Sanskrit Literary Scriptures Written on Hinduism

Vedic Literature

      Each Veda is divided into two categories namely 'Samhita' which is collection of fundamental hymns composed in verses and 'Brahmanas' which consist of prose text used for explaining the meaning of the liturgy included in Samhita. Next we have 'Aranyakas' which contain discussions on sophisticated subjects like Maha Vrata and Praan Vidya explaining how one, who follows the Vedic injunctions and performs sacrifices correctly, goes to become god's alike. The last part is 'Upanishads' which we have already seen are philosophical treatises. Upanishads are also called Vedanta which literally means end of period of Vedic texts. So, all the Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads put together are called Vedic Literature.

Vedic Literature: Each Veda is divided into two categories namely 'Samhita' which is collection of fundamental hymns composed in verses and 'Brahmanas' which consist of prose text used for explaining the meaning of the liturgy included in Samhita. Next we have 'Aranyakas' which contain discussions on sophisticated subjects like Maha Vrata and Praan Vidya explaining how one, who follows the Vedic injunctions and performs sacrifices correctly, goes to become god's alike. The last part is 'Upanishads' which we have already seen are philosophical treatises. Upanishads are also called Vedanta which literally means end of period of Vedic texts. So, all the Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads put together are called Vedic Literature.
Sanskrit Literary Scriptures

      Vedic Literature is generally called 'Shruti' which means revealed texts. Many people believe that Vedas have not been composed by human but Gods have been revealed for humanity. Some people believe that only Vedas were revealed while sages composed Brahmanas to Upanishads. But let us be practical and understand that all these are great creations by our great ancestors who were very much human. The true meaning of Shruti is pure preservation of the text, over generations, without any dilution/ addition/deletion of even a small vowel. The entire Vedic Literature including Upanishads is having universal approach to entire humanity of all times and have no shade of any religion. The concepts contained in this category are beyond any restriction or limitation. These are expected to guide the humanity until its very end as these contain truth and only truth. The spirituality contained in Upanishads indicate emergence of some of the basic religious concepts of Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism alike.


      After Vedas next generation of scriptures is called Vedanga meaning 'limbs of the Vedas'. There are six main disciplines, which are included under Vedanga. The first one is called Nirukta and deals with science of etymology. Second one is called Vyakaran where we have Panini's Astadhyayi, which redefined Sanskrit as Classical Sanskrit, by setting complete rules of total grammar. All subsequent creations used Classical Sanskrit as main language. Thirdly; we have Siksha dealing with phonetics as to how each syllable need to be pronounced with complete psychic effects of the words remaining intact. Fourthly, we have Chhanda Vedanga consisting of science of metres. As per this Vedanga, all syllables are categorized under Guru and Laghu as distinct categories and string of Guru and Laghu sequence is called metre. Several of these metres have been used under different scriptures. Fifth Vedanga is called Jyotisha and deals with all aspects of Astronomy. The very word Jyotish literally refers to science of 'shining objects' and included observations and rules for all celestial bodies. Lastly, we have Kalpa Vedanga dealing with ritual portion of Vedas and detailed out rules for all ceremonies for conducting the rituals in perfect manner so as to secure expected benefits. Kalpa Vedanga was further bifurcated under Srautasutra (categorized under Shruti) and Smartasutra (categorise under Smriti) where the earlier part dealt with altar constructions and was called Shulva Sutras while the later one was further divided under Gryhasutras and Dharamsutras.

      All the Vedangas put together were first expansion of contents of Vedas for converting each of these matters into independent and specific subjects going forward. So, the origin of all this literature is from Vedas and all these were composed in aphoristic style. Aphorism style resulted in making Vedanga very difficult to comprehend even by people having in-depth education of Sanskrit. Some of the words used in Vedanga are as long as hundred letters. All compositions under this category are called 'Sutras' literally meaning 'threads' on which each aphorism is mounted like a pearl to make the complete necklace. The practical translation of Sutra is 'Formulae'. Like every formula require a big explanation to prove the final result contained in it, so are Sutras. One line of Sutra may require a full-fledged chapter to explain the complete meaning. The main objective of sutras was to provide a short survey of the sum of the scattered details, on a particular subject matter, all over the voluminous scriptures inherited from earlier periods.

