views updated May 14 2018


VEDAS . Specifically, the Vedas are often understood to comprise four collections of hymns and sacrificial formulas. In a more general sense, however, the term Veda does not denote only these four books, or any single book, but a whole literary complex, including the Sahitās, the Brāhmaas, the rayakas, the Upaniads, the Sūtras, and the Vedāgas. The many texts, varied in form and content, that make up the Veda were composed over several centuries, in different localities, and by many generations of poets, priests, and philosophers. Tradition, however, will not admit the use of the word compose in this context, for the Veda is believed to be apaurueya, "not produced by human agency." It is eternal. Its so-called authors have merely "seen" or discovered it, and they are thus appropriately called i s, or seers.

Vedic tradition notes that the apaurueya character of the Veda accords it ultimate validity in every respect. Moreover, the Veda is said to comprehend all knowledge (veda ). Indeed, most of the later Brahmanic disciplines claim the Veda as their fountainhead. The Veda has been passed from generation to generation by oral transmission. This fact explains the name śruti ("what is heard") by which the Veda is known. In order to preserve this extensive literature intact without the aid of writing, and to facilitate its precise memorizing, the Vedists devised various ways of reciting the Veda (pāhas or viktis ) that involve permutations and combinations of the words in mantra s (versus) and prose formulas. The emergence of various schools (sākhā s) and subschools (caraa s) of Vedic study has also substantially helped the preservation of this large corpus of literature. At the same time, oral transmission may have resulted in the loss of a considerable portion of Vedic literature in the course of time.

Early History of the Veda

The literary history of the Veda is usually divided into four periods: the Sahitā period (c. 20001100 bce), the Brāhmaa-rayaka period (c. 1100800 bce), the Upaniadic period (c. 800500 bce), and the Sūtra-Vedāga period (c. 500 bce onward). Broadly speaking, these four periods represent a chronological sequence, and a thread of logical development running through them invests them with a kind of unity. Yet only the literature of the first three periods is traditionally regarded as apaurueya. In particular, four collections of texts from the Sahitā period are commonly referred to as the four Vedas. These are the gveda Sahitā (the oldest collection), the Atharvaveda Sahitā, the Sāmaveda Sahitā, and the Yajurveda Sahitā.

Before the Vedic Aryans migrated into the northwestern region of India, then called Saptasindhu ("land of seven rivers"), their ancestors had lived together with the ancestors of the Iranian Aryans, presumably in Balkh and its environs, for a fairly long time (22002000 bce). It was there that the Proto-Aryan language and religion acquired their specific characteristics. The religion of the Proto-Aryans consisted mainly of the concepts of cosmic law (Vedic, ta; Avestan, aša ) and its administrator (Vedic, Asura Varua; Avestan, Ahura Mazdā), a simple fire worship, and a cult centering on the sacred drink (Vedic, soma; Avestan, haoma ). Mantra s (magically potent verses) or hymns (groups of mantra s usually involving a single theme) relating to this religion were composed by the ancestors of the Vedic Aryans in an earlier form of Vedic Sanskrit. In the course of time, the ancestors of the Vedic Aryans left their home in Balkh and proceeded toward the alluring "land of seven rivers," while the ancestors of the Iranian Aryans migrated toward Iran. During their expedition to Saptasindhu and because of subsequent conflicts and colonization in that region, a significant strain was imposed on the old Vedic religion in the form of a hero cult with Indra as its chief divinity. The activity of composing mantra s and hymns relating to the old (Proto-Aryan) as well as the new Vedic (Indra) religion continued unabated throughout this time. Side by side with this religion of the "classes" among the Vedic Aryans developed the religion of the "masses," which was largely constituted of magic, sorcery, and witchcraft, and relating to which mantra s were also being composed. When, soon after, the Vedic Aryans had settled down in their new home to a life of comparative peace, leisure, and prosperity, poet-priests collected all the scattered mantras, old and new and relating to both the Proto-Aryan and Vedic religions. They revised and edited them, grouped them together into suitable hymns (where they were not already so grouped), and arranged those hymns according to a certain plan. As a result, two primary "collections" (sahitā s) were brought into existence: the gveda Sahitā and the Atharvaveda Sahitā (20001700 bce).

