History of Literature


Eastern Literature

South Asian Literature



The Churning of the Ocean
The Avatars of Vishnu
Shiva and His Family
Rama and Sita
"Hymns of the Samaveda"
The Ramayan of Valmiki  (BOOK I, BOOK II, BOOK III, BOOK IV, BOOK V, BOOK VI)
Illustrations by Raja Ravi Varma

Veda, (Sanskrit: “Knowledge”)a collection of poems or hymns composed in archaic Sanskrit and known to the Indo-European-speaking peoples who entered India during the 2nd millennium bce. No definite date can be ascribed to the composition of the Vedas, but the period of about 1500–1200 bce is acceptable to most scholars. The hymns formed a liturgical body that in part grew up around the soma ritual and sacrifice and were recited or chanted during rituals. They praised a wide pantheon of gods, some of whom personified natural and cosmic phenomena, such as fire (Agni), the Sun (Surya and Savitr), dawn (Usas, a goddess), storms (the Rudras), and rain (Indra), while others represented abstract qualities such as friendship (Mitra), moral authority (Varuna), kingship (Indra), and speech (Vach, a goddess).

The foremost collection, or Samhita, of such poems, from which the hotri (“reciter”), drew the material for his recitations, is the Rigveda (“Knowledge of the Verses”). Sacred formulas known as mantras were recited by the adhvaryu, the priest responsible for the sacrificial fire and for carrying out the ceremony. These mantras and verses were drawn into the Samhita known as the Yajurveda (“Knowledge of the Sacrifice”). A third group of priests, headed by the udgatri (“chanter”), performed melodic recitations linked to verses that were drawn almost entirely from the Rigveda but were arranged as a separate Samhita, the Samaveda (“Knowledge of the Chants”). Along with these three Vedas—Rig, Yajur, and Sama, known as the trayi-vidya (“threefold knowledge”)—is a collection of hymns, magic spells, and incantations known as the Atharvaveda (“Knowledge of the Fire Priest”), which includes various local traditions and remains partly outside the Vedic sacrifice. A few centuries later, perhaps about 900 bce, the Brahmanas were composed as glosses on the Vedas, containing many myths and philosophical discussions. The Brahmanas were followed by other texts, Aranyakas (“Forest Books”) and Upanishads, which took philosophical discussions in new directions, invoking a doctrine of monism and freedom from the cycle of rebirth.

The entire corpus of Vedic literature—the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads—was considered Shruti (“What Is Heard”), the product of divine revelation. The whole of the literature seems to have been preserved orally (although there must have been early manuscripts to assist memory). To this day, several of these works, notably the three oldest Vedas, are recited with subtleties of intonation and rhythm that have been handed down from the early days of Vedic religion in India.

Wendy Doniger


The class of "Vedic texts" is aggregated around the four canonical Saṃhitās or Vedas proper (turīya), of which three (traya) are related to the performance of yajna (sacrifice) in historical (Iron Age) Vedic religion:

The Rigveda, containing hymns to be recited by the hotṛ;
The Yajurveda, containing formulas to be recited by the adhvaryu or officiating priest;
The Samaveda, containing formulas to be sung by the udgātṛ.
The Atharvaveda, a collection of spells and incantations, apotropaic charms and speculative hymns.[


Rigveda, (Sanskrit: “The Knowledge of Verses”) also spelled Ṛgveda , the oldest of the sacred books of Hinduism, composed in an ancient form of Sanskrit about 1500 bce, in what is now the Punjab region of India and Pakistan. It consists of a collection of 1,028 poems grouped into 10 “circles” (mandalas). It is generally agreed that the first and last books were created later than the middle books. The Rigveda was preserved orally before it was written down about 300 bce.


Brahmana, any of a number of prose commentaries attached to the Vedas, the earliest writings of Hinduism, explaining their significance as used in ritual sacrifices and the symbolic import of the priests’ actions. The word brahmana may mean either the utterance of a Brahman (priest) or an exposition on the meaning of the sacred word; the latter is more commonly accepted by scholars.

The Brahmanas belong to the period 900–700 bce, when the gathering of the sacred hymns into Samhitas (“collections”) had acquired a position of sanctity. They present a digest of accumulated teachings, illustrated by myth and legend, on various matters of ritual and on hidden meanings of the sacred texts. Their principal concern is with the sacrifice, and they are the oldest extant sources for the history of Indian ritual. Appended to the Brahmanas are chapters written in similar language and style, but with a more philosophical content, which specifically instruct that the matter of these chapters should be taught only in the forest, away from the village. These later works, called Aranyakas, served as a link between the Brahmanas and the Upanishads, the speculative philosophical texts that constitute the latest genre of Vedic literature.

Of the Brahmanas handed down by the followers of the Rigveda, two have been preserved, the Aitareya Brahmana and the Kaushitaki (or Shankhayana) Brahmana. Discussed in these two works are “the going of the cows” (gavamayana), the 12 days’ rites (dvadashaha), the daily morning and evening sacrifices (agnihotra), the setting up of the sacrificial fire (agnyadhana), the new- and full-moon rites, the four months’ rites, and the rites for the installation of kings.

