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Shruti And Smriti

Today, we will talk about the story of the most ancient culture — India ancient — her scientific achievements, spirituality, wisdom. You may call it the oldest story of the universe.

How old is it? Predating a time, when the civilization had not touched majority of our globe, many contemporary religions and faiths didn’t exist, and a period which is still beyond the reach of history and archeology.

Imagine! The incidents of Mahabharata is at least five-thousand years old, Ramayana predates Mahabharata and references of Vedas existed even in Ramayana. And history, it is still struggling to unearth civilizations that are no older than two-thousand years — The Indus valley civilization.

This raises and important question — If history and archelogy is still to reach that era, what is the proof of that period? And today, we intend to discover the answer to this very question. The tale of the science, arts and wisdom of that period lives on to this date. But how is this even possible, and what is the evidence of something yet to be discovered scientifically? Well, history and archelogy are making all the efforts, and they would reach that period later, if not sooner. But do you think the inks, and the tree barks on which those inscripts may have been written would have survived because each of these physical medium have a life-span of their own.

Let us take a contemporary example. In my experience with computer system, I once used floppy discs to store my information. Now those floppy disks are extinct like a dinosaur. How long did it take? Barely two decades! And similarly we lost all those ideas that one stored with social media sites like orkut. Do you really think, all those ideas that we today record on web would still be there say two-hundred years from today? Say, if the cease to exist, would it be a fair assumption that we never existed, as our informations pertaining to us is gone? And here, we are discussing an incident dating over five-thousand years ago.

Our ancient thinkers had realized this limitation of the written recording technique and therefore the developed an ingenious and brilliant technique to ensure that not only we preserve our knowledge base for an infinite period, it should also remain relevant for all the times to come. Instead of using papers, optical fibre, or cloud to store and transmit the information, they used an infinite human-chain. Using the family traditions, schools of thoughts and rishi traditions, we transmitted the sacred knowledge from one generation to the next like an invaluable heritage. And each generation carried out their responsibility of passing it to the next generation. This is beautifully summerised by Shri Krishna in Bhagwat Gita —

इमं विवस्वते योगं प्रोक्तवानहमव्ययम् |
विवस्वान्मनवे प्राह मनुरिक्ष्वाकवेऽब्रवीत् || 1||

imaṁ vivasvate yogaṁ proktavān aham avyayam
vivasvān manave prāha manur ikṣhvākave ’bravīt

— Gita Chapter 4

Krishna says that he, at the beginning of the time, had entrusted Suryadev the sacred wisdom of Yoga, which he transferred to Manu, who entrusted it to Ikshavaku… Can you see the human chain of wisdom?

Here we get two important words — Shruti and Smriti. Shruti, means, one that is heard and Smriti implies one that is memorized| 

Shruti is considered as the origin and the most ancient source of this infinite wisdom. One, that is heard. Who heard it? All of us did. Who said it?Well, no one knows. We heard from our fathers and they heard it from theirs and this has been a tradition dating back to an unknown origin. Important point to note here is listening or Shruti or the knowledge, not being hte author or origin of this wisedom. It is this nature that makes shruti timeless — The voice of the divine, heard and retold for over thousands of years.

But, when you hear something, you memorize it, and it is this memory that you transmit to the next generation. And when someone acquires this knowledge from us, he doesn’t get the unabridged perspective, but also a share of your views, perception. This creates a wonderful combination of ancient wisdom reinforced and aligned with contemporary context. This makes Shruti and Smriti complementary. Unfortunately, however, the modern thinkers don’t use these two words as complementary but as a partition line to fragment our treasure of immense ancient knowledge.

Modern scholars use the word Shruti to categorize those extremely ancient set of knowledge, whose author or compiler cannot be identified. They use the term Smriti for the other vast majority of our ancient knowledge whose authors or compilers have been identified or known. Here I must emphasize that this categorization is not as per ancient Indian tradition, but a more recent one and is not unanimously accepted.

Now let us move on the nomenclature that organizes the bulk of India’s ancient knowledge base.

The most ancient set of human wisdom is collected as Veda. The word Veda itself means knowledge. Based on the subject matter, we divide them as four vedas — Rigveda, Samveda, Atharva Veda and Yajurved.

Each Veda itself has four sub-sections.

