What are basic texts of Hindu dharma?

[Updated on: 25th Oct 2016]

21. What are basic texts of Hindu dharma?

Many Hindus are ignorant of the scripture that is the very source of their religion - they do not know even its name. Here it is an attempt to atleast give brief introduction of the heart of our religion.

There are fourteen abodes of knowledge that constitutes SD. The fourteen dharma-pramANa-s (authorities of dharma) are called "caturdasa-vidyA". caturdasa means fourteen (catur means four and dasa means ten), vidyA means knowledge.

The fourteen "abodes" of knowledge are:

  • Four Vedas: rgveda, yajurveda, sAmaveda and atharvaveda

  • Six Angas: SikshA, vyAkaraNa, Chandas, nirukta, jyotiSa and kalpa

  • Four Upangas: mimAmsA, nyAya, purANa and dharmashAstra

Religious knowledge is encompassed by these fourteen branches of learning.

Vedas are top most authoritative texts and are the most important. Vedas are symbolized in the form of human body as a veda purusha.

There are four more vidyA-s. If you add them to the fourteen already mentioned, you will have eighteen vidyA-s - asTAdasa-vidyA which are all-inclusive. Of them, the fourteen already mentioned are directly concerned with dharma.

The remaining four are -

1. Ayurveda,

2. arthashAstra,

3. dhanurveda and

4. gandharvaveda

These vidyA-s do not directly deal with dharma. 

While there are four up-veda-s, known as anga-s, there are also six upanga-s. (upa-anga). Man possesses a number of angas or limbs. vedapurusha has six limbs. (It must be noted that the veda-s are also spoken of as vedamAtA (mother of knowledge.) The six upangas (sub-limbs, secondary parts), though not integral to the veda-s, are supporting limbs of the vedapurusha.

Place of anga-s in veda purusha is:

  • sikshA is the nose of the vedapurusa, 

  • vyAkaraNa his mouth, 

  • kalpa his hand,

  • nirukta his ear, 

  • Chandas his foot and 

  • jyotiSha his eye. 

We have two itihAsa-s, mahAbhArata and vAlmiki rAmAyaNa. 'itihAsa' means ‘history’. Adi Sankara considered both of them as authentic but when he used to simply mention itihAsa, he would mean only mahAbhArata. Both of these epics are given a special status of ‘history’. There are purANa-s, but they may have an element of imagination and moral of the story is generally considered as important than the story itself. They do not enjoy the status of being called as ‘history’.

There are 18 purANa-s and 18 upa-purANa-s (subsidiary or secondary purANa-s). 'purANa' means history or that which is ancient. There are also ‘sthala purANa-s’. 'sthala' means place and purANa means history. Hence sthala purANa-s glorify ancient historic places.

There are 18 dharma shAstra-s, which are called as smriti-s. There are some other dharma smriti-s too. There are also 18 up-smriti-s (secondary smriti-s).

Earlier it was said that Veda-s are pillars of SD. The question arises – 

21.1. What are veda-s?

It would be difficult to define veda-s in a way that it covers the content and the purport of veda. Still we will try to understand what veda-s mean. The word 'veda' means 'vidyA' or knowledge. There are many great saints who have tried to explain veda-s by writing commentary on them. Out of them the one written by sAyanAchArya (Sayanacharya), who was an advaita vedAntin, is considered as the most authentic by all. According to him, the veda-s are a collection of mantra-s (saṁhitā) and their explanation or how they should be applied (Brāhmaṇa-s).

Other definitions of veda-s are

veda-s is one in which various means to achieve or follow dharma, etc purushārtha-s (Four purushārtha-s are dharma, artha, kāma and moksha)

Veda is one which contains instructions to to obtain Īshṭa (what we like, what is best for us), and the destruction of anīshṭa (a-īshṭa - that which is unauspicious, destructive, non-beneficial, of negative nature).

That (mantra-s) which are apurusheya (unauthored) are called as veda-s.

veda-s are not authored, but exist independently, as knowledge cannot be destroyed. veda-s are called unauthored (apurusheya) as they are beginning less and endless. They teach highest truth. 

Hence veda-s can be defined as a collection of mantra-s, their explanation & application, their inner meaning and teaching of the highest truth to be directly experienced. veda-s give instruction to obtain merits in this world (laukika, aihika) and in higher worlds (pāralaukika, āmuṣmika) and help us destroy negativity and obstruction in one's spiritual progress. veda-s are unauthored, beginning-less and are divinely revealed mantra-s to great rishi-s (Seers) as a flash in their heart or as intuition.

Some are of the opinion that only saṁhitā consititute the veda-s. This opinion is not true as if we do not know how to apply mantra-s then mantra-s are of no use. Some are of the opinion that only saṁhitā and Brāhmaṇa (exxplanation part) constitute veda-s. According to them veda-s teach only karma-kāṇḍa (vedic rites and rituals). However, this is not true. External rites cannot give us moksha, the highest goal of life. Limited efforts cannot bring limited results.

Four veda-s are

  • rig veda (ṛg veda)

  • yajur veda (divided into two, Sukla and krShNa yajur veda. Sukla yajur veda was lost SAkhA, revived by sage yajnayalkya)

  • sAma veda

  • athara veda

Kanchi Paramahcharya says

The Rgveda contain hymns to invoke the various deities; the Yajurvedic sakhas deal with the conduct of sacrifices; the Samaveda sakhas contain songs to please the deities; and the Atharvaveda sakhas, besides dealing with sacrifices, contain mantras recited to avert calamities and to destroy enemies. The Samaveda had the largest number of recensions, 1,000. In the Rgveda there were 21; in the Yajus 109 ( Sukla-Yajur veda 15, and Krsna Yajur veda 94); and in the Atharvaveda 50.

While, according to one scholar, the Visnu Purana mentions the number of sakhas to be 1,180, another version is that there were 1,133 recensions- the Rgveda 21, the Yajurveda 101, the Samaveda 1,000 and the Atharvaveda 11. (Note: This categorization is also mentioned later)

Considering that people in the age of Kali would be inferior to their forefathers, Krsna Dvaipayana thought that it should be sufficient for them to learn one sakha of any one of the four Vedas. It was the Lord that put this idea into his head. Vyasa assigned the Rgveda sakhas to Paila, the Yajurveda sakhas to Vaisampayana, the Samaveda sakhas to Jaimini and the Atharvanaveda sakhas to Sumantu.

Krsna Dvaipayana came to be called "Vedavyasa" for having divided the Vedas into four and then having subdivided them into 1,180 recensions. "Vyasa" literally means an "essay" or a "composition". Classifying objects is also known as "vyasa".

According to Krsna Dvaipayana's arrangement, it is obligatory for a person [that is a Brahmin] to learn only one recension. This does not mean that there is a bar on learning more. The intention is that at least one śākhā must be studied.

There is a popular way of describing verses and associating with one particular veda-s. In order to distinguish verses of different veda-s, verses in each veda are called differently

rig vedic verse is called as rik (ṛk),

yajurvedi mantra as yajus, and

sAmavedic mantra as sAman

Note:  atharvavedic mantra as not known by any different name like atharvan, etc.

Based on this classification, some say that atharva veda is late text and so cannot be compared to other three veda-s. In order to support their claim, they also cite verses from shAstra-s which say there are three veda-s like BG 9.20.

Some historians believe that rg veda is oldest and atharva veda is youngest amongst veda-s.

