The Vedas are part of the Hindu Shruti; these religious scriptures form part of the core of the Brahminical and Vedic traditions within Hinduism and lay the inspirational, metaphysical and mythological foundation for later Vedanta, Yoga, Tantra and even Bhakti streams of Hinduism. In Sanskrit the word means Knowledge or Truth. Strictly the word 'ved' is singular, 'veda' is plural, but traditionally the word is given in English as 'veda' with the standard added 's' for plural. The four Vedas, chronologically, are the Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda.
Origins of the Vedas
Many Hindus believe that the Vedas were transmitted, via an oral tradition, for perhaps 8000 years (Fisher). Many Western and other Indian commentators see this as an exaggeration, dating the earliest part of the Veda, the Rig-Veda Samhita, to around 1800–1500 BCE. However, it is acknowledged by most that the Vedas did indeed have a long oral tradition and were passed on from teacher to disciple for at least many centuries before first being written down, which has led to some estimates that the earliest parts of the Vedas' may date back to 2500–2000 BCE.
According to tradition, the hymns of the Rig-Veda Samhita were collected and arranged by Paila under the supervision of Vyasa. Hymns which were particularly chanted during religious and social functions of the community were compiled by Vaishampayan under the title Yajus mantr Samhit. (Yajur-Veda). Jaimini is said to have collected hymns that were set to music and melody — 'Saman'. (Sama-Veda). The fourth collection of hymns and chants known as Atharv Sanhita (Atharva-Veda) is ascribed to Sumantu.
The Vedas are acknowleged to be the world's first recorded scripture, and are perhaps the oldest consistent and complex body of knowledge detailing astrology, astronomy, ritual practice, and how these relate to the spiritual life of humanity.
The four books of the Vedas
The Hindu scriptures consist of four separate collections (or Samhitas) of sacred texts, or mantrcjs, including hymns, incantations and sacrificial forms of prayer.
The Atharva-Veda, Rig-Veda, Sama-Veda, and the Yajur-Veda are not all equal in status. The last three are referred to as the "Threefold Ved". The Arthava-Veda is often deemed to be significantly less authoritative. Vedanta is the culmination of all Vedas or the essense of all vedas. The original text of the Veda is known as the Samhita. However the Samhitas are supplemented by many commentaries and explanations, forming the 'Shruti' as a whole. The most developed of these commentaries, the Upanishads, engage in philosophical speculation about the implications of the ancient invocations, mantras and rituals recorded in the Samhitas. Thus the Vedas are structured rather like a venerated work of classic literature supported by elaborate footnotes and introductory essays explaining its hidden complexities. In the traditional Hindu understanding, Vedas are said to be non-personal and without beginning or end. This means that the truths embodied in the Vedas are eternal and that they are not creations of the human mind.
The four Vedas Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda are divided into four sections:
- The Samhitas - Contains the mantras and hymns
- The Brahmanas - The ritualistic teachings
- The Aranyakas - The meditational section
- The Upanishads - The mystic and philosophical section, also known as Vedanta, or the end of the Vedas, implying the culmination of Vedic thought; since the time of Adi Shankaracharya they have exerted the most active influence on Hindu thought
Each of these four text-books has attached to it a body of prose writings, called Brdhmati, intended to explain the ceremonial application of the texts and the origin and import of the sacrificial rites for which these were supposed to have been composed. Usually attached to these works, and in some cases to the Sa1phitgs, are two kinds of appendages, the Aranyakas and Upanishads, the former of which deal generally with the more recondite rites, while the latter are taken up chiefly with speculations on the problems of the universe and the religious aims of man, subjects often touched upon in the earlier writings, but here dealt with in a more mature and systematic way.
Two of the Samhitas, tile Saman and the Yajus, owing their existence to purely ritual purposes, and being, besides, the one almost entirely, the other partly, composed of verses taken from the rigveda.
The hymns of the rigveda constitute the earliest lyrical effusions of the Aryan settlers in India which have been handed down to posterity.
They are certainly not all equally old; on the contrary they evidently represent the literary activity of many generations of bards, though their relative age cannot as yet be determined with anything like certainty. The tenth (and last) book of the collection, however, at any rate has all the characteristics of a later appendage, and in language and spirit many of its hymns approach very nearly to the level of the contents of the Atharvan. Of the latter collection about one-sixth is found also in the Rigveda, and especially in the tenth book; the larger portion peculiar to it, though including no doubt some, older pieces, appears to owe its origin to an age not long anterior to the composition of the Brahmins.
The religion of the Vedic period, particularly at its earliest, was distinct in a number of respects, including reference to females in positions of religious authority (female rishis, or sages), an apparent lack of belief in reincarnation, and a markedly different pantheon, with Indra generally the chief god, and little mention of the later primary gods Vishnu, and Shiva, although Brahma does appear quite frequently.
While Hinduism is generally monistic or monotheistic admitting emanating deities, the early Rig Veda (undeveloped early Hinduism) was what Max Müller based his views of henotheism on. In the four Vedas, Müller believed that a striving towards One was being aimed at by the worship of different cosmic principles, such as Agni (fire), Vayu (wind), Indra (rain, thunder, the sky), etc. each of which was variously, by clearly different writers, hailed as supreme in different sections of the books. Indeed, however, what was confusing was an early idea of Rita, or supreme order, that bound all the gods. Other phrases such as ekam sat, vipraha bahudha vadanti (Truth is One though the sages know it as many) lead to understandings that the Vedic people admitted of fundamental oneness. Attempts even at monism were attempted by subordinating other gods to singular entities or gods of supreme power, three most notably being Vishwakarma, Indra and Varuna, though Indra was the most eulogized as supreme in his 200 Rig Vedic verses. From this mix of monism, monotheism and naturalist polytheism Max Müller decided to name the early Vedic religion henotheistic. He decided that while polytheism did not fit with views so clearly admitting of fundamental unity, monism in his opinion was not yet fully developed.
This, however, is clearly a one-man view. Extremely advanced, indeed unprecedented and thitherto unduplicated ideas of pure monism are to be found in the early Vedas, notwithstanding clearly monist and monotheist movements of Hinduism that developed with the advent of the Upanishads. One such example of early Vedic monism is the Nasadiya hymn of the Rig Veda: " That One breathed by itself without breath, other than it there has been nothing." To collectively term the Vedas henotheistic, and thus further leaning towards polytheism, rather than monotheism, is to ignore the clearly monist bent of the Vedas that laid the foundation for the Upanishads as early as 1000 BCE.
Cosmogony of the Vedas
The Vedic view of the world and cosmogony sees one true divine principle self-projecting as the divine word, Vaak, 'birthing' the cosmos that we know from the monistic 'Hiranyagarbha' or Golden Womb, a primordial sun figure that is equivalent to Lord Surya. The varied gods like Vayu (of wind), Indra (King of Gods), Rudra (the Destructive element), Agni (Fire, the sacrifical medium) and the goddess Saraswati (the Divine Word, aka Vaak) are just some examples of the myriad aspects of the one underlying nature of the universe.
- Vedas: Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Artharva http://www.comparative-religion.com/hinduism/vedas/
- Excellent site about Vedas (Aurobindo) http://www.vedah.com/org/index.asp
- Veda and Upanishads http://san.beck.org/EC7-Vedas.html
- VEDA - Vedas and Vedic Knowledge Online (Vaishnava and general) http://www.veda.harekrsna.cz/
- Vedic Chanting .mp3 audio files http://sarasvati.tripod.com/veda.htm
See also: pandit
Fisher -- Living Religions (5th Edition -- 2002), p.82
Last updated: 02-04-2005 03:12:46