The main part of the Veda is known as Samhita. It contains the primary and bulk of that particular Veda. Samhita itself stands for joining or bringing together. Samhita is that accumulation of Veda mantras, that elaborates the primary concerns of Veda.

The second section of the Veda is Brahmanak, also known as Pravachan or Vyakhan. It contains explanations and mantras related to yagnas and sacrifices. It also includes details on the prevailing scientific, geometric, and astronomic knowledge.

The fourth, last and the most significant section of Veda is Upanishada. The literal menaing of Upanishad is sitting near the feet. Whose feet? Guru’s. Upnishada is the teacher’s word. It contains the analysis and condensation of the essential wisdom and philosophy of Veda as understood by scholars. Most of the Indian’s ancient philosphy related to Atma, Parmatma and their intrinsic relationships originates in these Upanishads. That is the reason they are often referred as Vedanta. We have nearly two-hundred upanishads and each of them is associated with one or the other Veda.

For instance

1. Kaushtaki and Aitreya are based on RigVeda

2. Whereas Ken and Chandayoga are based on Samaveda.

3. Based on Yajurveda we have Brihadaranyak, Isha, Taitreya, Shwetaswhara and Maitreya.

4. Similarly Mundak and Mandukya belongs to Atharvaveda.

Did you notice I haven’t discussed the third section of Veda? The third section, Aranyaka, is a little difficult to understand. It is often referred as Karmakanda. At times Araynayaka complement Brahmanak and include proceedures related to yagna and sacrifice and at other times it talks about philosophy just like upanishads. This way, sitting between brahmanak and upnishadas, it tends to breach both the boundries.

While modern scholars categorize Veda along with its subsection Shruti, they put everything else as Smriti, that includes 18 puranas, 18 up-puranas, many smallers-puranas, Shastras like Arthashashtra, Smritis like Manusmiriti and most prominent among them, the two grand epics — Ramayana and Mahabharata.

The scholars who use the term Shruti and Smriti as a dividing line emphasize that Smritis aparat from being more recent are also flawed and less accurate. As I see this is an extension of the common strategy of divide and rule. If agreed, we immediately condemnt more than half of our sacred wisdom as flawed and less accurate or at least raise reasonable doubt about them. We are ready to call them mythology and less trust worthy. Then all they have to do is to suggest, the other half, too, have no verifiable evidence. Unfortunately this strategy of divide and rule has been successful to a great extent.

While there is not denial, these works are compiled and written many centuries later and have their author’s name well-known, it doesn’t mean they are less authentic or valuable.

Consider this. The incident of Ramayana dates back at least seven-thousand years and was authored by Maharishi Balmiki. But, can you imagine what was the means of its propagation, then? Certainly there was no mass publication industry. How would Balmiki propagate his epic? He sent his desciples include Lava and Kusha to remote villages where they would narrate the entire story on streets and assemblies. Those who heard the story in turn would retell it forming the timeless human chain we talked earlier. Isn’t this exactly same as Shruti? And remeber, without smriti or good memory, Shruti can’t be propagated. And it can be best understood if you check out the other epic — Vyasa’s Mahabharata, where you will find two interesting things — first use of the word Shruti on multiple occassions and most important existence of Ramayana inside Mahabharta. The epic Mahabharata contains Ramayana — what could be a greater proof of the timeless tradition of propagating the knowledge I talked earlier?

We must not forget, that contemporary Indian culture is more influenced by Puranas and our epics than Vedas. All our festivals, celeberations, traditions, and moralities are mostly based on these smritis. While Ramayana is the tale of Maryadapurshottam Rama, Krishna as a charioteer steers the course of Mahabharata and Purna tells the grand acts of Gods — Rama, Krishna, Brahma, Vishnu, Kartikeya and God of all beings Mahadeva Shiva.

Also exists are shastras, that are authoritative works on some specific subjects such as law, economics or medicine. They are often referred as Shashtra or Smritis. Can you imagine Arthashashtra authored by Kautilya in around 300BC was the first written book of constitution in any known civilization and is relevant till today.

Therefore considering smiritis and ficiton, less relevant or authentic is casting a doubt on our cultural existence. It is therefore important that we consider them complementary rather than a partition line.

Here we have discussed about Indias ancient sacred knowledge, their organization and propagation using the tradition of Shruti and Smriti. We shall continue our discussion by diving deeper in the universe of those sacred wisdom. Next we shall discuss about the origin story of our two Grand epics —

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