very common vrata observed all over India. Most people perform it for material gain and well-being. But when done regularly with deep faith and over a long period of time, the vrata uplifts the mind beyond the mundane desires. The Katha which is read at the end of the puja and the act of offering the fruits of the puja to the Lord uttering Krishnarpanamastu, enables the worshipper to understand the importance of offering karmaphala or fruits of our actions to the Lord and feeling the constant presence of Lord Satyanarayana in every activity. This journey can be difficult and slow. As the Bhagavad Gita says it can take multiple life- death cycles and in every new life, the person starts from where s/he left in earlier life.
Additionally, we need to note that, the text in these puranas is written by philosophers/rishis of various times frames spread over multiple millenniums. Also, the oral tradition used to transfer here is not as strong as that of Vedas, so there is always a scope of discrepancies, contradictions getting added over a period of time. Also, Puranas allow artistic freedom to the story teller, in order to convey the meaning effectively. This leads to some contradictions across stories, and also stories like god’s infighting, acting mean get added. Reader needs to understand that, and focus on the meaning behind the story, rather than the actual story and characters.
Due to ease of understanding and story like presentation, at the initial stage of the Spiritual journey, a strong conceptual foundation comes from the Puranas and the Itihasas.
For the advanced stages it comes from the Shrutis. The stories in the Puranas many times seems contradictory, but we need to note that these stories are just pointers, pointing to real concept in Shrutis, and we always should try to understand the meaning behind it, instead of getting stuck with pointer/story.
Smritis and Shastras are always not religious in nature, and are suppose to be revised with the changing time. This part of literature focuses on creating order in the society.
Shrutis describe core principles of Hinduism along with various predefined paths people can choose for spiritual progress. These are final authoritative text in Hinduism, and provide real foundation to the religion.