gveda SahitĀ

The gveda Sahitā has come down to the present according to the recension of the Sakala school. It consists of 1,028 sūkta s (hymns) made up of varying numbers of metrical verses (mantra s, more commonly called k s, which accounts for the name gveda ). The hymns are assembled in ten different books or maala s whose formation is governed mainly by the criterion of authorship. Among the classes of the Vedic Aryans, a few families had already acquired some measure of socioreligious prestige. The mantra s or hymns, which were traditionally believed to have been "seen" by the progenitor and other members of a particular family, were collected together to form the book of that family. The nucleus of the gveda is formed of six such family books, which are numbered from two to seven and which are ascribed respectively to the families of Gtsamada, Viśvāmitra, Vāmadeva, Atri, Bharadvāja, and Vasiha. Within a family book, the hymns are grouped according to the divinities to whom they are related. These divinity groups are then arranged in a certain fixed order, the group of hymns relating to Agni being placed first. Within each divinity group, the hymns are arranged in descending order according to the number of stanzas. The majority of hymns in the eighth book belong to the Kava family. The first book is a collection of miniature maala s. Book nine is ritualistically oriented, all the hymns included in it, irrespective of authorship, being related to soma. The tenth book, which contains the same number of hymns as the first book (191), is a collection of residual hymns. There is another, later mechanical arrangement of the gveda that is obviously directed to the purpose of memorizing the Sahitā. According to this system, the entire gveda Sahitā is divided into eight divisions (aaka s), each division into eight chapters (adhyaya s), and each chapter into about thirty-three sections (varga s) of about five stanzas each.

The bulk of the gveda consists of mythology and the panegyrics and prayers that are either dependent on or independent of that mythology. The exclusively naturalistic, or ritualistic, or mystic interpretation of Vedic mythology is now generally discountenanced, and an evolutionary approach is increasingly favored. One may speak of three main phases of the evolution of the Rgvedic mythology: the phase represented by ta-Varua, Agni, and Soma; the phase represented by Indra and other heroic gods; and the phase represented by the admission into the Vedic pantheon of popular Aryan divinities (e.g., Viu) and pre-Vedic non-Aryan divinities (e.g., Rudra). Apart from mythology, the gveda also contains a few hymns of sociohistorical and philosophical purport.

Atharvaveda SahitĀ

The Atharvaveda, which is aptly described as the Veda of the masses, is more heterogeneous and less inhibited than the gveda. The name Atharvāngirasa, often used in reference to this Veda, indicates the twofold character of its contentsthe wholesome, auspicious "white" magic of Atharvan, and the terrible, sorcerous "black" magic of Agirgas. Another name of this Veda is Brahmaveda. The name has been explained by the fact that the Atharvaveda consists of brahman s (magically potent formulas), or by the fact that this Veda is the special concern of the brahman priest in the Vedic ritual. There is another explanation of the name. Because of the peculiar character of the contents of this Veda, it was for a long time not recognized as being as authoritative as the other three Vedas (trayi ). In reaction against this exclusivism, the Atharvavedins went to the other extreme and stated that the gveda, the Sāmaveda, and the Yajurveda were essentially "limited," for brahman alone was infinite, and this brahman was truly reflected only in the Atharvaveda. Thus, the Atharvaveda was called Brahmaveda. The Atharvaveda is also known by several other names, each of which emphasizes a specific trait of its character: It proves particularly efficacious in the performance of the duties of the purohita (royal priest), and is thus known as the Purohitaveda; it contains many hymns pertaining to the katriya s (ruling or warrior class), and is thus called the Katraveda; and it is the guide for the performers of the practices described in the five (pañca ) main ancillary texts (kalpa s) of this Veda, and thus is known as the Veda of the Pañcakalpins.

