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The word ‘Veda’ is derived from the root vid (to know). Also known as Sruti (what is heard), Vedas are a vast body of sacred and esoteric knowledge concerning the eternal spiritual values that have been handed down to posterity by oral tradition. Vedas were revealed to the great ones called rishis (men of wisdom, sages) in the depths of their meditation. The Hindu religious traditions have accorded the Vedas the highest place in its canonical literature. As such, they are revered, as the basic scriptures of Hinduism.

It is difficult to fix the date of the Vedas. The widely accepted period is that of the Harappa-Mohanjo Daro culture (4000 b.c) to a later phase of the Vedic culture. This places the date of Rig Veda, the earliest of the Veda, around 10,000 B.C.

Vedas are groups of mantras and chants containing religious and spiritual insights. They have been mainly utilised in the performance of yagnas and yagas (sacrifices), which were the most common form of early Vedic religion.

Division of Vedas

As per the annals of the Hindu orthodoxy, the great sage Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa affected the division of Vedas by collecting all the mantras extant during his time and editing them into four groups: Rig, Yajus, Saman and Atharvan. He taught them to his disciples- Paila (Rigveda), Vaisampayana (Yajurveda), Jaimini (Samaveda) and Sumantu (Atharvaveda).

A compilation of all the hymns used by the hota-priest to invite the various deities to the sacrifice became the Rig Veda

All the liturgical parts of the Vedas, useful to the adhvaryu-priest, the chief executor of the sacrificial rites, brought together, formed the Yajurveda.

Collection of all the musical chants, especially those associated with the soma group of sacrifices, and to be sung by the udgatr-priest, the singer, was named as Samaveda.

The rest, a sort of miscellaneous appendix and addenda, became the Atharvaveda and was assigned to the Brahma-priest, considered as the supervisor over the whole sacrificial process.

 Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda (Set of 4 Vedas)

The Vedas are divided in another way as well: Mantra and Brahmana. Samhita, which is the core texts, is the name given to the collection of the mantras. They are presented in the form of hymns and poems (su-uktas = well said).

 The Brahmana includes in itself two more sections, the Aranyaka and the Upanishad. If the mantras comprise the hymns, the Brahmanas contain liturgies in prose. The Aranyakas teach about meditations based on symbolical interpretations of the liturgical rites. The Upanishad may roughly be defined as the philosophical treatises dealing with the ultimate problems of life. Whereas the Upanishads represent the essence of the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, the most popular scripture of Hindus, contains the essence of the Upanishads. The Vedas reflect the dawn of spiritual insight, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita contain the full splendour of a spiritual vision.

The Veda is claimed to be ‘eternal’ in that the truths propounded in it have a perennial validity for all time. The Veda can thus, by definition neither deal with temporal evanescent events, nor can they provide empirical facts or scientific generalizations based on those events. The ethics taught in the Veda are the factors by which we advance spiritually, they are injunctions only, which can neither be proved nor disproved by logic.

 Here is a brief account of the contents of the four Vedas-

Rigveda Samhita

This is the oldest6 and has a pre-eminent place in Vedic literature. Though it is said to have 21 sakhas, only five are known to be extant: Sakala, Baskala, Sankhayana and Mandukey.

The topics dealt with in the Rigveda Samhita falls roughly into three groups. The first group deals with the deities like Agni, Indra, Varuna and others. The second group is concerned with philosophical speculations like the origin of the universe and the real nature of human beings. The third group deals with several secular subjects like marriage, wars of kings, eulogy of generosity and so on.

Hymns from Rig Veda

Yajurveda Samhita

It is a collection of yajus, the mantras in prose that are specifically useful to the adhvaryu-priest in the performance of sacrifices.

The Yajurveda Samhita is in two forms: the Krishna (black) and the Shukla (white). The Shukla Yajurveda Samhita is said to have been collected and edited by the famous sage Yajnavalkya. It is entirely in verse and there are no suktas in this.

Though the Krishna Yajurveda Samhita is reputed to have had 85 sakhas or recensions, only four are available now: Taittiriya, Maitrayaniya, Katha, Kapisthala.

The finest translation of Yajurveda in two volumes

Samaveda Samhita

The Samaveda Samhita has been highly extolled in our holy books. However, it is not considered independent work. ‘Sa’ means rk, a mantra of the Rig-Veda. ‘Ama’ means various kinds of musical notes. Hence a ‘saman’ is a mantra of the Rig-Veda Samhita set to music. All such mantras which are useful to the udgatr-priest have been brought together in this work.

Unlike the mantras of the other three Vedas, the mantras of Samaveda, known simple as samans, have seven svaras or musical scales, identical to the seven scales of classical music. It can thus be inferred that the origin of classical music lies in the Samaveda.

Two well-known Upanishads, the Chandogya and the Kena are also attached to this Veda.

Samaveda Samhita

Atharvaveda Samhita

Also known as Brahmaveda, since it is assigned to the Brahma- priest, the Atharvaveda Samhita has some special features because of which it stands apart from the other three Vedas. It deals more with the things here and now than the hereafter, and with the sacrifices which are a means to them. 

A major part of this Veda is concerned with diseases and their cure, rites for prolonging life, rites for fulfilling one’s desires, building construction, trade and commerce, statecraft, penances and propitiatory rites, as also black magic. High philosophical ideas much nearer to those of the Upanishads are also found. Even the literary style is more sophisticated. This Veda designates God the Absolute not only as Brahman but also by some interesting names like Skambha, Ucchista and Vratya which are peculiar only to it.

Atharvaveda Samhita

Understanding Vedic Literature

The Vedas, considered apauruseya (not man-made but revealed), is rather difficult to understand due to the archaic form of language and terminology. Hence the six Vedangas (limbs of Vedas)- subsidiary sciences that help unfold the Vedic wisdom came into existence. They are Siksa, Vyakarana, Chandas, Nirukta, Jyotisa, and Kalpa. Siksa deals with the modes of chatting. Vyakarana is Vedic grammar. Chandas is concerned with the details of the metres of Vedic poetry. Nirukta gives the meanings and explanations of Vedic words. Jyotisa though a work of astronomy is more directly concerned with the times and periods suitable for the performance of the Vedic sacrifices. Kalpa in the form of sutras or aphorisms, has four branches-srauta, grhya, dharma and sulba. It deals with all aspects of sacrificial rites and smaller religious rites performed at home.

In understanding Vedic literature, bhasyas or commentaries have done a yeomen service. A study of the Vedas is a fascinating and highly rewarding experience. Exotic India has a commendable collection of Vedas in different languages. Interpretations and analyses are also available for your convenience. A volume of the four Vedas will be an impressive addition to your book collection.

Vedic Literature and Culture (History of Vedic Literature)



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