An Overview of the Vedas
By Swami Samarpanananda
Ramakrishna Mission: Vivekananda Education and Research Institute
Belur Math, Howrah, W. Bengal
YouTube Channel: Indian Spiritual Heritage
Swami Vivekananda's Vision
While travelling through the length and breadth of India, Swami Vivekananda once reached Punjab, where he had a strange vision. He saw an old man standing on the banks of the Indus, and chanting Vedic hymns, using intonations that were distinctly different from those used in modern times. The passage that he heard was:
Āvahi varadé devi tyaksharé brahmavādinī
Gāytri chandasām mātā brahmayoni namo’stu té
--"O come! Thou Effulgent One, Thou Bestower of Blessings, Signifier of Brahman in three letters! Salutation be to Thee, O Gayatri, Mother of Vedic Mantras, Thou who hast sprung from Brahman!"
Talking about that vision, Swamiji was to say later, 'I saw an old man seated on the bank of the great river. Wave upon wave of darkness was rolling in upon him, and he was chanting from the Rig Veda. Then I awoke and went on chanting. They were the tones that we used long ago... Shankarâchârya had caught the rhythm of the Vedas, the national cadence. Indeed I always imagine that he had some vision such as mine when he was young, and recovered the ancient music that way. Anyway, his whole life's work is nothing but that, the throbbing of the beauty of the Vedas and Upanishads.' (from Complete Works, Vol. IX).
This vision explains the origin, nature, form, and utility of the Vedas. The Vedic hymns are the prayers to various divinities; they were realised by the rishis (sages) in the depths of their transcendental state; they are supposed to be handed down in a guru-shishya paramparā (teacher to student tradition); they are the rhythm of the national life of India; and spiritual eminence can come to a person only when he catches the rhythm signified by the Vedas.
What are the Vedas
The Vedas are the achievement, glory, power, strength and sustenance of the Hindu race.
Although most Hindus never see Vedic texts in their lifetime, yet, anyone who claims to be a Hindu, has to bow down in reverence to the Vedas, and has to accept their supreme authority in matters individual, social, philosophical, religious, and spiritual. There is nothing in Hinduism that does not owe its origin and allegiance directly or indirectly to the Vedas.
The Vedas are full of all kinds of knowledge, and is the perfect guide for man in his quest for the four purusartha (goal of life) – Dharma (religious practices), Artha (material welfare), Kama (pleasure and happiness) and Moksha (Salvation). In sacred Hindu literature, the Vedas are considered the very manifestation of God, and the ultimate source of all wisdom and of all Dharma. It is for this reason that every Hindu's conduct, social carriage, religious ambition, and spiritual attainments have been shaped by the Vedas. These sacred texts are the foundation of the Hindu way of life, and also the technical support for its evolution.
There can be no doubt that without these great texts the Hindus would have continued to be savages, and in the long run they would have been annihilated by the marauding looters and the proselytising zealots. When the warrior caste of the Hindu race failed to save the country from the invaders, it was the Vedas that saved the race from internal dissipation; when the bulldozers of science started pulverising every religion into meek submission, it was the Vedas that made the Hindus stand in all majesty and with dignity -- unconquered, unscathed; and today, when materialism and its never satiating ally, consumerism, is sucking the globe of its vitality, it is the Vedas that make the Hindus laugh at the greedy and vain monster in derision.
No words can do justice to the Vedas' contribution to the world civilisation in general, and to the Hindus in particular.
The word veda is derived from the root vid, which has five different meanings (jnaane, labhe, vichaarane etc.), but of which "to know" is more popular. When used as common noun, the term may be used to mean the study of a particular science e.g., dhanurveda, ayurveda etc. As an adjective, it may be used to glorify a book, or a subject, e.g. Srimad Bhagavatam, which is respectfully called "the fifth Veda" by the Bhagavata devotees.
In its more popular sense, Vedas (with an 's') is used as proper noun to refer to the Samhitas (Vedic mantras) associated with the four Vedas (Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda). In a general sense, Vedas also means the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads attached to these Samhitas. As a noun, the word first appears in the Rig Veda, where it means ritual lore.
The Vedas have other names like: Nigama, Shruti, Āmnāya, and trayee to express variously the outlook of various schools of thoughts. For example, Mimamsakas, the traditional Vedic schools, define Shruit as: Shruyate dharma anayā iti (The injunctions of Dharma that are heard from the guru), and Āmnāya as: Āmnāyate upadishyate anen iti (That which gives instructions). Nigama is defined as the traditional wisdom transmitted from generation to generation, and Veda has been described by Shankaracharya as: Parmātmānām labhante iti (That through which one attains God).
Mimasakas, the traditionalists, limit the scope of the Vedas to instructions and injunctions concerning ritualistic sacrifices, and lay emphasis on the first two portions of the Vedas, The Mantra, and The Brahmana: "Mantrabrāhmanyoh vednam dheyam". According to them, the Upanishads and other texts that talk about Atman, or any such topic, are intended to encourage people towards Vedic sacrifices. As opposed to this view, Shankaracharya believes that the goal of all Vedic texts is to lead a person towards self realisation. According to him, Vedic sacrifices are meant for people who are not yet ready to give up selfish action, and who must wend their way up by first purifying their mind through action.
The Origin and Antiquity of the Vedas: Shruti
The Dating: Who wrote the Vedas? This is an oft-repeated question by the scholars, and the critics of the Vedas. Naturally. When most writers use the 'copy and paste' technique to see their name in print, it is natural for the world to wonder how someone could create such a great thing and not leave their name behind! Since our childhood, we have grown to see the name of the creator associated with the creation. But in India, the concept of the Creator is impersonal, and hence it has been the tendency of the great creators of art, poetry and music to remain anonymous. According to them, the personal degrades, whereas the impersonal elevates.
The Vedas, and their recorders are as impersonal as God Himself.
No single person, or a group of persons wrote the Vedas. As mentioned, the ancient rishis (sages) in the depths of their meditation and also in their transcendental state of mind came face to face with truths which they recorded as The Vedas. These truths were passed from the father to the son, or from the teacher to the disciple orally. Mostly these truths stayed with the families whose ancestors had discovered them. With time, more and more revelations were added to the existing mass, which made it difficult to manage the work through oral tradition. After some time, addition to the existing mass of knowledge was stopped, and every new finding was recorded in some other kind of work.
All this information comes to us from the tradition and writings of the ancient times. Indian scholars neither know, nor care to know the dates related to the Vedas: when they were composed, which section was composed earlier, when their writing began, etc. The system of such dating began from the times of Max Muller, and continues with the Western scholars. Unfortunately, even for them it is a daunting task. Max Muller fixed the date of the first composition at 1500 BCE, which has now been greatly questioned. Interestingly, there has been a discovery in Asia Minor of the names of the Vedic deities Mitra, Varuna, and Indra, in an inscription of about 1400 BCE.
According to some Indian Vedic scholars like Tilak, who based their calculations on astronomical data, the Vedas were composed at least 8000 years ago. Swami Vivekananda agrees with Tilak, and says, "It was written, nobody knows at what date, it may be 8,000 years ago, in spite of all modern scholars may say, it may be 9,000 years ago."
