The first part of the Vedic period (c.1500–c.800 B.C.), that of the Veda, was a poetic and creative age, but afterward (c.800–c.500 B.C.) the priestly class transferred its energies to sacrificial ceremonial. They produced the Brahmanas, prose commentaries, in a later form of Vedic, explaining the relations of the Vedas (which had become sacred texts) to the ceremonials of the Vedic religion. In time the Brahmanas, like the Vedas, came to be considered sruti [Skt., = hearing, i.e., revealed].
All later works, in contrast, are called smriti [Skt., = memory or tradition] and are considered to be derived from the ancient sages. The later portions of the Brahmanas are theosophical treatises; since they were meant to be studied in the solitude of the forest, they are called Aranyakas [forest books]. The final parts of the Aranyakas are the philosophical Upanishads [secret doctrine] (see Vedanta). In language structure the Aranyakas and the Upanishads approach classical Sanskrit.
The Sutras [Skt., = thread or clue] were written in the third and final stage (c.500–c.200 B.C.) of the Vedic period. They are treatises dealing with Vedic ritual and customary law. They were written to fulfill the need for a short survey in mnemonic, aphoristic form of the past literature, which by this time had assumed massive proportions. There are two forms of sutra; the Srauta Sutras, based on sruti, which developed the ritualistic side, and the Grihya Sutras, based on smriti. Those Grihya Sutras dealing with social and legal usage are the Dharma Sutras, the oldest source of Indian law (see Manu).
The body of works composed in the Sutra style was divided into six Vedangas [members of the Veda]— Siksha [phonetics], Chhandas [meter], Vyakarana [grammar], Nirukta [etymology], Kalpa [religious practice], and Jyotisha [astronomy]. A sutra that is particularly well known in the West is the Kamasutra of Vatsyayana concerning the art and practice of love. Linguistic standards were stereotyped in the middle of the sutra period by the grammar of Panini (c.350 B.C.), regarded as the starting point of the Sanskrit period.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.