      Most of the times we come across a text whose name ends with the word 'Sutra', we should be able to identify that it will belong to Vedanga; that it would have been composed any time between 500 BC to 100 BC; that the text would be very tough to comprehend; that the text will most likely be first text dedicated to a specific subject matter. The beauty and charm of aphoristic style is unique, as the texts have been composed applying utmost brevity. I read somewhere that the revered composers of sutras were known to experience same delight by saving a short vowel as a Brahmin could get on his son's birth. We may all remember that a Brahmin is incapable of gaining heaven without a son to perform his funeral rites. So, we can imagine the focus on brevity that would have been applied by the composers. In fact the brevity has resulted at times where different teachers were able to draw different meaning from the same text.

      Sutra tradition ended just before end of BC and was replaced by simple verses in poetic style called Shlokas. This period is also called the Classical Sanskrit literature period. This period is different than Vedic period in terms of matter, spirit and forms. Vedic period was more on dharma and spirituality while Classical period abundantly developed in all directions of knowledge even when the basic current of Upanishads kept flowing all through this period as well. By this time, the old Deities of the Vedas got sunk to subordinate place except, may be, Indra who was still considered important as chief of warrior's heaven. Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu got emerged as main powerful Deities of this period. In addition, there is new creed of minor deities like Kubera and Ganesh and Karttikeya together with new female deities of Shri Laxmi (for beauty; poise and fortune) and Durga/Parvati.

Smriti Literature

      Sanskrit literature compiled from around 300 BC to 300 CE is generally grouped under this category. Smriti means 'memory'. Actually, most of the texts covered under this category are not attributable to a single author. These have evolved from a long discussion in oral traditions and after remaining in public domain for a considerable period of time. Some of these have been produced by forest academies attached to sages with due contribution from outsiders as well. Main texts included here are the two great epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana together with Yoga Sutras, Shiva Sutras, Manusmriti and Devi Mahatmya.

      The Bhagvad Gita, although appended to Mahabharata, due to its spiritually rich contents, is included in Shruti category as it is also called 'Gitaupanishad' and for all practical purpose is an Upanishad of Upanishads. Most of the practices of later classical Hinduism are derived from Smriti literature. All-important dimensions of worship related matters that are under practice today are directly derived from Smriti literature only. Most Hindus regardless of their further divisions into sects, 'varnas' castes follow Smriti literature.


      This category includes elaborated texts composed in metred verses focusing on a single subject at a time. One may say it to be early seeds of specialization on specific subjects. Shastra as a word means 'science' but it also got used to denote a 'text book'. Actually, Shastras contain a combination of Art, Science, Literature and Instruction Manual, all rolled into one, about the subject matter. The suffix of Shastra generally gets identified with subject matter of some kind of technical or specialized knowledge.

      Shastras got created with the view of collecting all encompassing knowledge about the subject under a single book; like a compendium. Before Shastras, a subject might have been touched by different texts in bits and pieces. The composers of Shastras were like mandated to collect all available knowledge on the subject and put it together. In short, all Shastras are to be taken as detailed manuals about the specific subject covered therein. Besides covering all important subjects relating to Dharma, Artha and Kama, number of other subjects covered by Shastras include Grammar, Architecture, Sculpture, Medicine, Dancing, Fine Arts, Music, Astronomy, Mathematics, Yoga, Astrology, Natural Sciences, Tantras, Surgery etc — practically everything imaginable and much more outside imagination also.

      Bhautika Shastra (Physics), Rasayana Shastra (Chemistry), Vastu Shastra (Architecture), Shilpa Shastra (Sculpture), Artha Shastra (Economics and Public Administration) and Neeti Shastra (Political Science) are all but few examples of classic literature grouped under this category. The uniqueness of all the Shastras remained in their basis of timeless principles. All the principles contained and elaborated by Shastras continue to guide future generations for making further advancements in all these sciences for a long time. Such a vast expanse of subjects covered by Shastras provides yet another example of Indian advancements in sciences at that time in history.


      These are prose texts full of mythological stories about the particular deity to whom it is dedicated, Puranas puts heaps of praise, appreciation and applause about the god or goddess it belongs to. The scope of each Purana typically start from 'creation of the universe' and all the way upto its destruction where all described as a sole cause of the chosen deity. The stories mentioned highlight role of the chosen god and his unique place in Hindu geography, cosmology and philosophy.

