Sanskrit literature can be classified under six orthodox heads and four secular heads. The six orthodox sections form the authoritative scriptures of the Hindus. The four secular sections embody the later developments in classical Sanskrit literature.
The six scriptures are: (i) Srutis, (ii) Smritis, (iii) Itihasas, (iv) Puranas, (v) Agamas and (vi) Darsanas.
The four secular writings are: (i) Subhashitas, (ii) Kavyas, (iii) Natakas and (iv) Alankaras.
The Srutis are called the Vedas, or the Amnaya. These are "Revealed Truths Without Beginning or End."
The Veda is the source of the other five sets of scriptures, even of the secular and the materialistic.
These are the ancient sacred law-codes of the Hindus dealing with the Sanatana-Varnasrama-Dharma
There are eighteen main Smritis or Dharma Sastras. The most important are those of Manu, Yajnavalkya and Parasara. The other fifteen are those of Vishnu, Daksha, Samvarta, Vyasa, Harita, Satatapa, Vasishtha, Yama, Apastamba, Gautama, Devala, Sankha-Likhita, Usana, Atri and Saunaka.
The laws of Manu are intended for the Satya Yuga, those of Yajnavalkya are for the Treta Yuga; those of Sankha and Likhita are for the Dvapara Yuga; and those of Parasara are for the Kali Yuga.
There are four books under this heading: The Valmiki-Ramayana, the Yogavasishtha, The Mahabharata and the Harivamsa.
The Ramayana is written in twenty-four thousand verses by Sri Valmiki ( studded with the letters of Gayatri mantra)
Yogavasishtha is a classical treatise on Yoga, containing the instructions of the Rishi Vashista to Lord Rama on meditation and spiritual life.
The Mahabharata is written in one hundred thousand verses by Sri Krishnadvaipayana Vyasa.
The Harivamsa is a celebrated poem of 16,374 verses (the adventures of the family of Krishna, being divided into three parts)
The Puranas are of the same class as the Itihasas. They have five characteristics (Pancha-Lakshana) viz., history, cosmology (with various symbolical illustrations of philosophical principles), secondary creation, genealogy of kings and of Manvantaras. All the Puranas belong to the class of Suhrit-Samhitas.
Vyasa is the compiler of the Puranas from age to age; and for this age, he is Krishnadvaipayana, the son of Parasara.
There are eighteen main Puranas and an equal number of subsidiary Puranas or Upa-Puranas.
The main Puranas are: Vishnu Purana, Naradiya Purana, Srimad Bhagavata Purana, Garuda (Suparna) Purana, Padma Purana, Varaha Purana, Brahma Purana, Brahmanda Purana, Brahma Vaivarta Purana, Markandeya Purana, Bhavishya Purana, Vamana Purana, Matsya Purana, Kurma Purana, Linga Purana, Siva Purana, Skanda Purana and Agni Purana. Of these, six are Sattvic Puranas and glorify Vishnu; six are Rajasic and glorify Brahma; six are Tamasic and they glorify Siva.
The eighteen Upa-Puranas are: Sanatkumara, Narasimha, Brihannaradiya, Sivarahasya, Durvasa, Kapila, Vamana, Bhargava, Varuna, Kalika, Samba, Nandi, Surya, Parasara, Vasishtha, Devi-Bhagavata, Ganesa and Hamsa.
The Agamas are theological treatises and practical manuals of divine worship. The Agamas include the Tantras, Mantras and Yantras. All the Agamas treat of (i) Jnana or Knowledge, (ii) Yoga or Concentration, (iii) Kriya or Esoteric Ritual and (iv) Charya or Exoteric Worship.
The Agamas are divided into three sections: The Vaishnava, the Saiva and the Sakta.
The Vaishnava Agamas are of four kinds: the Vaikhanasa, Pancharatra, Pratishthasara and Vijnanalalita.
The Saivas recognise twenty-eight Agamas, of which the chief is Kamika
The Sakta: There are seventy-seven Agamas. Mahanirvana, Kularnava, Kulasara, Prapanchasara, Tantraraja, Rudra-Yamala, Brahma-Yamala, Vishnu-Yamala and Todala Tantra are the important works.
Darsanas are schools of philosophy based on the Vedas. The Shad-Darsanas (the six schools of philosophy) or the Shat-Sastras are:
- the NYAYA, founded by Gautama Rishi,
- the VAISESHIKA by Kanada Rishi,
- the SANKHYA by Kapila Muni,
- the YOGA by Patanjali Maharshi,
- the PURVA MIMAMSA by Jaimini, and
- the UTTARA MIMAMSA or VEDANTA by Badarayana or Vyasa.
Each set of Sutras has got its Bhashya, Vritti, Varttika, Vyakhyana or Tika and Tippani.
A Sutra or an aphorism is a short formula with the least possible number of letters, without any ambiguity or doubtful assertion, containing the very essence, embracing all meanings, without any stop or obstruction and absolutely faultless in nature.
A Bhashya is an elaborate exposition, a commentary on the Sutras, with word by word meaning of the aphoristic precepts, their running translation, together with the individual views of the commentator or the Bhashyakara.
A Vritti is a short gloss explaining the aphorisms in a more elaborate way, but not as extensively as a Bhashya.
A Varttika is a work where a critical study is made of that which is said and left unsaid or imperfectly said in a Bhashya, and the ways of making it perfect by supplying the omissions therein, are given.
A Vyakhyana or Tika is a running explanation in an easier language of what is said in the original, with little elucidations here and there.
Tippani is just like a Vritti, but is less orthodox than the Vritti. It is an explanation of difficult words or phrases occurring in the original.
The Subhashitas are wise sayings, instructions and stories, either in poetry or in prose.
e.g., Subhashita-Ratna-Bhandagara, Katha-Sarit-Sagara, Brihat-Katha-Manjari, Panchatantra, Hitopadesa, ...etc
These are highly scholarly compositions in poetry, prose or both.
e.g., Raghuvamsa, Kumarasambhava, Kiratarjuniya, Sisupalavadha, Naishadha, Kadambari, Harshacharita, Champu-Ramayana, Champu-Bharata, ...etc
These are marvellously scholastic dramas embodying the Rasas of Sringara, Vira, Karuna, Adbhuta, Hasya, Bhayanaka, Bibhatsa and Raudra. ( It is told that none can write on the ninth Rasa, viz., Santi. It is attainable only on final Liberation.)
e.g., Sakuntala, Uttara-Rama-Charita, Mudrarakshasa, ...etc
These are grand rhetorical texts, treating of the science of perfection and beauty of ornamental language and of effective composition with elegance and force, both in poetry and in prose. These are the fundamentals of Sanskrit Sahitya, even superior to the Kavyas and the Natakas.
e.g., Kavyaprakasa, Rasagangadhara, ...etc