By Jayaram V
The Vedas are elaborate texts containing thousands of hymns.
They are believed to be divine revelations and not manmade (apaurusheya).
They said to exist eternally in the highest heaven, revealed to
the human beings for their welfare and to facilitate the nurturing
of gods who cannot make food of their own. The sacrifices are the
means by which the order and regularity of creation can be maintained
and social order can be continued. Hence the Vedas are imperative
for the welfare of the world. The Vedas are divided into four parts:
1. The Samhitas
2. The Brahmanas
3. The Aranyakas
4. The Upanishads
Their significance in the religious and spiritual practices of
Hinduism and Hindu philosophy is briefly explained below.
These are the main textual portions of the Vedas containing the
hymns or the suktas. The Rigveda Samhita contains 1017 or 1028 suktas
or hymns, divided into ten divisions or mandalas. Each Mandala correspond
with the name of a Rishi who was probably instrumental in its creation.
These divisions however do not correspond with the order in which
they were created. For example the first and the tenth Mandalas
are considered to be latter day compositions compared to the rest.
The Samaveda Samhita is known as the Book of Chants. It contains
1549 (or according to some 1810) hymns which are meant to be sung
by a special class of priests known as Udgatris at the time of soma
sacrifice. Most of the hymns in this Samhita are copied verbatim
from the Rigveda and the remaining few from other existing sources.
The hymns contained in this Samhita are more lyrical in nature and
suggest to the early musical traditions of the Vedic people.
The Yajurveda Samhita is known as the Book of the Yajus (sacrificial
prayers). The mantras are meant to be chanted by a special class
of priests called Adhavaryus during sacrificial ceremonies. The
Samhita is divided into Black Yajurveda, which is a disorderly mixture
of prose and chants, and the White (Vajasaneyi) Yajurveda, which
consists of only chants and contributed extensively by sage Yajnavalkya.
The Black Yajurveda is considered to be older of the two and composed
around 1200 BC.
For a long time the Atharvaveda was not considered a Veda at
all. Kautilya's Arthashastra, for example, mentions only the first
three. Atharvaveda Samhita contains mostly magical chants which
alludes to the growing influence of the native kings over the Aryan
traditions. The Samhita is divided into 20 books and about 75 hymns
which are essentially spells, marriage and burial songs and curses.
The Atharvaveda Samhita is the oldest document of the Indian medicine
and magical formulas to deal with disease and sickness. The priests
who chanted these hymns were prized by the royalty for their special
ability to cure diseases and drive away the evils spirits or curse
These are explanatory books or guide books providing information
about the Samhitas and the procedures to observe in the performance
of rituals. They serve as reference books for the Brahman priests
to understand the purport of the Samhitas. For the practicing Brahmanas,
they are important because they explain the meaning of the hymns
and the procedures to be followed to perform various types of sacrifices.
For ordinary people many procedures followed in the Vedic rituals
do not make sense. The Brahmanas provide justification or rationale
for the actions performed during each sacrifice. Each Veda (Samhita)
has one or more Brahmanas.
The Rigveda has two Brahmanas, Kaushitaki Brahmana and
Aitareya Brahmana. The Samaveda has three Brahmanas, Tandya-maha
Brahmana, Sadavinsa Brahmana and Jaiminiya Brahmana. These Brahmanas
contain information about the then existing native people of India
and the methods by which they should be admitted into the Aryan
fold. The Satapatha Brahmana belongs to the Vajsaneya or White Yajurveda
and believed to be composed by Yajnavalkya. The Satapatha Brahmana
is the most important of all the Brahmanas. It's title literally
means the Brahmana of 100 paths. The Brahmana contains information
about the important sacrificial ceremonies of the Vedic kings such
as the Asvamedha and Rajasuya yajnas. It also deals with the relationship
between the priests and the rulers. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
is attached to this Brahmana.
These are forest books, which according to some were originally
part of the Brahmanas and later were recognized as a separate section.
Some of the Aranyakas also form part of the Upanishads, as in case
of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. They are provide explanatory notes
about the external and internal aspects of certain esoteric Vedic
rituals, meant especially for those who have an advanced knowledge
of the sacrificial rituals. In the Aranyakas one may discern the
gradual shift in emphasis from the ritual aspects of the religion
emphasized in the Samhitas to the spiritual and philosophical aspects
presented in the Upanishads. The knowledge contained in the Aranyakas
was also meant originally for those who retired from active householder's
duty and entered into ascetic mode of living (vanaprastha). Some
of the information in them pertain to advanced aspects of sacrificial
rituals that are not usually performed in public. As the name suggests,
the Aranyakas were meant for people who lived in forests and performed
Vedic sacrifices for the welfare of the world or the benefit of
The Upanishads constitutes the end part of the Vedas (Vedanta).
