The Vedas (Devanagari वेद) are a large corpus of texts originating in ancient India. They are the oldest scriptural texts of Hinduism and the oldest scriptural texts of any religion still in use. Since an oral Vedic tradition continued for centuries before they were compiled, organized, and written down, the composition of the Vedas is thought to have begun in the second millennium B.C.E. Today, Vedic texts are revered by Hindus around the world, and their verses are recited at prayers, religious functions and other auspicious occasions. The Vedas are said to contain the essence of Indian philosophy, and Vedic studies are crucial to the understanding of Indo-European linguistics, as well as ancient Indian history.
According to strict orthodox Hindu interpretation the Vedas are apauruṣeya ("not human compositions"), being supposed to have been directly revealed, and thus are called śruti ("what is heard").
Hinduism, sometimes known as Sanatana Dharma ("Eternal Law"), refers to this belief in the ageless nature of the wisdom it embodies. Vedic texts are traditionally categorized into four classes: the Samhitās (mantras, hymns, prayers and litanies written in verse), Brahmanas (prose commentaries on sacrificial rituals), Aranyakas (discussions and interpretations of dangerous rituals), and Upanishads (philosophical commentaries and interpretations). There are four "Vedic" Samhitas: the Rig-Veda, Sama-Veda, Yajur-Veda, and Atharva-Veda, most of which are available in several recensions (śākhā).
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.
The Vedas are the oldest surviving scriptures still in use. Most Indologists agree that an oral tradition existed for centuries before a literary tradition gradually set in from about the second century B.C.E. Because manuscripts were written down on perishable materials such as birch bark and palm leaves, the earliest surviving manuscripts are rarely more than a few hundred years old. The oldest surviving manuscripts of the Rigveda are dated from the eleventh century.
The Vedic period, during which the Vedas were composed and compiled, lasted from approximately 1500 to 500 B.C.E., spanning the Late Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Flood sums up mainstream estimates, according to which the Rigveda was composed from as early as 1200 B.C.E. over a period of several centuries. The Vedic period reaches its peak only after the composition of the mantra texts, with the establishment of the various shakhas (branches, or schools) all over Northern India which annotated the mantra samhitas with Brahmana commentaries. By the time of the Indian grammarian Panini and of Buddha and the rise of the Mahajanapadas (Great Kingdoms), the Vedas were already fully developed. Since the composition of the Vedas and the oral Vedic tradition continued for centuries before they were compiled, organized and written down, they must have originated in the second millennium B.C.E. Michael Witzel gives a time span of c. 1500 B.C.E. and c. 500-400 B.C.E.
The Sanskrit word véda "knowledge, wisdom" is derived from the root vid- "to know." The noun derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *u̯eid-, meaning "see" or "know"., cognate to Greek (ϝ)εἶδος "aspect, form." It should not be confused with the homonymous 1st and 3rd person singular perfect tense véda, cognate to Greek (ϝ)οἶδα (w)oida "I know."
Root cognate are Greek ἰδέα, English wit, witness, German wissen, Latin video.
As a noun, the word appears only once in the Rigveda, in RV 8.19.5, translated by Griffith as "ritual lore":
Vedic texts are traditionally categorized into four classes: the Samhitās (mantras), Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads. Also classified as "Vedic" is certain Sutra literature, such as the Shrautasutras and the Grhyasutras.
This group of texts is called shruti (Sanskrit: śruti; "the heard"). Since post-Vedic times it has been considered to be revealed wisdom, as distinct from other texts, collectively known as smriti (Sanskrit: smṛti; "the remembered"), that is, texts that are considered to be of human origin. This system of categorization was developed by Max Müller and, while it is subject to some debate, it is still widely used. As Axel Michaels explains:
These classifications 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 Āraṇyakas… ; Brāhmaṇas 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."
Works such as the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads often interpret the polytheistic and ritualistic Samhitas in philosophical and metaphorical ways to explore abstract concepts such as the Absolute (Brahman), and the soul or the self (Atman); later Upanishad also discuss the Lord (God) (Ishvara).
The composition of the Shrauta and Grhya Sutras (ca. sixth century B.C.E.) marks the end of the Vedic period, and at the same time the beginning of the flourishing of the "circum-Vedic" scholarship of Vedanga, introducing the early flowering of classical Sanskrit literature in the Maurya period.
