5 Ancient Hindu Scriptures:
An Ever-flowing River of Knowledge
For Hindus, scriptures have most powerful influence in everyday life: “The man who rejects the words of the scriptures and follows the impulse of desire attains neither his perfection, nor joy, nor the Path Supreme. Let the scriptures be, therefore, thy authority as to what is right and what is not right.” (Bhagavad Gita, 16: 23–24). The spiritual richness of the ancient Hindu scriptures is simply unmatched, but the volume of these scriptures is even more amazing. The very first scriptures were the four Vedas. These scriptures comprise the divine revelations, the Shrutis. As such, they have been considered the basis and command of Hinduism. The Upanishads, which are the essence and final culmination of the Vedas, also form part of the Shruti scriptures.
Two great epic scriptures, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, soon followed the Vedas/Upanishads. These scriptures and others that followed were formed as Smritis, the ones that were remembered. The Vedic scriptures had a strict code of finality. The Smriti scriptures of the later period had no such compulsions. One example may explain: Vedas teach that no violence be done to any being. This, however, would prove to be an impossible position in certain circumstances. The Smriti scriptures, on the other hand, encouraged modifications as the situation demanded, according to place and time. Smriti scriptures are derived from human experience and are the bedrock of tradition, continuing from the ancient and into modern. The Smriti scriptures may be varied according to the sect (sampradaya), and may be written in languages other than Sanskrit.
The earliest written script for the Hindu scriptures was the Vedic Sanskrit Brahmi, as early as the seventh century BCE. Classical Sanskrit, which is also associated with the proto-Indo-European languages and is considered the mother of many Indian as well as European languages came to become prominent in fourth century CE. It adapted the present Devnagri script in the tenth century CE. It is said that Sanskrit is phonetically the most accurate language. Its grammar is also most correctly built. Its constitution was so perfect that no word could have any variation of pronunciation or meaning and denotation. Each syllable (akshara) in the Vedas is endowed with significance and purpose, imparting to it a cosmic energy in a spiritual manner. Many experts suggest that it would be the most ideal language for computer technology.11 Says Swami Vivekananda, “The vast ancient literature of India was written in Sanskrit, which was never a spoken language! It was only used for writing the scriptures, epics, and dramas, etc.”12 It thus became truly a classic language of India. In the absence of paper, the ancient Hindu scriptures were originally written on dried palm leaves. Sir William Jones first established its relationship with other European languages in 1789.13
Hinduism does not have only one scripture as the sole authority; rather, there have been innumerable scriptures, each depicting its different ideas and viewpoints. This free flow of spiritual literature from a very early age provided abundant scope to change and modify itself, keeping up with time, circumstances, and individual aptitudes. Yet, the essential principles of the Vedas and Upanishads remained untouched. Different ethnic races and tribal groups that amalgamated toward what later became the Hindu religion were allowed to retain their individual identity to a very considerable extent. This freedom of thought and belief has remained the sheet anchor of Hindu theology over millennia, and has contributed immensely toward its evolution.