However, this understanding of classification is wrong. Kanchi Paramacharya says, ṛg veda manDala 10 contains the name of atharva veda and hence atharva veda is as old as ṛg veda.

There are only three styles to sing a vedic mantra - padya (poetry), gadya (prose), sāma (singing in an intonation which is pleasing to the Gods).

ṛk-s are padya पद्य (poetic) in nature,

yajus are gadya गद्य (prose) and

sāman-s are geya गेय i.e. that whose intonation is pleasing to the Gods.

There are many ways to categorize vedic mantra-s. This categorization is based on mantra. ṛg veda contains majority of sloka-s sung in ṛk way (Hence it is called as ṛg veda). yajurveda contains maximum number of yajus and sāma veda contains maximum number of sāmans. Atharva veda contains all three types of mantra-s - ṛk, yajus and sāma

So a rik verse i.e. verse sung in rg style can be present in yajur veda too. Likewise atharva veda contains yajus. So when one talks of yajus mantra-s (in general), they mean all the mantra-s sung in yajus style and not of yajur veda. It does not mean mantra-s of yajurveda. Traditional Brahmins are aware of this classification. Similarly, gAyatrI mantra is called as trI-padI and it covers three veda-s. Here, those well versed in tradition do not interpret the word 'veda' as proper noun i.e. it is associated with a particular veda. The word 'veda' means vidyA. trIpada (trIpadI) means sung in three different styles.

sAmaveda has most verses similar to rig veda but they are sung in a different way so as to please deva-s. It is believed that sAma veda has 95 mantra-s not found in rg veda. Singing originated from sAma veda. The sargama (7 basic sounds used in traditional Indian singing), sA, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni originated from sAma veda.

Ways of classification of vedic mantra-s are

1. karma-kāṇḍa

Vedic mantra-s are used in yajna-s. The one who is qualified to perform yajna is called as ṛtvika. There are four gaṇa-s of ṛtvika-s - hotṛgaṇa, adhvaryugaṇa, udgātṛgaṇa and brahmagaṇa.  vedic mantra-s to be used by these four gaṇa-s are divided into four saṃhitā-s. saṃhitā useful for hotṛgaṇa is called as ṛgveda. Since this veda contains maximum number of ṛk-s (padya, poetry), it is called as ṛgveda. In order to conduct a yajna, saṃhitā useful to adhvaryugaṇa is called as yajurveda. In these veda, yajuḥ type of mantra-s i.e. gadya or prose are found to be maximum in nature hence this veda is called as yajurveda. In a yajna, those mantra-s which are useful to udgātṛgaṇa-s are called as sāmaveda as they have maximum number of sāma i.e. verses taht can be sung in intonation pleasant to Gods. In order to protect a yajna, someone has to kēp a watch on the entire process. Such a Brāhmin is called as brahmagaṇa. Mantra-s suitable to him are present in atharva deva. Since mistake can be done by either of three styles, atharva veda has mantra-s of all three types to correct or repent mistakes. 

2. Based on application

In this category, mantra-s called categorized into matra and braahmaṇa. Those verses used in yajna-s are called as mantra-s. mantra-s used to perform yajna by the way of step-by-step procedure, stories, explanations and stuti-s, to explain procedure, further explanation, inner meaning, etc - all these is done by sloka-s is called as brāhmaṇa-s.

3. Based on type of mantra-s

We have already explained this type of classification. Here, the style of mantra is taken into account viz ṛk, yajus and sāma. Since ṛg veda contains maximum number of ṛk-s, it is calleda s ṛgveda. Similarly, yajurveda is so called as it contains maximum number of yajus and sāma veda contains maximum number of sāman-s. Atharvaveda contains all three types of mantra styles - ṛk, yajus and sāma. Hence when shāstra-s describe veda-s as vedatrayī i.e. three veda-s, all four veda-s are referred to.

4. Based on content or literature

Here the mantra-s are divided into four parts - saṃhitā, brāahmaṇa, āraṇyaka and upaniṣad. The mantra part of all four veda-s is called as saṃhitā. So there are five saṃhitā-s - ṛgdeva-saṃhitā, kṛṣṇa-yajurveda-saṃhitā, śukla-yajurveda-saṃhitā, sāmaveda-saṃhitā and atharvaveda-saṃhitā. In brāhmaṇa-s, step-by-step procedure of application of saṃhitā mantra-s, further explanation, phalaprāpti (fruits of yajna), etc are given. In āraṇyaka grantha-s, spiritual significance of various step-by-step procedures, mantra-s, phalashruti, etc are given. They indicate retirement and were told in araṇyaka, hence are called as āraṇyaka. The last part or the essence of veda-s is called as vedānta or upaniṣad. It teaches renunciation of karma and gives knowledge about highest truth - Brahman. Upaniṣads give brahma-vidyā. 

General explanation given about categorization of Vedas

Following is the general explanation that is commonly given to explain categorization or division of veda-s. This explanation is repetitive, but is given for readers to get acquainted with standard replies to avoid confusion.

veda-s are divided into two main categories or groups. First one is mantra samhitā simply known as 'samhitā' and another group is brāhmaṇa as known as brāhmaṇagrantha. The word, according to Śrī Yaskāchārya jī, who developed nirukta, is that the word mantra has originated from the root 'man' (मन् ). The root word is called as 'dhātu' in sanskrit.

Pāṅchrātra saṁhitā, an āgamic text, defines mantra as 'that which protects when repeated' meaning by continuous repetition of any mantra, one gets protectd by it.  The collection of mantra-s is called as samhitā.

Brāhmaṇa grantha-s give a direction on how to apply or use the mantra-s (given in saṁhitā). They give detailed explanation on the application of mantra. They are like a commentary on mantra, giving further insight into the dēper meaning of mantra. Brāhmaṇa grantha-s are divided into three parts - brāhmaṇa, āraṇyaka and vedānta or upaniṣada (Upanishad). Brāhmaṇa part deals  karma kāṇḍa (vedic rituals, Yagna, Havana). Āraṇyaka deals with inner meaning of mantra-s and with the upāsanā kāṇḍa. The last i.e. vedānta covers the Jñāna kāṇḍa. Upanishads talk about the highest truth, the true import of the veda-s. vedānta means end of veda-s, after knowing which nothing more needs to be known. Here knowing refers to Direct Experience of one's True Nature.

To sum up:

Vedas are divided into four parts – samhitA, brAhmaNa, AraNyaka, upanishad (vedAnta)

samhitA-s are collection of mantras used for vedic rituals. They form major part of veda-s.  Traditionally when one says 'veda' it means samhitA part.

brAhmaNa-s explain which and where a mantra or a collection of mantra-s are to be applied. They are further split into AraNyaka-s and vedAnta.

AraNyaka-s give inner meaning behind any ritual or practice. It is more connected with inner or mental practice.

vedAnta, i.e. veda-anta, as the name suggests is the end part of veda-s. anta means end. Here 'end' does not literally mean the 'end part' or the ‘last portion of veda’. It means the core or essence. Certain section found in samhitA and brAhmaNa-s are known as upanishads (vedAnta). For e.g. IshA upanishad is in the samhitA part, still it is called as an upanishad. samhitA-s are collection of mantra-s used for vedic rituals (yaGYA-s).

