What is Sutra?

Sutra (sūtra सूत्र “string” or “thread”. sutta) in Indian literary traditions refers to an aphorism or a collection of aphorisms in the form of a manual or, more broadly, a condensed manual or text. Sutras are a genre of ancient and medieval Indian texts found in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

In Hinduism, sutras are a distinct type of literary composition, a compilation of short aphoristic statements. Each sutra is any short rule, like a theorem distilled into few words or syllables, around which teachings of ritual, philosophy, grammar, or any field of knowledge can be woven. The oldest sutras of Hinduism are found in the Brahmana and Aranyaka layers of the Vedas. Every school of Hindu philosophy, Vedic guides for rites of passage, various fields of arts, law, and social ethics developed respective sutras, which helped teach and transmit ideas from one generation to the next.

In Buddhism, sutras, also known as suttas, are canonical scriptures, many of which are regarded as records of the oral teachings of Gautama Buddha. They are not aphoristic, but are quite detailed, sometimes with repetition. This may reflect a philological root of sukta (well spoken), rather than sutra (thread).

In Jainism, sutras also known as suyas are canonical sermons of Mahavira contained in the Jain Agamas as well as some later (post-canonical) normative texts.

A Sanskrit manuscript page of Lotus Sutra (Buddhism) from South Turkestan in Brahmi script

A Sanskrit manuscript page of Lotus Sutra (Buddhism) from South Turkestan in Brahmi script

Etymology

The Sanskrit word Sūtra (सूत्र, Pali: sūtta, Ardha Magadhi: sūya) means “string, thread”. The root of the word is siv, that which sews and holds things together. The word is related to sūci (सूचि) meaning “needle, list”, and sūnā (सूना) meaning “woven”.

L0032691 Birch bark MS from Kashmir of the Rupavatra

Birch bark MS from Kashmir of the Rupavatra

In the context of literature, sūtra means a distilled collection of syllables and words, any form or manual of “aphorism, rule, direction” hanging together like threads with which the teachings of ritual, philosophy, grammar, or any field of knowledge can be woven.

sūtra is any short rule, states Moriz Winternitz, in Indian literature; it is “a theorem condensed in few words”. A collection of sūtras becomes a text, and this is also called sūtra (often capitalized in Western literature).

sūtra is different from other components such as ShlokasAnuvyakhayas and Vyakhyas found in ancient Indian literature. A sūtra is a condensed rule which succinctly states the message, while a Shloka is a verse that conveys the complete message and is structured to certain rules of musical meter, a Anuvyakhaya is an explanation of the reviewed text, while a Vyakhya is a comment by the reviewer.

History

Sutra known from Vedic era
Veda Sutras
Rigveda Asvalayana Sutra (§), Sankhayana Sutra (§), Saunaka Sutra (¶)
Samaveda Latyayana Sutra (§), Drahyayana Sutra (§), Nidana Sutra (§), Pushpa Sutra (§), Anustotra Sutra (§)[20]
Yajurveda Manava Sutra (§), Bharadvaja Sutra (¶), Vadhuna Sutra (¶), Vaikhanasa Sutra (¶), Laugakshi Sutra (¶), Maitra Sutra (¶), Katha Sutra (¶), Varaha Sutra (¶)
Atharvaveda Kusika Sutra (§)
¶: only quotes survive; §: text survives

Sutras first appear in the Brahmana and Aranyaka layer of Vedic literature. They grow in the Vedangas, such as the Shrauta Sutras and Kalpa Sutras. These were designed so that they can be easily communicated from a teacher to student, memorized by the recipient for discussion or self-study or as reference.

A sutra by itself is condensed shorthand, and the threads of syllable are difficult to decipher or understand, without associated scholarly Bhasya or deciphering commentary that fills in the “woof”.

The oldest manuscripts that have survived into the modern era, that contain extensive sutras, are part of the Vedas dated to be from the late 2nd millennium BCE through mid 1st-millennium BCE. The Aitareya Aranyaka for example, states Winternitz, is primarily a collection of sutras. Their use and ancient roots are attested by sutras being mentioned in larger genre of ancient non-Vedic Hindu literature called GathaNarashansiItihasa, and Akhyana (songs, legends, epics, and stories).

