Each of the four Vedas, the basic scriptures of Hinduism, is generally divided into four parts: the Saṁhitā, the Brāhmaṇa, the Āraṇyaka and the Upaniṣad.
The Saṁhitās are collections of Vedic hymns. The Brāhmaṇas are treatises written in prose, dealing with the conduct of sacrifices and other rites associated with them. The Upaniṣads deal with philosophical truths and esoteric wisdom.
The Āraṇyakas form a link between the ritualism of the Brāhmaṇas and the philosophy of the Upaniṣads. Whether they really represent a transitional phase of thought, is difficult to decide since the Āraṇyakas and the Upaniṣads have almost fused into one another.
Hindu tradition connects the four āśramas (stages of life) with the four divisions of the Vedas. The brahmacārin (student of the Vedas) is expected to memorise the Saṁhitā and know the application of the mantras contained therein, in the various rites and ceremonies. The gṛhastha (householder) is guided by the Brāhmaṇas in the performance of the numerous sacrificial rites. The vānaprasthin (forest recluse) is advised to contemplate on the ritual as symbolic of higher philosophic truths. The saṁnyāsin (monk) is to meditate upon the funda-mental spiritual truths until he directly perceives them.
This traditional linking of the four āśramas with the four parts of the Vedas can perhaps give us an idea about the basis of the Āraṇyaka thought. Due to the physical infirmity brought on by old age and since the accessories and articles needed for the Vedic rites are not easily procurable in the forest, the vānaprasthin will be hard put to continue them. Moreover, battling with the various vicissi-tudes of life, will have brought on enough mellowness and wisdom that will make him receptive to philosophic speculations. However, the attachment to the rites and the eagerness to reap the promised fruits will still be lingering in the mind due to the long association with the deep involvement in those rites. Hence contemplation on the various aspects and stages of those rites as symbols of cosmic truths will be the best exercise for him, conducive to his ultimate spiritual welfare. This is exactly what the Āraṇyakas have done. In fact, the famous Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad begins with one such contemplation. Hence they are often classified as ‘Upāsanākāṇḍa’ (section dealing with meditations) as opposed to the ‘Karmakāṇḍa’ (section dealing with the rituals, i.e., Saṁhitās and Brāhmaṇas) and leading progressively to ‘Jñānakāṇḍa’ (section dealing with spiritual knowledge, viz., the Upaniṣads).
The extant Āraṇyakas of the four Vedas may be listed as follows:
Aitareya Āraṇyaka, Śāṅkhyana Āraṇ-yaka (sometimes called Kauṣītaki Āraṇ-yaka also).
Bṛhadāraṇyaka (the earlier part of the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, the later part being the Upaniṣad).
Taittirīya Āraṇyaka, Maitrāyaṇīya Āraṇyaka.
Last part of the Tāṇḍya-mahā-brāhmaṇa (also known as Pañcaviṁśa-brāhmaṇa), Talavakāra Āraṇyaka.
No Āraṇyaka is available.
(For details, see under the respective titles.)