Vedas are the oldest sacred books of Hinduism. Indian literature begins with the Vedas. They were probably composed beginning about 1400 B.C. The Vedas were a series of sacred texts used in religious rituals and sacrifices and composed in an early form of Sanskrit (Vedic Sanskrit). Even in modern times, the Vedas are regarded as the cornerstone of Hinduism. The Vedas include the basis of the doctrines concerning Hindu divinities. They also present philosophical ideas about the nature of Brahman, Hinduism's supreme divine being. The word Veda comes from the root 'Vid' which means knowledge.
There are four Vedas. The oldest Vedic texts are those of the Rig Veda, dating from about the 1300's B.C. These are mostly mythical poems to the great Vedic gods--Indra the Warrior, Agni the god of fire, Surya the sun god, and Varuna the upholder of heaven and earth. The later books of the Vedas are the Yajur Veda (mainly formulas for sacrifice), Sama Veda (poetry from the Rig Veda adapted to melodies as priestly chants), and Atharva Veda (verses dealing with peace and prosperity and the daily life of human society). The Vedas are also called Samhitas. They are collections of chiefly verse texts that provided the liturgies of the holiest rites of the early religion. Attached to the Vedas are two important later texts. The Brahmanas are long prose essays that explain the mythological and theological significance of the rites. After the Brahmanas came highly speculative works called the Upanishads. The inward reflection of the Upanishads and their search for unity in existence gave rise to the development of Indian philosophy.
Hindu law permitted only certain people to hear the Vedas recited, and so the works became surrounded by mystery. Nevertheless, ideas presented in the Vedas spread throughout Indian culture.
Rig Veda Being the oldest of the Vedic literature, it is most important because it is the valuable record of ancient India. It has ten books or mandalas containing 1028 hymns by the successive generations of Rishis (sages). As the Aryans had no script of their own, the hymns of the Rig Veda were memorized and passed on orally from one generation to the other before being recorded in written form at a much later stage. It has many mantras like the Gayatri mantras which is resided by the Hindus in their houses. It is said to represent the voice of Gods. Many hymns were written in the praise of different Gods of nature. The Rig-Veda gives us information not only on the early Vedic religion and their Gods but also on the social condition of those days. It points to settled people, and organized society and full grown civilization.
Sam Veda It mainly contains verses taken from Rig-Veda with reference to Soma sacrifices. Its hymns are set to music. The Sam Veda has hymns meant for the priest only who sang them at the time of the performance of Yajnas. It tells us much about the music of ancient Aryans.
Yajur Veda It contain hymns concerning sacrifices. The study of this Veda shows that the Aryans had acquired knowledge of sacrifices by that time. It depicts changes in social and religious conditions which had come in the society from the period of Rig-Veda. The Yajur Veda has two parts - the white and the black. The former consists of hymns and latter contains commentaries.
Atharva Veda It contains mantras on three topics - gnana (Knowledge), Karma (deeds), and Upasana (invocation). It is important from the point of view of knowing the history of science in India. It is also collection of spells and charms which are popular among the people. This Veda throws light on the beliefs of the people some of the Mantras are meant to bring success in life, while some where used to ward off evil spirits responsible for disease and sufferings. This Veda believed to be a later composition and contains some non-Aryan material. It seems to have been composed when a synthesis of Aryan and non-Aryan cultures took place.
Each of the four Vedas has the following three parts;
Samhitas - The Samhitas are in verse form and they constitute the hymn part of the Vedas.
Brahmanas - These are commentaries on the Vedic mantras. They are written in prose and deal mainly with rituals connected with sacrifices. They are written in easy prose for the benefit of common people. The difficult concepts of the Vedic text have been illustrated through stories to make them easy to understand. The Rig Vedas has two Brahmanas.
Aranyakas - Are the concluding parts of the Brahmanas. Aranyakas mean 'forest books'. They do not deal with rituals but are concerned with mysticism and philosophy. They lay more stress on knowledge of God, soul, world and man.
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