One serious problem in fixing the date of the Vedas is the ludicrous Aryan invasion theory, according to which Aryans came to India around 2000 BCE, and destroyed the existing civilisation to settle down there. However, this theory and the dates related to it have been refuted by the modern scholars. Swami Vivekananda also debunked this theory strongly, and wrote:
'Whenever the Europeans find an opportunity, they exterminate the aborigines and settle down in ease and comfort on their lands; and therefore they think the Aryans must have done the same! The Westerners would be considered wretched vagabonds if they lived in their native homes depending wholly on their own internal resources, and so they have to run wildly about the world seeking how they can feed upon the fat of the land of others by spoliation and slaughter; and therefore they conclude the Aryans must have done the same! But where is your proof? Guess-work? Then keep your fanciful guesses to yourselves! In what Veda, in what Sukta, do you find that the Aryans came into India from a foreign country? Where do you get the idea that they slaughtered the wild aborigines? What do you gain by talking such nonsense? '
Another interesting reason for this problem of dating is the prejudices in the minds of the European scholars, who were all Christians. According to Christianity, the earth, the sun, the stars and everything was created in 4032 BCE (according to the Bible, and the year calculated by the great scientist Newton himself!). Naturally it was impossible for them to believe in a culture which went beyond the official date of the Lord's act.
For our studies, fixing the date of the Vedas is no issue at all. Suffice it to say that the Vedas were revealed to the sages, who passed on the wisdom to their disciples orally. Writing appeared in India around the 5th century BC in the form of the Brahmi script, but texts of the length of the Rig Veda were not written down until much later. Very few manuscripts (a maximum of 80) are available of this work, since most families carried the whole thing in their head. The oldest surviving manuscript dates to the 11th century.
Shruti: The sages took extraordinary precautions to preserve from loss or corruption the sacred text, which was being passed orally. The first step towards this was the formation of the Pada or 'word' text. In the Pada, all the words of the Samhita text are separated and given in their original form, before being shaped by the rules of Sandhi (conjunction). There are other rules too. The two methods of memorisation came to be known as: Samhitāpātha, which has all Sanskrit rules of sandhi applied and is the text used for recitation; and the Padapātha has each word isolated and is used for memorisation.
Padapātha was followed by other and more complicated methods of reciting the text, and by various works called Anukramanis or 'Indexes', which enumerate from the beginning to the end of the Rig Veda the number of stanzas contained in each hymn, the deities, and the metres of all the stanzas of the Rig Veda. It is due to these various precautions that the text of the Vedas have been handed down for thousands of years with a fidelity that finds no parallel in any other literature.
Since these were learnt by listening, these were called Shruti (heard). Other than the Vedas, every other literature which had spiritual connotation was termed Smriti. Throughout the history of India, Shrutis occupied the highest position in matters of respect and authority. In matters of chance conflict between the statements of the two, the words of the Shrutis were accepted as correct.
What is amazing about these works is that they were passed on from generation to generation for 8000 years or so, and were preserved in families all over India. When in the nineteenth century, Max Muller compiled the whole work for its first printing, the world was amazed to see that there was not a single alphabet's discrepancy between the manuscripts of any two families, though they lived separated by thousands of miles and had maintained them orally! This meant that even the most ancient manuscripts were no more authentic than what the Brahmins of the period were reciting from memory.
The world still wonders at the prodigious memory of the Brahmins who preserved a whole library of books in their head, generation after generation for thousands of years! This was the reason why the burning of libraries and the destruction of books in India by the invaders could not destroy the Vedas, and Hinduism was saved from annihilation.
Division of the Vedas
The tradition says that with the growing mass of Vedic literature, and the associated problem of keeping the whole thing in memory, it had become imperative to find ways and means of preserving the pure, and leaving out the unimportant. So, Vyasa (c. 1500 B.C.E), the great authority that he was of his time, divided the Vedas into four and gave the responsibility of preserving them to four of his great disciples.
He compiled the Rig Veda by collecting the rik mantras, which are a kind of chant set to fixed melodies which are used as prayers during yajnas (sacrifices). This was taught to Paila
The Sāma Veda is a collection of Sāma songs (a particular metre, which can be sung) from Rig Veda. The arrangement of its verses is with reference to their place and use in the Soma sacrifice. This Veda was handed over to Jaimini.
The Yajur Veda is composed of yajus (prose mantras), which are used in sacrifices. Most of its verses are taken from the Rig Veda, but it also contains some original prose mantras which could be used as sacrificial prayers. However, even the Riks in Yajurveda are recited as if they were prose passages. This Veda was taught to Vaishampayana.
Later on, there was a quarrel between Vaishampayana and his prodigious disciple Yajnavalkya. Following the quarrel, Yajnavalkya left his guru and performed the tapasya of the Sun God, who taught him the Veda afresh. This version of Yajurveda is called Shukla Yajur Veda, or Vājasaneyi Samhitā (from Vāj, which means energy, or strength).
The Atharva Veda consists of a special class of Vedic texts known as chhanda, which are comprised of Riks (5/6) and Yajus (1/6). These mantras deal mostly with magic, spells, incantations, kingly duties, and also spiritual truths. Sumanta was taught this work.
There are lots of repetitions of the mantras in these Vedas. For example, 140 Rig Veda mantras are repeated in the Rig Veda itself, 1800 Rig Veda mantras are repeated in Samaveda, 230 Atharva Veda mantras have been repeated in the Atharva Veda, 1 Yajurveda mantra has been repeated in Samaveda, and so on.
The division of the Vedas and the arrangement of the hymns followed precise rules and was fully scientific. To take one small example, in mandala II to VII of the Rig Veda Samhita, the arrangements of the hymns is by gods, with Agni at the head, followed by Indra; and in Mandala IX the arrangement is by metres. Within any series, the arrangement of the hymns is in descending order of the number of verses. Thus various rules were applied to make the arrangements systematic.
The four basic Vedas gradually branched off into many recension, or śākhās which were maintained by various teachers. Slowly these recension came to be known by the name of these teachers. Thus the Satapatha Brahmana of the Shukla Yajur Veda survives in Kānva and Mādhyandina recension, according to the two disciples of Yajnavalkya. These versions differ greatly in content, the number of verses, and the arrangement of the sections and chapters; the former has seventeen, whereas the latter has fourteen sections. Interestingly, the concluding portion of both recension is the Brihadaranyaka Upanishada; but that too differs in the two shakhas. Shankaracharya's commentary on this Upanishad is based on the Kānva recension.
Trayee: The three Vedas: The term trayī, or triad, often used to denote the Vedas, is collectively applied to Rig, Sam, and Yajur. The Atharva is excluded from the triad because it has no application to sacrificial actions. This has made many Western scholars conclude wrongly that Atharva Veda is a later composition. What they miss is the fact that one of the four priests officiating in all Vedic sacrifices had to be from Atharva Veda tradition.
Categories of Vedic texts
Vedic texts are traditionally categorised into four classes: the Samhitās (Mantra), Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads. Certain Sutra literature like Shrautasutras and the Grhyasutras are also classified as "Vedic".
A collection of Mantras is called a Samhita. At times, it is often the Samhita portion alone which is referred to as the Veda. For instance, the word ‘Rigveda’ may mean the Rigveda Samhita.
The Brāhmanas are prose texts that discuss the sacrificial rituals as well as comment on their meaning and some other connected themes. Each of the Brahmanas is associated with one of the Samhitas or its recension. The Brahmanas may either form separate texts or can be partly integrated into the text of the Samhitas. They may also include the Aranyakas and Upanishads.
The Āranyakas, or "forest texts", are the concluding part of the Brahmanas that contain discussions on upasana, the meditation on sacrificial symbols. However, there is often no clear-cut distinction between the Brahmanas proper and the Aranyakas, or between the Aranyakas and the Upanishads. The Brahmana text proper often merges into the Aranyakas and many old Upanishads are actually embedded in the Aranyakas.