The Atharvaveda is available in two recensions, the Śaunaka and the Paippalāda (which is only partially available). The Śaunaka recension consists of 730 hymns grouped into twenty books (kāa s). About five-sixths of these hymns are metrical (arthasūkta s), whereas the remaining ones (paryāya-sūkta s) are made up of prose units (avasāna s). The Atharvaveda is less sophisticated in its meter, accent, and grammar than the gveda. The contents of the Atharvaveda may be broadly classified under the following headings: charms to counteract diseases and possession by evil spirits; prayers for health and longevity and for happiness and prosperity; spells pertaining to various kinds of relationships with women; hymns concerning the affairs of the king, as well as those intended to secure harmony in domestic, social, and political fields; and formulas for sorcery and imprecation and for exorcism and counterexorcism. Finally, the Atharvaveda contains quite a few hymns embodying highly theosophic and philosophical speculations.

SĀmaveda and Yajurveda SahitĀs

The Sāmaveda and the Yajurveda are essentially liturgical collections and conceptually mark the transition from the Sahitā period to the Brāhmaa period. The Sāmaveda Sahitā is a collection of mantra s to be chanted at the various soma sacrifices by the udgāt priest and/or his assistants. The name Sāmaveda is, however, a misnomer; it is not a collection of sāman s, or chants, but rather a collection of verses, mostly derived from the gveda, which are intended to form the basis of proper sāman s (sāmayoni mantra s). Out of the traditionally mentioned thirteen sākhā s of the Sāmaveda, only three are known today: the Kauthuma, the Rāāyanīya, and the Jaiminīya, or Talavakāra. The Kauthuma Sahitā of the Sāmaveda is made up of two parts, the Pūrvārcika and the Uttarārcika. The Pūrvārcika consists of 585 mantra s and the Uttarārcika of 1,225 mantra s. However, the total number of mantra s in the Sāmaveda, not counting those that are repeated, is 1,549all but 78 of them having been taken from the gveda, mostly its eighth and ninth maala s. For their use in the soma ritual, the sāmayoni mantra s are transformed into chants or ritual melodies, called gāna s, by means of such devices as the modification, prolongation, and repetition of the syllables in the mantra s and the occasional insertion of additional syllables (stobha s). Such gāna s are gathered in four books: the Grāmageyagāna, the Arayagāna, the Ūhagāna, and the Ūhyagāna. Of course, these gāna collections are quite distinct from the Sāmaveda. Since one sāmayoni mantra can be chanted in a variety of ways, it gives rise to several gāna s. Consequently, the number of gāna s is much larger than the number of sāmayoni mantra s. For instance, the number of gāna s belonging to the Kauthuma school is 2,722.

Whereas the Sāmaveda concerns itself exclusively with just one feature of the soma sacrifice, the Yajurveda treats the entire sacrificial system. Indeed, the Yajurveda may be regarded as the first regular textbook on the Vedic ritual as a whole. It deals mainly with the duties of the adhvaryu, the priest responsible for the actual performance of the various sacrificial rites. There are two major recensions of the Yajurveda, the Ka ("black") Yajurveda and the Śukla ("white") Yajurveda. The difference between them lies not so much in their contents as in their arrangement. In the Ka Yajurveda, the mantra s and the yaju s (sacrificial formulas in prose) and their ritualistic explanation and discussion (called brāhmaa ) are mixed together. Thus, in its form and content the Sahitā of the Ka Yajurveda is not particularly distinguishable from the Brāhmaa or the rayaka of that Veda. In contrast, the Śukla Yajurveda contains only the mantra s and the yaju s, the corresponding ritualistic explanation and discussion being reserved for the Śatapatha Brāhmaa that belongs to that Veda.