There are many upanishad-s, technically 1180. Out of them some say 220 are extant. Out of this 108 are listed in muktikA upanishad. Out of 108, 10 are considered to be principal upanishads. These 10 upanishads are important as many AchArya-s have chosen them to write commentary. Earliest known extant commentary on top 10 upanishad-s are written by SrI Adi shankarAchArya jI.

svAmI SankarAnanda of ChinmayA mission, while commenting on panchadaSI 7.100 in hindi says,

In muktikA upanishad it is said that vEda-s has 1180 SakhA-s. In that

840 SAkhA-s are related to karmakAnDa

232 SAkhA-s are related to upAsanAkAnDa and

108 SAkhA-s are related to JnAnakANDa (GYAnakANDa)

(Total is 1180)

Another explanation can also be given

21 SAkhA-s belong to rgvEda (Rig veda / Rug veda)

109 SAkhA-s belong to yajurvEda

1000 SAkhA-s belong to sAmavEda

50 SAkhA-s belong to atharvavEda

(Total is 1180)

In karmakANDa various types of karma-s are given and different vEda-s give different instructions, but in upanishads only one thing is given i.e. unity of AtmA and brahma. Hence seeing differences in various upanishads, mumukshu should not get confused. To gain aparOksha GYAna, he must listen to one or more upanishads more than one time from gUrU.

The original verse which svAmI jI is commenting can be translated as

Difference in vEdic SAkhA-s and due to multiplicity of of desires different types of karma-s are prescribed in vEda-s. But one should not doubt about brahmaGYAna given in vEdAnta and one must practice shravaNA. - PanchdaSI 7.100

Top ten upanishads are listed in a form of a verse so that they are easy to remember.

ईसकेनकथाप्रश्न मुण्ड माण्डुक्य तैत्तिरी ।

एइतरेयंच छान्दोग्यं ब्रहृदारण्यकंदश ॥

Īsha kena kathā praśna mūṇḍa(ka) māṇḍukya taitirīya

aitareyam cha chāndogyam bṛhdāraṇyakam daśa

For convenience they are put as Numbered List: 

  1. IshA / ISa / IshAvAsya Upanishad 

  2. Kena Upanishad 

  3. KaTha Upanishad 

  4. PrashNa Upanishad 

  5. muNDaka Upanishad 

  6. mANDukya Upanishad 

  7. taittiriya Upanishad 

  8. aitareya Upanishad 

  9. ChAndogya Upanishad 

  10. brihadAraNyaka Upanishad 

Other popular upanishads studied are

  1. Svetashvatara upanishad

  2. mahAnArayaNa upanishad (different from tripAda vibhuti mahAnArAyaNa upanishad) - tenth chapter of taitiriya Aranyaka of KrShNa-yajurveda

  3. narsimha tApanIya Upanishad (divided into purva and uttara TApanIya)

  4. kaivalya upanishad – cited by Adi Shankara in Vishnu Sahasranama BhASya and in BhASya on Svetasvatara Upanishad, dipikA by SrI NarayaNa and SrI Sankarananda, vidyAraNya svAmI has cited it in PancadaSI and has written dipikA-s on amrit bindu and kaivalya upanishad. A short intro from it is published by samata books titled 'THE TAITTIRIYA UPANISHAD'

  5. kauSitAki BrAhmaNa upanishad

  6. JAbAla upanishad

  7. atharvaSiras upanishad

  8. atharvashikhA upanishad

  9. maitrAyaNIya or maitrI upaniShad - belongs to Maitrayaniya SAkhA of Sukla yajUrvEda

mahAnArAyaNa upanishad contains popular hymns to many deities including rudra (Siva) and viShNu. It also contains various variants of gAyatrI mantra.

In order to protect veda-s, they must be chanted. To understand the reason, yogic approach must be taken into account. We will discuss about the importance and necessity of oral recitation of veda-s in later section after we understand the basics of yoga, tantra, chakra-s, nADI-s and subtle bodies.

21.1.1. pranthAntrayI

In order to realize highest truth and to be free from cycle of birth and death, along with 10 principle upanishads, study of bhagavad gItA and brahma sUtra-s (topmost canonical text) is prescribed. Together they are called as prasthAntrayI. To explain the concepts in simple and clear way, many AchArya-s have written commentaries on prasthAntrayi. Out of them Adi SankarAchArya's commentaries are oldest that are extant today. After reading many upanishads, one may be confused by the contradictory views or finding a consistent method of vedAnta. In order to clear contradictions, refute other alternatives and establish one truth, brahma sUtra was composed by bhagavAn veda vyAsa. Commentaries written by great AchArya-s is written in question and answer format.

bhagavad gItA is an essence of what upanishads say. Hence its study is made compulsory. bhagavad gItA has to be interpreted in accordance with upanishads so that it does not contradict them. Since it is a part of mahAbhArata, that is no varNa based restrictions like studying of veda-s by traditional AchArya-s. Still, like all shAstra-s, bhagavad gItA in chapter 18 itself places restrictions on whom it has to be said. Most common thing to keep in mind is that we must offer water to those who are thirsty. Likewise, those who are receptive and wish to learn should be given first hand information about the contents of gItA in brief.

When we talk of prasthAntrayI, we remember Adi Sankara bhagavadpADa, the oldest commentator on prasthAntrayI. We will go a little off topic to correct the misconception that Sri Adi SankarAchArya jI single handedly defeated Buddhism and restored the glory of sanAtana dharma. Let's clear this wrong belief.

21.1.2. Adi Sankara didn't single handedly caused downfall of Buddhism.

First of all, the word ‘defeat’ is not correct. In general, masses are not inclined in the technical aspects of any philosophy (siddhAnta). They just follow men of lofty character. We must also remember that saints preach keeping in mind the then prevailing customs and beliefs amongst masses. Lord Buddha and Lord Mahavir were all men of lofty character. Many times their teachings were wrongly interpreted and over a period of time misconceptions prevail amongst masses. Saints only remove misconceptions.

There is another feeling that comes along with the statement that Adi Sankara single handedly won debates and restored glory of sanAtana dharma. People tend to believe that Buddhism was once the dominant religion of India. This was not the case. Though Buddhism had great effect on minds of people and people were highly influenced by the magnetic personality of Lord Buddha, it is not necessary that people will leave sanAtana dharma. For example, animals used in sacrifice were replaced by wheat flour. It is a mistake that the whole or majority of India was ‘converted’ into Buddhism.

The downfall of Jainism and Buddhism was mainly due to the combined effort of kumArila bhaTTa, udayanAchArya, and Adi Shankara. Buddhists had three main logical oppositions to SD.

1. Non-acceptance of veda-s (rituals).

2. Non acceptance of Ishvara

3. Non-acceptance of vedAnta, the philosophical part by establishing Sunya vAda (AtmAn is a blank, zero state)

The glory of vedic rituals was re-established by kumArila bhaTTa, a mimAmsaka or karma kANDin, who is considered as an avatAra of skanda bhagavAn

Existence of Ishvara by logical way was re-established by an adept in tarka, udayanAcArya, who by logical reasoning established the existence of Ishvara

The final purport of vedAnta, which is Self- Realization and that brahman is the substratum of entire universe and is not a SUnya avasthA, a blank, zero state, was established by Adi SankarAcArya.

On the other hand, the second avatAra of skanda bhagavAn, one of the great 63 nAyanAra saints, had many debates with Prominent jain AcArya-s, who too were very strong and even had great spiritual powers, refuted their objections and defeated them in debates thereby stopping conversion and re-establishing the glory of bhagavAn Siva. Under his influence, Siva bhakti spread far and wide in South India.

We have known what are veda-s, upanishads and prasthAntrayI. We will now continue to understand six anga-s and upa-anga-s of veda-s.

