Hindu Scriptures: Popularity & Length

See my other posts on Hinduism here!

Hindu Scriptures are largely divided into two large categories.

  • Shruti: “what is heard” revealed to saints
  • Smriti: “what is remembered”: oral tradition

To give you an idea of the length of some scriptures, here is a table:

Religious Text Number of Verses
Mahabharata >200,000
Ramayana 25,000
Jewish Tanakh 23,145
Greek Illiad 15,000
Greek Odyssey 12,110
Christian New Testament 7,958
Muslim Qur’an 6,346
Now, to give you an idea of the popularity of popularity of various Hindu scriptures, I offer this graph below which compares the number of google page finds for each of these Hindu Scriptures.  You can see that in English, the Ramayana wins in popularity.  So if you want to taste a little Hinduism, may I suggest you read some version of the Ramayana.  As you can see by the table above, the actual Ramayana is rather long.  So for a shorter retelling,  I personally love William Buck’s version.



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

10 responses to “Hindu Scriptures: Popularity & Length

  1. Based on the near-nothing that I know about Hinduism, it sort of seems to me that, other than the Apocalypse, there seems to be a similar pattern in the popularity here as with the Bible books. Does that seem like an accurate observation based on your better knowledge?

  2. Good question, The Wise Fool, I am not sure of the reason for its popularity. I will try to get back to that over this next year.

    But like everyone else, I love to speculate wildly. So here goes:

    (1) The Vedas are dry and unimportant except to the Priestly caste who still act important because they memorize them and can use the magic. The Upanishads are too philosophical and offer no cheap salvation or magic.
    So that takes Shruti out of the mix.

    (2) I expected the Bhagavad Gita to be more popular — not sure why

    (3) Puranas are probably more oral and not read much.

    (4) Soooo, that leaves the two Epics: The Ramayana (older) and The Mahabharata (much longer):

    (a) The Ramayana is a simple story about a nobel Prince whose wife is stolen by an evil demon. The story is the recovery and victory of good over evil. There is much more, of course, but (a) Royalty (b) Love (c) Good over evil. Easily digested by the general public.

    (b) The Mahabharata is more complex, more about war and longer. It is actually my favorite.

    (c) The Ramayana is about Rama – an incarnation of Vishnu. Hindus tend to be either Vishnu worshippers (Vaishnivites) or Shiva worshippers (Shaivites). This is a gross, oversimplification but will do for now. Vaishnavism is a Cat religion — easy salvation by just believing: sells better, as you know. (I strongly recommend reading this post on cat religion and monkey religion).

    Shaivism is not as popular – it is a Monkey religion (self-effort, Book of James). Too much work for the common person. Thus, Ramayana is material for the popular religion — so to speak.

    Boy, I’ll bet that is more than you wanted to know. I hope people are reading this who can correct my simplicity.

  3. She might enjoy, by way of comparison, Buddhist stories called Jataka tales. They are animal stories about Buddha’s earlier lives and are striking with regard to their portrayals of generosity and selflessness. There are several collections available in English.

  4. @ Dan Gurney,
    Thank you. I have read her one or two. Do you have one or two different versions that you could recommend?

    Have you read any of the Indian Epics or other Indian Religious texts besides the Buddhist stuff? What did you think?

    Did you read this stuff to your son when he was growing up? (forgot if you have other kids — just remember the son who went to Africa)

  5. Hi, Sabio,

    You’re welcome. I haven’t read a whole lot the Jatakas and I’ve given away the three or four collections I used to own. But the collection that sticks out in my memory was a collection called the Hungry Tigress: Buddhist Myths, Legends, and Jataka Tales by Rafe Martin. You can get it from Amazon:


    (I don’t know if so long a URL will make it all the way to its destination. It looks like you can get a used copy from Amazon for under 10 bucks—worth it.)