While production of Brahmanas and Aranyakas ceased with the end of the Vedic period, a large number of Upanishads were composed after the end of the Vedic period. While most of the ten mukhya (principal) Upanishads can be considered to date from the Vedic or Mahajanapada period, most of the 108 Upanishads of the full Muktika canon date from the Common Era.
A traditional view given in the Vishnu Purana (fourth century C.E. Flood attributes the current arrangement of four Vedas to the mythical sage Vedavyasa.. The canonical division of the Vedas is fourfold (turīya)
"The term is used in the brahmanical tradition to designate a corpus of texts or teachings in at least four different senses. The term Veda is used in its narrow sense to designate the four Samhitas, Rg-Veda, Yajur-Veda, Sama-Veda and Atharva-Veda, and Atharva-Veda, which constitute collections of verses (rcs), sacrificial formulae (yajuses), chants (samans), and incantations and imprecations (atharvangirases or atharvan) respectively. The versified portions of the Samhitas are termed mantras. The term is subsequently extended to include not only the four Samhitas, but also the Brahmanas, sacrificial manuals attached to the Samhitas; the Aranyakas, "forest books" that reflect on the inner meaning of the sacrificial rituals; and the Upanisads, the latest speculative portions of the Vedas, In post-Vedic speculation the term is extended even further to include the Itihasas epics (the Mahabharata and Ramayana of Valmiki), and Puranas, which are respectively designated as the fifth Veda. Finally, Veda becomes an encompassing symbol within which can be subsumed potentially all brahmanical texts, teachings and practices".
1. Rigveda Samhita (RV); 2. Yajurveda Samhita (YV, with the main division Taittiriya Shakha vs. Vajasaneyi); 3. Samaveda Samhita (SV); 4. Atharvaveda Samhita (AV). Of these, the first three are the principal division, also called trayī, "the triple Vidyā," that is, "the triple sacred science" of reciting hymns (RV), performing sacrifices (YV), and chanting (SV). The Brahmanas (Shatapatha Brahmana, Aitareya Brahmana and others) introduce the concept of the “triple sacred sciences” in this way, but the Rigveda is really the only original work of the three, while the other two largely borrow from it.
The Mantras are properly of three forms, 1. Ric, which are metered verses of praise intended for loud recitation; 2. Yajus, which are in prose, and intended for recitation in a lower tone at sacrifices; 3. Sāman, which are in metered verse intended for chanting at the Soma ceremonies. The Yajurveda and Samaveda are special prayer and hymn books intended as manuals for the Adhvaryu and Udgatr priests respectively, rather than independent collections of prayers and hymns.
The Atharvaveda was added later as the fourth Veda. Its status was probably not completely accepted till after Manusmrti (the oldest work of Hindu law), which often speaks of the three Vedas, calling them trayam-brahma-sanātanam, "the triple eternal Veda." The Atharvaveda, like the Rigveda, is a true collection of original hymns mixed up with incantations, borrowing little from the Rig. It has no direct relation to sacrifices, but its mere recitation is supposed to produce long life, to cure diseases, and to effect the ruin of enemies.
Each of the four Vedas consists of a metrical Mantra, or Samhita, and the prose Brahmana part which gives directions for the details of the ceremonies at which the Mantras were to be used and explanations of the legends connected with the Mantras. Both these portions are termed shruti, “heard” but not composed or written down by men. Each of the four Vedas seems to have passed through numerous Shakhas or schools, giving rise to various recensions of the text. They each have an Index or Anukramani, the principal work of this kind being the general Index or Sarvānukramaṇī.
The Rig-Veda Samhita is the oldest significant extant Indian text. It is a collection of 1,028 Vedic Sanskrit hymns, 10,600 verses in all, organized into ten books (Sanskrit: mandalas. The hymns are dedicated to Rigvedic deities.
The books were composed by sages and poets from different priestly groups over a period of at least 500 years, which Avari dates as 1400 B.C.E. to 900 B.C.E., if not earlier According to Max Müller, based on internal evidence (philological and linguistic), the Rigveda was composed roughly between 1700–1100 B.C.E. (the early Vedic period) in the Punjab (Sapta Sindhu) region of the Indian subcontinent. Michael Witzel believes that the Rig Veda must have been composed more or less in the period 1450-1350 B.C.E.
