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Sutras

The last phase of Vedic literature, which may roughly be taken to embrace the period from 500 to 200 BC, is that of the Sutras. There is no longer that self-complacent spirit which pervades the Brahmanas. The authors of the Brahmanas felt that whatever they said must be believed, whatever they ordained must be obeyed. They are frightened by no absurdity, and the word "impossible" seems to have been banished from their dictionary. In the Sutras a change has taken place. Their authors seem to feel that the public which they address will no longer listen to endless theological swaggering. There may have been deep wisdom in the Brahmanas, and their authors may have sincerely believed in all they said ; but they evidently calculated on a submissiveness on the part of their pupils or readers, which only exists in countries domineered over by priests or professors. The authors of the Sutras have learned that people will not listen to wisdom unless it is clothed in a garb of clear argument and communicated in intelligible language. Their works contain all that is essential in the Brahmanas, but they give it in a practical, concise and definite form. These works were written at a time when the Brahmans were fighting their first battles against the popular doctrines of Buddha. They were not yet afraid. Their language is firm, though it is no longer inflated. Buddhism soon grew into a system of easy devotion, and found numerous recruits among those who were frightened by the difficulties of Brahmanical science. At the same time that Buddhism attracted the ignorant among the Brahmans, it received with open arms the poor and the miserable of all castes. It was to remove, or at least to simplify, the difficulties of their teaching, that men like Saunaka and Katyayana adopted the novel style of the Sutras. Such changes in the sacred literature of a people are not made without an object, and the object of the Sutras, as distinct from that of the Brahmanas, could be no other than to offer practical manuals to those who were discouraged by too elaborate treatises, and who had found a shorter way to salvation opened to them by the heretical preaching of Buddha. Of the three classes into which these writings are divided, the first, called Srauta Sutras, as based on Sruti or revelation (which here means the Brahmanas), forms a continuation of the ritual side of the Brahmanas; but they were not themselves regarded, like the Upanishads, as a part of revelation. This was probably because they were felt to be treatises compiled with the help of oral priestly tradition from the contents of the Brahmanas, solely with a view to practical needs. The oldest of them seem to be contemporaneous with the rise of Buddhism. Altogether, thirteen such ritual Sutras belonging to the four Vedas have been preserved. They are the manuals of different Sutra schools, each being connected with a particular Brahmana. Thus two Srauta manuals belong to the Higveda, that of the Asvalayanas being closely connected with the Aitareya Brahmana, and that of the Sankhayanas with the Kaushltaki Brahmana. These treatises deal with the ceremonial relating to the three sacred fires and the oblations offered in them, as well as to the various forms of the soma sacrifice. Such rites were conducted by a varying number of Brahman priests on behalf of a single individual, who paid for their services. It is noteworthy that worship was in no case congregational, and has never become so in later Hinduism.

The other two groups of Sutras are based on popular tradition {smriti). The Grihya, or 'House' Sutras, give the rules for the numerous ceremonies connected with the domestic life of a man and his family from birth to the grave. They include the most important ceremony of boyhood, that of apprenticeship to a teacher, or initiation (upanyana), when the youth is invested with a sacred cord, a rite still practised. Another very interesting subject dealt with by the Grihya Sutras are the funeral rites and the worship of the Manes, which still play an important part in India. The Grihya Sutras thus supply abundant material for the history of civilization.

The subject-matter of the third branch of the aphoristic literature, the Dharma Sutras, is custom. The earliest Indian works on law, they treat fully of its religious, but only partially and briefly of its secular aspect. The distinction between these two aspects of law has, indeed, hardly ever been clearly drawn, even in later Sanskrit writings. Many Dharma Sutras have been lost, but five works at least of this type have been preserved. They are concerned chiefly with the duties of the Vedic student and the householder, with purifications, penances, and forbidden food ; while on the secular side they touch upon the law of marriage, inheritance, and crime.

There are also some important works of this period which do not belong to any of the above three groups of Sutras. Vedic phonetics form the subject of the Pratisakhya Sutras, which are directly connected each with the text of their respective Veda, furnishing a systematic account of the euphonic combination applied in it, besides adding phonetic discussions to secure its correct recitation.

Yaska's Ninikta is a very important work, which mainly consists of a commentary interpreting, on an etymological basis, a large number of Vedic verses. Remarkable from the point of view of exegesis and grammar, it is highly interesting as the earliest specimen of Sanskrit prose of the classical type. Yaska, though using essentially the same terminology as Panini, must have lived long before, since a large number of grammarians' names intervene between the two.

Grammar is represented by the epoch-making work of Panini. While his Sutra contains hundreds of rules dealing with Vedic forms, the main body of the work is meant to describe the Sanskrit language. Grammatically, it dominates the subsequent literature; and though belonging to the middle of the Sutra period, it may be regarded as the definite starting point of the post-Vedic age.

The literary character of this later age differs from that of the earlier in matter, spirit, and form. Vedic literature is religious; Sanskrit literature is secular. The religion itself which now prevails has undergone modification. The leading gods of the Veda having sunk to a subordinate position, the three great gods, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, are the chief objects of worship. New gods, such as Kubera (god of wealth), Ganesa (god of learning), Karttikeya (god of war), Sri or Lakshmi (goddess of prosperity), Durga or ParvatI (wife of Siva), have also arisen, besides the serpent deities and several classes of demi-gods and demons.

In contrast with the cheerful view of life apparent in the Vedas the later literature is tinged with pessimism, due, no doubt, to the now universally accepted doctrine of transmigration, and is pervaded by a moralizing spirit. There is also a strong romantic element in Sanskrit poetry, accompanied by a tendency to exaggeration and excessive diffuseness in description.



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