The Vedas are the oldest written texts on earth, and people consider them the earliest literary records in Sanskrit. Rishi Vyasa compiled the Vedas, and they are the oldest scriptures in Hinduism. Dating back to the beginning of Indian civilization, they form a vast ocean of knowledge, detailing religious and spiritual teachings.
Origin of the Vedas
The Vedas date back to 1600 BC, and there is no specific date to validate the composition of the Hindu scriptures as they were handed down through generations by oral tradition over the ages. The Vedas in written form date back to one millennium BCE. The surviving ones lie between the 11th and 14th centuries, going by the material of the manuscripts, which are in birch bark and palm leaves.
Legend of the Vedas
According to legend, the Vedic hymns were taught by God to the sages. They were handed down for generations through word of mouth. Hindu followers believe the Vedas to be Apaurusheya – not of humans but the supernatural. In Sanskrit, the Vedas mean SvatahPramana (self-evident means of knowledge). The epic Mahabharata states that the Supreme Creator Brahma created the Vedas. It is mentioned in the Vedic hymns themselves that they were the creation of sages.
The Four Vedas
The Vedas are four in number – the Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda. Together, they form the Chatur Veda. The primary Veda is the Rigveda, and all of them agree with each other in form, language, and content, except the Atharvaveda.
Each of the Vedas has four major text types:
The Rig Veda
The Rig Vedas are the oldest texts of the Indian civilization dating back to the Aryans. A collection of Vedic hymns, they are a collection of 1,028 hymns and 10,600 verses. The Rig Veda originated around 1600 BCE. The written manuscripts of the Rig Veda belong to one millennium BCE, although the ones in existence point to somewhere between the 11th and 14th centuries.
The earliest of the Rig Vedas originated in Greater Punjab (North-west India and Pakistan). The more modern texts bordering on philosophy originated in and around the region of Haryana. Sages composed the hymns and verses, with ardent believers of the Hindu Dharma claiming that God taught the Vedic hymns to the sages who passed it down to later generations through oral recitation.
The Rig Veda is of four text types – the Samhitas (hymns) singing the praises of the Rig Veda deities. These include Indra – King of Devas, Agni-God of Fire, and Ishwara – the Supreme God, Soma- a sacred portion of the plant used as offering in Vedic sacrifices, the Aranyakas – the philosophy behind the rituals, and the Upasanas – one that focuses on worship. The Rig Veda has ten Mandalas. It begins with praising the Supreme Being and goes on to agriculture, cattle-raising, and horse racing.
The Rig Veda throws light on matters of philosophical and religious importance. The study discusses what it is to exist and raises theoretical questions about whether God knew the answers. In the current context, the Rig Veda points to ancient cultural heritage, with some hymns still used in rites, but according to experts, the acceptance of the essence no longer exists. The contemporary Hindu beliefs no longer relate to the ancient context of the Rig Veda.
The Sama Veda
The Sama Veda adheres to melodies and chants, divided into two major parts. The first part comprises of the Saman – four melody collections and the Arcika – the collection of verse book, a group of hymns. Except for 75 verses, all of them emanate from the Rig Veda. The compilation of the Sama Veda occurred around 1200 to 1000 BCE. The period is contemporary to the Atharvaveda and the Yajurveda.
The Sama Veda is called the Book of Songs, derived from Saman – Song, and Veda. The Sama Veda is the principal root of traditional Indian music and dancing, which ranks as the oldest in the world. The later chapters shift to speculation on nature and the existence of the universe, God, and philosophy.
Two of the 108 Upanishads exists in the Sama Veda – the Chandayoga and Kena Upanishad. Sama Veda points to the ancient cultural heritage and is a matter of pride for Hindus.
The Yajur Veda
The Yajur Veda comprises of Yajus and Ved, meaning prose dedicated to reverence or religious worship. The Yajur Veda is primarily a book of rituals. The ancient Vedic text has a compilation of procedures for ritual offerings or prose mantras to be chanted by a priest. At the same time, an individual performs the ritual in front of the Yagna (sacrificial fire). It is practically a guidebook for the Purohits (priests) to carry out religious ceremonies. Most of the Yajur Veda goes back to 1200 to 1000 BCE and is contemporary to the hymns sung in the Sama Veda and Atharva Veda.
The most ancient layer of Yajur Veda, the Samhita, comprises of1875 verses, built upon the foundation of the Rig Veda. The middle layer includes the Satapatha Brahmana, perhaps the most substantial Brahmana texts in the Vedic collection. It consists of the most extensive collection of primary Upanishads. Yajur Veda is again a reminder of India’s ancient cultural heritage and gives information about agriculture, social and economic life during the Vedic period.
The Atharva Veda
The fourth and final text of the Vedic scriptures, the Atharva Veda, is called the Knowledge Storehouse of the Atharvanas (formulas) to navigate everyday life. This Veda is more attuned to the culture and tradition of the day rather than focusing on religious and spiritual teachings. In this regard, it does not connect with the other three Vedas. Called the Veda of Magic Formulas, the Atharva Veda is an amalgamation of hymns, chants, spells and prayers that involves healing processes, and longevity of life. The Atharva Veda focuses on the knowledge of attaining God through spiritual practice. The Atharva Veda is a collection of 730 hymns, containing 6,000 mantras. This Veda contains three Upanishads.
The Atharva Veda belongs to the 2nd millennium BC. The Samhitas in this Veda talk about surgical and medical procedures, with mantras and verses offering treatment for ailments. The Atharva Veda finds relevance in society today as it was a forerunner of medicine and healthcare. This book has optimum use for any Vedic scholar even today.