In the history of Indian literature, large compilations of sutras, in diverse fields of knowledge, have been traced to the period from 600 BCE to 200 BCE (mostly after Buddha and Mahavira), and this has been called the “sutras period”. This period followed the more ancient Chhandas periodMantra period and Brahmana period.

Hinduism

Further information: Hindu texts

Some of the earliest surviving specimen of sutras of Hinduism are found in the Anupada Sutras and Nidana Sutras. The former distills the epistemic debate whether Sruti or Smriti or neither must be considered the more reliable source of knowledge, while the latter distills the rules of musical meters for Samaveda chants and songs.

(The ancient) Indian pupil learnt these sutras of grammar, philosophy or theology by the same mechanical method which fixes in our (modern era) minds the alphabet and the multiplication table.

— Max Muller, History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature

A larger collection of ancient sutra literature in Hinduism corresponds to the six Vedangas, or six limbs of the Vedas. These are six subjects that were called in the Vedas as necessary for complete mastery of the Vedas. The six subjects with their own sutras were “pronunciation (Shiksha), meter (Chandas), grammar (Vyakarana), explanation of words (Nirukta), time keeping through astronomy (Jyotisha), and ceremonial rituals (Kalpa). The first two, states Max Muller, were considered in the Vedic era to be necessary for reading the Veda, the second two for understanding it, and the last two for deploying the Vedic knowledge at yajnas (fire rituals). The sutras corresponding to these are embedded inside the Brahmana and Aranyaka layers of the Vedas. Taittiriya Aranyaka, for example in Book 7, embeds sutras for accurate pronunciation after the terse phrases “On Letters”, “On Accents”, “On Quantity”, “On Delivery”, and “On Euphonic Laws”.

The fourth and often the last layer of philosophical, speculative text in the Vedas, the Upanishads, too have embedded sutras such as those found in the Taittiriya Upanishad.

The compendium of ancient Vedic sutra literature that has survived, in full or fragments, includes the Kalpa Sutras, Smarta Sutras, Srauta Sutras, Dharma Sutras, Grhya Sutras, and Sulba Sutras. Other fields for which ancient sutras are known include etymology, phonetics, and grammar.

Post-vedic sutras

Example of sutras from Vedanta Sutra

Some examples of sutra texts in various schools of Hindu philosophy include:

अथातो ब्रह्मजिज्ञासा ॥१.१.१॥
जन्माद्यस्य यतः ॥ १.१.२॥
शास्त्रयोनित्वात् ॥ १.१.३॥
तत्तुसमन्वयात् ॥ १.१.४॥
ईक्षतेर्नाशब्दम् ॥ १.१.५॥

— Brahma Sutra 1.1.1–1.1.5

  • Brahma Sutras (or Vedanta Sutra) – a Sanskrit text, composed by Badarayana, likely sometime between 200 BCE to 200 CE. The text contains 555 sutras in four chapters that summarize the philosophical and spiritual ideas in the Upanishads. It is one of the foundational texts of the Vedānta school of Hindu philosophy.
  • Yoga Sutras – contains 196 sutras on Yoga including the eight limbs and meditation. The Yoga Sutras were compiled around 400 CE by Patanjali, taking materials about yoga from older traditions. The text has been highly influential on Indian culture and spiritual traditions, and it is among the most translated ancient Indian text in the medieval era, having been translated into about forty Indian languages.
  • Samkhya Sutra – is a collection of major Sanskrit texts of the Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy, including the sutras on dualism of Kapila. It consists of six books with 526 sutras.

Sutra, without commentary:

Soul is, for there is no proof that it is not. (Sutra 1, Book 6) This different from body, because heterogeneous. (Sutra 2, Book 6) Also because it is expressed by means of the sixth. (Sutra 3, Book 6)

With Vijnanabhiksu’s commentary bhasya filled in:
Soul is, for there is no proof that it is not, since we are aware of “I think”, because there is no evidence to defeat this. Therefore all that is to be done is to discriminate it from things in general. (Sutra 1, Book 6) This soul is different from the body because of heterogeneous or complete difference between the two. (Sutra 2, Book 6) Also because it, the Soul, is expressed by means of the sixth case, for the learned express it by the possessive case in such examples as ‘this is my body’, ‘this my understanding’; for the possessive case would be unaccountable if there were absolute non-difference, between the body or the like, and the Soul to which it is thus attributed as a possession. (Sutra 3, Book 6)