Properly speaking, the Brahmanas of the Samaveda are the Panchavimsha (25 books), Shadvimsha (26th), and the Jaiminiya (or Talavakara) Brahmana. They show almost complete accordance in their exposition of the “going of the cows” ceremony, the various soma ceremonies, and the different rites lasting from one to 12 days. Also described are the atonements required when mistakes or evil portents have occurred during sacrifices.

The Brahmanas of the Yajurveda were at first inserted at various points in the texts alongside the material on which they commented. This was at variance with the practice followed by the teachers of the Rigveda and the Samaveda, who probably did not wish to upset the arrangement of such a sacred collection and who gathered the expository lectures together as the various Brahmanas. The Yajurveda fell into two separate groups, the later Shukla (White) Yajurveda, which separated out the Brahmanas, and the Krishna (Black) Yajurveda, whose Samhitas contain much Brahmanic material. Shatapatha Brahmana (or 100 “paths”), consisting of 100 lessons, belongs to the Shukla Yajurveda. Ranking next to the Rigveda in importance, this Brahmana survives in two slightly differing versions, the Kanva and the Madhyamdina. Elements more closely connected with domestic ritual are introduced here.

Finally, to the Atharvaveda belongs the comparatively late Gopatha Brahmana. Relating only secondarily to the Samhitas and Brahmanas, it is in part concerned with the role played by the brahman (“pray-er”) priest who supervised the sacrifice.


Bhāgavata-Purāṇa, (Sanskrit: “Ancient Stories of the Lord”), the most celebrated text of a variety of Hindu sacred literature in Sanskrit that is known as the Purāṇas, and the specific text that is held sacred by the Bhāgavata sect. Scholars are in general agreement that the Bhāgavata-Purāṇa was probably composed about the 10th century, somewhere in the Tamil country of South India; its expression of bhakti (religious devotion) is akin in its emotional fervour to that of the South Indian devotional poets, the Āḻvārs. The Purāṇa is made up of some 18,000 stanzas divided into 12 books; but it is book 10, which deals with Krishna’s childhood and his years spent among the cowherds of Vṛndāvana, that accounts for its immense popularity with Vaiṣṇavas throughout India. The attempts on Krishna’s life made by his wicked uncle Kaṃsa, the childhood pranks he played on his foster mother Yaśodā, his love for the gopīs (the wives and daughters of the cowherds) and their passionate abandonment to him are treated with endearing charm and grace, even while transfused with deep religious significance. The Bhāgavata-Purāṇa, in translation and in inspiration, has resulted in an enormous body of related vernacular literature. Its scenes have been carved in stone on temple walls and have been illustrated in beautiful miniatures by Rajasthani and Pahari painters of the 17th and 18th centuries.


Purana, (Sanskrit: “Ancient”)in the sacred literature of Hinduism, any of a number of popular encyclopaedic collections of myth, legend, and genealogy, varying greatly as to date and origin.

Puranas were written almost entirely in narrative couplets, in much the same easy, flowing style as the two great Sanskrit epic poems, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The early Puranas were probably compiled by upper-caste authors who appropriated popular beliefs and ideas from people of various castes. Later Puranas reveal evidence of vernacular influences and the infusion of local religious traditions.

Traditionally, a Purana is said to treat five subjects, or “five signs”: the primary creation of the universe, secondary creation after periodic annihilation, the genealogy of gods and patriarchs, the reigns of the Manus (the first humans), and the history of the solar and lunar dynasties. Creation and dissolution (sarga, “emission,” and samhara, “gathering in”) are like using an icon on a computer: Prajapati, a creator figure of the Vedic age, emits the universe and opens it, but everything is always in it, just alternately revealed (manifest) or concealed (latent); sarga lets it out, and samhara pulls it back in.

The Puranas also treat various topics concerning religious developments that occurred between 400 and 1000 ce. These additional topics include customs, ceremonies, sacrifices, festivals, caste duties, donations, the construction of temples and images, and places of pilgrimage. The genealogies of gods, Manus, and kings form an open-ended structure into which individual authors place whatever they wish to talk about (though some Puranas ignore the genealogies entirely). The questions of primary concern to these authors are how to live a pious life and how to worship the gods. Such worship includes the rituals (pujas) that should be performed at home, in the temple, and on special festival days; places to go on pilgrimage; prayers to recite; and stories to tell and listen to. Significantly, most of these rituals do not require the mediation of a Brahman priest.

There are traditionally 18 Puranas, but there are several different lists of the 18, as well as some lists of more or less than 18. The earliest, composed perhaps between 350 and 750 ce, are the Brahmanda, Devi, Kurma, Markandeya, Matsya, Vamana, Varaha, Vayu, and Vishnu. The next earliest, composed between 750 and 1000, are the Agni, Bhagavata, Bhavishya, Brahma, Brahmavaivarta, Devibhagavata, Garuda, Linga, Padma, Shiva, and Skanda. Finally, the most recent, composed between 1000 and 1500, are the Kalika, Kalki, Mahabhagavata, Naradiya, and Saura.