There are strong linguistic and cultural similarities between the Rigveda and the early Iranian (Persian) Avesta, deriving from the Proto-Indo-Iranian times, and often associated with the Andronovo culture; the earliest horse-drawn chariots were found at Andronovo sites in the Sintashta-Petrovka cultural area near the Ural mountains and date to around 2000 B.C.E.
The Yajur-Veda ("Veda of sacrificial formulas") consists of archaic prose mantras and also, in part, of verses borrowed from the Rig-Veda. Its purpose was practical, in that each mantra must accompany an action in sacrifice but, unlike the Sama-Veda, it was compiled to apply to all sacrificial rites, not merely the Soma offering. There are two major recensions of this Veda known as the "Black" and "White" Yajur-Veda. The origin and meaning of these designations are not very clear. The White Yajur-Veda contains only the verses and sayings necessary for the sacrifice, while explanations exist in a separate Brahmana work. It differs widely from the Black Yajurveda, which incorporates such explanations in the work itself, often immediately following the verses. Of the Black Yajurveda four major recensions survive, all showing a similar arrangement, but differing in many other respects, notably in the individual discussion of the rituals but also in matters of phonology and accent.
The Sama-Veda (Sanskrit sāmaveda ) is the "Veda of chants" or "Knowledge of melodies." The name of this Veda derives from the Sanskrit word sāman which means a metrical hymn or song of praise. It consists of 1549 stanzas, taken entirely (except 78) from the Rig-Veda. Some of the Rig-Veda verses are repeated more than once. Including repetitions, there are a total of 1875 verses numbered in the Sama-Veda recension published by Griffith. Two major recensions remain today, the Kauthuma/Ranayaniya and the Jaiminiya.
Its purpose was liturgical and practical, to serve as a songbook for the "singer" priests who took part in the liturgy. A priest who sings hymns from the Sama-Veda during a ritual is called an udgātr, a word derived from the Sanskrit root ud-gai ("to sing" or "to chant"). A similar word in English might be "cantor." The styles of chanting are important to the liturgical use of the verses. The hymns were to be sung according to certain fixed melodies; hence the name of the collection.
The Artharva-Veda is the "Knowledge of the [atharvans] (and Angirasa)." The Artharva-Veda or Atharvangirasa is the text 'belonging to the Atharvan and Angirasa poets. Apte defines an atharvan as a priest who worshipped fire and Soma. The etymology of Atharvan is unclear, but according to Mayrhofer it is related to Avesta athravan (āθrauuan); he denies any connection with fire priests. Atharvan was an ancient term for a certain Rshi even in the Rigveda. (The older literature took them as priests who worshipped fire).
The Atharva-Veda Samhitā has 760 hymns, and about one-sixth of them are in common with the Rig-Veda. Most of the verses are metrical, but some sections are in prose.
It was compiled around 900 B.C.E., although some of its material may go back to the time of the Rig Veda, and some parts of the Atharva-Veda are older than the Rig-Veda. The Atharvana-Veda is preserved in two recensions, the Paippalāda and Śaunaka. According to Apte it had nine schools (shakhas). The Paippalada version is longer than the Saunaka one; it is only partially printed and remains untranslated.
Unlike the other three Vedas, the Atharvana-Veda has less connection with sacrifice. Its first part consists chiefly of spells and incantations, concerned with protection against demons and disaster, spells for the healing of diseases, and for long life.
The second part of the text contains speculative and philosophical hymns. R. C. Zaehner notes that:
"The latest of the four Vedas, the Atharva-Veda, is, as we have seen, largely composed of magical texts and charms, but here and there we find cosmological hymns which anticipate the Upanishads,—hymns to Skambha, the 'Support', who is seen as the first principle which is both the material and efficient cause of the universe, to Prāna, the 'Breath of Life', to Vāc, the 'Word', and so on.
In its third section, the Atharvaveda contains Mantras used in marriage and death rituals, as well as those for kingship, female rivals and the Vratya (in Brahmana style prose).
Gavin Flood discusses the relatively late acceptance of the Atharva-Veda as follows:
"There were originally only three priests associated with the first three Saṃhitās, for the Brahman as overseer of the rites does not appear in the Rig Veda and is only incorporated later, thereby showing the acceptance of the Atharva Veda, which had been somewhat distinct from the other Saṃhitās and identified with the lower social strata, as being of equal standing with the other texts."
