Veda (Sanskrit, “knowledge”), the most ancient sacred
literature of Hinduism, or
individual books belonging to that literature. This body
of ancient literature consists primarily of four collections
of hymns, detached poetical portions, and ceremonial formulas.
The collections are called the Rig-Veda, the Sama-Veda,
the Yajur-Veda, and the Atharva-Veda. They are known also
as the Samhitas (roughly “collection”).
Origins and Transmission
The four Vedas were composed in Vedic, an early form of
Sanskrit. The oldest portions are believed by scholars
to have originated largely with the Aryan invaders of
India some time between 1500 and 1000 BC; however, the
Vedas in their present form are believed to date only
from the close of the 3rd century BC.
the writing down of the present texts, sages called rishis
transmitted the Vedic matter orally, changing and elaborating
it in the process. Large masses of material probably taken
from the original Aryan milieu or from the Dravidian culture
of India were preserved, however, and are distinguishable
in the texts.
Contents and Use
The first three Samhitas are primarily ritual handbooks
that were used in the Vedic period by three classes of
priests who officiated at ceremonial sacrifices.
Rig-Veda contains more than 1000 hymns (Sanskrit
rig), composed in various poetic meters and arranged in
ten books. It was used by the hotri, or reciters, who
invoked the gods by reading its hymns aloud.
The Sama-Veda contains verse portions taken mainly
from the Rig-Veda. It was used by the udgatri, or chanters,
who sang its hymns, or melodies (Sanskrit sama).
Yajur-Veda, which now consists of two recensions,
both of them partly in prose and partly in verse and both
containing roughly the same material (although differently
arranged), contains sacrificial formulas (Sanskrit yaja,”sacrifices”).
It was used by the adhvaryu, priests who recited appropriate
formulas from the Yajur-Veda while actually performing
the sacrificial actions.
fourth Veda, the Atharva-Veda (in part attributed
by tradition to a rishi named Atharvan), consists almost
exclusively of a wide variety of hymns, magical incantations,
and magical spells.
(See also my 'Magic Chapter').
Largely for personal, domestic use, it was not originally
accepted as authoritative because of the deviant nature
of its contents. Scholars believe that it dates from a
later time and that it may have been derived mainly from
the remnant of the indigenous pre-Aryan culture. Eventually
it was acknowledged as one of the Vedas, especially after
its adoption as a ritual handbook by the Brahmans, the
fourth and highest class of priests officiating at the
Strictly speaking, the Vedas include the Brahmanas and
former are prose commentaries attached to each of the
four Vedas and are concerned principally with the details
and the interpretation of the sacrificial liturgy. The
latter are the poetic stanzas of the four Vedas, mantra
being the term used specifically for the four verse collections.
The mantras are regarded
by some scholars as the oldest part of the Vedas.
to the Brahmanas are later esoteric works known as forest
treatises, the Aranyakas from Sanskrit aranya,”forest.”
The Aranyakas were expounded and written by Brahman sages
in forests because it was felt that a proper understanding
of them could be achieved only in seclusion. The final
portions of the Aranyakas are called Upanishads. Profound
metaphysical and speculative works closely linked with
the Brahmanas, they emphasize knowledge and meditation
and are the first Hindu attempts at a systematic treatment
of speculative thought. Vedanta
and most other Indian philosophical systems developed
from the Upanishads.
latest products of the Vedic period are the sutras
(Sanskrit sutra, literally “thread,” roughly, “string
of rules”). Collections of aphorisms elaborating and dissertating
on the Vedic sacrifices,
domestic ceremonies (such as marriage and funeral rituals),
and religious and secular law, the sutras are significant
for their influence on the development of Hindu law. As
works of authority, they are not as highly regarded as
the Vedas, Brahmanas, and Upanishads. The latter, especially
the Vedas, are revered as apaurusheya (Sanskrit, “not
of human origin”).
Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2001 http://encarta.msn.com
© 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
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