All the Puranas are strongly sectarian, some devoted to Shiva, some to Vishnu, and some to a goddess. But even those officially devoted to a particular god often pay considerable attention to other gods. By far the most popular Purana is the Bhagavata-purana, with its elegant treatment of the childhood and early life of Krishna. There are also 18 “lesser” Puranas, or upa-puranas, which treat similar material, and a large number of sthala-puranas (“local Puranas”) or mahatmyas (“glorifications”), which glorify temples or sacred places and are recited in the services of the temples.

Wendy Doniger


Agama, (Sanskrit: “tradition” or “received knowledge”)post-Vedic scripture conveying ritual knowledge and considered to have been revealed by a personal divinity. Shaivite scriptures, dating probably to the 8th century, are particularly so designated, in contrast to the Vaishnava Samhitas and the Shakta Tantras. (Compare Shaivism, Vaishnavism, and Shaktism.) The Agamas are often in the form of a dialogue between Shiva and his wife Parvati.

For convenience, scholars discuss the texts according to the four Shaivite branches that follow the Agamic tradition. These are the Sanskrit school of Shaiva-siddhanta, the Tamil Shaivas, the Kashmir Shaivas, and the Lingayats, who are also known as the Virashaivas. The Agamas provide a considerable amount of information on the earliest codes of temple building, image making, and religious procedure.


Aranyaka, (Sanskrit: “Forest Book”)a later development of the Brahmanas, or expositions of the Vedas, which were composed in India in about 700 bce. The Aranyakas are distinguished from the Brahmanas in that they may contain information on secret rites to be carried out only by certain persons, as well as more philosophical speculation. Thus they were intended to be studied only by the initiated, by which might have been meant either hermits who had withdrawn into the forest and no longer took part in ritual sacrifices or pupils who were given instruction by their teachers in the seclusion of the forest, away from the village. The Aranyakas are given over to secret explanations of the allegorical meaning of the ritual and to discussion of the internal, meditative meaning of the sacrifice, as contrasted to its actual, outward performance. The philosophic portions, more speculative in content, are sometimes called Upanishads.


Upanishad, also spelled Upanisad, Sanskrit Upaniṣad (“Connection”), one of four genres of texts that together constitute each of the Vedas, the sacred scriptures of most Hindu traditions. Each of the four Vedas—the Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, and Atharvaveda—consists of a Samhita (a “collection” of hymns or sacred formulas); a liturgical prose exposition called a Brahmana; and two appendices to the Brahmana—an Aranyaka (“Book of the Wilderness”), which contains esoteric doctrines meant to be studied by the initiated in the forest or some other remote place, and an Upanishad, which speculates about the ontological connection between humanity and the cosmos. Because the Upanishads constitute the concluding portions of the Vedas, they are called vedanta (“the conclusion of the Vedas”), and they serve as the foundational texts in the theological discourses of many Hindu traditions that are also known as Vedanta. The Upanishads’ impact on later theological and religious expression and the abiding interest they have attracted are greater than that of any of the other Vedic texts.

The Upanishads became the subject of many commentaries and subcommentaries, and texts modeled after them and bearing the name “Upanishad” were composed through the centuries up to about 1400 ce to support a variety of theological positions. The earliest extant Upanishads date roughly from the middle of the 1st millennium bce. Western scholars have called them the first “philosophical treatises” of India, though they neither contain any systematic philosophical reflections nor present a unified doctrine. Indeed, the material they contain would not be considered philosophical in the modern, academic sense. For example, the Upanishads describe rites or performances designed to grant power or to obtain a particular kind of son or daughter.

One Upanishadic concept had tremendous impact on subsequent Indian thought. Contrary to the assertion of early Western scholars, the Sanskrit term Upaniṣad did not originally mean “sitting around” or a “session” of students assembled around a teacher. Rather, it meant “connection” or “equivalence” and was used in reference to the homology between aspects of the human individual and celestial entities or forces that increasingly became primary features of Indian cosmology. Because this homology was considered at the time to be an esoteric doctrine, the title “Upanishad” also became associated during the middle of the 1st millennium bce with a genre of textual works claiming to reveal hidden teachings. The Upanishads present a vision of an interconnected universe with a single, unifying principle behind the apparent diversity in the cosmos, any articulation of which is called brahman. Within this context, the Upanishads teach that brahman resides in the atman, the unchanging core of the human individual. Many later Indian theologies viewed the equation of brahman with atman as the Upanishads’ core teaching.

Thirteen known Upanishads were composed from the middle of the 5th century through the 2nd century bce. The first five of these—Brihadaranyaka, Chandogya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, and Kaushitaki—were composed in prose interspersed with verse. The middle five—Kena, Katha, Isa, Svetasvatara, and Mundaka—were composed primarily in verse. The last three—Prasna, Mandukya, and Maitri—were composed in prose.

Patrick Olivelle


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