Hindu scripture is made up of two categories, Shruti and Smriti. Shruti means “that which is heard”. Hindus believe that from time immemorial, sages known as Dhrishtas (literally “seers”) have, during a state of Tapasya (deep meditation), heard sacred verses directly from the gods. In Dwapara Yuga, these verses were compiled by a Veda Vyasa (or Vyasa for short) into a set of four books we call the Vedas. (Technically Vyasa only compiled the first three books – Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, and Sama Veda – while the Atharva Veda is attributed to the sages Angiras and Atharvan.) As the words of the Vedas are believed to be divine in origin, they are held to be the foremost authority of the Hindu religion.
As Shri Rama says in the Ayodhya Kanda of the Ramayana,
the Vedas have the foundation in Truth [and] one should thoroughly surrender to truth.
Each of the four Vedas is divided into four portions:
- Samhitas, which consist of hymns to various gods.
- Brahmanas, which provide instructions on the proper conducting of important rituals.
- Aranyakas, which provide a guide to rituals meant for forest-dwellers and hermits.
- Upanishads, which consist of conversations between teachers and students which clarify the philosophical message of the Vedas.]
The second category of Hindu scripture is called Smriti, which literally means “that which is remembered”. It refers to those sacred texts of Hindu dharma which were composed by human authors and then passed down by the teacher to student via oral tradition. Note that just because the specific words of these scriptures were composed by humans, that does not mean that they’re not divinely inspired. There are numerous works that are called Smriti, but among the most prominent works are the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Puranas.
The Ramayana is an epic poem compiled by sage Valmiki, and it deals with the life of Rama, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, who fought Ravana to rescue his wife Sita. The Mahabharata is also an epic poem, one of the longest in the world. It was composed by Vyasa (the same guy who compiled the Vedas), and it discusses a great war between two factions of the same family, the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Prominently featured in the Mahabharata is the Pandavas’ cousin Sri Krishna, another incarnation of God Vishnu. In the beginning of the war, one of the Pandavas, Arjuna, is reluctant, confused about what the righteous path is, so Krishna gives him a discourse known as the Bhagavad Gita, a guide to how to righteously live one’s life. While the Mahabharata as a whole is considered to be of lesser authority than the Vedas, since the words are humanly composed, the Bhagavad Gita is often considered to be the fifth Veda, because it is the words of Krishna and is thus of divine origin.
Finally, there are the Puranas, composed by Veda Vyasa, a collection of 18 major works and hundreds of ancillary works relating the creation of the Universe, the history of Man through the ages, and the stories of the three major gods of Hindu Religion: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Click here to learn about Trinity of Hindu dharma.