The Sahitās of four schools of the Ka Yajurveda namely, the Taittirīya, the Kaha (or Kāhaka), the Maitrāyaī, and the Kapihala Kahaare available today either whole or in fragments. Incidentally, it may be noted that the Taittirīya school has preserved its literature perhaps most fully of all the Vedic schools, maintaining the continuity from the Sahitā period, through the Brāhmaa-rayaka-Upaniad periods, up to the Sūtra period. The Taittirīya Sahitā is divided into seven kāa s, and, together with the Taittirīya Brāhmaa and the Taittirīya rayaka, it covers almost the whole gamut of Vedic ritual. However, in these texts, the different sacrifices are not dealt with in any rational order.

A significant feature of the Śukla Yajurveda is that its entire literary corpus has come down in two distinct versions, the Mādhyandina and the Kāva. However, there is little essential difference between them in content and arrangement. The Śukla Yajurveda Sahitā, which is also known as the Vājasaneyi Sahitā in the Mādhyandina version, consists of forty chapters (adhyāya s). The first twenty-five adhyāya s contain mantra s and formulas relating to the principal sacrifices; the next four adhyāya s include additions to these basic mantra s and formulas; adhyāya s 3039 deal with such sacrifices as the Puruamedha, the Sarvamedha, the Pitmedha, and the Pravargya; and the last adhyāya constitutes the well-known Īśa Upaniad.

See Also

Brāhmaas and rayakas; Pristhood, article on Hindu Priesthood; Sūtra Literature; Upaniads; Vedāgas; Vedism and Brahmanism.


Translations of the gveda can be found in Hymns from the Rigveda, translated by A. A. Macdonnell (Calcutta, 1922); The Hymns of the Rigveda, 2 vols., translated by T. H. Griffith (Varanasi, 19201936; reprint, 1967); gveda Maala VII, translated by Hari Damodar Velankar (Bombay, 1963); and The Soma-hymns of the gveda, 3 vols., translated by Shrikrishna Sākhāram Bhawe (Baroda, India, 19571962).

Translations of other Vedas include three works translated by T. H. Griffith: The Hymns of the Samaveda (Varanasi, 1893; reprint, 1963), The Texts of the White Yajurveda (Varanasi, 1899), and The Hymns of the Atharvaveda, 2 vols. (Varanasi, 18951896; reprint, 1968); The Veda of the Black Yajus School Entitled the Taittiriya Sanhita, translated by Arthur Berriedale Keith (Cambridge, Mass., 1914); and Atharvaveda Samhitā, edited by C. R. Lanman and translated by William Dwight Whitney (Cambridge, Mass., 1905).

The few English translations of the Brāhmaas include Rigveda Brāhmaas, translated by Arthur Berriedale Keith (Cambridge, Mass., 1920); Pacavimśa-brāhmaa, translated by W. Caland (Calcutta, 1931); and The Śatapatha-Brāhmaa, translated by Julius Eggeling (Oxford, 18821900; reprint, Delhi, 1966).

The rayaka literature is represented in English by The Aitareya rayaka, edited and translated by Arthur Berriedale Keith (Oxford, 1909; reprint, 1969).

Secondary sources on Vedic religion include Maurice Bloomfield's The Religion of the Veda (New York, 1908; reprint, Varanasi, 1972); Arthur Berriedale Keith's The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads (Cambridge, Mass., 1925); Hermann Oldenberg's Die Religion des Veda, 2d ed. (Stuttgart and Berlin, 1917); Louis Renou's L'Inde classique (Paris, 1947); and my Exercises in Indology (Delhi, 1981), especially the chapter entitled "The Cultural Background of the Veda," pp. 6893.

The religion of the Brāhmaas is discussed in Religion and Mythology of the Brahmanas, "Govind Vinayak Devasthali Series" (Poona, 1965); Jogiraj Basu's India of the Age of the Brāhmaas (Calcutta, 1969); and Sylvain Lévi's La doctrine du sacrifice dans les brāhmaas (Paris, 1898).

