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Shruti or Shruthi (Sanskrit: श्रुति; IAST: Śruti; IPA for Sanskrit: [ʃrut̪i]) in Sanskrit means "that which is heard" and refers to the body of most authoritative, ancient religious texts comprising the central canon of Hinduism. It includes the four Vedas including its four types of embedded texts - the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the early Upanishads.
Śrutis have been variously described as a revelation through anubhava (direct experience), or of primordial origins realized by ancient Rishis. In Hindu tradition, they have been referred to as apauruṣeya (authorless). The Śruti texts themselves assert that they were skillfully created by Rishis (sages), after inspired creativity, just as a carpenter builds a chariot.
All six orthodox schools of Hinduism accept the authority of śruti,[note 1] but many scholars in these schools denied that the śrutis are divine. Nāstika (heterodox) philosophies such as the Cārvākas did not accept the authority of the śrutis and considered them to be flawed human works.
Shruti (Śruti) differs from other sources of Hindu philosophy, particularly smṛti “which is remembered” or textual material. These works span much of the history of Hinduism, beginning with the earliest known texts and ending in the early historical period with the later Upanishads. Of the śrutis, the Upanishads alone are widely known, and the central ideas of the Upanishadic śrutis are at the spiritual core of Hindus.
The Sanskrit word "श्रुति" (IAST: Śruti; IPA for Sanskrit: [ɕrut̪i]) has multiple meanings depending on context. It means "hearing, listening", a call to "listen to a speech", any form of communication that is aggregate of sounds (news, report, rumor, noise, hearsay). The word is also found in ancient geometry texts of India, where it means "the diagonal of a tetragon or hypotenuse of a triangle", and is a synonym of karna. The word śruti is also found in ancient Indian music literature, where it means "a particular division of the octave, a quarter tone or interval" out of twenty-two enumerated major tones, minor tones, and semitones. In music, it refers the smallest measure of sound a human being can detect, and the set of twenty-two śruti and forty four half Shruti, stretching from about 250 Hz to 500 Hz, is called the Shruti octave.
In scholarly works on Hinduism, śruti refers to ancient Vedic texts from India. Monier-Williams traces the contextual history of this meaning of śruti as, "which has been heard or communicated from the beginning, sacred knowledge that was only heard and verbally transmitted from generation to generation, the Veda, from earliest Rishis (sages) in Vedic tradition. In scholarly literature, Śruti is also spelled as Shruti.
Distinction between śruti and smṛti
Smriti literally "that which is remembered," refers to a body of Hindu texts usually attributed to an author, traditionally written down but constantly revised, in contrast to Śrutis (the Vedic literature) considered authorless, that were transmitted verbally across the generations and fixed. Smriti is a derivative secondary work and is considered less authoritative than Sruti in Hinduism. Sruti are fixed and its originals preserved better, while each Smriti text exists in many versions, with many different readings. Smritis were considered fluid and freely rewritten by anyone in ancient and medieval Hindu tradition.
Both śrutis and smṛtis represent categories of texts of different traditions of Hindu philosophy. According to Gokul Narang, the Sruti are asserted to be of divine origin in the mythologies of the Puranas. In contrast, states Roy Perrett, ancient and medieval Hindu philosophers have denied that śruti are divine, authored by God.
The Mīmāṃsā tradition, famous in Hindu tradition for its Sruti exegetical contributions, radically critiqued the notion and any relevance for concepts such as "author", the "sacred text" or divine origins of Sruti; the Mimamsa school claimed that the relevant question is the meaning of the Sruti, values appropriate for human beings in it, and the commitment to it.
Nāstika philosophical schools such as the Cārvākas of the first millennium BCE did not accept the authority of the śrutis and considered them to be human works suffering from incoherent rhapsodies, inconsistencies and tautologies.