The Upanishads are the philosophical works of the Vedas. They discuss the nature of the soul and the world, and conclude that "Atman is Brahman". These works are now known as Vedanta ("the end of the Vedas") and are the basis of the all the Vedantic schools of thought which developed in later times. For thousands of years now, the Upanishads have been the backbone of the Hindu religion.
Although the four sections (Samhita, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads) of the Vedas follow each other in succession, there are exceptions to this. For example, in Rigveda, Samaveda, Shukla Yajurveda and the Atharvaveda, there is a clear-cut separation of the Mantra collection from the Brahmana portions, but in Krishna Yajurveda, the Mantra and the Brahmana portions are intermixed. Thus, the Taittiriya ‘Samhita’, belonging to the Krishna Yajurveda, has Mantras interspersed with Brahmana portions. Again, Taittiriya ‘Brahmana’ has both Mantras and Brahmana passages mixed with each other. Similarly, Isa Upanishad comes at the end of the Samhita itself instead of the Aranyaka. Some Upanishads come at the end of the Brahmana and some others are not distinctly separate from their respective Aranayka. The list goes on.
Nevertheless, it is advisable to stick to this kind of division (which was advocated strongly by Max Muller) because it more or less follows the Indian tradition and conveys the historical sequence fairly accurately.
The Shrauta Sutras, regarded as belonging to the Smriti, are late Vedic in language and content. The composition of the Shrauta and Grhya Sutras marks the end of the Vedic period, and at the same time, the beginning of the Vedanga literature (the six auxiliary texts of the Vedas).
While production of Brahmanas and Aranyakas ceased with the end of the Vedic period, a large number of Upanishads were composed after the end of the Vedic period. But to make them authentic, the followers of these Upanishads claim them to be belonging to the lost portions of the Vedas.
It is believed by many scholars that the four kinds of Vedic texts: Samhita, Brahmana, Aranyaka and Upanishads were actually meant for people belonging to the four ashrama: Brahmacharya, Garhasthya, Vanaprastha, and Sannyasa respectively. Although the subject matters in the four divisions of the Vedas tend to overlap, the preponderance of prayer, rituals, contemplation, and knowledge respectively indicate that the view held by the scholars may be correct. However, there is no specific instruction regarding this.
The Vedic literature that has come down to us is attached to various traditional schools of recitation and ritual called the ‘shakhas’. All the four Vedas have more than one shakha at present, but in the past, the number of shakhas studied was many times more. According to Patanjali, there were 21 shakhas of Rigveda, 9 of Atharvaveda, 101 of Yajurveda (86 of Krishna Yajurveda and 15 of Shukla Yajurveda, according to later authorities) and a 1000 varieties of chanting of Samaveda. Maybe, the number 1000 for the Samaveda merely refers to ‘numerous’.
Two different Vedic shakhas might share one or more texts amongst themselves. Conversely, the distinction between two shakhas of the same Veda might result from the use of a different Samhita text, and/or a different Brahmana text, and/or different Kalpasutra text and so on. A group or a community of people who study a particular shakha in its entirety (Samhita + Brahmana + Aranyaka + Kalpasutra + any additional texts) and perform its ritual constitute a ‘charana’.
The various shakhas of the Vedas were, at one time, spread throughout South Asia. Their geographical location has not been constant down the ages, as Brahmins of a particular shakha migrated from one part of India to the other, or adopted another shakha for some reason.
Language of the Vedas
Early Vedic language was a pitch accent language in which the same alphabet was used in three different ways -- svarita, udatta, anudatta; the higher on scale, the normal, and the lower. This helped the Vedic sages to adjust the rhythm and melody of the hymns, and were considered extremely important during pronunciation.
The kind of Sanskrit used in the Vedas became obsolete long ago. Even the words and expressions used there are now difficult to understand. The meaning of the major portion of the Rig Veda is clear, but some hymns and a great many of the single stanzas are still obscure or unintelligible. This was already the case in the time of Yaska, the author of the Nirukta ( in which the Vedic grammar, etymology, and semantics are explained), the oldest available commentary (c. 700 B.C.) on about 600 detached stanzas of the Rig Veda.; for he quotes one of his predecessors, Kautsa, as saying that the Vedic hymns are obscure, difficult to understand, and mutually contradictory.
In the 13th century, the celebrated Vedic scholar Sayanacharya, wrote his famous commentaries on the Vedas. It is mainly with the help of these commentaries and the Nirukta that we are able to understand the contents of the Vedas.
Secular Matters in the Vedas
Secular hymns: Scholars believe that less than 20 hymns of the Rig Veda are secular in character. These have a special value since they throw some light on the earliest thought and civilisation of India. They talk of wedding, funeral rites, and one of them [R. X. 34] is the lamentations of a gambler who, unable to resist the fascination of the dice, deplores the ruin to which he has brought on his family.
However, traditionalists do not accept that there is anything secular in the Vedas; everything is subjected to religious norms, sometimes openly, sometimes in a couched language. For example, the hymn related to the lamentations of the gambler is actually a mantra used for driving away the evil spirit that causes the tendency to gamble. Similarly the hymns to the frog (VII.103) are used for getting rains when they fail to come on time.
Mythological dialogues: Besides several mythological dialogues in which the speakers are divine beings, there are two in which both agents are human. One is a somewhat obscure colloquy (R. X. 95) between the mortal Puraravas and the apsara Urvasi, who is on the point of forsaking him. The other one (R. X. 10) is the dialogue between Yama and Yami, the twin parents of the human race. This group of hymns has a special literary interest as the forerunner of the dramatic works of a later age.
Riddles: Two hymns of the Vedas consist of riddles. One of these (R. VIII. 29) describes various gods without mentioning their names.
There is an elaborate and obscure poem of fifty-two stanzas (R.I.164), in which a number of riddles, largely connected with the sun are propounded in mystical and symbolic language.
Geographical data: From the geographical names mentioned in the Rig Veda., it has been inferred that when the hymns were composed, the sages occupied the territory corresponding to Punjab of to-day. The interesting mention in the Vedas is of the river Saraswati, now extinct. Scholars were concluding many things from the misrepresentation of the fact, but recent developments have proved the existence of that river.
Historical data: According to some scholars, many hymns apparently show that the Indo-Aryans (the early race of the Vedic sages) were engaged in war with the local aborigines, and many victories over these foes have been mentioned. The conquered ones were called 'dasa', which also meant, 'of the dark colour. But, this theory is now disputed. 'Dasa' may mean anyone with evil tendencies (and were considered non-sacrificers and non-believers of law, and morality), and victory over them may mean the victory of the good over the bad.
Society: Incidental references scattered throughout the hymns supply a good deal of information about the social conditions of the time. The family, with the father at its head, was the basis of society, and women held a freer and more honoured position than in later times. Many women were sages, and contributed in the composition of the hymns.
Rig Veda (X.18.8) and Atharva Veda have hymns which talk of the wooing by a young man of the just widowed lady for remarriage. Also in Atharva Veda (9.5.27) there is a clear mention of widow remarriage.
Occupation: The caste system had already started growing in India, but had not yet become as rigid as it became later on. So, the distribution of occupations to people belonging to various guilds was already in practice. Also, the need to pass on the Samhita to a worthy disciple, necessitated the crystallisation of the caste system.
