Introduction in The Vedas
The vedas (Sanskrit वेदः vedaḥ) are such a vast and limitless source of knowledge that it feels almost inappropriate to write a blog post about it.
However, as the word Vedic is used in the context of Jyotish and Vedic Astrology all the time, I feel it is absolutely necessary to get at least the basics right.
Below I elaborate on the Vedic era, give a summarised outline of the Vedas and touch upon the discussion of ‘authorship vs ‘author-less’.
The Vedic era is often dated as between 1500 – 500 BCE. These estimations are being done by cross-references of rites and cultural traits as mentioned in the Vedas and as dated in archaeological sites. However, as the Ṛgveda is often seen as a containing earlier compositions, the exact era is difficult to pinpoint.
The Vedas are seen as a primary source of knowledge and foundation of the Hindu religion. As they are at least 3,500 years old, they are probably the world’s oldest cultural tradition that is still alive. The content comprises Sanskrit poetry, philosophical dialogue, mythology, and ritual incantations.
The Veda contains a vast variety of rituals and forms of knowledge. Often a distinction is being made between Parā Vidyā, referring to the highest spiritual knowledge of Self and Aparā vidyā, i.e. knowledge of the world.
In the upavedas and vedāṅgas, we find philosophy, but also sciences like astronomy, medicine, political science, weaponry psychology, agriculture, poetry, art, music etc.
Oral tradition of the Vedas
The Vedas still continue to play an immeasurable important role in contemporary Indian life. Simultaneously, it is important to realize that only thirteen of the more than one thousand Vedic recitation branches have survived.
These branches are of immense important for the continuation of this oral tradition. The ṝṣis had passed the Vedas on in oral lineage from either father to son or Guru to Śiṣya (disciple).
This oral culture emphasises a strong memory culture that was helped by several mnemonic techniques, like matching physical movements and modes of recitation.
There are in total eight modules of chanting. Learn more and listen to the chants in this nice short introduction video from UNESCO.
Semantic vs phonologic value
In modern days language is mostly used for its meaning. However, in the core every spoken word consists out of vibrations.
These particular sound vibrations of the Vedas are seen as revealing that which is before creation. In this line, chanting the secret mantras in the correct way is regenerating the cosmos spiritually.
Already at the end of the Vedic period common men started to become unaware of the meanings of some mantras. However, with the large emphasis on phonology of the sounds, this has by no means reduced the importance of the vedas.
Vedas are often described as śruti (that what is heard), distinguishing them from other religious texts which are smiṛiti (that what is remembered). The main difference is that the ṝṣis perceived the Vedas directly as revelations, whereas smiṛiti are more like a recollection of memory by those that heard or learned the original teachings.
Four Vedas for this era
Vyāsa is a title given to incarnations of Lord Viṣṅu who comes every dvāpara yuga to help us to bring understanding of the vedas. According to the Bhagavata Purana, the dvāpara yuga lasts 864,000 years, and according to other puranic sources it ended when Krishna returned to his timeless abode, named Vaikuṇṭha or also Viṣṇuloka.
The last incarnation of Vyāsa was Dvaipāyana or Veda Vyāsa, son of the famous astrologer ṝṣi Parāśara. He divided the vedas into four pādas, namely the Ṛgveda, Yajurveda, Sāmaveda & Atharvaveda, which all consist out of saṃhitās, brāhmaṇas, āraṇyakas and upaniṣads.
Here follows a minimized summary of the content of the saṃhitās of each of the veda
The style of language in this saṃhitā indicate that the Ṛgveda is rather a collection of several hymns from different areas and periods.
Ṛg is the name of mantras that are meant to praise the deities. This saṃhitā contains about 10.552 mantras, classified into ten books called maṇḍala. Each maṇḍala is divided into several sections called Anuvāka.
Each Anuvāka consists of a number of hymns called sūkta (groups of mantras), and each sūktas is made up of a number of verses called ṝgs. Every sūkta is connected to a ṝṣi, a devatā, and chandas.