- Part of the confusion arose from the fact that the Vedas are called shruti, “what has
been heard”. It was assumed by scholars that this referred to the process of divine revelation, the way Mohammed is supposed to have heard the archangel Gabriel dictate the Quran. Through some shamanistic process, the Vedic seers “heard” the Vedic verses, and passed them on in this form. This idea has, unfortunately, been given some currency among modern Hindus due to the well-meaning efforts of the 19th century reform movement Arya Samaj to cast Hinduism in the mould of Islam and mostly of Christianity in order to enhance its respectability. The net effect is that the Vedas, whether “divinely revealed” (as according to the Arya Samaj) or “improvised by illiterate nomadic shepherds” (as according to pop versions of the AIT), have been dissociated from a normal process of composition by erudite writers applying elaborate rules of verse, a process which presupposes literacy. The term shruti forms a pair with the term smrti, “what has been remembered”, which refers to the more down-to-earth post-Vedic literature, esp. the Dharma-Sûtra-s, the treatises on the social order. In spite of what the term might suggest, the smrti literature was not normally “remembered”. i.e. learnt by heart, or at least to a smaller extent than the actually religious texts. And in the case of shruti too, we are faced with a misunderstanding. The related word shravah (Slavic slav-, Greek *klew-) means not just “hearing”, but “fame” and “glory”, whence the glory-connoting names Peri-kles, Andro-kles, Miro-slav, Broni-slav etc., and indeed the ethnic self-designation of the Slavs, the “glorious ones”. Similarly, shruti means something like “what is worth hearing”, or “what is heard from afar”, i.e. the ancient tradition. The Vedic poets, after all, were not modern narcissistic litterateurs who tried to express their hyper-individual emotions in as original a form as possible; they merely gave a standardized classical form to ancient traditions, to the knowledge and wisdom capital of their tribe. In doing so, they did not spurn the instrument of writing once it became available. Elst 2007
Each of these Vedas include the following texts, and these belong to the śruti canon:
Of the above śrutis, the Upanishads are most widely known, and the central ideas of them are the spiritual foundation of Hinduism. Patrick Olivelle writes,
Even though theoretically the whole of Vedic corpus is accepted as revealed truth [śruti], in reality it is the Upanishads that have continued to influence the life and thought of the various religious traditions that we have come to call Hindu. Upanishads are the scriptures par excellence of Hinduism.— Patrick Olivelle
Role in Hindu Law
<poem>वेदोऽखिलो धर्ममूलं स्मृतिशीले च तद्विदाम् ।
आचारश्चैव साधूनामात्मनस्तुष्टिरेव च ॥ Translation 1: The whole Veda is the (first) source of the sacred law, next the tradition and the virtuous conduct of those who know the (Veda further), also the customs of holy men, and (finally) self-satisfaction (Atmanastushti). Translation 2: The root of the religion is the entire Veda, and (then) the tradition and customs of those who know (the Veda), and the conduct of virtuous people, and what is satisfactory to oneself. </poem>
<poem>वेदः स्मृतिः सदाचारः स्वस्य च प्रियमात्मनः ।
एतच्चतुर्विधं प्राहुः साक्षाद् धर्मस्य लक्षणम् ॥ Translation 1: The Veda, the sacred tradition, the customs of virtuous men, and one's own pleasure, they declare to be the fourfold means of defining the sacred law. Translation 2: The Veda, tradition, the conduct of good people, and what is pleasing to oneself – they say that is four fold mark of religion. </poem>
Only three of the four types of texts in the Vedas have behavioral precepts:
For the Hindu all belief takes its source and its justification in the Vedas [Śruti]. Consequently every rule of dharma must find its foundation in the Veda. Strictly speaking, the Samhitas do not even include a single precept which could be used directly as a rule of conduct. One can find there only references to usage which falls within the scope of dharma. By contrast, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads contain numerous precepts which propound rules governing behavior.— Robert Lingat
Bilimoria states the role of śruti in Hinduism has been inspired by "the belief in a higher natural cosmic order (Rta succeeded later by the concept Dharma) that regulates the universe and provides the basis for its growth, flourishing and sustenance – be that of the gods, human beings, animals and eco-formations".
