Although Hinduism famously has no founder and is believed to have grown organically from a collective consciousness and a way of life, all Hindu beliefs and practices find their source in the Vedas. Even today Vedas are widely accepted as the final authority on Hinduism and have greatly influenced Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism.
The word ‘Veda’ comes from the root ‘vid’,to know. Veda means knowledge.
There are two kinds of knowledge. Shruti, that which is heard or revealed and Smriti, that which is remembered.
The Vedas are Shruti and other scriptures like the Puranas and the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana are Smriti.
Hindus believe the Vedas are eternal truths revealed to great rishis of ancient times.The word ‘rishi’ means a ‘seer’ and comes from the root, dris which means to see. A rishi is a seer of mantra or thought. The thought already exists as eternal Truth. A rishi only discovers it spiritually.
In that sense the Vedas are eternal. The books may be destroyed but the knowledge cannot be destroyed.
As for the actual written texts, scholars believe that they were written down some 2,500 years ago, though the tradition often dates them to the beginning of Kali-yuga (circa 3000 BCE). The following is an overview of the four Vedas.
The most important and oldest of the Vedas. It is divided into ten books (called mandalas) and has 1028 hymns in praise of various deities. These include Indra, Agni, Vishnu, Rudra, Varuna, and other early or “Vedic gods.” It also contains the famous Gayatri mantra and the prayer called the Purusha Shukta (the story of Primal Man).
A priestly handbook for use in the performance of yajnas (sacrifices) It is divided into two sections, the earlier “black” and the more recent “white.”
This veda is purely a collection of melodies,‘saman’ to be sung during worship. The hymns in the Sama Veda, used as musical notes, were almost completely drawn from the Rig Veda and have no distinctive lesson of their own. Hence it is considered as a reduced version of the Rig Veda.
Contains hymns, mantras and incantations.
Within each of the four books there are four types of composition, or divisions, as shown below.
The Samhitas – literally “collections,” in this case of hymns and mantras. They form the Veda proper.
The Brahmanas – prose manuals of ritual and prayer for the guiding priests. They tend to explain the Samhitas. They also contain early versions of some stories.
The Aranyakas – literally “forest books” for hermits and saints. They are philosophical treatises.
The Upanishads – books of philosophy, also called “Vedanta,” the end or conclusion of the Vedas.
There are also two important bodies of supplementary literature, related closely to the Vedas, Vedangas and Upvedas.
The Vedangas (limbs of the Vedas), expound the sciences required to understand and apply the Vedas.
The Upavedas (usually considered smriti) deal with the four traditional arts and sciences.
The Six Vedangas are:
Kalpa (ritual detail)
The Four Upavedas explain arts and sciences,
Gandharva-veda (music and dance)
(Based on Swami Sivananda’s book Bliss Divine and the ISKON Heart of Hinduism website.)
In the next post we’ll look at the Upanishads, the sublime essence of the Vedas.