varieties of vidya

As we move towards the end of the AtoZ season it will be good to take an overview, then address a few important left out issues and conclude with a summarizing post. Giving an overview of all types of indic texts at this stage will make sense because, the reader who has been following my posts regularly must have got some idea about what these Sanskrit texts are all about. Let us also understand how how these vast number of indic texts are classified and interrelated.

Veda, Vidya, Vidushi, Vidwan, vidyarthi – all have been derived from the same root word vid which means to know. The ancient Rishis divided all types of vidya primarily into two types – para vidya and apara vidya. Hindi word paar comes from para. So para means beyond or going across. In Ramayana when Rama seeks the help of a boatman to cross the river, the boatman in turn makes a condition that Ram should help him cross over this ocean of sansara. Para vidya is the knowledge or skill to develop higher consciousness so as to rise above the world and its maya. All kinds of spiritual knowledge and related skills comes under para vidya. Apara vidya is the worldly knowledge. It is the knowledge that helps one to take care of one’s worldly needs. So a vidyarthi in ancient India learnt both para and apara vidya.

Let me remind the reader that moral and ethical education is not para vidya. Of course when one is established in para vidya, one naturally becomes a responsible member of the society. On the other hand being righteous helps one progress fast in spiritual path. These days para vidya is absent from our education system.

Of course many religious institutes run schools and colleges in India even though our education system is supposed to be secular. Again religious education teaching the supremacy of a particular concept of God or Gods is not para vidya. It is much more than believing in concepts of God, his dictates and his miracles. Many spiritual traditions of India did not give primacy to concepts of God. Para vidya is more about developing a higher consciousness to realise the truth than submitting to the commandments of a fear inducing God.

There is another classification that divide all shastras as paurusheya and apaurusheya. Texts that are products of human imagination and inferences are paurusheya. Knowledge that is revealed to higher senses and are of universal in nature are apaurusheya. Vedas are said to be apaurusheya. The Vedic system of knowledge is as follows:

 The four Vedas 
1. Rigveda 
2. Yajurveda 
3. Shamaveda
4. Aharvaveda 

The four upavedas
5. Ayurveda (Life Science) - origin traced to Rigveda
6. Dhanurveda (Science of weaponry) - origin traced to Yajurveda
7. Gandharva veda (Science of music and aesthetics) - origin traced to Shamaveda
8. Arthashastra (Pursuit of wealth and material resources)  - origin traced to Atharvaveda

The Six Vedanga (limbs of Vedas or knowledge that helps one understand the Vedas or perform Vedic rituals)
9. Shiksha (Phonetics)
10. Kalpa (Practices) 
11. Vyakaranam (Grammar)
12. Niruktam (Etymology)
13. Chhanda (Poetic metre)
14. Jyotisham (astronomy / astrology)

Each Veda has four distinct sections. They are  Samhita, Brahmana, Aranyaka and Upanishad. Samhita and Brahmana are part of Karma Kanda. These are associated performance of rituals. Aranyaka and Upanishads are reflections and enquiries about the ultimate reality and part of Jnana Kanda. 

Overall, all types of spiritual literature or scriptures or sacred texts are divided into six categories as follows:

1. Shrutis or revelaed knowledge : Vedas come under this. 

2. Smritis : It literally means that which is remembered. These are not apaureshayea like the vedas. The vedangas come under this. 

3. Itihasa : Mahabharata and Ramayana are considered Itihasa

4. Puranas:  There are eighteen maha puranas (major puranas) and twenty seven upa-puranas (subsidiary puranas) according to some. But upa-puranas can be more. It is said that the maha puranas were written by a compassionate Veda Vyasa to popularise the teachings of the Vedas among common men. 

5. Agamas : These contain detailed guidelines for the external worship of Gods. Different sects like the Vaishnavs, the Saivas, the Saktas etc. have their own agamas.  These also contain expositions on jnana and yoga. 

6. Darshanas : There are a total number of six orthodox schools of Darshana. Darshana are loosely translated as  philosophy. I have briefly discussed about Darshanas in my post on Tarka Shastra. 

In addition to the scripturas there were a large number of texts pertaining to all kind of knowledge and skill: vastu shastra, shilpa shastra, krishi shastra, kama shastra, natya shastra and so on. There was no area of human knowledge that was left untouched. Unfortunately a large number of texts have been lost.

Then there are a large number of Kavyas which are creative compositions like drama and are studied from literary point of view. Most of the works of the great poet Kalidasa come under Kavya. It may be in the form of a drama or poem. In fact dramas were also mostly in the form of verses. Kavyas are composed following the principles of rasa and other guidelines as given in Natya Shastras. The Kavyas are further subdivided according to their size and content. Kumarasambhava is a Mahakavya while Ritusamhara is a Khanda Kavya.

Bhasya or Commentaries are also part of the rich repository of Sanskrit literature. There are thousands of them written in every age. Commentaries not only made the texts understandable, but also to made knowledge relevant to the age. Adi Shankaracharya has written commentaries on Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads and a number of other texts. Since Sanskrit itself underwent changes, without the commentaries it would have been near impossible to decipher the meaning of many ancient texts, especially those written in sutra format.

While the theoretical part was considered as Vidya, the applied part of knowledge was called as kala (art / craft). Many ancient texts including the Kamasutras mention sixty four such kalas. Men and women were supposed to learn as many of those kalas as possible. Learning these kalas not only helped one earn livelihood but also make life a pleasant experience for oneself and the near and dear ones. So the list of kalas include serious activities like metallurgy as well as art of cooking, embroidery, conversation and making tattoos.


This is the alphabet V post of Blogchatter AtoZ Challenge 2021. My theme this year is ‘The beauty of Sanskrit and Sanskrit texts’, where in I explore selected compositions in Sanskrit and also some unique aspects of Sanskrit language and texts. Join with me in my journey to understand India’s spiritual and intellectual heritage. All the posts of AtoZ Challenge 2021 can be accessed here.

20 thoughts on “varieties of vidya

  1. That is a comprehensive summation of the Indic wisdom and awareness recorded through a meticulous system of furthering knowledge. One marvels at the depths and the extent of those scriptures that encompass every aspect of human existence, physical, spiritual, material, social and psychological. We are grateful to you for bringing it all to us in this excellent series.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This has been an enlightening series. There is so much to absorb. I will be returning to give all your posts a thorough read.
    Do you think para vidya was a part of the education system before Kalyug started?
    It’s interesting to identify 6 Vedangas as components of knowledge that help to understand Vedas. Have heard the words Karam Kanda and Gyan Kanda but knowing how they were associated with Vedas was new.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. After reading this wonderfully structured post, I’d like to apply for admission in the school of Vedantic learning. I have no qualms in admitting that this is the first time I’ve seen such clarity in classification of the Vedic texts.
    Thank you.
    Your posts may be the catalyst that my dormant enquiry into ancient texts was waiting for.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. So apt, people were skilled in different kalas to make a living and live a pleasant life. Theoretical vidya needs to be complimented with practical life skills, great insight and post.

    Liked by 2 people

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