The Vedas, Meaning and Significance

The Vedas

by Jayaram V

The Vedas are the sacred scriptures of Hinduism. They were composed thousands of years ago, by several seers. Some of the hymns in the Vedas may be 5000-6000 years old, or even older. Hindus believe that the Vedas are eternal and vibrate eternally in the higher realms of the world of Brahman. They manifest at the beginning of every cycle of creation for the welfare of the world. The Vedas help humans to know their essential nature, and return from their embodied, limited state as bound souls (jivas) to their eternal state as liberated souls. They also help humans to invoke the power of gods to deal with the problems of the mortal world, death and disease. Hence, they are considered invaluable for the material and spiritual wellbeing of the world.

The Vedas, meaning

The word Veda is derived from the root word, “vid” meaning to know. Thus, Veda means knowledge. According to the tradition, the Vedas were composed by several seers under inspiration. Hence, they are not manmade (apaurusheya), but the heard ones (sruti). Ever since they were composed, the Vedas have remained pure, and free from distortions.

The Vedic texts are rather large and contain thousands of hymns. Each hymn is long and contains numerous verses. In its finer aspects, Hinduism is about leading a balanced life and aiming for the four chief aims of human life, namely meeting religious obligations, earning wealth, seeking pleasure, and achieving liberation.

The Vedas help people to realize the four goals. In the first half of their lives, they can pursue material goals, serving the gods above and family and community in the mortal world below, and in the second half, they can pursue spiritual goals, lead contemplative and austere lives and ascend to the highest heaven. They Vedas serve them well in all these endeavors. Hence, they are held in great esteem by devout Hindus.

The Vedas are four. Originally they were only three, which were known as the triple Vedas (vedatraya). The fourth one was subsequently added. The four Vedas in the order of their composition are Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda. Some scholars tend to include the two epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata also under the Vedas as the historical Vedas (Itihasa Vedas). However, the common definition of Vedas does not include them. Each Veda is divided into four parts, the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads. Historically, the Samhitas were the earliest composition followed by the Brahmans. The Aranyakas and the Upanishads belong to the later Vedic period, although it is possible that parts of them might have been composed earlier.

The Samhitas

The Samhitas contain hymns which are used in sacrifice rituals and Vedic ceremonies as part of offerings, prayers and invocations. They are copious texts. Each contains hundreds of hymns, which are again long with many verses. The Samhitas of the Rigveda and Samaveda, which are the oldest of the four Vedas, contain 1017-1028 and 1549-1820 hymns respectively. The hymns of Rigveda are called Riks which are used chants. The hymns of Samaveda are called Samans, which are sung loudly because of their poetic and rhythmic quality.

Yajurveda Samhita contains Yajus, magic formulae. It is divided into two, the White Yajurveda and the Black Yajurveda. The former contains only hymns, while the latter, which is also the oldest of the two, contain both prose and verses. Vedic sacrificial ceremonies are numerous. Some of them are very complex and require a lot of prior preparation. They require the participation of several priests, each taking care of a particular aspect of the ceremony. Some participate in the beginning and chant the introductory hymns. Some participate in the middle to chant the invocations, and some participate in the concluding part after the oblations and offerings are poured to conclude the ceremony and bid farewell to the gods. The head priest is called Brahman. He remains silent during the proceedings, and keeps an eye on every aspect to ensure that it is correctly performed.

For a long time, the Atharvaveda was not considered a Veda. The original Vedas were only three. The fourth Veda differs from the other three in the subject matter, in its aims and approach. In temperament and treatment of the subject, it is closer to the Tantras than the Vedas. It contains 73 hymns, divided into 20 sections, which contain spells and charms to protect oneself or to delude, hurt, and harm opponents and enemies.

The Brahmanas

Vedic sacrifices and rituals are structured and do not offer much scope to exercise discretion. A priest has to dutifully go through the whole procedure, step by step, to ensure that the offerings and prayers reach the gods, and the ritual produces the intended result for the benefit of the priests as well as the host of the sacrifice. While daily sacrifices and domestic worship may be performed by individuals with limited knowledge of the Vedas, important Vedic ceremonies ought to be performed by qualified priests only. If you do not know the procedure, rules and regulations, very likely you will make mistakes and incur the displeasure of gods. Even when they are performed by trained priests, tradition stipulates that they should be supervised by a silent priest (Brahman), who at the end of the sacrifice should perform an expiation ritual seeking forgiveness for any mistakes, which the priests or the host might have committed during their performance.