They deal with philosophical and mystical aspects of Vedas and deal
with subjects like Brahman, atman, nature of reality, the meaning
of true knowledge, the state of oneness, the four states of consciousness,
the constitution of the worlds, the nature of highest reality, the
nature of true sacrifice and so on. They contain disjointed and
loosely organized pieces of metaphysical and speculative truths
about Brahman and Atman. Some of them are mere expositions, some
are composed in narrative form and some in the form of conversations.
Each Vedas has its own set of Upanishads. Some of the Upanishads
are very ancient, while some are more recent. The Upanishads lack
coherent approach to spiritual subjects, but contain profound philosophy
regarding existence, bondage and liberation. Their number is uncertain.
However, about 12-15 are considered very important. The Chandogya
and Brihadaranyaka Upanishads constitute the largest of the Upanishads
and account for more than 60% of the Upanishadic knowledge. They
are also two of the oldest Upanishads. While the Upanishads are
predominantly Brahmanical, extolling the supremacy of Brahman and
Atman, some of them represent the sectarian philosophies of Vaishnavism
and Saivism. There are also subject specific Upanishads such as
the Yoga Upanishads.
Significance of the Vedas
Most of the hymns in the Vedas do not make sense today because
of the changes that took place in the Vedic religion in the last
3000 years. Many gods of the old Vedic religion have vanished or
yielded place to new gods of the subcontinent. It was the price
the priests of the later Vedic period had to pay to withstand the
popularity of the non Vedic traditions and continue their own by
securing the support of the kings and the nobility with some compromises
here and there. We have no idea how much of the Vedas were compromised
and how much of it was kept intact. We know for sure that many of
the ancient gods were sacrificed to keep the tradition alive and
the priests in power.
Whatever might be the truth, the Vedas constitute the base as
well as the hub of the Hindu tradition. For centuries they served
as the source book of standards (pramana) to test the validity of
a philosophical statements. If a truth was not supported by the
Vedas it was not accepted as a philosophical truth. Those who disregarded
this principle were considered as heretics and outside the fold
of Hinduism. Even today many scholars tend to define a person as
a Hindu only if he or she accepts the authority of the Vedas.
Vedangas means limbs of the Vedas. They are useful in the study
of the Vedas as ancillary subjects. They are six in number, namely
Siksha (pronunciation), Kalpa (explanations regarding rituals),
Vyakarna (grammar), Nirukta (etymology), Chhanda (metrics) and Jyotisha
(astrology). No knowledge of the Vedas is complete without their
proper study. In the ancient times a student had to learn these
six subjects invariably to complete his education. For a more detailed
information on the Vedangas please
read this article
available in another section.
The Hindu Sutra literature was composed much later than the Vedas
and belong to a later period. They are manuals of instructions for
people to follow in their social, religious, economic and political
affairs. They are a diverse body of literature, containing many
scriptures which are loosely grouped together as sutra literature.
It consists of Strauta Sutras which deal with ceremonies and the
Grihya Sutras, which deal with domestic rules, duties, rites and
sacrifices. They contain information about the samskaras (sacraments),
types of marriages, the five kinds of sacrifices and the seven types
of pakayajnas, the four types of ashramas, the duties of various
castes and so on.
Smriti - Dharmasastras
The Dharmashastras, books of dharma, constitute the smriti literature.
They are religious law books named after their composers, such as
Gautama, Baudhayana, Apastamba and Vashishta. The deal with code
of conduct and how to practice dharma by various classes of people
and in various social and religious situations. The Dharmashastras
are more like books of guidelines rather than law books, because
their enforcement depended upon the patronage of the king and their
reach. Not all people in ancient India practiced Hindu traditions
and therefore the law books were not applicable to all. Even among
the Hindus, not all had equal access to the religious scriptures
or religious knowledge. Therefore, they were observed strictly by
the Brahmanas who practiced Vedic rituals and to some extent by
the Kshatriyas and Vaisyas who had access to such knowledge.
The schools of Hindu philosophy are known as Darsanas. Darsana
means, sight, vision, a point of view or a perspective. Each school
of Hindu philosophy approaches the knowledge, reality, existence
and creation from a different perspective. Hence a study of each
school is necessary to develop a complete picture of the Hindu philosophical
thought. Hindu tradition recognizes six schools of Hindu philosophy,
grouped into three pairs. They are: Nyaya and Vaisheshika, Samkhya
and Yoga, and Mimansa and Vedanta. Each of these schools has a history,
teacher tradition, sub-sects and original literature in the form
of sutras and their commentaries (bhasyas).
Suggested Further Reading
1. For lack of better expression
we have to use the word composition. The Vedas are not composed
by any one. They were originally either heard or received from others
in deep state meditation or trance and then passed on to others.