The Sanskrit word sutra (सूत्र: sūtra, "thread", "chain"; Pali: sutta, sūtta; rendered "doctrinal discourse") denotes either a short doctrinal sentence in ancient and middle Indian literature, memorable by its verse form, or a collection of such doctrinal sentences.
In addition to the sutra in Sanskrit literature, the sutra is also found in the doctrinal texts of Buddhism and Jainism, but without the short, aphoristic character. The Pali word sutta, which corresponds to sutra, refers to certain parts of the Pali canon, which is the only one considered canonical for Theravada Buddhism.
The oldest Indian texts were transmitted orally and are much older than the use of writing. Despite excellent mnemonic methods, people were looking for ways to pass on complex facts in a condensed, mnemonic form.
This striving for brevity is responsible for the fact that the contents are often difficult to understand today. For the students of that time, however, who at the same time received detailed oral explanations, the sutras represented an effective memory aid.
Thus, to prevent the text from being falsified as it was passed down orally from generation to generation, a strict verse form was used. A verse that has a certain meter and rhymes cannot easily change; irregularities caused by adding, changing, or omitting individual words are noticed immediately.
In addition, the lyrics were sung to a melody or spoken in singsong. Disadvantages (a lack of redundancy, as also indicated in the German word "Dichtung") were apparently more than compensated for by advantages (memorability).
The sutra style found its most consistent expression in the school of grammarians, especially in Panini, who expounded a complete systematics of Sanskrit in a few pages. From the grammarian Patanjali comes the saying that if a sutra author could save half a short syllable, he would be as happy as if a son were born to him.
Almost all philosophical systems (Darshanas) of the older times found their form in the form of Sutras; also an extensive commentary literature is handed down.
In Hinduism, concise excerpts from the Vedas are called sutras. A definition for sutra is given in Skanda Purana: "A sutra is an aphorism that expresses the essence of all knowledge in a few words. It must be universally applicable and flawless in its linguistic presentation."
The well-known Brahma Sutra (also called the Vedanta Sutra) is attributed to Vedavyasa. Vedanta means "end" or "completion of the Veda." The main purpose of the Sutra and the discussions in the Upanishads is to bring out the personal aspect of the Absolute Truth.
The Vedanta Sutra summarizes the philosophical insights of the Upanishads. The Sutras of Patanjali form the foundations of Raja Yoga.
One who pulls the strings: In the ancient Indian doctrine of music and dance Gandharva, as summarized by Bharata in his work Natyashastra at the turn of the century, the Sutradhara is the master of ceremonies of the ritual theater who greets the audience in the prelude (purvaranga) and later explains the scenes.
Such a theater director is characteristic of many Indian theater forms to this day.
The Buddhist teachings were transmitted in the form of the Buddha's orally transmitted and only much later recorded doctrinal discourses, which is why the introduction to all sutras reads: "This is how I heard it" (pali: evam me suttam).
There were specialists for the recitation of certain texts, so-called Bhāṇaka. Often the Buddha addresses a group of monks in these doctrinal discourses, which always revolve around a specific theme.
A situational introduction is characteristic: "This is how I heard it: At one time, the exalted one was staying in the game park of Isipatana near Varanasi. There now the exalted one turned to the five monks and spoke ..."
Three major canon collections exist: the Pali canon with its "basket of doctrinal discourses" (Suttapitaka), the Chinese Sanzang (standardized today in the Taishō Tripitaka), and the Tibetan Kangyur (Kanjur).
In the various text collections, the sutras are often found in different forms; this is due to variations in interpretation by the various Buddhist schools (Theravada, Mahāyāna, Vajrayāna).
The Mahāyāna sutras, which also go thematically beyond the paths of liberation described in the Pali canon, have a style all their own.
Some of these works are of central importance for certain schools and directions of Mahāyāna, such as the Lotus Sutra for the schools of Nichiren Buddhism or the Great Sukhāvatī Sutra for the schools of the Pure Land.
In its literal sense, sutra means "thread" or "chain," often mistakenly interpreted as "guide." This interpretation is indeed obvious, because in Sanskrit practically all "guides" have the word Sutra in their title, for example the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali or the Kamasutra of Vatsyayana, which is better known in German-speaking countries.
In contrast to the Ślokas, the Sūtras are prose texts that are kept extremely concise to simplify learning.
The first Vedic sutras were written in Prakrit, a Middle Indian language form and therefore a vernacular development of Sanskrit. The pioneer of Prakrit research in the second half of the 19th century was the German professor Richard Pischel.
As part of his research at the University of Halle, the first modern systematic grammar of Prakrit was written; now numerous Vedic sutras could be translated and published in dissertations, among them the Karmapradipa by Friedrich Schrader (1889) and Baron Alexander von Staël-Holstein (1900).