Secondary sources on Vedic literature include my Vedic Mythological Tracts (Delhi, 1979) and Insights into Hinduism (Delhi, 1979), especially the chapter entitled "Literature of Brahmanism in Sanskrit," pp. 320372, and Jan Gonda's Vedic Literature (Wiesbaden, 1975).

New Sources

Choudhary, B. K. From Kinship to Social Hierarchy: The Vedic Experience. Patna, 1999.

Elizarenkova, Tatyana J. Language and Style of the Vedic Rsis. Albany, 1995.

Facets of Vedic Studies. Edited by Bidyut Lata Ray. New Delhi, 2000.

Inside the Texts, Beyond the Texts: New Approaches to the Study of the Vedas: Proceedings of the International Vedic Workshop. Harvard University, June 1989. Cambridge, Mass., and Columbia, Mo., 1997.

Jamison, Stephanie W. The Ravenous Hyenas and the Wounded Sun: Myth and Ritual in Ancient India. (Myth and Poetics.) Ithaca, N.Y., 1991.

Jamison, Stephanie W. Sacrificed Wife/Sacrificer's Wife: Women, Ritual, and Hospitality in Ancient India. New York, 1996.

Mahony, William K. The Artful Universe: An Introduction to the Vedic Religious Imagination. Albany, 1998.

Malamoud, Charles. Cooking the World: Ritual and Thought in Ancient India. Translated from the French by David White. Delhi; New York, 1996.

R. N. Dandekar (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 29 2018


The Vedas are the ancient sacred scripture of India, known as sruti, "that which is heard." Though "seen" rather than heard in the ecstatic visions of the early sages who first sang these hymns, they have been transmitted orally from teacher to student for thousands of years. With intensive complex techniques of memorization unparalleled anywhere, practitioners could memorize by heart thousands of lines of text. On the basis of archaeological evidence and interpretation of the texts, most scholars date the Vedas to approximately 1500 b.c.e. However it should be noted that an intense debate has raged for the last several years, with some partisans giving dates as early as 5000 or even 7000 b.c.e. In any case, traditional medieval Indian scholarship instituted an exegetical trend asserting the timelessness of the Vedas. These books are authorless (apaurusheya); they do not come from any human hand or mouth, but rather at the dawn of each new cycle of the world, they reappear as the primordial wisdom to be "heard."

There are four major books of the Vedas, the Rg Veda, with 1026 hymns, songs sung to the gods in the sacrifice; the Yajur Veda, which deals especially with the Vedic fire ritual; the Sāma Veda, consisting mostly of hymns taken from the Rig Veda, but elaborately sung to a scale of seven notes rather than the three notes used for other Vedic recitation; and the Atharva Veda, the Veda associated with the sorcerer Angiras, abounding in magic incantations for a host of mundane concerns, such as luring away the poison from a snakebite, warding away miscarriage, bewitching the boy next door to fall in love, reversing someone else's magic spell, and so on.

Each of these four Vedas chronologically subdivides into four sections of three types. The Brahmana portions explain the ritual. The Aaranyaka portions are transitional texts of philosophical and mystical speculation; and the Upanishads, known as Vedanta, the end of the Vedas, both chronologically and teleologically, speak of secret mystical teachings—the oneness that pervades the whole and the secret parallels between the cosmos and the human body.

What role do the Vedas play in contemporary American culture? The first murmurings were heard in the wake of nineteenth-century American enthusiasm for the mysticism of the Upanishads, which filtered into American culture via the writings of authors like Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. For their American readers, these mystical teachings opened a world unseen, a mystic unity with all of life, a diffuse mysticism—the "oceanic feeling" that Freud found so distasteful. In fact, Leaves of Grass, with its celebratory catalogue of life, in many ways echoes the Black Yajur Veda piece Camakam, extremely popular in India even today, where the poet sings a celebratory catalogue of nature and the human body, of leaves and streams, the rocky pathway and the easy one, the eddying whirlpool and the eye, speech, the ear, the mind—all embraced within himself. The metaphor underlying this diffuse mysticism is especially the image of dissolving, as in the Chandogya Upanishad (6.13.1–3), where salt dissolves in water to be everywhere present, on all sides, but nowhere discretely seen.