Some basic facts about the Vedas
||Krishna Yajur Veda
||Sukla Yajur Veda
|No. of original
|Taught to sages:
|Priest's job during Yajna
gods through hymns
|Performing the sacrifice||Performing the sacrifice||Singing the Sāmagāna||Overall supervision|
Characteristics of the Vedas
Veda is knowledge in entirety: There can be no end to knowledge since it is as infinite as God Himself, and is one with Him. This has been pointed out beautifully in the Bible, 'In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God' (John 1:1). Such being the nature of knowledge, it is ever present, and everywhere; since God is also ever present and is present everywhere. Depending on the state of one's mind, one can reach the various levels of the Eternal Knowledge, which we call art, science, philosophy, poetry, spiritual truths etc. However, the major portion of the sum total of knowledge has to remain unexplored because of the limitations of the mind.
Veda is the sum total of all knowledge: discovered and undiscovered, and The Vedas (the books) are the records of the truths discovered by the human mind. Thus in a general sense, Vedas are the orthodox religious and philosophical wisdom of India, and in its particular sense, these are the books in which the earliest wisdom is preserved. In this writing, the term Veda has been used to mean Knowledge, and the Vedas, to mean the entire Samhita, Brahman, Aranyaka, and the Upanishads.
Vedas are impersonal and eternal: For the Hindus, Vedas are eternal, without beginning and without human authorship. The reason is simple. Creation means appearance of objects. Each object has a name or word for it, and each word has for its counterpart an object. The object denoted by a word is not individual in nature, but is generic. For example, the word "cow" is generic, and it does not depend on the birth or death of any particular cow.
The universe and its objects have both name and form as the essential condition for their manifestation. The thought wave in us, or in God, first manifests as a word and only then it manifests as the more concrete form, the object. In every created thing, the idea is the essence, whereas the form is only the external shell, and the name acts as the intermediary. It is in this sense that the universe is said to be created/manifested from the Vedic words.
Objects being eternal (during creation), and the relationship between word and object being eternal, Vedas and Vedic words are eternal. When dissolution takes place, Vedas are merged with God. It is like the idea of "pot" staying merged with the potter, when there is no "pot" around.
Unlike the works of, say a great poet, Vedas are impersonal. It is wrong to think that Vedas are the works of sages. The rishis only discovered them. By means of good deeds (the priests) attained the capacity to understand the Vedas; (then) they found them dwelling in the Rishis (RV 10.71.3)..
Vedas have also been described as the inner life of man, and hence eternal. Making it more clear, Patanjali, the author of Yoga Sutras, says that the words of the Vedas are not eternal, but it is the knowledge (ideas) conveyed through them that is. In Sanskrit, the eternal Knowledge is also known as Sphota, and so the Vedas are also known as Shabda Brahman, i.e, God as word. It is because of this that the work is treated with the greatest reverence by the Hindus. In many Indian temples, they are even worshipped as a deity.
The Vedas command so much respect that every Hindu philosopher has to show that whatever they have to say, is in consonance with the Vedas. This is known as Shruti Praman. The systems of philosophy that refuses to accept the Vedas as the ultimate authority, are called nastika darshana (lit. atheistic philosophy).
Vedas are the oldest literature of the world: The oldest trace of literary sources from the ancient Greek world is the works of Homer (c. 700 BCE). From the Middle East, the oldest books are the Hebrew Bible. Parts of the Old Testament are much older, but they took shape only around 500 BCE. The Gathas of Zoroaster are also old (525 BCE), but they appeared later than the Vedas. The oldest book from the Chinese tradition is the I Ching whose core portions are believed to be of 1000 BCE or so.
Thus Samhitas (according to Max Muller, 1500 BCE), the collections of Vedic hymns, are the oldest literature of the world. It has been conclusively proved that no book, or literature as we understand the terms, was written anywhere near the period that these Samhitas were recorded. They are the earliest records of the aspirations of human minds, the questions that arose, and the possible answers that they comprehended to those great riddles.
Vedas are vast: It is believed that the total content of the Vedas was so vast that the Samhitas (texts) alone were enough to fill up a room. Patanjali mentions that the Sama Veda had one thousand branches, but they are all lost, and we are left with only three branches. Similar loss has occurred with each of the Vedas; the major portion of them has disappeared, and we have been left with only minor portion. As we shall see, the various portions were under the care of particular families; each branch put into the head of certain priests and kept alive by memory and when these families died out, or were killed under foreign persecution, or somehow became extinct; these portions were lost forever.
The whole corpus of Vedic mantras (only the Samhita) have around 20,400 hymns which run in around 90,000 padas (lines). This does not include the mantra, aranyak, and the upanishad portions of the Vedas. Compared to this, The Mahabharata, considered to be the largest work, has 1,00,000 shlokas (mostly of 2 lines each).
The Two approaches: The approach to the study of the Vedas is twofold: the Western, and the traditional Indian. F. Max Muller, the great Indologist, initiated a deep interest in the Western minds towards the Vedas. His contribution in the various fields of study of the Vedas has been simply immense, but his approach is constrained. Even Swami Vivekananda, who had met Max Muller, and admired him a lot, was not willing to accept everything that he had said about the Vedas, their date, or their interpretation.
The traditional Indian approach, on the other hand, has a rich heritage, and has an unbroken tradition of thousands of years which continues even now. Swami Vivekananda, despite his modern outlook, always held the orthodox Indian view when it came to the Vedas.
In this article, the approach is traditional. Whenever needed, help has been taken from the Western sources, but in case of any conflicting view, the traditional approach has been retained.
Religion in the Vedas
The Vedas are the first attempt in recorded history of mankind to express the Divine in words. So these sacred books present before us the various layers of understanding of spiritual matters. No wonder that these layers appear to many as confusing, and to some others as contradictory. But in reality these ideas are complimentary, and are more like stepping stones to the highest truth.
Vedas are about Nature worship, and not about ancestor worship: Scholars all over the world believe that religion began with the practice of ancestor worship. But this cannot be accepted as true in the case of the Vedas.
The Vedic religion began with nature worship, as we have seen earlier. Swami Vivekananda says, 'The human mind seems to struggle to get a peep behind the scenes. The dawn, the evening, the hurricane, the stupendous and gigantic forces of nature, its beauties, these have exercised the human mind, and it aspires to go beyond, to understand something about them. In the struggle they endow these phenomena with personal attributes, giving them souls and bodies, sometimes beautiful, sometimes transcendent. Every attempt ends by these phenomena becoming abstractions whether personalised or not.'
The gods and their life: The gods of the Vedas are largely personifications of the powers of nature. The hymns are mainly invocations of these gods, and are meant to accompany the offering that is made in the fire during a yajna. In the Rigveda, it is stated that there are 33 gods divided into three groups of eleven, distributed in earth, air, and heaven. Many other deities, such as the Maruts, are not included in this number. The gods were believed to have had a beginning, but were not projected as having come into being at the same time. Rigveda occasionally refers to earlier gods; and certain deities are described as the offspring of others.
The gods were conceived of as human in appearance. Their bodily parts are figurative illustrations of the phenomena of nature represented by them. For example, the arms of the Sun are his rays; and the tongue and limbs of Agni are the flames of fire. Some of the gods appear as warriors, especially Indra, while others like Agni and Brihaspati are priests. All of them drive through the air in cars, drawn chiefly by steeds, but sometimes by other animals. The favourite food of men is also that of the gods, which include non-vegetarian items. These are offered to them in the sacrifice, which is either conveyed to them in heaven by the god of fire, or they come physically to join the sacrifice. Their favourite drink is Soma rasa, the exhilarating juice of the Soma plant. The home of the gods is heaven, where cheered by draughts of Soma, they live a life of bliss.
