The definition of śāstra

The word śāstra is commonly used in devotional parlance, but its definition is not always known. Knowing the definition of śāstra can help us understand its nature and its purpose.

Definition of śāstra according to Pūrva-mīmāmsā

Indian thinkers like to define terms because it builds precision in their arguments. Indeed without definitions, theology can quickly become a mish-mash of confusion, a khicadi of sorts, which is quite common now particularly in Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism.

In Pūrva-mīmāṁsā, the word śāstra denotes the Veda. This is indeed also accepted by all Vedāntic schools. The Pūrva-mīmāṁsakas take pains to define the Veda, lest there be any confusion about what the word means. The Artha sangraha presents the following definition of the term Veda:

वेदलक्षणम्- Definition of the Veda

को वेद इति चेदुच्यते। If someone asks, what is the Veda? We reply

अपौरूषेयं वाक्यं वेदः। The Veda is that sentence which is not produced by [any] puruṣa.

Here, I deliberately did not translate the word puruṣa into English because this word means different things in different schools of thought. For the Pūrva-mīmāṁsakas, ‘not produced by any puruṣa’ means no person of any type. The Vedas eternally exist but are not the sentences of any conscious being. This means that they are also not the words of Bhagavān. As such, Pūrva-mīmāmsā does not concern itself with Bhagavān at all.

The Veda-vākyas according to Pūrva-mīmāmsā are of five types –

स च विधिमन्त्रनामधेयनिषेधार्थवादभेदात् पञ्चविधः – The Veda is of five types according to the classifications of vidhi, mantra, nāmadheya, niṣedha and arthavāda.

What is a vākya?

The Veda are vākyas, sentences, which eternally exist. What then is a vākya? For completeness, we present a definition of a vākya below:

वाक्यं स्याद्योग्यताकांक्षासत्तियु्क्तः पदोच्चयः – a sentence is a collection of words which have ākāṅkṣā, yogyatā and āsatti.

ākāṅkṣā is the expectation that arises from hearing the first part of the sentence about the second part of the sentence. For example, if one hears the word Rāmaḥ, the expectation arises, what about Rāmaḥ? If the answer is, Rāmo gacchati, Rāma goes, then the sentence is complete. (ākāṅkṣā is related to syntax).

The word yogyatā indicates the ability of the sentence to convey the action denoted by the sentence. The sentence, vahninā sincati, he sprinkles with fire, is meaningless. jalena sincati, he sprinkles with water, would have been appropriate as fire cannot be sprinkled. jalena sincati has yogyatā while vahninā sincati doesn’t. In other words, the vākya should not be absurd. (yogyatā deals with semantics).

āsatti or proximity is the concept that words should be spoken sequentially in time without pauses. For example, if I say Rāmaḥ, and after 30 minutes, I say gacchati, then it is difficult to relate the two words, even though syntactically they are correct.

Definition of śāstra according to Śri Jīva Goswami

Śri Jīva Goswami defines the term śāstra in the Paramātmā Sandarbha. In Anuccheda 105 where he examines the relationship between the Vedānta sūtra and the first verse of the Bhāgavatam, Śri Jīva examines the sūtra:

śāstra yonitvāt – because [Bhagavān] is the womb (yoni), i.e. the source, of the scriptures (śāstra) called the Veda.

Here, it becomes important to define what śāstra is. So Śri Jīva presents the following definition:

शास्त्रं हि सर्वप्रमाणागोचरविविधानन्तज्ञानमयं तस्य कारणं ब्रह्मैव श्रूयते

śāstra is that which contains various types of unlimited knowledge that are inaccessible through any other means of valid knowing (pramāṇa), and its source is Brahman alone, as confirmed by śāstra itself.

Important in this definition is the mention of the source of śāstra, which is Bhagavān. Of course many verses from the śāstra itself can be cited to support this fact. Śri Jīva Goswami cites one such verse from the Brhad Aranyaka Upanisad:

एवं वा अरे अस्य महतो भूतस्य निःश्वसितमेततद् यद् ऋग्वेदो यजुर्वेदः सामवेदो अथर्वाङ्गिरसः इतिहास-पुराणं विद्या उपनिषदः श्लोकाः सूत्राण्युपसूत्राणि व्याख्यानानि

My dear [Maitreyī], the Rig, Yajur, Sāma and Atharva Vedas as well as the Itihāsas, Purāṇas, Vidyās, Upaniṣads, ślokas, sūtras, upasūtras and vyākhyānas all appear from the breathing of the Supreme Being (BAU 2.4.10).

Given all this, the word apauruṣeya should be taken to mean- ‘not by any person other than Bhagavān’. Our modified definition of Veda is then:

अपौरूषेयं वाक्यं वेदः। The Veda is that sentence which is not produced by [any] person other than Bhagavān.

One might wonder if Bhagavān’s being the source of the Veda implies that the Veda is not eternal. The answer is no, because Bhagavān is eternal, and the Vedas are eternally His vākyas.


The definition of śāstra is as follows. It is that

  1. which gives knowledge that cannot be obtained by any other pramāṇa. [Examples of other pramāṇas include pratyakṣa, anumāna, arthāpatti etc. and also the scientific method.]
  2. whose source is Bhagavān.
  3. whose knowledge is unlimited.
  4. which is eternal.

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5 replies »

  1. Wonderful recap of what we are currently studying,
    Would be nice to see where the quotes are coming from, to have a reference, for example where is the definition of vakya coming from? etc
    thank you

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