Considered the earliest literary records of Sanskrit Literature, the Vedas compiled by Rishi Vyasa are the oldest holy books in Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma). The Vedas are a large body of vast knowledge and text, the religious and spiritual teachings of all aspects of life.

The Four Vedas

Definition

Veda means “Knowledge.” It is a Sanskrit word from the root “Vid,” which means finding, knowing, acquiring, or understanding. What you acquire or understand is knowledge. As a common noun, Veda means “knowledge” or “To know.”

The ideas, teachings, and practices described in the Vedas formed the basis for the six major schools of Hindu philosophy – Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa, and Vedanta.

Origin of Vedas

As the records point out, the Vedas originated in the Indian Sub-continent. Its written form origin dates back to 1600 BCE. The Rig Veda, the oldest of 4 Vedas, was authored in and around 1600 BCE. The date of the Vedas’ composition cannot be confirmed as the texts were passed down orally through generations in the Vedic period. This was done using a precise and elaborate technique.

The surviving ones now date only somewhere between the 11th and 14th centuries, mostly due to the transient nature of the manuscript materials; the birch barks or palm leaves.

The tales tell humans did not compose the revered compositions of the Vedas. Still, the knowledge was discovered through intense meditation and sadhana (Yogic practice) by ancient sages, who then handed them down through generations by word of mouth.

Also, the Vedic philosophy regards the Vedas as Apaurusheya, meaning not of a man or impersonal. According to the Vedanta and Mimamsa schools of philosophy, the Vedas are considered Svatah Pramana (In Sanskrit, meaning “self-evident means of knowledge”).

Some schools of thought even assert that the Vedas are eternal creations, mainly in the Mimasa tradition. In the Mahabharata, the creation of Vedas is credited to Brahma, the Supreme Creator. However, the Vedic hymns assert that they were skillfully created by Rishis (sages) after inspired creativity.

The 4 Vedas

There are four Vedas: Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda, and all of them together are attributed as ‘Chaturveda.’ The Rig Veda serves as the one principal and all three, but the Arthaveda agree in form, language, and content.

Each Veda has been subclassified into four major text types or four portions.

  • The Samhitas, the most ancient layer of text in the Vedas, consist of mantras, hymns, prayers, and benedictions which have, in literary terms, put together or joined the other three texts;
  • The Aranyakas, which constitute the philosophy behind the ritual sacrifice,
  • The Brahmanas, which in turn has the commentary on hymns of four Vedas and
  • The Upanishads, which consist of conversations between teachers and students, clarify the Vedas’ philosophical message.

The Rig Veda

Rig Veda XVII

Rig Veda is the oldest and most popular among the four Vedas. Two Sanskrit words Rig and Veda constituting it translate to ‘praise or shine’ and ‘knowledge,’ respectively. A collection of 1,028 hymns and 10,600 verses is organized into ten different Mandalas (or the books; Sanskrit). It is the principal and oldest of the four Vedas.

The cultural-linguistic records, mainly the variation in Sanskrit used (from present-day), point out the origin of the Rig Veda to have been around 1600 BCE. However, a more comprehensive approximation of 1700–1100 BCE has also been given by experts. The initial written Rig Veda dates back to the 1st millennium BCE, although the extant ones today date only somewhere between the 11th and 14th centuries, primarily due to the transient nature of the manuscript materials, palm leaves, or birch barks.

Like the other three Vedas, many regards the Rig Veda as Apauruṣeya, meaning not of a man or impersonal and not belonging to a particular author. The hymns and the verses were written by the Rishis (Sages), and as the ardent believers of the Sanatana dharma claim, the revered Lord himself taught the Vedic hymns to the sages, who then handed them down through generations by word of mouth.

Rig Veda has been sub-classified into four-part, Samhitas or hymns that sing the praises of the Rig Vedic deities, some of whom are Indra, Agni, Soma, Ushas, Varuna, and Ishwara, the supreme God. Brahmanas have the commentary of the ancient sacred rituals; Aranyakas constitute the philosophy behind the ritual sacrifice and the Upanishads, commonly referred to as Vedanta.

The ten Mandalas, or Books of the Rig Veda, were composed by poets from different priestly groups over several centuries and structured on clear principles.

As the text progresses, the hymns, meticulous with meters from Jagati and Tristubh to Anustubh and Gayatri, reveal the history of the Vedic period, hinting at the primitive slash and burn agriculture, cattle raising and horse-racing, deeply aesthetic society practicing henotheism where they believed all God as one. Still, they accepted its manifested deities, vividly evident from the central thought of Hindus’ Brahman is everywhere, God inside everybody.