Attributes of the gods: Being great and mighty, their most prominent attribute is power. They regulate the order of nature and also defeat creatures with evil tendencies (like asuras). They hold sway over all creatures; no one can thwart their ordinances or live beyond the time they appoint, and the fulfilment of desires of human beings is dependent on them. They are benevolent beings who bestow prosperity on mankind. They are described as 'true' and 'not deceitful', being friends and protectors of the honest and righteous, but punishing sin and guilt.
These gods have many features common in them, such as power, brilliance, benevolence, and wisdom. This identification was further increased by the practice of invoking deities in pairs (mentioned later)-- a practice that made many gods share a lot of common characteristics.
Classification of gods: The Vedic gods may be classified as deities of heaven, air, and earth. The celestial gods are Dyaus, Varuna, Mitra, Surya, Savitr, Pusan, the Asvins, and the goddesses Usas, and Ratri. The atmospheric gods are Indra, Rudra, the Maruts, Vayu, Parjanya, and the Waters. The terrestrial deities are Prthivi, Agni, and Soma. There are also certain rivers that are personified and invoked in the Rigveda, the most important of them is Saraswati.
The nature and character of the gods will be discussed in a latter section.
Abstract deities: One can clearly see the flow of worship from the concrete to the abstract, which also gave rise to abstract deities. For example, 'Dhatri' was an attribute of Indra, but later on became itself a deity who was responsible for the creation of the earth, sun and moon.
There are a few other abstract deities whose names were originally epithets of older gods, but later became epithets of the supreme God. For example, the epithet Visvakarman, 'all-creating', appears as the name of an independent deity. The concept of a Supreme God, as we understand it now, evolved a little later.
The second and smaller class of abstract deities are those who are the personification of abstract nouns. In this class are the Manyu, 'Wrath'; Sraddha, 'Faith'; Anumati, 'Favour (of the gods)', Nirrti, 'Disease', and others.
A purely abstract deity is Aditi, whose main characteristic is the power of delivering from the bonds of physical suffering and moral guilt. It was much later that she was personified as the mother of the small group of deities called Adityas, 'sons of Aditi'.
Goddesses: Only a few goddesses are mentioned in the Vedas, of whom, Usas and Sarasvati are the famous ones. Sarasvati is celebrated in two whole hymns (R. VI. 61, and R. VII. 95) as well as parts of others. There are others like Vac, 'Speech' (R.X. 71. 125), Prthivi, 'Earth', and Ratri, 'Night'. The wives of the great gods are insignificant, being mere names formed from those of their consorts, and altogether lacking in individuality.
Dual Divinities: A novel feature of the religion of the Rigveda is the invocation of pairs of deities whose names are combined as compounds. About two dozen such pairs are mentioned. The most famous of these pairs are Mitra-Varuna, and Dyava-prthivi.
Groups of Deities: There are also groups of gods like the Maruts (wind gods) who attend on Indra. The smaller group of the Adityas, of whom Varuna is the chief, is constantly mentioned in company with their mother Aditi. Their number is stated to be seven or, with the addition of Martanda, eight. A much less important group, without individual names or definite number, is that of the Vasus, whose leader is generally Indra.
Lesser Divinities: Besides the higher gods, there are a number of lesser divine powers, of which the most prominent are the Ribhus. They are three divinities with marvellous skills, which made them divine. There is also the mention of an apsara (celestial dancer), and a gandharva (celestial musician). In later literature, these two celestial beings became more numerous. There are also a few divinities who are guardians watching over the welfare of the homes and fields of human beings. For example, Sita, the 'Furrow', is invoked to give rich crops and blessings.
We also find the rivers, waters, and the mountains praised as divinities. Also deified are the sacrificial implements like mortar, pestle, sacrificial post etc.
The Demons: They are often mentioned of as two kinds. The higher and more powerful class are the aerial foes of the gods, called the asuras. Danu was the mother of these asuras, so they are also called dānava.
The second or lower class of demons are the terrestrial ones who are the enemies of men. Their generic name is Rakshasas. Another class of demons scarcely referred to in the Rigveda, but often mentioned in other Vedas, are the Pisachas, eaters of raw flesh and corpses.
The Pitris: The term fathers (pitris) in the Veda means the first ancestors, but the term is also used to generally mean the totality of the dead, whose last rites have been performed according to the Vedic injunctions. These pitris are immortal, equal to gods, their comrade-in-arms, and desirous of offerings by their descendent. Mantras used for making food offerings to them end with svadhā, whereas the offerings made to the gods, end with svāhā.
However, these pitris are the antithesis of gods, for, a person who gets attracted to pitriloka, cannot proceed further in his spiritual journey. This idea was first mentioned in the Brahmanas and was further developed in later literature. It is for this reason that eating of shrāddha food is discouraged for spiritual aspirants.
Rituals: When gods have appeared in a religion, can rituals be far behind? Once the Vedic sages came up with the concept of gods, the practice of making offerings to them became more and more pervasive. Soon there were rituals for the various hours of the day, for different special days, seasons, occasions and purpose. The Samhita and the Brahmana literature are mostly about these yajna.
The aspects of these rites and sacrifices will be discussed in a later section. Here we only mention that these sacrifices were of two types: domestic, grihya, and public, shrauta. The former did not require the presence of priests, whereas the latter required them.
Do's and don'ts: Being a guide to the path of pravritti (religion characterised by action), the Vedas discuss vidhi (injunctions) and nisedha (prohibitions) in the form of rituals, and a few codes of individual conduct. These were further classified as Nitya (daily rituals), naimittika (rituals performed on special occasions), kāmya (rituals related to some desired goal), prāyaschitta (penances), and nisiddha (prohibited actions).
The code givers of later times made a thorough job of this aspect of the Vedas, and tied the Hindu race in the rigours of rituals. This class of literature came to be known as Smritis.
Morality: The term in the Vedas for the cosmic moral laws, ritual, and order -- all in one-- is rtam, which is higher even to the gods.
Vrata (religious observances) are performed in accordance with rtam; dharma is the ritual support of vrata; shraddhā is the power that allows one to perform vrata; and tapas is that which is released from the body due to the efforts made during ascetic effort (during vrata, or other religious rites).
Atman: There can be no religious life unless one accepts the continuation of life in some form after death. One can be moral without this idea, but cannot be religious.
The whole of Vedic literature and the later scriptures of Indian origin accepted the presence of something permanent behind the impermanent body. This was called jiva (the soul). Why else would one worry about making sacrifices and leading a moral life?
With time, the idea of the self, transmigrating through heaven and hell, was perfected. But the sages soon realised that this was a naive concept. Finally the Upanishadic sages came up with the remarkable solution to the great riddle of existence. They proclaimed: Atman is Brahman -- the Individual is one with the Universal. This unique concept of Atman (different from jiva) differentiates Hinduism from all other religions. A thorough discussion on the nature of Atman can be found in the Upanishad section.
Karma and Rebirth: The concept of rebirth came pretty early on in the Vedas, but the term signifying samsāra and total migration was coined in the Katha Upanishad (Atharva Veda) only. The idea was the logical fall out of the law of cycle, according to which, a thing that has happened once, will happen again. Later on, this doctrine was to become the most powerful and profound pillar of Hindu philosophy.