– Kapila in Samkhya Sutra, Translated by James Robert Ballantyne

  • Vaisheshika Sutra – is the foundational text of the Vaisheshika school of Hinduism, dated to between 4th-century BCE to 1st-century BCE, authored by Kanada. With 370 sutras, it aphoristically teaches non-theistic naturalism, epistemology, and its metaphysics. The first two sutras of the text expand as, “Now an explanation of Dharma; The means to prosperity and salvation is Dharma.”
  • Nyaya Sutras – is an ancient text of Nyaya school of Hindu philosophy composed by Akṣapada Gautama, sometime between 6th-century BCE to 2nd-century CE. It is notable for focusing on knowledge and logic, and making no mention of Vedic rituals. The text includes 528 aphoristic sutras, about rules of reason, logic, epistemology, and metaphysics. These sutras are divided into five books, with two chapters in each book. The first book is structured as a general introduction and table of contents of sixteen categories of knowledge. Book two is about pramana (epistemology), book three is about prameya or the objects of knowledge, and the text discusses the nature of knowledge in remaining books.

Reality is truth (prāma, foundation of correct knowledge), and what is true is so, irrespective of whether we know it is, or are aware of that truth.

– Akṣapada Gautama in Nyaya Sutra, Translated by Jeaneane D Fowler

  • Mimamsa Sutras – is the foundational text of the Mimamsa school of Hinduism, authored by Jaimini, and it emphasizes the early part of the Vedas, that is rituals and religious works as means to salvation. The school emphasized precision in the selection of words, construction of sentences, developed rules for hermeneutics of language and any text, adopted and then refined principles of logic from the Nyaya school, and developed extensive rules for epistemology. An atheistic school that supported external Vedic sacrifices and rituals, its Mimamsa Sutra contains twelve chapters with nearly 2700 sutras.
  • Dharma-sutras – of Āpastamba, Gautama, Baudhāyana, and Vāsiṣṭha
  • Artha-sutras – the Niti Sutras of Chanakya and Somadeva are treatises on governance, law, economics, and politics. Versions of Chanakya Niti Sutras have been found in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. The more comprehensive work of Chanakya, the Arthashastra is itself composed in many parts, in sutra style, with the first Sutra of the ancient book acknowledging that it is a compilation of Artha-knowledge from previous scholars.
  • Kama-sutras
  • Moksha-sutras
  • Shiva-sutras
  • Narada Bhakti Sutra

Buddhism

Further information: Buddhist texts and List of suttas

In Buddhism, a sutta or sutra is a part of the canonical literature. These early Buddhist sutras, unlike Hindu texts, are not aphoristic. On the contrary, they are most often lengthy. According to Norman, the Buddhist term sutta or sutra probably has roots in Sanskrit sūkta (su + ukta), “well spoken” from the belief that “all that was spoken by the Lord Buddha was well-spoken”. They share the character of sermons of “well spoken” wisdom with the Jaina sutras.

In Chinese, these are known as 經 (pinyin: jīng). These teachings are assembled in part of the Tripiṭaka which is called the Sutta Pitaka. There are many important or influential Mahayana texts, such as the Platform Sutra and the Lotus Sutra, that are called sutras despite being attributed to much later authors.

Jainism

In the Jain tradition, sutras are an important genre of “fixed text”, which used to be memorized.

The Kalpa Sūtra is, for example, a Jain text that includes monastic rules, as well as the mythical biographies of the Jain Tirthankaras Many sutras discuss all aspects of ascetic and lay life in Jainism. Various ancient sutras particularly from the early 1st millennium CE, for example, states M. Whitney Kelting, recommend “bhakti as devotionalism is a central part of a Jain practice”.

The surviving scriptures of Jaina tradition, such as the Acaranga Sutra (Agamas) exist in sutra format, as is the Tattvartha Sutra – a Sanskrit text accepted by all four Jainism sects as the most authoritative philosophical text that completely summarizes the foundations of Jainism.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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