There exist other ways of dividing the contents of the Ṛgveda, but these are less commonly used nowadays. When Veda Vyāsa consigned the Vedas to his four disciples, he consigned this veda to ṝṣi Paila
‘Yajur’ is derived from the same root as yajña and refers to fire sacrifice. This saṃhitā is divided into four types of rituals, which are performed by four orders of priests. It is essentially a guide book for Adhvaryu priests.
This work is twofold consisting of a Kṛṣṇá Yajurveda and Śukla Yajurveda. In the first mantra and Brāhmaṇa (the practical application of ritual) are conjoined, whereas in the latter the two are separated.
The Shukla Yajurveda is related to the Ādityá-school and the Kṛṣṇá Yajurveda is related to the Brahma-school. When Veda Vyāsa consigned the Vedas to his four disciples he consigned this veda to ṝṣi Vaiśampāyana.
Sāmaveda Saṃhitā functions as a songbook of the Udagatr priest. The Sāmaveda is the shortest of all the four Vedas. However, is still contains 1549 verses, of which the majority except 75 are taken from the Ṛgveda.
Also this Saṃhitā consists out of two parts, the melody collections called gāna and verse books called ārcika. Every melody in the gāna corresponds to a verse in ārcika. When Veda Vyāsa connected the Vedas to his four disciples he consigned this veda to ṝṣi Jaimani.
The Atharvaveda saṃhitā contains various knowledge, like mantras, which can be divided into three purpose categories: 1) to cure diseases and destruction of adverse forces, 2) to establish peace, protection, health, wealth, friendship and long life, and 3) to help gain insight in the nature of reality, time, death and immortality.
Atharvan originally means ‘priest’ and the mantras in the Atharvaveda saṃhitā were brought to light by ṝṣi Atharva. (source: http://vedicheritage.gov.in) When Veda Vyāsa connected the Vedas to his four disciples he consigned this veda to ṝṣi Sumantu.
More on outline of the Vedas
Each of these fours vedas contain also out of:
- Brāhmaṇas consisting of treatises relating to prayer and sacrificial ceremony.
- Āraṇyakas, called “forest-texts” because they are related to hermits dwelling in forests, they can be seen as additions to the Brāhmaṇas.
- Upaniṣads, which are more esoteric doctrines transferring spiritual knowledge. They are also called vedāntas, referring to the completion and final aim of the Vedas. The vedāntas belong to the later period of the Vedic age (source: Puranic encyclopaedia by Vettam Mani).
Origin of the Vedas
Brahmā can be seen as the creator of the Vedas. For the performance of sacrifices, Brahmā created the Vedas from Agni (fire), Vāyu (Wind) and Ravi (the Sun) (Puranic encyclopaedia by Vettam Mani).
Seen from a more human level, the vedas are claimed to be impersonal or authorless (apauruṣeya) by the Śaṁkya philosophy. In this view, the vedas evolve from pṛakṛiti at the beginning of a kalpa en merge back into pṛakṛiti at the end of a kalpa during a phase of pralaya (dissolution).
One of the first statements in this line is found in the Yuktidīpika text (600-700 CE), which describes the Vedas as “not preceded by intellect/thought of men, independent (sva-tantra), conducting to the highest good of men”, and “as that which cannot be put into doubt (pramāṅa)”.
Other views in, for example, mīmāṃsā agree on the vedas being authorless, but also mention that they are eternal, i.e. they were never created and will never be destroyed. According to the Nyāya and the Vaiśeṣika philosophy, the Vedas are created by either the ṝṣis or by Īsvara at the beginning of a new kala.
In the Yuktidīpika there are also indications that ṝṣi Kapila (the founder of Śaṁkya philosophy) is to be seen as the author of the veda. In this view, Kapila’s state of liberation is described as inborn, whereas the other ṝṣis attained liberation through ūha (understanding). In this perspective Kapila is seen as omnipresent and takes up a similar role as Īsvara (Lucyszyna, 2020 in International Journal of Hindu Studies).
Clearly the Vedas are not man-made, but are revelations of God. The ṝṣis are considered to be seers of the mantras. It is mentioned “Mantradraṣṭāraḥ na tu Kartāraḥ” (They are seers of mantra, not the makers).
~ Om Tat Sat ~