Heaven and hell: The early ideas of the dead in the Rig Veda were that they went by "the path that their fathers had taken" and reached heaven, where they were awaited by pleasure, idleness and enjoyment. Those who practised asceticism, performed sacrifices, gave gifts, cultivated rtam (universal moral order), and studied the Vedas reached these sukrita loka (heaven).
The idea of hell developed later and gradually. The place was reserved for the enemies of the Vedas, impious, and greedy.
However, by the Upanishadic times, it was universally accepted that both these abodes of the dead were only temporary places of residence. After the exhaustion of its karma, the soul returned back to earth to continue with its journey towards liberation, mukti.
Mukti: The concept of mukti is the culmination of the great spiritual truth: Atman is Brahman. In the state of mukti, one transcends the states of duality like pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, birth and death etc. and experiences unalloyed, and infinite joy.
The sages also realised that the mukti (liberation) of a soul was not possible through any sacrifice, asceticism, moral observance, or any other action; it could be achieved only through the knowledge of the Self.
Philosophy of the Vedas
The discussions in the Vedas on a great many topics are so vast that it is impossible to organise them in a single work; and, even a whole life devoted to its study would be too short to fully understand and comprehend any aspect of the Vedas. The same is true of its philosophy-- they are vast, obscure, and very difficult to organise.
Creation: In the Vedas we come across various theories of creation, most popular of which are found in Purusa Suktam and Nasadiya Sukta. Whatever the theory, they all agree in the periodic nature of creation and dissolution.
In Purusa Sukta, creation is described as having come from God, the Lord, whose external form is one-fourth of the whole manifest universe.
The theory of creation in Nasadiya Sukta is more impersonal, according to which the creative power existed without vibration (Ānidavātam) after the dissolution of the previous cycle (kalpa). In that state, there is a kind of equilibrium, which is characterised by absence of any kind of motion. When the process of creation is about to begin, there appears mysteriously the power that disturbs this equilibrium, and the creative process begins.
The later philosophers and poets took up both these concepts to develop and consolidate their system of thought, the most famous of which are Samkhya, and the Bhagavata dhrama (detailed in the Puranas). The whole of Indian philosophy (excepting those who do not believe in any creation at all), accepts one of these two models and modifies them to suit its needs.
Vedic hymns are god-centred: Vedic hymns, as mentioned earlier, are mostly in praise of god, their life stories, mythologies connected with them, and the method by which oblations can be offered to them. In between these, one does get a peep at the higher philosophy of life. These occasional utterings were later developed fully in the Upanishads.
The idea of Infinity: Unlike the mythologies of other religions, the Vedas treat their gods as expressions of the Infinite. For example, Indra is described as having a body, and is also described as being omnipresent and omnipotent. Most of these gods are treated as beings in whom the whole universe exists, who can read every mind, and who are also the ruler of the universe.
It was through this idea of infinity that the sages came up with the idea of Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudha Vadanti--That which exists is One; sages call It by various names. To the sages, the Being perceived was one and the same, but the perceiver was different. And, that is how they sang out:
They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni,
And there is the Divine nobly winged Garutmān
To what is One, sages give many a name
And call It Agni, Yama, Matarisvān. (Rigveda. I. 164-46)
Beginning of Monotheism without the ideas of fear and sin: Monotheism (the doctrine of one God), came very early in the Vedas, but not in the form that the Semitic religions believe. As mentioned earlier, the gods were taken up one by one and made into the Supreme God. In the case of Varuna, the sages even came up with the idea of sin and fear (the essential component of all monotheistic religions), but these ideas were soon given up as demeaning. Later, the sages were to give up the very idea of monotheism itself, realising that it was too inadequate to explain the world.
The answer to mysteries lies within: The Vedas teach both pravritti (prohibitions and injunctions in the life of a householder), and Nivritii (giving up of all worldly enjoyments) as twin spiritual ideals.
The sages realised that by nature the senses are limited, and are capable of getting only the external sense data. This meant that they were not in a position to grasp the supreme self, which is infinite, and behind the world of phenomena. That was when the sages declared that all philosophical search for spirituality had to be internal and not external.
The reality of the external world is obvious to every human being. This obvious presence of the external world logically suggests the presence of a Creator God. However, the presence of this kind of God always poses serious logical fallacies, and instead of remaining infinite, He is reduced to being finite. It is at this point that true spirituality is born. True spirituality preaches that God is beyond and untouched by Creation, and search for Him must be made within one's own heart.
Vedas culminated into Vedanta: The sages reached those heights of philosophy where even the most daring would be frightened. How?
The Vedas were never monotheistic. So in the ultimate analysis, the sages realised that 'behind the unreal, God alone was Real'. This meant that everything other than God, was unreal. Even the rituals, scriptures, and injunctions were equally unreal when it came to the ultimate realisation. So, in the last leg of the spiritual journey, a person had to give up even those supports with the help of which he had made his spiritual journey so far. At that final stage, he had to depend only on his purified mind for the realisation of his self. The Vedas declare, 'tatra ved aveda bhavati' – in that state the Vedas become aveda, of no significance. This indeed is the ultimate in boldness for any spiritual seeker, for, no Christian, or a Muslim can ever think of outgrowing his scripture.
This inward turning gave birth to real philosophy, which came to be known as Vedanta. Swami Vivekananda says, 'And they found out step by step that that which is external is but a dull reflection at best of that which is inside. ... He is not a God outside, but He is inside; and they took Him from there into their own hearts. Here He is, in the heart of man, the Soul of our souls, the Reality in us.'
Post Vedic Influence
Philosophy: Philosophies and sects that developed in the Indian subcontinent have taken differing positions on the Vedas. Schools of Indian philosophy which cite the Vedas as their authority are classified as āstika, "orthodox". The other one is nāstika, "heterodox" or "non-Vedic" schools, which comprise of Chārvāka (materialism), Buddhism and Jainism. So, a philosophy can be called "Hindu" only if it accepts the authority of the Vedas as supreme.
Religion: The Vedas contain all the four essential pillars of religion: ritual, mythology, philosophy, and conduct. But they were not fully evolved. It was for the sages of later period to develop each of these four aspects separately as. Rituals were taken up by Tantra, mythology was taken up by the Puranas, philosophy evolved into Upanishads, and code of conduct evolved into Smritis.
Poetry: The Vedic poetry evolved into The Ramayana, and The Mahabharata, which also came to be known as epics. Vedic poetry had a tremendous impact on the Indian psyche, and it influenced nearly every poet of later times.
Society: The society of the Vedic period had started organising itself in varna and ashrama (the caste, and the four stages). Although these were not as rigid as they were in later times, they were also not as fluid as one might suppose. The norms that were set by the Vedic sages, and the practises that were advocated by them, continue to be in vogue even today. Only necessary additions and corrections, considered useful for the contemporary society, have been made over the years.
Contents of the Vedas
The hymns of the Rig Veda are considered the oldest and most important of the Vedas. Atharva Veda and Yajurveda draw heavily from it, and nearly the whole of Samaveda is a collection of hymns from this sacred book.
The Rig Veda has 1028 hymns (suktas) divided into ten mandalas (books). The shortest sukta (hymn) has 1 verse, whereas the longest has 58 verses. The total number of verses in it is 10,462. Each sukta consists of a number of verses, which are called richā. Here it may be mentioned that the verses of the Vedas are in general called mantra (as opposed to shloka¸ of other works), and also have specific names like rik, or, richā .
The hymns addressed to various divinities vary in frequency. The maximum number of hymns, 250, are addressed to Indra, followed by Agni with 200. These hymns were used, and are still used as prayers during a sacrifice (yajna). The priest who recited these verses was known as hotr.