Eventually, and especially pronounced in the 1960s, this diffuse and transcendent mysticism solidified itself in American consciousness in the pervasive image of the meditating yogi, scarcely clad and complete with long beard and an otherworldly mysticism, challenging what was felt as the West's materialist obsession. Probably the best representative of this Vedantic mystic ascetic is Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, made famous by the Beatles. He founded a popular movement that swept across the nation in the early 1970s, and his Veda is the mystic counterpoint to the science of the modern Western world; his Maharishi Vedic University offers not only courses on management and the sciences, but also courses like Validation of Experiences of Higher States of Consciousness through the Vedic Literature and Modern Scientific Research. The Vedantic perspective here follows the exegesis of medieval schools like Shankara's Advaita Vedanta, where the world is illusory, a transient and incoherent toy that Maya, the inexpressible power of illusion, creates.

Salvation lies in transcendence of the vicissitudes of this impermanent world. This presentation of the Vedas is most prominent in America, found in institutions like the Vedanta society and the Ramakrishna Mission (despite the fact that its eponymous founder himself embraced a tantric this-worldly devotion to the goddess Kali), to Dayananda Saraswati in Pennsylvania, to the Rishikesh-based Shivananda and his disciples, Satchidananda, Vishnudevananda, and especially the late charismatic Chinmayananda, an exreporter who had a transformative experience after meeting his guru Shivananda, and who drew crowds of thousands of students to talks at universities across the United States—and also to lesser known teachers, like Acarya Peter, of German extraction, who teaches to a dedicated flock outside Washington, D.C. More recently, beginning in the later 1980s newer apostles of a Vedantic mysticism have begun to germinate in the American landscape, from the South Indian "hugging saint" Ammachi to a host of American-born teachers like Gangaji and Andrew Cohen, who, after "getting" the message of the Chāndogya Upanishad, the great statement "you are that!" (Chāndogya 6.5.1ff), returned from India to spread the message to wisdom-hungry America.

Whether a notion of the illusory maya of the world is really espoused by Vedic texts, and particularly by the circa-sixth-century Vedanta, is debatable. But it should be added that at least since the charismatic teacher of the eighth century c.e., Shankara, an asceticism stressing the illusoriness of the world has been a prominent indigenous interpretation of the late Vedic literature. We can also spy a Vedantic perspective on the world seeping into the New Age movement with writers like Ken Wilber embracing the timeless mysticism of Shankara's Upanishads as embodied in the twentieth century mystic Ramana Maharshi. The book he would take, if stranded on a desert island, would be Talks with Ramana Maharshi (One Taste, 1999).

The New Age has gravitated toward the Vedas in another way also, in a practical this-wordly say, via a growing interest in what is traditionally known as Vedanga, the "limbs of the Veda." This includes especially Ayurveda, an indigenous medical system of India especially using herbs in treatment; and in jyotisha, Vedic astrology. Both have become quite popular in New Age circles, and Ayurvedic books on healing, like those of Deepak Chopra, are beginning to edge into the mainstream.

Finally we need to consider the impact of the Vedas on a newer section of America's population. Beginning with the great "brain drain" in the mid-1960s, numbers of well-educated Indians began migrating to the United States, especially in the computer software industry. And these immigrants have imported their religious traditions by building temples (mathas) in pockets of the United States like the Venkateshara Temple in Pittsburgh and its satellite in Chicago and especially the Srngeri Matha in Pennsylvania, which incorporates the traditional Vedic recitation of its namesake in India. In many of these temples and especially those with South Indian affiliation, a traditional Vedic recitation is included as part of the liturgy. These are just a few notable examples of a burgeoning phenomenon in the United States, one that is beginning to be recognized as a part of the American religious landscape, as evidenced by the fact that President Bill Clinton recently attended the inauguration of a new South Indian temple to the god Murugan.