The six Angas are 

  • sikshA (Phonetics); Concerned with pronunciation

  • vyAkaraNa (grammar); Learn in accordance with rules of grammar like in pANiNi sUtra.

  • nirukta (lexicon, etymology); splits sanskrit word and gives deep meaning. 

  • kalpa (manual of rituals); Application of mantras in rituals, size of yajna kund / havan kund

  • Chandas (prosody); singing in a particular tone.

  • jyotiSha (astronomy-astrology). Perform any ritual or begin any work in auspicious time.

Their place in veda purusha is:

  • sikshA is the nose of the veda purusa, 

  • vyAkaraNa his mouth, 

  • kalpa his hand,

  • nirukta his ear, 

  • Chandas his foot and 

  • jyotiSha his eye. 

To know the reason for each shAstra being identified with a part of the body, each anga has to be individually studied.

A brAhmin is expected be acquainted with all anga-s. That he must be well- versed in the veda-s goes without saying. He must first learn to chant them and proficiency in the six Angas will later help him to gain insights into their meaning. For todays age, learning all four vedas is difficult, so only one shakhA (a part) of one veda is expected to be learned and memorized.

Four Up-angas are -

mimAmsA, nyAya, purAna and dharmashAstra

mimAmsA could be defined as, to perform rites and rituals according to the injunctions laid in veda-s. People following mimAmsA (pUrva mimAmsA) believe that veda-s are supreme authority. Veda-s themselves give fruits of actions. There is no concept of God in mimAmsA.

21.2. nyAna and vaiSeshikhA

nyAya means logic. People following nyAya believe in Ishvara. They are philosophically oriented and do not find any need to directly experience God. nyAya is important but dry philosophy and adherents of nAya do not find any need to mediate in order to realize shAstra-s.

Further notes for interested readers (can be skipped):

An extension of nyAya is vaisheshikhA developed by maharShi kaNNaDa. vaisheshikhA takes the enquiry further from where nyAya left it. It is the nyAya school that Adi Sankara and later on AcArya SrI harSha attacked in their commentaries. Adi Sankara refuted some of it's concepts stating that nyAya though useful is not end of road. There is need of meditation and the knowledge of Brahman by direct experience is necessary for liberation. SrI harsha attacked the basic concepts of nyAya school including who deserve to take part in debate in his khanDAn-khaNDa-khAdya. This led to the entire collapse of nyAya system until a Gangesha Upadhyay revived it by establishing navya-nyAya (new school of nyAya). All traditional AcArya-s who were actively involved in svamata vistAra and para mata bhanga i.e. expansion or spreading of own siddhAnta (principles) and refuting opponents siddhAnta were all adept in nyAya and later navya nyAya. Navya nyAya is now simply referred to as nyAya.

21.3. itihAsa - mahAbhArata and rAmAyaNa

Unlike purANa-s, mahAbhArata and vAlmiki rAmAyaNa both enjoy the status of being itihAsa. Hence they are considered as real historical event.

21.3.1. mahAbhArata

There are many editions of mahAbhArata depending upon who has preserved manuscripts. Some editions are kumbhAkonam edition and Andra edition. Some scholars have collected many manuscripts, some not even complete, and then compiled a critical edition. which was published by BORI (Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune). Kisari Mohan Ganguli was the first translator who has translated full 1 Lakh verses of mahAbhArata. His translation is very popular and considered authentic, faithful and close to original sanskrit. His translation is preferred especially against those made by western scholars like Wendy Doniger who has written books 14-18 of Mahabharat Collection.

It is said that what is found nowhere can be found in mahAbhArata, but what is not found in mahAbhArata is not found anywhere else.  From this saying, one can understand the importance of mahAbhArata. and the range of topics it covers from politics to moral living to importance of dharma, to expounding highest spiritual truth.

How to read mahAbhArata

mahAbhArata is very vast and it takes a year to finish 1,000,00 verses. Hence not many read it. The first book to be read is C. Rajagopalachari’s ‘Mahabharata’, which is an abridged version or a concise version of Mahabharata in about 200 pages.  C. Rajagopalachari was the last Governor-General of India. After him the position was abolished and a new position of ‘President of India’ was created which was taken by Dr. Rajendra Prasad.

Then comes popular writings of multi volume K. M. Munshi’s ‘Krishnavtar’ series, which are stories of different prominent characters connected with the life Krishna Bhagavan. This is same K.M. Munshi who was one of the foremost contributor and a member of team headed by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar dedicated to creating ‘Constitution of India’. Munshi’s contribution cannot go unnoticed, however, since Dr. Ambedkar was chairman of the committee, it is he who is remembered as ‘Father of Indian Constitution’.

After reading these two books, one can start reading the original mahAbhArata. Here too initially one may think of reading selected short stories and famous samvAda-s (dialogs) like Bhishma-yudhisthira samvAda, yaksha-yudhisthira samvAda (dharmadeva in the form  of yaksha), vidur-yudhisthira samvAda before the commencement of the great mahAbhArata war, and other popular stories glorifying sAttvika qualities of main characters of mahAbhArata. In general dialogs between main characters like krShNa, yudhisthira, vidur, bhiShma, drona, kunti, karNa and others are very valuable.

This approach can be adopted for reading longer texts like rAmAyaNa and purANa-s.

21.3.2. rAmAyaNa

rAmAyaNa has many versions like Ananda rAmAyaNa, kamban rAmAyaNa, AdhyAtma rAmAyaNa, tulsidAsakrit rAmAyaNa and yoga vasisTha rAmAyaNa, but the most authentic version from historical angle is vAlmiki rAmAyana. There are other versions of rAmAyana in local language which has stories not found in original rAmAyaNa.

tulsidAsakrit rAmAyaNa (tulsidAsa jI’s rAmAyaNa) written in avadhi, a dialect of Hindi, is the most popular of all versions and widely used for recitation, either in full or in part during festival days. Most famous part is sundarkANDa singing glories of rAma bhakta hanumAn jI. tulsidAsajI’s hanumAn chAlisA is also very famous. Devotees of rAma and hanumAn often chant it daily, especially on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

AdhyAtma rAmAyaNa is a part of brahmANDa purANa. It concentrates on spiritual aspects than historical events. Hence it is to be interpreted accordingly. It’s discourse is of advaitic nature.

SrI rAma gItA

AdhyAtma rAmAyaNa contains famous gItA by the name SrI rAma gItA which is often glorified an essence of vedAnta (vedAnta sAra). This gItA has only 62 verses, but each verse of high value. It is discourse between rAma and laxmaNa i.e. it is rAmA-laxmaNa samvAda.

pUrvabhUmikA that led to the composition of rAma gItA is interesting. After victory over rAvaNa, rAma was happily ruling ayodhyA. One day, a washerman questioned moral character of sItA mA. rAma, who knew that sItA is as pure as gold, just for the sake of his subject ordered his beloved wife sItA to live rest of her life in exile. He ordered his devout brother laxmaNa to escort her to the nearby jungle. laxmaNa after dropping mA sItA in jungle returned with heavy heart. With the intention of knowing the reason behind such decision and to remove the pain and distress in his heart, laxmaNa approach his elder god-like brother rAma and opened his heart. This lead to the teaching of the highest truth as expounded in vedAnta which talks about the nature of brahman, which is formless, transient nature of world made from mAyA and rAma’s true form which is pure brahman, pure consciousness.  

Yoga vasiSTha is an excellent shAstra, popular among advaita vedAntins. It is authored by Adi kavi maharShi vAlmiki.