The samhita is preserved in two shakha (recension): Śākala and Bāskala, which are practically identical. The slight difference is in the Brāhmana associated with them. However, it is the Sakala tradition (Shakalya was the sage) which survived the ravages of time, and reached us.
The division of the Vedas and the arrangement of the hymns follow precise rules. In mandala II to VII, hymns to Agni comes in the beginning, and is then followed by those to Indra. The hymns contained in each of these mandalas were composed by the poets of same family, and were handed down from generation to generation. The poets in the order of books are: Gritsamada, Vishwamitra, Vamadeva, Atri, Bharadwaja, and Vasistha.
Within any series, the arrangement of the hymns is in descending order of the number of verses. When several hymns have the same number of verses, they are arranged in descending order of the length of the metre, and so forth.
This precise arrangement of verses is a proof that Vyasa (or someone like him) must have organised the whole thing systematically much after they were composed.
Book I, and VIII are of mixed nature, but have similarity in the arrangement of the hymns.
Book IX is distinguished from the rest of the Rig Veda in the sense that all its hymns are addressed to one and the same deity, Soma, (the other books do not contain a single Soma hymn). Also, its grouping is based not on authorship, but on metres used. Many scholars believe that Book IX was deliberately taken out of other books, so that it could be used easily for Soma sacrifice.
The Xth book has the same number of verses as the Ist book, and was handled by the sages of different families. In contrast, each one of books II – VII was handled by a particular family. In spite of this book's generally more modern character, it contains hymns quite as old and poetic as the average of those in other books. The grammatical forms and words are quite obsolete, and yet new words and meanings seem to be emerging from them. All these factors combine to confuse the scholars regarding its possible date of composition, and also about its correct place in the series of the ten books.
Content of Rig Veda: The chief gods of the Rig Veda are Indra, a heroic god who is praised for having slain his enemy Vrtra; Agni, the sacrificial fire; and Soma, the sacred potion. Other prominent gods are Mitra-Varuna and Ushas (the dawn). Also invoked are Savitr, Vishnu, Rudra, Pushan, Brihaspati, Brahmanaspati, as well as deified natural phenomena such as Dyaus Pita (the sky), Prithivi (the earth), Surya (the sun), Vayu (the wind), Apas (the waters), Parjanya (the rain), Vac (the word), many rivers (notably the Sapta Sindhu, and the Sarasvati River). Groups of deities are the Ashvins, the Maruts, the Adityas, the Ribhus, the Vishvadevas. It contains many other minor gods, persons, concepts, phenomena and items, and sketchy references to historical events.
According to the Śatapatha Brāhmana, the number of syllables in the Rig Veda is 432,000, equalling the number of muhurtas in forty years (30 muhurtas make 1 day). Interestingly, that is also the number of years that one kalpa (the life span of Brahma, the Creator) has, i.e., 4,320,000,000 years.
This stresses the underlying philosophy of the Vedic books that there is a strong connection between the astronomical, the physiological, and the spiritual.
In sanctity, the Sāma Veda ranks next to the Rig Veda. Its Samhita consists of hymns, portions of hymns, and detached verses, taken mostly from the Rig Veda. These were transposed and re-arranged to suit the religious ceremonies in which they were to be employed. Of the 1875 hymns that it contains, most are from the eighth and ninth mandala of the Rig Veda, and were sung by the Udgatri priests during the Soma sacrifices.
The animal sacrifices did not use Sāma chants, but these chants were extensively used in agricultural rites and in soma rituals. The hymns are addressed to Indra, Agni, and Soma.
The Sāmaveda is considered to be the origin of Indian music. Its melodies use the seven svaras or notes. Unfortunately the melodies belonging to the samhita age have not been preserved, and what we have now is only gāna of late origin.
In these compiled hymns of the Samaveda, there are frequent variations from the text of the Rig Veda. While singing, the verses are altered further by prolongation, repetition, insertion of syllables, various modulations, rests, and other modifications.
The tradition says: rgvih stuvanti, yajurbhhih yajanti -- rik mantras are for prayer, and Yajus are for oblation. Consequently the samhitā of this Veda contains mantras which are used in yajna. However, most of these mantras are a collection from Rigveda.
There are two versions of the samhitās of the Yajurveda: Shukla (white) and Krishna (black). Both contain verses necessary for rituals, but Krishna Yajurveda includes the Brahmana prose commentary within the samhita, while the Shukla Yajurveda contains the Brahmana as separate texts. However, both contain the same number of verses, 1975. Also, the priest associated with both of them is known as Adhvaryu. The job of these priest is to pour oblation in the sacrificial fire during a yajna.
Shukla Yajurveda: There are two (nearly identical) shakhas of the Shukla Yajurveda: Madhyandiniya, and Kanva. Both are known as Vajasaneyi Samhita. The former is popular in North India, whereas the latter is more popular in the South. It has forty adhyaya (sections), and it contains the hymns used in various yajnas like, New and Full Moon sacrifices, Agnihotra , Soma yajna , Vajapeya and Rajasuya (two variants of the Soma sacrifice), construction of yajnavedi, the altars and hearths, Sautramani (it was originally a ritual to counteract the effects of excessive Soma-drinking), Ashvamedha, Purushamedha, Sarvamedha, Pitriyajna, and Pravargya.
The last, 40th chapter, is Isa Upanishad, which is an exception to the character of the work.
Krishna Yajurveda: There are four recension of the Krishna ("black" or "dark") Yajurveda: Taittirīya samhita, Maitrayani samhita, Kathaka samhita, and Kapisthala katha samhita. Each of these recension has a Brahmana associated with it, and some of them also have Aranyakas, Upanishads Shrautasutras, and Grihyasutras.
The best known of these recensions is the Taittiriya, which consists of seven books or kandas, divided in chapters or prapathaka. These are further subdivided into individual hymns. Some of these mantras have gained particular eminence in Hinduism. The most important of these mantras is the Gaytri mantra. Viswamitra is credited as the seer of this most famous mantra of Hinduism.
With its 5987 hymns collected in 20 kandas and 731 sections, the Atharva Veda is much longer than the Sama and Yajur, and is nearly half the size of Rig Veda.
Unlike the other Vedas, it contains a lot of prose, which are all original composition. However, most of its poetic hymns come from the Rig Veda (about one-seventh of the whole Atharva Veda). This Veda comes in two shakha: Shaunaka and Pippalada.
During a sacrifice, the priest belonging to Atharva Veda is known as Brahma. His duty is to ensure perfection in the yajna, and also to check the correctness of the chanting of the hymns. It was the normal practise of Brahma to collect half of the offerings made during the sacrifice.
The mantras of Atharva Veda were not directly used in any sacrifice, so the other three Vedas came to be known as trayee. Due to this many scholars (European) wrongly concluded that Atharva Veda was a later creation. The fact is that the hymns of this Veda belong to a particular class of metre, called chhanda, and are used primarily as magical spells and incantations. Considering the strong orthodox nature of the Brahmins (who would have never allowed a supervisor from an inferior background, and who also took away half of the total offerings!), the overall content of Atharva Veda, it is naive to conclude that Atharva Veda was a later addition.
Some of the charms described in Atharva Veda are for fever, cough, jaundice, bodily pain, hereditary diseases, leprosy, worms in children, poison, snake bite, mania etc. They also contain charms to grow long hair, for a healthy life, prosperity, for getting a bride, for getting a son, killing one's enemy etc. The book also contains prayers of penances for various sins.
