Vedānta: Degrees of Scriptural Authority


Author: Rami Sivan, Priest, Dharma teacher, counsellor, Gov. Advisor (1998-present)
May 1st 2020

The Hindu Scriptural library is vast and contains thousands of volumes – the bulk of which still remain unexamined & critically edited and untranslated.

Today we have the Smritis (Law Books) 36 Purāṇas, major & minor, the Upaṇiṣads and of course the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata.

In these texts there are hundreds of different opinions, contradictions, legends, stories, historical fiction, scientific nonsense and so on and so forth.

So what exactly should a student of Vedānta consider authentic and accept and what should be rejected as inauthentic or irrelevant?

The answer as to what is authoritative is given by Mīmāṁsa:–

“Authority” is defined as “the ability to influence somebody to do something that (s)he would not have, or could not have done”.

1. The Injunctions (vidhi) constitute Dharma and are therefore the essence of the śabda [Revelation].

Dharma is that act which is enjoined by the Veda through its injunctive passages and which is conducive to the happiness of all beings (abhyudaya) i.e. the common good.

So the most important part of any passage or text is the positive injunctions or teachings which lead to personal growth, flourishing and happiness and the happiness of others.

2. Arthavādas as such are authoritative only in so far as they serve the distinctly useful purpose of helping the injunction or prohibition. So all the stories in the Purāṇas etc. which convey the positive or negative injunction should be discarded as the “packaging” and not taken literally. All the rewards and threat are metaphoric only.

3. Mantras convey a distinct meaning indicative in most cases of the deity connected with the sacrifice enjoined elsewhere, and therefore in themselves, have no authority whatsoever.


In the books on Law (Smṛti) written by various sages, in the 18 Traditional Texts (Purāṇas) and the two great epics (Itihāsas) Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata the direct injunctions are buried in a mass of verbiage of a purely descriptive character. These descriptive passages are relegated to the category of arthavāda and as such need not be taken as absolutely correct with regard to scientific, biological, geographical or historical fact. They are supportive onluy and can be disregarded.

These works were intended for the general public, who are of varying degrees of intelligence, and thus Vyāsa and the others inserted every kind of material in their works from pure injunctions to apparently useless and banal stories. The sole purpose was to make these works attractive to all people.

Another element was aesthetics and pleasure in an age in which the main form of entertainment was story-telling, to delight people with beautiful descriptions and entertaining fables.

There were and are some teachers of the Madhva and Gauḍiya sampradāyas who emphasize Purāṇa as the highest Scriptural authority but this is not accepted by the two major schools of Vedānta. The highest authority is the Veda only, because the transmission of the Vedas over 1000’s of years has been perfect and there has been no interpolation.

Itihāsa purāṇābhyām vedam sam-upabṛmhayet |

Bibhetyalpa śrutād vedo mām ayam prahariṣyati ||

The Veda is to be interpreted through means of the Itihāsas and Purāṇas. The Veda dreads a person of little learning fearing — “he will misunderstand me!” (Vasiṣṭha Dharma sūtra 27:6)

The primary sources of knowledge are the Vedas/Upaṇiṣads, the Purāṇas and Itihāsas are authoritative only in so far as they confirm and elucidate the Vedic teachings. They are not accepted as independent sources of knowledge.

So as students of Vedānta we accept any statement in the Purāṇas and Itihāsas which concurs with, or confirms or elaborates upon a statement found in the Vedas and the Upaṇiṣads. It the passage does not concur with, confirm or elaborate upon a Vedic teaching then it is to be rejected.

In Vedānta, reason/argument (tarka) is employed —

  1. to ascertain the true purport of Scripture which is our only source of knowledge concerning Dharma and Brahman,
  2. to remove doubts and contrary beliefs and
  3. to convince us of the probability of the existence of what is to be known, i.e., Brahman.

The dialectic used by Vedanta must be —

  1. based on Scripture;
  2. must elucidate the content of Scripture, and
  3. must not be opposed to it.

Both Mīmāmsa and Vedānta are hermeneutic philosophies, in which exegesis, apologetics, epistemology, metaphysics and ethics are synthesized.

According to both the great teachers, Gauḍapāda and Śankara, the true meaning of the Veda must be ascertained with methodical reasoning, and nothing else.

niścitam yukti-yuktam yat tat bhavati netarat

  • The entire ocean of sacred texts; the Veda, Tantra, Purāṇa and epics (Rāmāyana and Mahābhārata) etc. are meant to reveal only what cannot be known through cognition and reason. There is no need for scriptural validation in empirical matters which can be known through science.
  • Scripture cannot contradict knowledge gained from the two other sources; but its authority is infallible in matters pertaining to Dharma and Brahman.
  • Scripture neither produces anything new nor alters what is. There are some modern scholars who attempt to demonstrate that subatomic physics and neuro-physiology are hidden in certain Vedic texts. But the Veda is neither validated by these findings if proved to be correct nor invalidated it they are proved to be wrong. The purport of the Veda is not science, physiology, biology, history etc. The essence of the Veda has to be assiduously contemplated upon for years in a sustained way with faith, by one who has refined the mind through ethical living; one may then eventually ‘realise’ it.