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The Vedas (Sanskrit: वेद) are a large corpus of texts originating in Ancient India. They are the oldest scriptural texts of Hinduism.[1]

Philosophies and sects that developed in the Indian subcontinent have taken differing positions on the Vedas. Schools of Indian philosophy which cite the Vedas as their scriptural authority are classified as "orthodox" (āstika). Two other Indian philosophies, Buddhism and Jainism, did not accept the authority of the Vedas and evolved into separate religions. In Indian philosophy these groups are referred to as "heterodox" or "non-Vedic" (nāstika) schools.[2]


The Vedas are arguably the oldest surviving scriptures in the world. Most Indologists agree that a long oral tradition existed long before they were written down by the second century B.C.

Radhakrishnan and Moore sum up the prevailing academic view by saying:

"The Vedic Period is dimmed by obscurity, but it may be placed approximately between 2500 and 600 B.C." [3]

As used by these authors, the term "Vedic Period" includes the long period of gradual pre-literary cultural developments which eventually gave rise to written texts. Flood refers to the "more sober chronology" of 1500 to 1200 BCE proposed by Max Müller for the earliest portions of the texts.[4] (For further discussion of dating see: Vedic period)

In any case, dating is of little importance to the religious significance of the Vedas. According to strict orthodox Hindu interpreation the Vedas are apaurusheya ("not human compositions"), being supposed to have been directly revealed, and thus are called śruti ("what is heard").[5] Hinduism is known as the Sanatana Dharma ("Eternal Law"), referring to this belief in the ageless nature of the wisdom it embodies.


The word veda signifies "wisdom"[6] or "knowledge".[7] More generally it means "Sacred knowledge, holy learning, the scriptures of the Hindus."[8] Monier-Williams defines it more specifically as "N. of certain celebrated works which constitute the basis of the first period of the Hindu religion."[9]

It is derived from the root vid- [10], Sanskrit for "to know".[11]

Categories of Vedic Texts

The term Vedas can refer either to the four Vedas (a specific group of texts) or more generally to a large corpus of Vedic literature that grew up after and around the four Vedas.

Only the collections (Sanskrit saṃhitā), Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads are considered Veda in the strict sense.[12] This group of texts is is called śruti ("the heard"), and are considered to contain divine wisdom, as distinct from other texts that are considered to have been composed by people, which are called smṛti ("the remembered"). This system of categorization was developed by Max Müller, and while it is subject to some imperfections it is still widely used, as Axel Michaels explains:

These classifications, which date back to Max Müller, are often not tenable for linguistic and formal reasons: There is not only one collection at any one time, but rather several handed down in separate Vedic schools; Upanişads ... are sometimes not to be distinguished from Araṇyakas ("forest books"); Brāmaṇas contain older strata of language attributed to the Saṃhitās; there are various dialects and locally prominent traditions of the Vedic schools. Nevertheless, it is advisable to stick to the division adopted by Max Müller because it follows the Indian tradition, conveys the historical sequence fairly accurately, and underlies the current editions, translations, and monographs on Vedic literature."[13]

  • The Samhita (Sanskrit saṃhitā), or "collections". The Samhitas are collections of hymns, mantras, and chants. There are four Samhitas: the Rig-Veda, Sama-Veda, Yajur-Veda, and Atharva-Veda.
  • The Brahmanas. These are prose texts with prescriptions for carrying out sacrificial rituals as well as comment on the meaning of the rituals. Each of the Brahmanas is associated with one of the Samhitas. The Brahmanas may either form separate texts or can be partly integrated into the text of the Samhita.
  • The Aranyakas, or "forest books". These are the concluding part of the Brahmanas, containing further interpretations of rituals.
  • The Upanishads are theological and philosophical works. They are mystic or spiritual interpretations of the Vedas, and are considered their putative end and essence, and thus known as Vedānta ("the end of the Vedas"). They are the basis of the Vedanta school.