      Most of the stories that we would have heard from childhood onward about some god doing this and that and about sages, apsaras, curses, Tapasya, fights between gods themselves, swarga loka, Narad Muni, Samudra Manthan, boons bestowed and their counters, are all most likely from Puranas. These are narrative in nature and got compiled largely in the same manner as the two great epics. These include many Puranas like for Agni, Bhagvat, Brahma, Brahmanada, Narada, Padma, Shiva, Varuna, Vayu and Vishnu. The Puranas are categorized either as per the three gunas of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas or as under gods of Trimurti namely, Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. In due course, the Puranas are known to have paved way to start of sects within Hinduism. Conversely; sectarian disciples resorted to compiling Purana for their God in an effort to project him bigger than others around the block.


      Later came the Nibandha where one writer picks up a single topic within a broad subject and drew references on that topic from smriti literature and Shastras to come up a consolidated view and reinterpreting the final guidance in the matter. This part of literature came into vogue only after 500 CE.

Bhashya (Commentaries)

      This was the last category in Sanskrit literature where the writer resorted to provide a new reinterpretation to an earlier text or Shastra and basically reinventing the entire concept under changed situation over the period from its first composition. These came into being from around 900 CE onwards. Generally speaking, all commentaries also drew significantly from outside sources and writings by other authors and took up the comparison with reconciling attitude to iron out disagreements and propagating new approach. Many Shastras actually got multiple numbers of commentaries.

      The chart below provides a quick view of division of Indian Scriptures under Sruti and Smriti categories. Reader may remember that each Brahmanas and Upanishad is identified with a particular Veda and hence have been clubbed under respective Vedas. The classification of scriptures under primary and secondary is yet another way of looking at them for classification purposes.

      Just to capture the main scriptures and other critical pieces of Sanskrit literature, we can look at some of the main texts grouped under major heads. It is no comprehensive list as the idea is just to show as examples of the variety of the subjects covered by the great Sanskrit literature which remain preserved from one of the most glorious past of any culture all through the world:

Epics: Mahabharata, Ramayana

Philosophy: Yoga Sutra, Brahma Sutra, Nyaya Sutras

Dharama: Dharma Sutra, Dharma Shastra, Manu Smriti

Grammar: Mahabhasya, Astadhyayi

Scholarly: Jyotisha Vedanga, Aryabhatia, Siddhantas, Natya Shastra

Dramas: Vikramorvasiam, Malavikagnimitram, Abhijnanshakuntlam

Technical: Bhautika S, Rasayana S, Jeeva S, Vastu S, Shila

Specialisation: S, Kama S, Neeti S, Artha S, Kama Sutra

Medical: Charaka Samhita, Sushruta-Samhita, Ashtanga-Hridaya, Ashtanga-Sangraha

Stories: Panchatantra, Hitopdesha, Vetalu-panchvimsati, Suka Saptati, Katha Sarit Sagara

Puranas: Agni, Bhagvat, Brahma, Brahmanda, Garuda, Kurma, Linga, Matsya, Narada, Padma, Shiva, Skanda, Varaha, Vayu and Vishnu.

Main Composers of Classical Sanskrit Literature

      As already mentioned, going up to Smriti and Puranas, there is no agreement on the names of the people who can be accredited with the specific compositions of texts remaining available to us. Indian traditions have been very weak in preserving names of the great composers, as such it is rather impossible to identify most of our valuable texts with their composers with certain degree of certainty. Somehow, our ancient sages have not shown any desire to identify their names with their creations, as has been the practice in many other cultures. It is only beginning with Nibandha and Bhasyas that we have a clearer picture about the individuals and their backgrounds. Some of the prominent teachers after 500 CE and beyond who have made immense contribution in continuing Sanskrit literature with time and development are, at random Gaudapada, Govinda Bhagavatpada, Adi Shankara, Vachaspati Mishra, Sureshwaracharya, Padmapadacharya, Hastmalakacharya, Totakachrya, Brahmanand Sarasvati, Madhusudan Sarasvati, Radhakrishnan, Sri Ramkrishna.

      Each of the scriptures mentioned under several categories above is an independent subject matter of a separate books but I wish my readers to get some exposure for some of the main scriptures covering most important objectives of human life. The chapter named "Comments on Major Shastras" covers such comments in desired details.

      But before that we should touch base with another important development of this time in terms of emergence of two home grown religions namely Buddhism and Jainism. It is to the credit of these branches that Hinduism will never remain same again. This emergence resulted in lot of churning on many concepts and the crystallization that followed such churning cemented unique identity of Hinduism as a great heritage of Indian subcontinent.

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