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Hindu Sacred Texts: Shruti and Smirti
Every religion has either a book or a collection books on which the religion is based:
Christianity has its Bible with its Old and New Testaments; Buddhism has the Tripitaka
('The Three Baskets ') of Sutra, Vinaya and Abhidharma.
Hinduism also has its own collection of scriptures. These can be divided into two main
groups: Shruti or ‘That which was heard', and Smirti, 'That which was remembered'.
Shruti: 'That which was heard': The word of God.
Hindus believe that all of the scriptures in this category are the word of God. Their words
were said to have been heard and then written down by ancient holy men.
a) The Ancient Vedas
The word Veda means 'to know'. There are four main Vedas: the Rig Veda, the
Sama Veda, the Yajur Veda, and the Atharva Veda. The Rig Veda is a collection
of 1028 hymns praising ancient gods or 'deities'. The Sama Veda is a collection of
magical formulae; of spells and chants and charms. The Yajur Veda is a guide for
priests on how to perform sacrifices, and the Atharva Veda is a further collection of
spells and charms alongside some early scientific writings. Of these 4, the Rig Veda is
considered to be the most important.
The earliest Vedas are thought to be at least 3,500 years old.
b) The Upanishads
Each of the Vedas has four main parts: Mantras, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and
Upanishads. The most important of these are the Upanishads.
The word 'Upanishad' comes from a phrase meaning 'To sit near'. They are called this
because originally, they were tutorials on the meaning of the Vedas given by wise men
to their disciplcs who 'sat near' their teachers to hear them.
The Upanishads contain teachings on some of the most important aspects of Hindu
religious philosophy such as ideas of Brahman, Atman, Samsara and Moksha. They
were written down around 200 BCE although they probably existed for longer that
Because the Vedas contain instructions on offerings, and the Upanishads talk about
fundamental philosophical ideas of Hinduism such as reincarnation and moksha, even
today they are considered to be both important and relevant by Hindus allover the
Smirti: 'That which was remembered'
The Smirti writings contain epic poems, myths, legends, prayers and legal texts. They
KS3 Hinduism: Sacred Texts
© G Beesley
are called 'That which is remembered' because, after they were spoken by realised
spiritual teachers, they were passed down by word of mouth from one generation to the
next. Later, having been 'remembered' for several generations, they were actually
written down.
The most important Smirti texts are: the Mahabarata, the Bhagavad Gita, the
Laws of Manu and the Puranas.
The Mahabarata- The Great Indian Epic and the Bhagavad Gita. 'The Song of
the Lord
The Mahabarata, at 100,000 verses, is probably the longest poem ever written. It tells
the story of a battle between two related royal families, the Pandavas and the Kaurakas.
The most famous part of the poem is known as the Bhagavad Gita or 'Song of the
Lord'. It tells the story of Arjuna Pandava, a courageous and noble warrior who,
through circumstance, is forced to engage his cousins in battle. The thought of harming
his own family fills Arjuna with dread and he turns to his charioteer, the god Krishna
(a manifestation ofVishnu), for advice.
Krishna tells Arjuna that, as a warrior prince, or 'Kshatriya', it his religious duty to
fight and right the injustices that have been done to him and his kingdom. ...'For there
is more joy in doing one's own duty badly than in doing another man's well'. The
Gita is then a poem which explains the importance of following one's
Varnashramdharma or the 'rules for the social classes and life-stages' if one is to
obtain union with god. Alongside this explanation of Kanna Yoga, the Gita also
explains the other 2 main methods of achieving union with god, Jnana (knowledge),
and Bhakti (devotion) Yoga.
The Laws of Manu
As the title suggests, the Laws of Manu is a collection of 2685 verses which explain
the rules or laws that members of Hindu society should live by. The text, which was
eventually written down around 250 BCE, explains the four life stages or ‘Ashramas'
and the four basic aims of life: Dharma (following varnashram and sanatana
dhanna); Artha (making an honest living and providing for one's family.);Kama
(enjoying the pleasure and beauty in life), and Moksha (aiming to achieve release from
the suffering cycle of birth, death and rebirth). There are also explanations of the
Varnas or 'social classes' and commentaries on issues such as the role of women, and
the way to treat the natural world.
The Puranas- The Ancient Ones
The Puranas are mainly composed of stories about and biographies of the gods
Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. They were written down between the 6th and l6th centuries CE;
despite their name then, and in comparison to other Hindu scriptures, they are not
particularly 'ancient'. The Puranas help to inspire devotion by showing how god
manifests in different forms in order to help mankind.
KS3 Hinduism: Sacred Texts
© G Beesley
What is the translation of the word 'Shruti' and to which sets of texts does it
In a paragraph, explain what the Vedas are and what they contain.
With a partner, pretend to be Hindus discussing how important the Vedas are
and how they have influenced you.
What does the word 'Upanishad' mean?
What is the translation of the word 'Smirti' and to which sets of texts does it
Tell/draw/enact the story of Krishna and Arjuna from the Bhagavad Gita.
Is it ever right to fight? When/Why?
Why do you think the Bhagavad Gita is so popular with Hindus?
Which Smirti text would you like to read and why?
Why do you think religions have holy books?
Most of these books are at least 2000 years old. Why do Hindus
still follow the teachings set out in them?
Make up a set of laws for the community you live in. Why would everybody
living by your laws make your world a better place?
Think of some rules in society that some people don't follow. What are the
results of their not following those rules
KS3 Hinduism: Sacred Texts
© G Beesley