What exactly is in the Vedas, the oldest texts in Hinduism?
Religious texts in Hinduism are classified into two broad categories—shruti and smriti
Most people in India are aware that the Vedas are the oldest texts in Hinduism. However, not many are familiar with what exactly they contain. Today’s article gives a brief introduction to the Vedas.
Religious texts in Hinduism are classified into two broad categories—shruti and smriti. Shruti means “what is heard”. These texts were “heard” by sages after long and intense meditation. So, they are considered authorless and unchangeable. Vedas are a shruti text.
To ensure faithful transmission of the Vedas across generations in the absence of writing, the ancient Indians had invented several techniques to recite the Vedas forwards, backwards and in many other permutations. The techniques proved successful as the text remained unchanged till it was finally written down, thousands of years later. Smriti, on the other hand, refers to texts that were “remembered” and usually are attributed to an author. In the old times, smriti texts were considered freely changeable by anyone. Hence, there exist so many versions of smriti texts like Ramayana and Mahabharata.
There are four Vedas. Originally, there existed only one Veda. It is said to have been classified into four Vedas by sage Krishna Dvaipayana, due to which he received the title, Vedavyasa—the classifier of Vedas. Undoubtedly, our readers will identify Vedavyasa as the celebrated author of the Mahabharata. Rigveda, which is the oldest Veda, contains 10,600 verses about religious practices and fundamental questions regarding existence—like who put the Sun in the sky.
The gods most frequently mentioned in the Rigveda are Agni, Mitra, Varuna, Indra, and Soma. The second Veda, Samaveda, consists of 1,549 verses and is meant to be sung. The content is mostly derived from the Rigveda. It is as if the Rigveda contains the lyrics, and the Samaveda contains the melody. The third Veda, Yajurveda, is in prose and consists of 1,875 verses. The text is generally divided into two categories: Krishna or black Yajurveda (the unclear and poorly arranged part), and Shukla or white Yajurveda (the clearer and well-arranged part). The fourth Veda—Atharvaveda—was not considered a Veda in the olden times but is now usually included. It consists of 730 verses. Some of these are concerned with magic while others deal with rituals or observations in daily life.
Each Veda consists of four different parts—the Samhitas or prayers; the Aranyakas dealing with ceremonies and sacrifices; the Brahmanas or commentaries on rituals and ceremonies; and finally, the Upanishads containing philosophy and spiritual knowledge. The Vedas have been the foundation stone of the Hindu religion since its beginning days and continue to be counted as its highest authority. They are hence worth reading and understanding, at least in translation, if not in the original.