Levinson states that the role of śruti and smṛti in Hindu law is as a source of guidance, and its tradition cultivates the principle that "the facts and circumstances of any particular case determine what is good or bad". The later Hindu texts include fourfold sources of dharma, states Levinson, which include atmanastushti (satisfaction of one's conscience), sadacara (local norms of virtuous individuals), smṛti and śruti.
The śrutis, the oldest of which trace back to the second millennium BCE, had not been committed to writing in ancient times. These were developed and transmitted verbally, from one generation to the next, for nearly two millenniums. Almost all printed editions available in the modern era are copied manuscripts that are hardly older than 500 years. Michael Witzel explains this oral tradition as follows:
The Vedic texts were orally composed and transmitted, without the use of script, in an unbroken line of transmission from teacher to student that was formalized early on. This ensured an impeccable textual transmission superior to the classical texts of other cultures; it is, in fact, something like a tape-recording.... Not just the actual words, but even the long-lost musical (tonal) accent (as in old Greek or in Japanese) has been preserved up to the present.— Michael Witzel
Ancient Indians developed techniques for listening, memorization and recitation of śrutis. Many forms of recitation or pathas were designed to aid accuracy in recitation and the transmission of the Vedas and other knowledge texts from one generation to the next. All hymns in each Veda were recited in this way; for example, all 1,028 hymns with 10,600 verses of the Rigveda was preserved in this way; as were all other Vedas including the Principal Upanishads, as well as the Vedangas. Each text was recited in a number of ways, to ensure that the different methods of recitation acted as a cross check on the other. Pierre-Sylvain Filliozat summarizes this as follows:
- Samhita-patha: continuous recitation of Sanskrit words bound by the phonetic rules of euphonic combination;
- Pada-patha: a recitation marked by a conscious pause after every word, and after any special grammatical codes embedded inside the text; this method suppresses euphonic combination and restores each word in its original intended form;
- Krama-patha: a step-by-step recitation where euphonically-combined words are paired successively and sequentially and then recited; for example, a hymn "word1 word2 word3 word4...", would be recited as "word1word2 word2word3 word3word4 ...."; this method to verify accuracy is credited to Vedic sages Gargya and Sakalya in the Hindu tradition and mentioned by the ancient Sanskrit grammarian Panini (dated to pre-Buddhism period);
- Krama-patha modified: the same step-by-step recitation as above, but without euphonic-combinations (or free form of each word); this method to verify accuracy is credited to Vedic sages Babhravya and Galava in the Hindu tradition, and is also mentioned by the ancient Sanskrit grammarian Panini;
- Jata-pāṭha, dhvaja-pāṭha and ghana-pāṭha are methods of recitation of a text and its oral transmission that developed after 5th century BCE, that is after the start of Buddhism and Jainism; these methods use more complicated rules of combination and were less used.
These extraordinary retention techniques guaranteed an accurate Śruti, fixed across the generations, not just in terms of unaltered word order but also in terms of sound. That these methods have been effective, is testified to by the preservation of the most ancient Indian religious text, the Ṛgveda (ca. 1500 BCE).
This part of a Vedic student's education was called svādhyāya. The systematic method of learning, memorization and practice, enabled these texts to be transmitted from generation to generation with inordinate fidelity.
Max Müller in an 1865 lecture stated:
The idea of revelation, and I mean more particularly book revelation, is not a modern idea, nor is it an idea peculiar to Christianity. In no country, I believe, has the theory of revelation been so minutely elaborated as in India. The name for revelation in Sanskrit is shruti, which means hearing; and this title distinguished the Vedic hymns and, at a later time, the Brahmanas also, from all other works, which however sacred and authoritative to the Hindu mind, are admitted to have been composed by human authors.
But let me state at once that there is nothing in the hymns themselves to warrant such extravagant theories. In many a hymn, the author says plainly that he or his friends made it to please the gods; that he made it, as a carpenter makes a chariot (Rv 1.130.6; 5.2.11), or like a beautiful vesture (Rv 5.29.15); that he fashioned it in his heart and kept it in his mind (Rv 1.171.2).— Max Muller
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