See alsoBhagavad GĪtĀ; Hinduism; Mysticism; New Age Spirituality; Ramakrishna Movement; Religious Experience; Vedanta Society.


Isherwood, Christopher, ed. VedantafortheWesternWorld. 1945.

Jamison, S. W. Ravenous Hyenas and the WoundedSun:Myth and Ritual in Ancient India. 1991.

Olivelle, Patrick. Upanishads. 1996.

Staal, J. F. Agni: The Vedic Fire Ritual of theFireAltar. 2 vols. 1983.

Loriliai Biernacki


views updated May 14 2018


Sacred books of Hinduism. The word Veda means "knowledge" or wisdom, and the Vedas are called ruti (that which has been heard) to signify that they were "revealed." Hindus regard them as "eternal" and not the work of man. They were originally handed down by word of mouth, and it is impossible to say when they took their present form. It is probable that the earliest collection of hymns, known as the Rig Veda, was completed by 900 b.c. A collection of verses from these hymns, arranged for chanting at the sacrifice, was added and was known as the Sāma Veda, and another collection containing prose formulas to be used in the ritual of sacrifice was added later and was known as the Yajur Veda. Finally at a much later date a further collection, known as the Atharva Veda, was made. It contained magic spells and incantations, chiefly derived from the cults of the non-Aryan population. To the original books of the Vedas there were added first the Brāhmaas, a kind of prose commentary explaining the significance of the rites, and then the Ārayakas (forest-books) and the Upanishads, in which a mystical interpretation of the rites was developed into profound and original philosophical speculation. Thus each Veda now consists of a Mantra (hymn), a Brāhmaa, an Ārayaka, and a Upanishad, and these together form the corpus of sacred scripture or ruti.

See Also: hinduism.

[b. griffiths]


views updated May 29 2018


The Vedas, one of the foundations of Hindu religion and mythology, are a collection of ancient sacred texts. They are considered to be divine communications from the god Brahma* to seers called rishis. Composed between 1500 and 1000 b.c., the Vedas were passed on orally for hundreds of years before being written down in Sanskrit, an ancient Indo-European language.

The Vedas consist of hymns and verses directed toward various gods and goddesses as well as ceremonial texts, magical spells, and curses. Many of the hymns, or mantras, are chanted or recited during religious rituals. Although the Vedas are not true myths or stories about the gods, they contain information that serves as the basis for mythology

seer one who can predict the future

ritual ceremony that follows a set pattern

incantation chant, often part of a magical formula or spell

Four collections of texts make up the Vedas. The Rig-Veda is the oldest and most important collection; the other three are the Sama-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, and the Atharva-Veda. The first three, known as the trayi-vidya (threefold knowledge), are concerned with public religious belief and ritual. The last collection, the Atharva-Veda, is more private in nature, dealing mainly with folk beliefs, such as magical spells and incantations. Because of their ancient authority and sacredness, the Vedas remain a central element in Hinduism.

See also Brahma; Hinduism and Mythology; Rig-Veda.


views updated May 29 2018

Vedas Ancient and most sacred writings of Hinduism. They consist of series of hymns and formulaic chants that constituted a Hindu liturgy. There are four Vedas: Rig Veda, containing a priestly tradition originally brought to India by Aryans; Yajur Veda, consisting of prayers and sacred formulas; Sama Veda, containing melodies and chants; and Atharva Veda, a collection of popular hymns, incantations and magic spells. The Vedas were composed between c.1500 and 1200 bc.


views updated Jun 11 2018

Vedas (more comprehensively, Veda). The four collections which lie at the foundation of Hindu scripture, Ṛg Veda, Sāma Veda, Yajur Veda, Atharva Veda. They constitute the foundation of revealed (śruti) scripture.