Scholars say that rAmAyaNa consists of two parts - kathA-upAya (the story part) and moksha-upAya (method for Spiritual Liberation). According to yoga vAsiSTha, Both these two constitutes the entire rAmAyaNa.  kathA-upAya is traditional rAmAyaNa and moksha-upAya is yoga vAsiSTha.

Many commentaries are written on yoga vAsiSTha, but the famous one is by SrI Ananda bodhendra sarasvatI (ABS), which closely follows advaita vedAnta of Srī Ādi Sankarāchārya jī.

Yoga vAsiSTha has adopted a unique method of teachings in the form of beautiful stories full of deep meaning. yoga vAsiSTha consists of 6 parts. yoga vAsiSTha is said to have 32000 verses. Only 28000 are available today. Some say there are only 25000 verses. Sometimes this larger version is called as brihad yoga vAsiSTha. brihad means large or big. This version has equal number of verses as commentary i.e. each verse has been commented making total of 50,000 verses including commentary.

Shorter version, called laghu yoga vasisTha (laghu means small). It contains 5000 verses. Still shorter version contains 1000 verses. There is still a shorter version called as ‘Yoga Vasistha Sara’. Swami Chinmaya has selected about 100 verses in his translation of Yoga vAsisTha sAra. yoga vAsiSTha sAra is also published by Sri Ramanashram.

This Gita is not recommended for all.

Future prediction of bhagavat gItA by guru vasiSTha

In the sixth part, there are 267 verses which are called as arjunopAkhyAna. These are sarga-s 55 to 58 of nirvANa prakaraNa - I (There are two nirvANa prakaraNa-s in yoga vAsiSTha). This version of bhagavad gItA is the anticipated version to be spoken by krShNa in dvApAra yuga.

SrI rAma asks questions as to what will viShNu give upadeSa in future (dvApAra yuga) in his krShNAvtara. guru vAsiSTha, being a trikAladarshin (knower of past, present and future all at a time) describes in brief the updesha given by nArAyaNa (krShNa) to nara (arjuna), both are the parts of bhagavAn viShNu.  This version is also called as vAsiSTha's version of bhagavad gItA. This is an essence of vedAnta and a treat to read. It gives us a lot of clarity. Some even go on to say that study of bhagavad gItA is incomplete without study of vAsiSTha’s version of bhagavad gItA. Commentary written by SrI Ananda bodhendra sarasvatI is popular among advaita vedAntins.

Recently, a commentary by Swami Ved Bharti under the title of ‘Song of The Lord (Gita in Yoga-Vasistha)’. The book also has commentary by ABS.

21.4. purANa-s

purANa-s describe about important events of glorious past which may not belong to the current eon. Unlike history which we learn in school, purANa-s aim to impart moral, religious and spiritual instructions. They convey the message of veda-s in a very friendly manner through stories, so that laymen can understand it.

Eighteen purANa-s are

viShNu  purANa

nAradiya  purANa

padma  purANa

garuDa  purANa

varAha  purANa

Srimad bhAgvata  purANa

brahmANDa  purANa

brahmavaivarta  purANa

mArkanDeya  purANa

bhavishya  purANa

vamana  purANa

brahmA  purANa

matsya  purANa

kUrma  purANa

linga  purANa

Siva  purANa

skanda  purANa

agni  purANa

In addition to the above 18 there are other subsidiary purANa-s called as upa-purANa-s. Some important purANa-s are

Devi bhAgavat purANa - important purANa of shakta-s (devi worshippers).  Devi bhAgavat along with the Devi Mahatmya of the Markandeya Purana forms principal text of the worshippers of Adi Sakti / devi / durgA / kAlI. Saundarya lahiri of Adi SankarAchArya is another important composition explaining SrI vidyA upAsanA.

harivamsha purANa - an appendix of mahAbhArata

gaNesha purANa - for gaNapatya-s (worshippers of gaNesha as supreme brahman)

Mudgal purANa - for gaNapatya-s (worshippers of gaNesha as supreme brahman)

Siva-rahasya purANa - for Saiva-s. Contains ribhu gItA, highly revered by Sri Ramana Maharshi

Narasimha upa-purANa

Surya purANa is revered by saura-s - worshippers of sUrya deva as supreme brahman.

Other upa-purANa-s are sanatkumara, narasimha, brihad nAaradiya, durvAsA, kapila, vAmana, bhArgava, varUNa, kAlikA, sAmba, nandi, Parasara and Vasishtha.

Total upa purANa-s sometimes exceed 19. Some are of the opinion that devi bhAgavat is one of the original 18 mahA purANa-s while others are of the opinion that it is srimad bhAgavad purANa.

Several purANa-s list pancha lakshana ( pañcalakṣaṇa) or ‘five characteristics’ or ‘five signs’ that purANa must contain. They are:

  1. sarga:  First or primary creation. Major creation followed by maintenance and destruction of all worlds, lower and higher spiritual worlds. Cosmogeny. How universe was created.

  2. pratisarga: secondary, subsequent creation and maintenance followed by partial destruction of lower worlds. Cosmic cycles.

  3. vamśa: Vamsha means family dynasty or clan or kula or lineage. Lineage of deva-s, rishi-s and mahArAja-s (kings). Genealogy.

  4. manvantara: Period or age of manu. One cosmic cycle.

  5. vamśānucharitam: Legendary stories of popular kings and their lineages.  Genealogical list of popular clans.

purANa-s describe four types of pralaya - naimittika (नैमितिक), prAkRtika (प्राकृतिक), Atyantika (आत्यतिक) and nitya (नित्य). Interested readers can refer to viShNu purANa VP 1.7.41-48 i.e. ansha 1, adhyAya 7, verses 41 to 48.

VP 1.7.42: Naimittika pralaya: pralaya that happens when brahmadeva goes to sleep is called as naimittika pralaya. It is the only brAhma-pralaya.

VP 1.7.42: prAkRtika pralaya: When brahmANDa (universe) merges into prakRti (mAyA), it is called as prAkRtika pralaya.

VP 1.7.43: Atyantika pralaya: When a yogI, as a result of knowledge (direct experience of his true nature) merges in paramAtman, it is called as Atyantika pralaya.

VP 1.7.43: Nitya pralaya: The destruction of bhUta-s (bodies of living beings) day and night (i.e. every moment) is called as nitya pralaya.  

[Verses 1.7.44-48 to be translated - explains that three guNa-s and the cosmic elements also present inside our body and how a yogi can overcome triguNAtika mAyA and merge in paramAtman]

Another purANa, Siva purANa (SP 2.6.4-8) talks about mahApralaya, the great dissolution.

When the time of Mahapralaya (great dissolution) commenced, all the mobile and immobile creation got destroyed, when there was darkness all over because of the absence of planets, constellations, stars, and sun. When there was neither moon, nor day, nor night, nor fire, nor wind, nor earth, nor water, and neither was pradhana and Sky nor any other luminary. There was neither sound, nor touch nor any dear substance, smell, rupa, taste, directions etc., everything were concealed. In that very dense darkness there existed He the Brahman denoted by ‘Sat’ (satbrahman). When in that way there was neither ‘sat (existence)’ nor ‘asat (non-existence)’ that state which Sages always contemplate inside the Akasa (sky) within their heart - Śiva Purāṇa 2:06:4-8 (courtesy Shri Santosh Ayalasomuyajula)

Note: Different purANa-s talk about different pralaya-s. Since viShNu purANa is the most widely quoted purANa, we have taken extract from it. Further discussion on cosmology, geonology and other pancha lakshana will unnecessarily extend the length of already long article. Author Amrut finds it difficult to explain panch laxaNa without making things complicated as the study on this topic is limited. Perhaps Amrut is not much interested in studying cosmology but prefers to concentrate on spiritual meditative aspect. It is a separate study in itself which requires comparative study of various purANa-s and itihAsa which glorify main characters, duration of cosmic cycles and talks about lineage (kula) of great kings, rishi-s and devatA-s.