But, what is worth speculating is the pre-dominant discussions about cosmology, mystic forces, the existence of the Universe, and other metaphysical issues bringing the central theme of metaphysics ‘not about what exists, but about what it is to exist.’ Shifting from praises from early Mandalas of Nasadiya to later ones such as in the Sukta. Suktas contain philosophical questions about the origin of the Universe, the nature of God, the virtue of dāna (charity), and rituals that are said to be the religious duties of a human being raised.

Speculation reaches its epitome when questions such as ‘Do even Gods know the answer’ are raised; clearly, religious scriptures should be the last place to doubt the in-depth knowledge of God, but in the Vedas, it seems it ain’t.

Rigveda, in contemporary Hinduism, has been a reminder of the ancient cultural heritage and a point of pride for Hindus, with some hymns still in use in major rites of passage ceremonies. Still, to some experts, the literal acceptance of most of the textual essence is long gone.

The Sama Veda

Samaveda

The words of Rig Veda are put to music and are to be sung rather than just read or recited. Sama Veda, also the Veda of Melodies and Chants, is the third in the four principle scriptures of Hinduism – The four Vedas.

Widely referred to as the ‘Book of Songs,’ it is derived from two words, Saman, of Sanskrit, meaning Song, and Veda, meaning knowledge. The Sama Veda has served as the principal roots of the classical Indian music and dance tradition, and proudly the tradition boasts itself as the oldest in the world. As the tradition had followed, the verses of Sama Veda are sung using specifically indicated melodies called Samagana by Udgatar priests at rituals dedicated to different diets.

The Sama Veda is divided into two major parts: the four melody collections, or the Saman, the songs, and the latter, the Arcika, or the verse books, a collection (Samhita) of hymns, portions of hymns, and detached verses. A liturgical text relating to public worship, all but 75 verses of 1875, is derived from the Rig Veda.

As it is the words of Rig Veda put to music, no wonder, similar to the Rigveda, the early sections of Samaveda typically begin with singing the hymns of Rig Vedic deities, but the latter part shifts to abstract speculations and philosophy. The nature and existence of the Universe and God himself are questioned, and so are a man’s social and religious duties in society. The purpose of Samaveda is liturgical.

Two of the 108 Upanishads are still embedded in the Sama Veda: Chandayoga Upanishad and Kena Upanishad. Upanishads, in a way the essence of Vedas, are ancient Sanskrit texts that contain some of the central philosophical concepts and ideas of Hinduism and are also shared in other religions like Buddhism and Jainism.

The Chandayoga Upanishad speculates about the origin of the Universe and about space and time. In their Udgithas or chanting, three proficient men put forward some logical speculations even modern science could not outrightly reject. The Kena Upanishad tells us how every man born has an innate longing for spiritual knowledge and that bliss comes only from spiritual attainment.

To quote the exact words of V. Raghavan, a Sanskrit scholar and musicologist,

“Our music tradition [Indian] in the North as well as in the South, remembers and cherishes its origin in the Samaveda… the musical version of the Rigveda.”

Such has been the influence of Sama-veda on Indian classical music and dance. So much so that the very essence of classical Indian music and dance tradition is rooted in the sonic and musical dimensions of the Sama-Veda itself. In addition to singing and chanting, the Samaveda mentions instruments and the specific rules and regulations of playing them to preserve the sanctity of those ancient instruments.

If one were to summarize the significance of the Sama Veda in a single line, in contemporary Hinduism, Sama Veda has been a reminder of the glorious ancient cultural heritage and a point of pride for Hindus; not to mention that it still finds its usage in today’s society.

The Yajur Veda

Yajurveda

Yajur Veda, of Sanskrit origin, is composed of Yajus and Veda; the two words translate to ‘prose mantras dedicated to religious reverence or veneration’ and knowledge. Third of four Vedas, this liturgical collection is famous as the ‘book of rituals.’

Yajur Veda is a compilation of rituals offering formulas or prose mantras to be chanted or muttered repeatedly by a priest. At the same time, an individual performs the ascertained ritual actions before the sacrificial fire or the Yajna.

Since the Vedic times, the primary source of information about sacrifices and associated rituals, more importantly, has served as a practical guidebook for the priest, or the Purohits, who execute the acts of ceremonial religion.