The Four Vedas

In its strict sense, veda designates the four collections (Samhitas) of hymns and prayers composed for different ritualistic purposes: the Rig-Veda, Sama-Veda, Yajur-Veda, and Atharva-Veda. Of these only the first three were originally regarded as canonical (trayividya, "threefold-knowledge"); the fourth attained to this position after a long doctrinal struggle. In its widest sense, however, the term veda applies not only to these sacred texts, but also to the voluminous theological and philosophical literature attached thereto, the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads, and Sutras (see Brahminism). Though differences exist in the language of the four Vedas, still there is such agreement on cardinal points as against later Sanskrit that the term Vedic, which is in common use for the oldest form of the language of India, is amply justified. Multiple recensions are known for each of the Vedas, through different traditional disciplines or schools (shakha) of oral transmission, but few have survived intact to the present day.

The Rig-Veda contains the oldest part of the corpus, and consists of 1028 hymns. The Sama-Veda is mostly a rearrangement of the Rig-Veda for musical rendering. The Yajur-Veda gives sacrificial prayers and the Atharva-Veda gives charms, incantations and magical formulae. In addition to these there are some stray secular material, such as legends.

The Rig-Veda

Main article: Rigveda

The Rigveda is a collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns dedicated to Rigvedic deities. Based on internal evidence (philological and linguistic), the Rigveda was composed roughly between 1700–1100 BCE (the early Vedic period) in the Punjab (Sapta Sindhu) region of the Indian subcontinent,[14] putting it among the world's oldest religious texts, as well as among the oldest texts of any Indo-European language. It was preserved in India over centuries by oral tradition alone and was probably not put in writing until Late Antiquity or even the early Middle Ages.[15]

There are strong linguistic and cultural similarities between the Rigveda and the early Iranian Avesta, deriving from the Proto-Indo-Iranian times, often associated with the early Andronovo culture of ca. 2000 BC.

Today, this text is revered by Hindus around the world, primarily in India and Nepal. Its verses are recited at prayers, religious functions and other auspicious occasions.

The Sama-Veda

Main article: Samaveda

The Sama-Veda ("Veda of chants") consists of 1549 stanzas, taken entirely (except 75) from the Rig-Veda, chiefly from books VIII and IX. Its purpose was purely practical, to serve as a text- book for the udgatar or priest who attended the Soma sacrifice. The arrangement of the verses is determined solely by their relation to the rites attending this function. The hymns were to be sung according to certain fixed melodies; hence the name of the collection. Though only two recensions are known, the number of schools for the veda is known to have been very large.

The Yajur-Veda

Main article: Yajurveda

The Yajur-Veda ("Veda of sacrificial prayers") consists also largely of verses borrowed from the Rig-Veda. Its purpose was also practical, but, unlike the Sama-Veda, it was compiled to apply to the entire sacrificial rite, not merely the Soma offering. There are two recensions of this Veda known as the "Black" and "White" Yajur-Veda. The origin and meaning of these designations are not clear. The White Yajur-Veda contains only the verses and sayings necessary for the sacrifice, while explanations exist in a separate work; the Black incorporates explanations and directions in the work itself, often immediately following the verses. Of the black there are again four recensions, all showing the same arrangement, but differing in many other respects, notably in matters of phonology and accent. By the Hindus the Yajur-Veda was regarded as the most important of all the Vedas for the practice of the sacrificial rites.

The Artharva-Veda

Main article: Atharvaveda

The Artharva-Veda ("Veda of the atharvans or fire priests") differs widely from the other Vedas in that it is not essentially religious in character and not connected with the ritual of the Soma sacrifice. It consists chiefly of a variety of spells and incantations, intended to curse as well as to bless. There are charms against enemies, demons, wizards, harmful animals like snakes, against sickness of man or beast, against the oppressors of Brahmans. But there are also charms of a positive character to obtain benefits, to insure love, happy family-life, health and longevity, protection on journeys, even luck in gambling. Superstitions from primitive ages were evidently current among the masses. To some of the spells remarkably close parallels can be adduced from Germanic and Slavic antiquity. The Atharvana-Veda is preserved in two recensions, which, though differing in content and arrangement, are of equal extent, comprising 730 hymns and about 6000 stanzas, distributed in twenty books. Many of the verses are taken from the Rig-Veda without change; a considerable part of the sayings is in prose. The books are of different age; the first thirteen are the oldest, the last two are late additions. Book XX, consisting entirely of hymns in praise of Indra, all taken from the Rig-Veda, was undoubtedly added to give the Atharvana's connection with the sacrificial ceremonial and thus to insure its recognition as a canonical book. But this recognition was attained only after a considerable lapse of time, and after the period of the Rig-Veda. In the "Mahabharata" the canonical character of the Atharvana is distinctly recognized, references to the four Vedas being frequent. Though as a whole this collection must have come into existence later than the Rig-Veda, much of its material is fully as old and perhaps older. For the history of religion and civilization it is a document of priceless value.