The knowledge of how to perform the rituals is specified in the second part of the Vedas known as the Brahmanas. Each Veda has its own set of Brahmanas. They serve as ancillary texts, and contain knowledge which helps the priests perform the rituals with authority and knowledge. They are mostly composed in prose and contain the mechanics and the procedural aspects of Vedic sacrifices. Some Brahmanas are included in the Upanishads because of their spiritual and philosophical value.

The Aranyakas

The third part of the Veda contains texts known as Aranyakas, or forest books. Today, only seven Aranyakas remain, which belong to the first three Vedas. The rest were lost. Atharvaveda does not have any Aranyaka of its own, which denotes that the tradition of forest dwelling might have declined by the time it was recognized as a Veda.

As their name suggests, the Aranyakas are forest books. Historically, they served as guide books for the hermits and renunciants who lived in the forests, and practiced austerities to achieve liberation. The renunciants were either ascetic groups or people who gave up their duties as householders and retired to the forests as part of their Varnashrama dharma to live as recluses (vanaprastha) and prepare for the next phase of Sanyasa (renunciation).

The Aranyakas contain the knowledge of Vedic rituals which can be performed internally or individually without elaborate arrangements. Unlike the Samhitas, they deal with philosophical and technical aspects of Vedic sacrifices and contemplative practices. The passages provide an insight into the symbolism of the ritual model and the mystic and spiritual significance of important ideas and concepts such as the knowledge of the Self, Brahman, breath, liberation, rebirth, etc. Some Aranyakas also form part of the Upanishads and serve as secret instruction. For example, the Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka Upanishads contain several sections from the Aranyakas. Even today, few people know what the Aranyakas contain and what purpose they really serve.

The Upanishads

The Upanishads constitute the fourth part of the Vedas. Since they are the last or the end portions the Vedas, they are collectively referred to as the Vedanta (veda+anta), meaning the end of the Vedas. Upanishad means sitting near. They are so called because they contain secret knowledge which cannot be revealed to all. In ancient times, it was customary for teachers to instruct them in person to qualified students under an oath of secrecy.

Currently a few hundred Upanishads are in circulation. Some of them are original and some later day additions. Most of the Upanishads which we have today are fragments or collections of verses from ancient compilations. Only a few major Upanishads survived intact. Many minor Upanishads were subsequently composed at different times by the followers of various schools and sects. They are essentially summaries of the previous Upanishads. Some deal with specific subjects such as Yoga or liberation. Some were composed only a few hundred years ago.

The Upanishads contain the secret knowledge of Brahman, Atman, liberation, rebirth, invocations, the journey of the souls after death, the importance of various bodily organs and subtle bodies, meditation, contemplation, immortality, creation, food, rituals, spells, etc. They reflect the glorious days of ancient India, when people of eminent virtue contemplated upon the most sublime aspects of human life and contemplated upon the mysteries of existence. They reveal the depth of the vision, intelligence, and the knowledge of the seers who composed them.

A lot of Upanishadic knowledge is symbolic and difficult to understand. Especially, the earliest ones such as the Brihadaranyaka and Chandogya Upanishads contain verses which are couched in ritual symbolism. Unless you know the technical and practical aspects of the rituals and their significance, you will not understand their symbolism or true meaning.

The Upanishads also explain the significance of several sacred syllables such as Aum, and sacred mantras such as the Gayathri and Udgitas. They inform how food was created and why offerings have to be made to the gods during sacrificial ceremonies. They also present the cosmological significance of numerous worlds, the relative importance of the higher and lower knowledge, various Brahmavidyas for knowledge and preparation, the role of Nature, the play of Gunas, and so on. Most importantly they provide valuable information about Yoga and contemplative practices such as meditation and austerities (tapas) that are modelled on Vedic rituals.

The Upanishads provided the foundation for the spiritual knowledge, beliefs and practices of present-day Hinduism. They make the tradition unique and deeply spiritual. While the ritual knowledge found in the Samhitas help the worldly people and householders to perform their obligatory duties (karmakanda), the spiritual knowledge (jnanakanda) of the Upanishads serves those who want to lead contemplative lives and explore their spirituality.

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