The scholarly consensus points out that the bulk of Yajur Veda dates to 1200 or 1000 BCE. When analyzed is younger than Rig Veda, whose origin has been approximated around 1700 BCE but is contemporary to the hymns of Sama deva and Atharva Veda.

However, like the other Vedic texts, no definite date can be ascribed to its composition; instead, they are believed to be generational descent from Vedic periods by literary oral tradition, which was a precise and elaborate technique.

The Yajurveda is broadly grouped into Krishna Yajurveda and Shukla Yajurveda, also referred to as the Black Yajurveda and the White. About the verses of the Krishna Yajurveda being un-arranged, unclear, and disparate or dissimilar, the collection is too often referred to as Black Yajurveda. In contrast, the well-arranged and imparting a particular meaning, the Shukla Yajurveda is known as the White Yajurveda.

The earliest and most ancient layer of Yajur Veda Samhita includes about 1,875 verses that are distinct yet borrowed from and built upon the foundation of verses in Rigveda. The middle layer includes the Satapatha Brahmana, one of the most extensive Brahmana texts in the Vedic collection. The youngest layer of Yajur Veda text includes the largest collection of primary Upanishads, six in number, influential to various schools of Hindu philosophy. These include the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the Isha Upanishad, and the Taittiriya Upanishad, to name a few.

Sixteen recensions, or revised editions of a text, of the Shukla Yajurveda, have been known, of which only two recessions have been discovered to have survived. While the Krishna Yajurveda may have had as many as 86 recensions, of which only four have survived into modern times. Madhyandina and Kanva, the two recensions of the Yajurveda that have survived, are nearly the same in contrast to the four surviving recensions of the Shukla Yajurveda, which are very different versions compared to one another.

Yajurveda, in contemporary Hinduism, has been a reminder of the ancient cultural heritage and a point of pride for Hindus. The text is a valuable source of information about agriculture, economic, and social life during the Vedic era. The verse, translated from the Shukla Yajurveda, lists the types of crops considered important in ancient India.

May my rice plants and my barley, and my beans and my sesame,
and my kidney-beans and my vetches, and my pearl millet and my proso millet,
and my sorghum and my wild rice, and my wheat and my lentils,
prosper by sacrifice.

–  Shukla Yajurveda 18.12.

The Atharva Veda

Atharva Veda

The fourth and final of the revered text of the Hindu dharma, the Vedas, the Atharva Veda, in short, is depicted as the “knowledge storehouse of Atharvāṇas,” Atharvāṇas meaning formulas and spells intended to counteract diseases and calamities, or “the procedures for everyday life.”

A late addition to the Vedic scriptures, the word owes its roots to Sanskrit, and the widely used epithet for the scripture is ‘the Veda of Magic formulas.’ It sides with popular culture and tradition of the day rather than preaching religious and spiritual teachings. It is often viewed not in connection with the three other Vedas but as a discrete scripture.

In popular context with being widely popular as the Veda of Magic formulas, Atharva Veda is a mixture of hymns, chants, spells, and prayers; and involves issues such as healing of illnesses, prolonging life, and as some claim also the black magic and rituals for removing disorders and anxieties.

However, many books of the Atharva Veda are dedicated to rituals without magic and to theosophy, a philosophy asserting that God’s knowledge can be achieved through spiritual practice or intuition.

It is a collection of 730 hymns with about 6,000 mantras, divided into 20 books, with three Upanishads embedded in it; Mundaka Upanishad, Mandukya Upanishad, and Prashna Upanishad. However, not all but a considerable part of it is the adaptation of Rig Veda, the most ancient of all Vedic Scripture.

The Samhitas in the Atharva Veda have written accounts of Surgical and medical speculations; it includes mantras and verses for treating various ailments. For instance, the verses in hymn 4.15 of the recently discovered Paippalada version of the Atharvaveda discuss dealing with an open fracture and wrapping the wound with the Rohini plant (Ficus Infectoria, native to India).

Some hymns were even about peaceful prayers and philosophical speculations, the origin of the Universe, and the existence of God himself. It is a collection of all sorts of speculation that often bewilders us.

The Atharva Veda still finds its relevance in today’s contemporary society. It has been a pioneer in influencing modern medicine and healthcare, culture and religious celebrations, and even literary tradition in the Indian subcontinent. It contains the oldest known mention of the Indic literary genre. The fourth and final of the four Vedas is still one of the most cherished books today for any Vedic scholar.

Last Updated on October 7, 2022

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