In Sanskrit, sutra means ‘thread or string’. These texts form the last stage of Vedic literature, by different writers between 500 and 200 BC. These works developed as a result of the need to simplify the rites and rituals explained in the Brahmanas. These concise treatises simplify Vedic teachings on rituals and their reasons. They also simplify the concepts of customary law. They are known as the "angas" or limbs of the four Vedas, but are considered smriti.
There are three known groups of text called sutras: Shrautasutras, Grihyasutras and Dharmasutras, together known as the Kalpa Sutra, and are considered attached to the Vedas.
The Shrautasutras contain short passages of instruction for the performance of the elaborate rituals described in the Vedas. The authors of the Shrautasutras belonged to different schools of philosophy. Some of the important Shrautasutra works are:
The Grihyasutras deal with household ceremonies or other rites performed with the domestic fire (Agni) in daily life. As a rule, these ceremonies are not performed by priests but by the householder himself (see Ashram). The Grihyasutras instruct on both the household ceremonies and on sanskaras. They explain the ritual, the mantras used and the social aspects of the sanskaras.
Some of the important Grihyasutras are the Apastamba Grihyasutra, the Baudhayana Grihyasutra, the Ashvalayana Grihyasutra, the Sankhayana Grihyasutra, and the Gobhila Grihyasutra. The contents of all these texts are similar, with minor differences in the performance of the ceremonies, since the authors belonged to different schools of philosophy.
The Dharmasutra deal with the rules of conduct and law. They are the oldest sources of Hindu law, with a chiefly religious point of view. They are closely related to the Vedas, from which they quote. Some important Dharmasutras are:
Certain other sources divide the Sutras into six categories, known as the Vedangas or limbs of the Vedas. They are the Shiksha, which describes phonetics; the Chandanas, which details meter and poetic rhythm; the Vyakarana, which deals with grammar; the Nirukta, which discusses etymology; the Kalpa, which explains religious practices; and the Jyotishi, which explains astronomy.
The first four works contribute to the correct recitation and understanding of the sacred texts. The last two deal with religious rites and duties and the appropriate seasons for their performance.
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