Theological Traditons

Main article: Shakha

Study of the extensive body of Vedic texts has been organized into a number of different theological schools or branches (Sanskrit śākhā, literally "branch" or "limb") each of which specialized in learning certain texts.[16] A Vedic text may have a number of theological schools associated with it.

Each Samhita is preserved in a number of versions or recensions (shakhas), the differences among them being minor, except in the case of the Yajur Veda, where two "White" (shukla) recensions contain the Mantras only, while four "Black" (krishna) recensions interspersed the Brahmana parts among the Mantras.


See also patha.

Elaborate methods for preserving the text (memorizing by heart instead of writing), subsidiary disciplines (Vedanga), exegetical literature, etc., were developed in the Vedic schools. Sayana, from the 14th century, is known for his elaborate commentaries on the Vedic texts. While much evidence suggests that everyone was equally allowed to study the Vedas and many Vedic "authors" were women, the later dharmashastras, from the Sutra age, dictate that women and Shudras were neither required nor allowed to study the Veda. These dharmashastras regard the study of the Vedas a religious duty of the three upper varnas (Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas). In modern times, Vedic studies are crucial in the understanding of Indo-European linguistics, as well as ancient Indian history.

Many forms of Hinduism encourage the Vedic mantras to be interpreted as liberally and as philosophically as possible, unlike the texts of the three Abrahamic religions. In fact, over-literal interpretation of the mantras is actually discouraged, and even the three layers of commentaries (Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads), which form an integral part of the śruti literature, interpret the seemingly polytheistic, ritualistic, and highly complex Samhitas in a philosophical and metaphorical way to explain the "hidden" concepts of God (Ishwara), the Supreme Being (Brahman) and the soul or the self (Atman). Many Hindus believe that the very sound of the Vedic mantras is purifying for the environment and the human mind. Each may contain a thousand layers of meaning.


The Vedic view of the world and cosmogony sees one true divine principle self-projecting as the divine word, Vaak, 'birthing' the cosmos that we know from 'Hiranyagarbha' or Golden Womb, a primordial sun figure that is equivalent to Surya. The varied gods like Vayu, Indra, Rudra (the Destroyer), Agni (Fire, the sacrificial medium) and the goddess Saraswati (the Divine Word, or Vaak) are just some examples of the myriad aspects of the one underlying nature of the universe.

The word Veda is often derived from 5 roots these days[How to reference and link to summary or text]:

  • Vid jnaane: To know
  • Vid sattaayaam: To be, to endure
  • Vid labhe: To obtain
  • Vid vichaarane: To consider
  • Vid chetanaakhyaananiveseshu: To feel, to tell, to dwell

To these roots is added the suffix ‘ghaw’ according to Ashtadhyayi 3.3.19, the celebrated text of Sanskrit grammar of Panini. Accordingly, the word Veda means ‘the means by which, or in which all persons know, acquire mastery in, deliberate over the various lores or live or subsist upon them.’

The Vedic literature is also called by several other names –

  • Nigama: Traditional wisdom transmitted from generation to generation
  • Amnāya: The root texts or primordial texts of (Hindu) tradition
  • Trayi: The Vedic texts comprising of Versified mantras, prose mantras, and melodies.


The Upavedas are derived from the Vedas and are specific applications of the teachings of the Vedas. The main Upavedas are:

1. Ayurveda - Indian healing system, it lays more stress on living with nature instead of fighting it, hence preventive instead of corrective medicine.

2. Dhanur Veda - Martial arts.

Ayurveda and Dhanurveda have points in common. They both work with Marma, or natural Pran (Life Energy) that flows in the body. Ayruveda heals the body, while Dhanurveda is used for defending the body. This concept is also known to Chinese as Acupuncture and related Chinese Martial Arts.

3. Stahapatya Veda- Architecture, sculpture and geomancy. Used especially for Temple design.

4. Gandharv Veda- Music, poetry and dance.

Some other fields like Jyotish (Indian Astrology), Tantra (based on the Puranas, which are in turn based on Vedas), Shiksha and Vyakara (Grammar and pronunciation) are also based on the Vedas.