21.5. Over 30 types of gItA-s

Reading all purANa-s is not possible for all. Hence reading only the essence is recommended. This essence is sometimes called as gItA. There are more than 30 different types of gItA-s. Most of them are a part of purANa, while some like uttara gItA, avadhUta gItA, jivanmukta gItA,  ashTAvakra gItA (not recommended for masses) are independent composition. There are gItA-s like Siva gItA, rAma gItA, devi gItA, hamsa gItA, gaNesha gItA, avadhUta gItA, uddhava gItA, kapila gItA, etc which are part of various purANa-s. Gita Press, Gorakhpur, has published a collection of 25 gItA-s by the name ‘gItA-samgrah’. It is bilingual edition in Sanskrit-Hindi. Some gItA-s have more than one version i.e. they are called by same name.

Important gItA-s are

  • bhagavad gItA - kRShNa-Arjuna samvAda - part of mahAbhArata

  • Siva gItA - Siva-rAghava samvAda (Siva-Rama samvAda)- part of padma purANa

  • uddhava gItA - (KrShNa-uddhava samvAda - part of bhAgavat purANa

  • kapila gItA - kapilA muni-DevahUti samvAda (devahUti is bhagavAn kapila-s mother) - part of bhAgavat purANa

Other gItA-s that are popular are

gaNeSha gItA - part of gaNesha purANa - popular among gaNapatya-s, a sect devoted to gaNapatI. This gItA is similar to bhagavad gItA and has many common verses found in bhagavad gItA

Uttara gItA - This gItA is of yogic nature

avadhUta gItA and jivanmukta gItA of datta bhagavAn. It is of tAntrika-advaitic nature.

GYAneshwarI gItA - This is not a gItA, but a famous commentary on bhagavad gItA by sant GYAneshvara (Jnaneshwar, Gyandev). It is originally written in ovi chanda of marathi. It is highly revered and very popular in Maharashtra and Gujarat and amongst advaita vedAntin-s.

21.6. How to use purANa-s and itihAsa for character building

purANa-s and itihAsa have many great stories, stuti-s and discourses. Contemplating on them helps cultivate sAttvika qualities in us. purANa-s speak like a friend in the form of stories. Moral of the story is given importance than story itself. Stuti-s make us realise supernatural power of bhagavAn and instil faith and devotion in our heart. It makes us accept the existence of ‘higher authority’.

Alternatively some stories can be used to change the mindset of children and induce positivity in them.

If a child is possessive, you can teach him stories of renunciation like that of  maharShi dadhichi donating his bones to make vajra. For showing strength of truth we have rAjA harishchandra and yudhisthira. For having big heart and donating wealth, we have the great mahArAja bali and karNa. Likewise we have stories which test some or other qualities like devotion and faith in Ishvara as in case of prahlAda and druva. We can impregnate such divine qualities in our children by narrating such incidents. Stories are easiest way to teach moral and spiritual lessons to young kids. Instead of simply finding faults, it also helps generate faith and pride in our culture and tradition.

When one wants to narrate stories or contemplate on the spiritual essence, the question comes, which publications and authors are to be trusted. Let’s address this question.

21.7. Publications and authors  recommended for reading shAstra-s

There are many good publishers and authors who have done great job to publish larger works. Before moving ahead, we must understand in which language we must read our shAstra-s.

21.7.1. Mother tongue - a preferred language

It is universally accepted by leading scientists, linguists, scholars and saints that reading or studying in our mother tongue is the best way to cultivate our mind and intellect. Mental, emotional and intellectual growth is best when studying and contemplated in mother tongue. Besides, when paramAtmA has given us birth in any family, then it is best suited for fulfilling our prArabhdha and spiritual quest. Hence the language spoken to by the family is the best way to communicate. Mother tongue effortlessly touches our heart. Prayers are more effective when sung or prayed in mother tongue. All poet saints have composed poetry in highly spiritual ecstatic, trance state, in communion with Ishvara, in their mother tongue or in deva bhAshA sanskrit. The udgAra, spontaneous words, that originate from God-intoxicated heart  sung in mother tongue have deep impact on hearts and mind of all those who listen to it with devotion. bhagavAn resides in our heart too and GYAnI bhakta is the best amongst all bhakta-s. It is bhagavAn who speaks through them. Hence words of such great saints have deep impact. their works are protected through generations due to their shear impact and popularity.

sanskrit is very powerful language and hence it is recommended for all those to need to take up study of shAstra-s either for academic, scholarly comparative study of more than one philosophy or religion, spreading our dharma, critical study or even for own spiritual upliftment.

However, not all have knowledge of sanskrit. In this case translation in mother tongue is best option. It is always better to have a bilingual book with sanskrit as first language. It is better to have books that break up sanskrit words and give their meaning.

If some works are not available in mother tongue, then select a language that is similar to your mother tongue. Last option is to study in English. Studying in foreign language takes time to enter into heart. It is superficial knowledge and one reads intellectually. There is little bhAva that is generated by reading works in foreign language, of course there are some exceptions. Since we are not habituated to read in our mother tongue especially those who have done education in English language, it will be initially difficult to read books in our mother tongue. Give yourself some time and you will enjoy reading in your mother tongue than reading in English. Though you may not read with same speed as in English, mother tongue is more effective as far as spiritual evolution is concerned. We do not need to race as fast as we can. Go slowly and steadily.

After understanding importance of mother tongue or native language, lets come back to discussion, as to which publications and authors are to be trusted.

21.7.2. Some trusted publications and authors

Please note that recommendations given here are purely subjective and based on authors limited reading and knowledge and are not exhaustive.

Gita Press, Gorakhpur

In general, in traditional circles and among sincere readers the first name that is synonymous with unbiased, faithful, correct translation free from sectarian bias done by publication is that of Gita Press, Gorakhpur. Gita Press is managed by Gita Bhavan. The sole purpose of it’s creation was to spread shAstra-s to the common man at an affordable cost. Even today, they are selling a 1000 page book under Rs. 250.00 - Rs. 300.00. It does not even cover cost of blank pages and printing cost, forget binding, cover page, designing of cover and back page, etc. Gita Press does not get subsidy in paper or on anything that they use to publish books. They do not even accept donations. It is said that Gita Press, as a company, is always in loss due to selling books in low prices. Some pocket size books like Sri Hanuman Chalisa, are available from Rs. 2.00. Gita with sanskrit-hindi translation with excellent page quality and solid half-bound cover is available at Rs. 16.00 as on 2015, whereas softbound or paperback Gita is available at the cost of Rs. 5.00 (Rupees Five only). It’s authors are very knowledgable, some like Swami RAmsukhdas ji Maharaj and Shri Jaidayal Goenka ji are said to be Self Realised and were uncontroversial during their entire life. All saints used to respect them. Other authors are well versed with shAstra-s and are scholars in one or other branch. No author takes any money to write, compile, translate, proof read or writing forward from Gita Press. Gita Press does not publish any photo on cover or title page to avoid publicity. There are no ads in any of the publications of Gita Press. Still they manage to publish works in such a cheap rate.