Study of the extensive body of Vedic texts has been organized into a number of different schools or branches (Sanskrit śākhā, literally "branch" or "limb") each of which specialized in learning certain texts. Multiple recensions are known for each of the Vedas, and each Vedic text may have a number of schools associated with it. Elaborate methods for preserving the text were originally based on memorizing by heart instead of writing. Specific techniques (patha) for parsing and chanting the texts were used to assist in the memorization process.
Exegetical literature developed in the Vedic schools but comparatively few early medieval commentaries have survived. Sayana, from the fourteenth century, is known for his elaborate commentaries on the Vedic texts. While some evidence suggests that every member of the upper three classes (varna) was allowed to study the Vedas and that none but a few Vedic authors (Rishis) were women, the later dharmashastras (Sanskrit texts pertaining to religious and legal duties), from the Sutra age, dictate that women and Shudras (laborers, the lowest of the four Hindu castes) were neither required nor allowed to study the Veda. These dharmashastras regard the study of the Vedas as a religious obligation of the three upper varnas (Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas).
The mystical notions surrounding the concept of "Veda" that would flower in Vedantic philosophy have their roots already in Brahmana literature, notably in the Shatapatha Brahmana. The Vedas are identified with Brahman, the universal principle (ŚBM 10.1.1.8, 10.2.4.6). Vāc "speech" is called the "mother of the Vedas" (ŚBM 18.104.22.168, 10.5.5.1). The knowledge of the Vedas is endless; compared to them, human knowledge is like mere handfuls of dirt (Taittiriya Brahmana 22.214.171.124-5). The universe itself was originally encapsulated in the three Vedas. (Shatapatha Brahmana 10.4.2.22 has Prajapati reflecting that "truly, all beings are in the triple Veda").
While contemporary traditions continued to maintain Vedic ritualism (Shrauta, Mimamsa), Vedanta renounced all ritualism and radically re-interpreted the notion of "Veda" in purely mystic terms. The association of the three Vedas with the bhūr bhuvad svad mantra is found in the Aitareya Aranyaka: "Bhūḥ is the Rigveda, bhuvad is the Yajurveda, svad is the Samaveda" (1.3.2). The Upanishads reduce the "essence of the Vedas" further, to the syllable Aum (ॐ). Thus, the Katha Upanishad has:
"… a certain class of works regarded as auxiliary to the Vedas and designed to aid in the correct pronunciation and interpretation of the text and the right employment of the Mantras in ceremonials."
These subjects are treated in Sutra literature dating from the end of the Vedic period to Mauryan times, seeing the transition from late Vedic Sanskrit to Classical Sanskrit.
The term upaveda ("secondary knowledge") is used in traditional literature to designate the subjects of certain technical works. They have no relation to the Vedas, except as subjects worthy of study despite their secular character. Lists of what subjects are included in this class differ among sources. Examples include:
"In no country, I believe, has the theory of revelation been so minutely elaborated as in India. The name for revelation in Sanskrit is Sruti, which means hearing; and this title distinguished the Vedic hymns and, at a later time, the Brahmanas also, from all other works, which however sacred and authoritative to the Hindu mind, are admitted to have been composed by human authors. The Laws of Manu, for instance, are not revelation; they are not Sruti, but only Smriti, which means recollection of tradition. If these laws or any other work of authority can be proved on any point to be at variance with a single passage of the Veda, their authority is at once overruled. According to the orthodox views of Indian theologians, not a single line of the Veda was the work of human authors. The whole Veda is in some way or the other the work of the Deity; and even those who saw it were not supposed to be ordinary mortals, but beings raised above the level of common humanity, and less liable therefore to error in the reception of revealed truth. The views entertained by the orthodox theologians of India are far more minute and elaborate than those of the most extreme advocates of verbal inspiration in Europe. The human element, called paurusheyatva in Sanskrit, is driven out of every corner or hiding place, and as the Veda is held to have existed in the mind of the Deity before the beginning of time…" For quotation see: "Chips from a German Workshop" by Max Muller, Oxford University Press, 1867 - Chapter 1: "Lecture on the Vedas or the Sacred Books of the Brahmans, Delivered at Leeds, 1865," 17-18.
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