Interestingly, Atharva Veda has no Aranyaka attached to it.
Shabda Brahman: The Fountainhead of Creation
Hindus believe that the Vedas are apaurusheya, i.e., 'not created by any person'; sage or scholar. It is their belief that God Himself breathed out the Vedas before the creation of the universe. In turn, when Brahma began to create, He made use of Veda and started the new cycle of creation in the same order and style as it existed in the previous cycle.
The process of creation and its relation to the Vedas has been beautifully explained by Swami Vivekananda in his various speeches, dialogues and writings. Here is mentioned his exposition in brief.
'A word is Veda, if I can pronounce it rightly. Then it will immediately produce the [desired] effect. This mass of Vedas eternally exists and all the world is the manifestation of this mass of words. Then when the cycle ends, all this manifestation of energy becomes finer and finer, becomes only words, then thought. In the next cycle, first the thought changes into words and then out of those words [the whole universe] is produced. If there is something here that is not in the Vedas, that is your delusion. It does not exist.
'Veda means the sum total of eternal truths; the Vedic Rishis experienced those truths; they can be experienced only by seers of the supersensuous and not by common men like us. That is why in the Vedas the term Rishi means "the seer of the truth of the Mantras"....Veda is of the nature of Shabda or of idea. It is but the sum total of ideas. Shabda, according to the old Vedic meaning of the term, is the subtle idea, which reveals itself by taking the gross form later on. So owing to the dissolution of the creation the subtle seeds of the future creation become involved in the Veda. Accordingly, in the Puranas you find that during the first Divine Incarnation, the Minavatara, the Veda is first made manifest. The Vedas having been first revealed in this Incarnation, the other creative manifestations followed. Or in other words, all the created objects began to take concrete shape out of the Shabdas or ideas in the Veda. For in Shabda or idea, all gross objects have their subtle forms. Creation had proceeded in the same way in all previous cycles or Kalpas. This you find in the Sandhya Mantra of the Vedas: " The Creator projected the sun, the moon, the earth, the atmosphere, the heaven, and the upper spheres in the same manner and process as in previous cycles."
'...Supposing this jug breaks into pieces; does the idea of a jug become null and void? No. Because, the jug is the gross effect, while the idea, "jug", is the subtle state of the Shabda-state of the jug. In the same way, the Shabda-state of every object is its subtle state, and the things we see, hear, touch, or perceive in any manner are the gross manifestations of entities in the subtle or Shabda state. Just as we may speak of the effect and its cause. Even when the whole creation is annihilated, the Shabda, as the consciousness of the universe or the subtle reality of all concrete things, exists in Brahman as the cause. At the point of creative manifestation, this sum total of causal entities vibrates into activity, as it were, and as being the sonant, material substance of it all, the eternal, primal sound of "Om" continues to come out of itself. And then from the causal totality comes out first the subtle image or Shabda-form of each particular thing and then its gross manifestation. Now that causal Shabda, or word-consciousness, is Brahman, and it is the Veda.
'... even if all the jugs in the universe were to be destroyed, the idea or Shabda, "jug", would still exist. So if the universe be destroyed--I mean if all the things making up the universe be smashed to atoms--why should not the ideas or Shabdas, representing all of them in consciousness, be still existing? And why cannot a second creation be supposed to come out of them in time?
'... nothing is produced if you or I cry out like that; but a jug must be revealed if the idea of it rises in Brahman which is perfect in Its creative determinations. When we see even those established in the practice of religion (Sadhakas) bring about by will-power things otherwise impossible to happen, what to speak of Brahman with perfect creativeness of will? At the point of creation Brahman becomes manifest as Shabda (Idea), and then assumes the form of "Nada" or "Om". At the next stage, the particular Shabdas or ideas, that variously existed in former cycles, such as Bhuh, Bhuvah, Svah, cow, man, etc., begin to come out of the "Om". As soon as these ideas appear in Brahman endowed with perfect will, the corresponding concrete things also appear, and gradually the diversified universe becomes manifest."
To highlight this power of the Vedic mantras to create anything, Valmiki in Ramayana (chapter 91), describes how Bharadwaja created quality food, dancing girls and other objects of enjoyment for the army of king Bharata when he was on his way to meet Sri Rama in exile.
The concept that ideas, words and the corresponding objects are related, is one of the essential pillars of Hinduism. This concept was later taken up by the Vaishnavas who proclaimed that the name and the named object are same. Sri Ramakrishna used to quite often mention this fact of God and His name being the same.
Creation according to two hymns of the Vedas
Purusha Suktam (RV X.90) and Nasadiya Suktam (RV X.129) describe the process of creation in two different ways. Purusha Suktam describes creation as having come out from, and by Purusha (God).
"The universes, past, present and future, are but manifestations of the Supreme Lord who expands Himself as the Purusa. He is the Lord of immortality but has manifest Himself as the Purusa in the universe so that the jivas may enjoy material fruits. '.
"The past, present and future universes are manifestations of the Lord’s powers, but the Lord Himself is much greater. The material creation is but one quarter portion, and the eternal nature in the spiritual sky exists in three quarters portion.
"The three quarters portion of the Lord transcended the material portion. The Lord in the one quarter portion manifested the universe again, as He had done repeatedly before. The Lord of the one quarter portion began the work of creation, by going all around, taking the form of all animate and inanimate objects." (RV X.90.2-4)
This concept was taken up by the later philosophers to describe how God creates the universe.
Nasadiya Suktam begins with the concept of "pure existence" described as "in the beginning there was neither nothingness (i.e. creation did not come out of vacuum), nor was there any existence (i.e. there was nothing that could be known through senses or the mind)". The first step of creation was when "desire descended on it. That was the primal seed, born of the mind."
It was from this point that the subtle became gross, and then acted on itself. Thus Prana (the cosmic energy) hammered at Akasha (the finest first particles) to produce gross matter which ultimately to become the universe.
Swami Vivekananda loved this idea of creation so much that he translated the hymn into Sanskrit, and used its various concepts and imagery freely in his talks. One of the listeners of his talks was Mr Nicholas Tesla, who was a highly respected scientist and an electrical engineer of his time. Swamiji wrote about him, 'Mr. Tesla was charmed to hear about the Vedantic Prana and Akasha and the Kalpas, which according to him are the only theories modern science can entertain. Now both Akasha and Prana again are produced from the cosmic Mahat, the Universal Mind, the Brahma or Ishvara.'
Interestingly, Nasadiya Suktam throws up its hands in despair at the perplexity of creation and concludes with:
But, after all, who knows, and who can say
Whence it all came, and how creation happened?
The gods themselves are later than creation,
So who knows truly whence it has arisen?
This inexplicability of creation through inferential knowledge is fundamental in Hinduism.
The Vedas set the boundary for Hinduism. Every new spiritual thought of the Hindus must have the sanction of the Vedas. Fortunately, they give tremendous freedom and flexibility to its adherents.
They contain everything that is essential for a man to live a meaningful, dignified and worthy life. They encourage the adherents to earn well and live well, and also goad them towards a highly moral life. They teach the ways and means to achieve anything that a person may be craving for, and they also lead the aspirants toward the Supreme Reality.
In these words of God, no one is left out. There is something for everybody. Even people with strong passions and desires find a way to have their wishes fulfilled through various sacrifices. This is how such people are slowly led towards a higher life.
Above all, the Vedas are unique in the world of scriptures, since they alone proclaim that one has to outgrow everything, including the Vedas themselves, to attain the Supreme.