You can understand the dedication and the amount of effort Gita Press is putting so that even poor people can buy and distribute books.

Publications of Sri Ramakrishna Mission and its branches

Sri Ramakrishna Mission has grown exponentially in recent years with large number of centers. It is known for its service to humanity. Sri Ramakrishna Mission has many branches and sister concerns like Advaita Ashram, Kolkata, Vivekananda Foundation, etc. Monks of Ramakrishna order are known to be uncontroversial and unbiased towards politics. There are no allegations of corruption or sexual exploitation or any other charges.

Sri Ramakrishna Ashram has published many works in English and other languages than most of other foundations that too in a very cheap rate.  One 1000 page book, which is Swami Madhusudan Saraswati’s Commentary on Bhagavad Gita is available for Rs. 300.00. It also publishes shorter 50-70 page books for beginners and busy people. Some rare books like Uttara gItA with gauDapadAchArya’s Commentary, vedAnta, sAra, vedAnta paribhAshA, gItA with translations of different traditional commentators like SrI  Adi Sankara, SrI rAmAnuja, Sri Madhusudan SArasvatI, Sridhara svAmI’s tikA, etc are available.

Books written by Swami Madhavananda and Swami Gambhirananda are considered as good.  

Translations are fairly unbiased, but we must keep in mind that Monks of Sri Ramakrishna adhere to advaita tradition. Though they accept all other traditions and revere their AchArya-s, they consider advaita as final truth.

Chinmaya Mission’s Publication

Chinmaya Mission has published many books in English and Hindi and few books in Gujarati and Telugu. Like Sri Ramakrishna Ashram, their main focus is translating shAstra-s in English. Their books and audio CDs are worth considering.

Swami Brahmananda’s rendering of Bhagavad Gita and Guru Gita is soul touching. His voice is very sweet. There is little music and there is rhythmic chanting of verses.

Bhartiya Vidya Bhavans Publication

Bhartiya Vidya Bhavans has published many gem of works like ‘Hindu Dharma’ by Kanchi Paramacharya Shri Chandrashekharendra Saraswati Mahaswami and publishing works of Kanaiyalal M. Munshi and C. Rajagopalachari.

Gita Press, Ramakrishna Ashram, Chinmaya Ashram and Bhartiya Vidya Bhavans has many bōks for beginners. They have huge collections of stories from our shAstra-s.

Swami Dayananda Saraswati’s Arsha Vidya Gurukul

Swami Dayananda Saraswati (different than Maharshi Dayananda of Arya Samaj) has published some works and audio discourses. Some of popular saints like Swami Tadrupanand Saraswati, Swami Chinmayananda and Swami Sukhbodhananda were his disciples who went on to establish their own ashram.

Swami Sivananda’s Divine Life Society

Divine Life Society has also published books covering wide range of topics.

Swami Tadrupapand’s Works

Swami Tadrupanand ji works are well known among Gujaratis. His discourses and commentaries are appreciated by all. Swami ji has received many awards and acknowledgements by various foundations recognising his contribution to Gujarati language.

Other Publications

Books published by Chowkhamba Press and Motilal Banarasidas and Sons (MBS) as well known among traditional circles. Works are mostly available in  Hindi and Sanskrit. They also publish books in English. MBS has large collection of English Books.

Other publications are Parimal Prakashan, Samata Books and Randhir Prakashan. Works published by Randhir Prakashan of Sri Nandlal Dashora are of good quality. Nandlal’s works are available in Sanskrit-Hindi. Some of his works are Guru Gita, Shiva Gita, upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras.

Among Gujarati Publications, the first name that comes to mind and is synonymous with faithful and honest transaction free from sectarian bias is that of sastu sAhitya. Like Gita Press, it was established by a revered saint Shri akhaNDAnand bhikshu. His translations are pragmatic, soaked in full of devotion and knowledge. Sastu sAhitya also sells books in very cheap rate. Next comes sAhitya sangam, which, as per their intro, was setup as sastu sAhitya was about to shut down and discontinued many publications. Harihara pustakAla has also done translation of many shAstra-s especially purANA-s, but it is not apt. It somehow lacks spiritual vibrations. Some say that it’s translations are a times grammatically inaccurate.

Among other publications are Sriram Sharma Acharya’s Gayatri Parivar and Maharshi Dayananda’s Arya Samaj. These saints have done enormous work and are acknowledged even by the critics and traditional AchArya-s who have opposed their revisionist preachings like abolishment of caste system, giving dikshA to shudra-s and asking women and shudra-s to perform vedic yajna-s. Keeping aside philosophical differences, works of these saints are worth studying.  

After briefly touching the subject of practical application of purANa-s and which publications and authors are to be taken up for study, we will continue our understanding of our shAstra-s. After veda-s, itihAsa and purANa-s comes dharma shAstra-s.

21.8. dharma shAstra-s (Civil Laws)

dharma shAstra-s are created by great saints. They are called as smriti-s which means 'recollected from memory'. They are based on veda-s. In terms of authority, they are considered secondary to veda-s. dharma shAstra-s are called as 'law books'. They give moral and ethical code of conduct.

"smriti" is what is remembered. "vismriti" is insanity. Manu observes :"There is smriti for the Vedas in the form of notes. The sages who had a profound understanding of the veda-s have brought together the duties and rites (dharma and karma) mentioned in them in the form of notes and they constitute the smriti-s. They are written in a language that we can easily understand. Read them. They tell you about your duties in detail, the do's and don'ts, and how the rites are to be performed. "

We have seen that the sixth vedanga, kalpa, contains instructions about the vedic works. The grhyashAstra-s, dharmashAstra-s and SrautashAstra-s of kalpa deal with sacrifices and other rites. The smriti-s elaborate on them and contain detailed instructions with regard to the rites one has to perform through one's entire life. There are rituals to be conducted from the time of conception until death. The smriti-s also lay down the daily routine to be followed by all of us.

manu, parAshara, yajnavAlkya, gautama, harita, yama, viShNu, Sankha, likhita, brhaspati, daksa, angiras, pracetas, samvarta, acanas, atri, Apastamba and shatapata are the eighteen sages who mastered the Vedas with their superhuman power and derived smriti-s from them. Their works are known after them like manusmriti, yajnavAlkya-smriti, parAshara-smriti and so on, and they contain all that we need to know about all the dharma-s to be adhered to and all the rituals to be performed during our entire life.

Apart from these eighteen, there are eighteen subsidiary smriti-s called upasmriti-s. It is customary to include the bhagavadgItA among the smriti-s.

manu Smriti is most popular among intellectuals. Later comes Apastamba, gautam and yajnavAlkya smriti-s. parAshara smriti is considered to be suitable for kalayuga. What which is not covered by parAShara can be found in other smriti-s. In India, mitAksharI, a commentary on yajnavAlkya smriti was prevailing all over India. dayAbhAga, which is a digest of all smriti-s was prevailing in Bengal. 

21.8.1. Hindu dharma has the most flexible civil laws

The most practical part of parAshara smriti is that it says that old obsolete law can be removed or replaced with a newer law. 5 brAhmin-s who are knowers of veda-s can form a council and create new law that is suitable at that time in the current circumstances.