    I haven’t read much in this genre outside the ordinary western and specifically Buddhist context, so no. I was struck by the strong contrast between the Jataka tales and, say, Grimm’s tales. They both contain some pretty grisly stuff, but the lessons drawn from adversity and conflict are quite different. What we teach in the nursery, I suspect, does influence strongly the sensibilities of our graduate students.

    My kids are grown; a 27 year old daughter who is a physician in residency at Belleview Hospital and my son, whom you remember who is now getting a Ph. D. from in Athens from the University of Georgia. When these two were of fairy tale age, sadly, all they got from me were Grimm’s, Hans Christian Anderson, and other stuff from the standard canon.

    Now, if I ever get grandchild bedtime story duty, the Jataka tales will be included in the mix.

  6. Thanx, Dan, the linked worked and I have ordered it. I will hopefully do some posts about our readings. Maybe I will be able to take her to a local Theravada Temple — she already got turned off to our local sombre Zen Temple.

  7. Actually Sabio, there’s a lot more I’d like to know! I’m fixing that, but it is a very slow process.

    My meta-thoughts were that maybe:

    The Vedas were a little like Psalms and Proverbs, but I guess that’s pretty far off if they are “dry and unimportant except to the Priestly caste.”

    The Ramayana was a little like John, in John’s more engaging aspects, which I’m still not certain if that is necessarily a bad match.

    The Puranas were like the lesser prophets.

    The Mahabharata was like Daniel/Revelation. Although, as I now take a quick moment to actually dig a little on Wikipedia, equating these two seems like a severe insult to the Mahabharata! Sorry about that.

    Obviously, one can only make these correlations in a very superficial fashion. The Bible seems to lack the richness of story found in the Hindu scriptures, at least as it appears to me now.

    Oh, and yes, I have read your post about cat and monkey religions before, and I enjoyed it.

    Anyway, this is just a little fun speculation in the nature of human interests.

  8. @ The Wise Fool :
    Cool. I am glad you are excited about it – this inspires me to write more. So more will be coming.

    I love comparative analysis but I think comparative analysis works best at deep levels, using deep principles. I hope to post a few examples in the future.

    But to compare books of the bible with Hindu revelation may be a bit too simple and beg all sorts of misunderstandings instead of being helpful unless details are made clear.

    All to say, I not sure what causes the popularity of the Ramayana as compared to the Mahabharata but I would think a facile comparison to the popularity of the Gospel of John is mistaken. That plus the varieties of religiosity in India are rather different from Christianity in important ways.

    Likewise, force-fitting a comparison of the popularity of the Mahabharata with that of Revelation or Daniel would do a great injustice and miss far more than it could possibly capture, I feel. Well, certainly without the specifics.

    Most books about Hinduism were originally written by Christians and were highly inaccurate because of all the Christian baggage the writers. Even non-religious Western writers had mind-categories that inevitably twisted their analysis.

    BTW, my graduate work was in South Asian studies (languages Hindi and Urdu) and I hung in India-circles for about 10 years with lots of academic reading in that area. My GF, for 10 years, was born and raised in India as a missionary kid. And I did research work over there. I forgot if you knew that. Not that it makes my opinions right, but I did want you to know I had a little more behind this than reading a book to my daughter.

    The Vedas are used in magic rituals and thus very unlike the Psalms or Proverbs. Puranas are not at all like the prophets — no prophecy.

    All to say, the tradition is so different, it pays to start reading before comparing.

  9. All to say, the tradition is so different, it pays to start reading before comparing.

    Yes, I had read of some of your past, and so I figured if anyone really knew if there was any meta-conceptual similarities, it would be you. I am in way over my head here, as I have not started reading Hindu scriptures for myself! I was on the fence about making the comment, or just keeping my mouth shut. I think it was your description of the Vedas as “rituals, hymns, spells and prayers …” combined with the earlier noted popularity of Psalms and Proverbs which tipped me over the edge.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to your deep concept analysis.

  10. decourse

    If you haven’t see Nina Paley’s indie animation masterpiece, Sita Sings the Blues, you must do it now.

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