The Vedas

Sanskrit veda: sacred knowledge

Written in an archaic form of Sanskrit, the Vedas are India's most ancient collection of sacred scriptures. These texts consist of hymns, legends, and treatises on ritual, magic, cosmology, and medicine. Although dating the texts has proven difficult, they are generally believed to have been transmitted orally since approximately 1500-1200 BCE, yet only since about 600 BCE in written form. The general and collective name applies to four (sometimes only three) major divisions of these ancient documents, individually known as Rig-, Sama-, Yayur-, and Atharva Veda.

More generally speaking, Vedic literature consits of the original Vedas plus a great number of secondary texts such as the Aranyakas, Brahmanas, Samhitas and Upanishads.

  1. Rig Veda
    A collection of 1,017 hymns orally transmitted since about 1500 BCE (a written form in Sanskrit appeared only after 600 BCE). This most ancient part of the Vedas contains rules and regulations concerning sacrifices, public and domestic ceremonies, and the religious, cosmological speculations by the Indo-Aryan peoples of this early age. The Rig Veda is also very much concerned with the preparation and use of the drug called soma.
    The texts feature a number of racist opinions and doctrines that are at the root of India's rigid caste system. Although the Rig Veda is mainly patriarchal in its outlook and mainly speaks about male deities, it does mention Shakti, who later became a major goddess in the traditions of Tantra and Shakta. (See also Aryan Invasion Theory)
  2. Sama Veda
    A collection of songs to be recited during the preparation and commencement of the soma sacrifice. The text differs only slightly from the Rig Veda.
  3. Yajur Veda
    Subdivided into Black Yajus and White Yajus, this Veda constitutes a manual mainly intended as a guide for the priests performing sacrifices. An Upanishad belonging to the White Yajus is known as Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, famous for its profound teachings concerning the Self - but also for describing to us the ancient fire ritual that is (secretly) dedicated to the goddess and her yoni.
  4. Atharva Veda
    This Fourth Veda is the youngest of the texts (c. 200 BCE), and for a long time it was not recognized as a true part of Vedic literature. Its contents were not clearly fixed and delineated, and some of its parts were seen as belonging to the Yajur Veda; a division that resulted in the Trayi or "Threefold Veda". The Atharva contains 731 hymns copied from the Rig Veda, as well as some other texts that once had been judged as too controversial (calling them "uninspired") and were therefore excluded from the official Vedic canon; a story that sounds similar to that of the Apocrypha that were excluded from the Bible.
    The Atharva deals mainly with medicinal concerns: the power of healing and associated rites and magical spells.
  5. Literature

    Bose, Abinsah Chandra (trans.). Hymns from the Vedas. New York, 1966.
    Müller, Max (trans.). Vedic Hymns. Sacred Books of the East. Vols. 32, 46. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1884. Reprint. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1964.
    Smith, H. Daniel (trans.). Selections from Vedic Hymns. Berkeley, 1968.