Please find some quotes from parAshara smriti

paraAshara smriti (PS) which it says it is best suited for kaliyuga (PS 1.1-25) gives revelations like

1. Laws are made depending upon deSa, kAla and paristhiti (time, space and present circumstances. (PS 1.22)

2. You can practice as much as you can (no rigidity) (PS 1.33)

3. 5 knowers of SAstra-s (or even 3 incase of shortage) i.e. knowledge of 4 veda-s and 6 veda-anga-s can form a council and create new laws (PS 8.6-13)

4. Widow remarriage (PS 4.30): Even if husband has permanently abandoned, still women can marry.

5. Brahmins can accept food from Sudra-s* (PS 11.13)

6. Sudra-s can trade (PS 2.13)

7. In the Krita yuga sin is incurred by one who converses (with a sinner) ; in the Treta by one who touches (the sinful man) ; in the Dvapara by taking the sinner's food ; in the Kali by a (sinful) act (alone). (There is nothing like untouchability in kali yuga) --> Manu smriti was for Krita (satya) yuga. It cannot be followed completely. (PS 1.26)

*bhagavAn svAminArAyaNa (Swaminarayan) in his SixA-patri (SikshA-patri) i.e. manual of instructions, has mentioned two types of sUdra-s - sUdra-s and sat-sudra-s. sat-sUdra-s are good people and they follow our SAstra-s and have strong faith in God, while lower sUdra-s live to just pass the days with little faith in God and do little or no religious activity without understanding the meaning of what they are doing and why they are doing.

21.8.2. Views of SankarAcArya-s on Civil Laws

Both Kanchi Paramacharya and Sringeri Shankaracharya (Now Mahasannidhan,  after anointment of his successor on January 23,  2015) has advised to keep practising shastras as much as you can. Both received complaints that in present times they are very difficult to be followed. Kanchi Paramacharya has said that “if I feel that some parts needs to be deleted or replaced, then someone else too will change another part which he thinks is obsolete. If this goes on, finally noting original would be left.”

Kanchi Paramacharya says, “Adi Sankara didnt appoint us to change shastras but to safegaurd them. I am not here to change them but to follow the teachings of our Acharya (Adi Sankara)”

21.8.3. Reason for reluctance to change dharma shAStra-s

It is true that Parashara Smriti allows to change few civil laws. Madhavacharya who has written a commentary on Parashara smriti by the name ‘Parashara Tatparya Nirnaya’. Hence Parashara smriti is to be accepted as authentic.

Note: Generally, Tatparya Nirnaya series like Mahabharata Tatparya Nirnaya and Bhagvat Tatparya Nirniya are traditionally attributed to Dvaita guru Madhvacharya (notice absence of 'a' after 'Madh' in both names Madhvacharya and Madhavacharya). Madhava (Acharya Madhava) is  pre-monastic name of Vidyaranya Swami, 12th peethadhipati of Sringeri Sharda Peetham)

In our opinion, with all humbleness, in order not to contradict the knower of SAstra-s specially of the stature of Shankracharya, and the direct passage of Parashara Smriti, we can say that when something is practised which is highly unhuman like Female foeticide, then some draconian laws declaring strict punishment to the offender(s) needs to be created until the situation becomes normal. Later samaritan laws can be created or old laws can be followed.

Obsolete laws like staying giving 10 cows and one bull as repentance of some crime is not practicable and so these rules which are no more possible in present circumstances, can be abolished. Yajnavalkya Smriti has described an alternative to this punishment.

There might be other reasons due to which Shankaracharyas have not allowed any change in Civil Laws. The questioner(s) might have also asked different question like living traditional life of a Brahmin is not possible, etc, as today cost of living has gone up and just on the basis of donations, they need to take care of their family and educate their children in modern education which is not cheap.

May be some brahmins might simply change rules to suit their needs. If everyone begins to create laws, then it would be a mess, hence to arrest this trend, the Shankaracharyas might have advised us to follow rules as much as you can. India has it’s own laws working in villages. An example is Khap Panchayat where sarpanch (panch means 5 and sarpanch means head of 5 keeps of laws). They make decisions to solve some issues. Villager, if not satisfied with the verdict can approach higher court.

Most of the people do not follow dharma in a systematic way. Interest in spiritual values is constantly declining with the passage of time. Western influence is on the rise. Demands of free speech and similar western concepts is gaining popularity. Though we are not against them, there is great danger if the mind is kept unchecked. Ours is a demanding mind and desires are like oil, they keep fueling the fire called as mind. Modern education is more of a machine making and based on rot reading. There is no dedicated training mind. Hence intelligence and retention power are the only criteria upon which further education and future lies. In order to arrest this trend, Shankaracharyas must have refused to allow any change in SAstra-s.  They know that if they let things loose, people will forget to keep a check on mind and on traditional values.

yajnavAlkya smriti along with commentaries mitAksharI and bAllambhatta is very famous and widely accepted due to it’s practical approach. dayAbhAga, which is digest of all smriti-s was popular in Bengal. Britishers also accepted these smtiri-s as they were prevalent during their times. They did not want to bring in completely foreign Law system, hence they promoted the already prevailing Civil Laws acceptable to the society.

The number of dharma smriti-s and up-smriti-s indicates broad mind of our ancestors who have covered all aspects of our life.

The idea of presenting quotes from parASara smriti is that our dharma is so practical that even if a revolution takes place and the need for new laws arise, one need to stray away from our SAstra-s. Staying within the frame of SAstra-s, one can create a new law. We need not reject SAstra-s. The only condition is that new law should not be non-vedic. It goes without saying that SAstra-s help us progress spiritually and hence creating barbaric laws is out of question. Humanity is the pillar upon which dharma stands. It is the teachings of dharma which makes one ‘human’. Not following dharma i one of the reasons for inhuman behaviour says Jagadguru Sri Abhinava Vidyateertha Mahaswami, Paramacharya of Sringeri Peetham.

Other laws like widow remarriage are already morally accepted by many Hindus. It is a personal choice of a widow whether to re-marry or not.

Change in Civil Laws, if at all is done, should not be done for our convenience, but because it has become a necessity.

It should be noted that dharma shastra-s are not the only place where dhrma is taught. grihya sutras, purANA-s and itihAsa too teach dharma, whether individual or for entire society.

Lets understand six philosophical systems of sanAtana dharma

21.9. Six Philosophical systems of sanAtana dharma 

Orthodox systems are those which accept the authority of the Vedas, while the heterodox systems are those which reject it. To the latter group belong the three systems of Charvaka, Buddhism and Jainism.

The ‘shaddarshana-s’, or the six systems of Indian philosophy belong to the former group. These systems are called 

  1. Nyāya. 

  2. Vais̐es̐ika. 

  3. Sāmkhya. 

  4. Yōga. 

  5. Pūrva Mimāmsā 

  6. Ūttara Mimāmsā or Vedānta.

The nāstika (athiest) schools are (in chronological order) They reject vedas: 

Cārvāka – Believes only what can be perceived. Rational thinking. 

Jainism – offshoot of Hinduism, now an Independent system. Some say, actual Jain Dharma is thiest and talk about Brahman as Jina Tatva. 

Buddhism – offshoot of Hinduism’s Sānkhya yōga, now an independent system. Interpretation of Nāgārjuna’s philosophy, as interpreted by many scholars, does not accept vedas or God, is based on theory of Shunya (zero), nihilism. Ātmā is nothing but zero state.

They generally deal with four topics:

  • Existence and nature of Brahman 

  • Nature of the jīva or the individual soul 

  • Creation of the jagat or the world.

  • Moksha or liberation and the disciplines that lead to it.