Views of modern writers

Sri Aurobindo

One of the most well known commentaries to the Vedas in the modern times is written by Sri Aurobindo. Rig Veda is considered by many to be a book written by barbaric culture worshipping violent Gods. Sri Aurobindo realised that this was due to the biased view of Westerners who had some preconceived views on Hindu culture.

Taking the cue from Swami Dayananda Saraswati, founder of the Arya Samaj, Sri Aurobindo decided to look for hidden meanings in the Vedas. He looked at the Rig Veda as a psychological book, inspiring the people to move towards God, but in a hidden language.

So Indra is the God of Indriya, or the senses (sight, touch, hear, taste etc). Vayu means air, but in esoteric terms means Prana, or the Life force. So when the Rig Vedas says “Call Indra and Vayu to drink Soma Rasa” they mean use the Mind senses and Prana to receive Divine Bliss (Soma means wine of Gods, but in several texts also means Divine Bliss, as in Right-handed Tantra).

Agni, or God of Fire and Water, is the hidden Divine Spark in us, which we have to fan, so it grows and engulfs our whole body. So the sacrifice of the Vedas actually means sacrificing ones ego to the internal Agni, or Divine spark.

These essays by Sri Aurobindo originally appeared in the Arya, and have been published by Sri Aurobindo Ashram under the titles, The Secret of the Veda, [1] and Hymns to the Mystic Fire. [2].

See also


  1. Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli; and Moore, Charles A. A Source Book in Indian Philosophy. Princeton University Press; 1957. Princeton paperback 12th edition, 1989. ISBN 0-691-01958-4. p. 3.
  2. Flood, Gavin. An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1996. p. 82. ISBN 0-521-43878-0.
  3. Radhakrishnan and Moore, op. cit., pp. xvii-xviii.
  4. Flood, op. cit., p. 37.
  5. V. S. Apte. A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary, p. 887.
  6. Radhakrishnan and Moore, op. cit., p. 3.
  7. V. S. Apte, A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary, p. 887.
  8. V. S. Apte, A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary, p. 887.
  9. Monier-Williams, p. 1015.
  10. Monier-Williams, p. 1015.
  11. V. S. Apte, A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary, p. 856
  12. Michaels, Axel. Hinduism: Past and Present. Princeton University Press: 2004. p. 51. ISN 0-691-08953-1.
  13. Michaels, op. cit., p. 51.
  14. India: What Can It Teach Us: A Course of Lectures Delivered Before the University of Cambridge by F. Max Müller; World Treasures of the Library of Congress Beginnings by Irene U. Chambers, Michael S. Roth; some writers out of the maintream claim to trace astronomical references in the Rigveda, dating it to as early as 4000 BC, a date corresponding to the Neolithic late Mehrgarh culture; summarized by Klaus Klostermaier in a 1998 presentation
  15. The earliest surviving manuscripts date to the 11th century
  16. Flood, Gavin. op. cit., p. 39.



  • Flood, Gavin. An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1996. ISBN 0-521-43878-0.
  • Michaels, Axel. Hinduism: Past and Present. Princeton University Press: 2004. ISN 0-691-08953-1.
  • Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli; and Moore, Charles A. A Source Book in Indian Philosophy. Princeton University Press, 1957; Princeton paperback 12th edition, 1989. ISBN 0-691-01958-4.
  • Walker, Benjamin Hindu World: An Encyclopedic Survey of Hinduism, (Two Volumes), Allen & Unwin, London, 1968; Praeger, New York, 1968; Munshiram Manohar Lal, New Delhi, 1983; Harper Collins, New Delhi, 1985; Rupa, New Delhi, 2005, ISBN 81-291-0670-1.
  • Winternitz, Moriz. History of Indian Literature. Vol. 1 (of two volumes), p. 1. (Calcutta 1926)


  • Maurice Bloomfield, A Vedic Concordance, Harvard Oriental Series, 1907
  • Klaus Mylius, Geschichte der altindischen Literatur, Wiesbaden (1983).

Religious Interpretations

  • Sri Aurobindo ,The Secret of the Veda[3]. Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry. 1972.
  • Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads [4]. Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry. 1972.
  • David Frawley, Wisdom of the Ancient Seers

External links


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