The Vedas (Sanskrit: वेद) are a large corpus of texts originating in Ancient India. The Vedas are perhaps the oldest written text on our planet today. They date back to the beginning of Indian civilization and are the earliest literary records. They are supposed to have been passed through oral tradition for over 100,000 years. They came to us in written form between 4,000 to 6,000 years ago. Their verses are recited at prayers, religious functions and other auspicious occasions. They manifest the Divine Word in human speech. They reflect into human language the language of the Gods, the Divine powers that have created us and which rule over us.
According to Hindu tradition, the Vedas are apauruṣeya (not human compositions), being supposed to have been directly revealed, and thus are called sruti (what is heard). Vedic mantras are recited at Hindu prayers, religious functions and other auspicious occasions.
Philosophies and sects that developed in the Indian subcontinent have taken differing positions on the Vedas. Schools of Indian philosophy which cite the Vedas as their scriptural authority are classified as āstika. Two other Indian philosophies, Buddhism and Jainism, did not accept the authority of the Vedas and evolved into separate religions. In Indian philosophy these groups are referred to as nāstika ("heterodox" or "non-Vedic") schools.
A collection of Divine Revelations
The Vedas consist of hymns, thousands and thousands of them. They represent an ocean to which countless Sages have contributed, going back to a period when there was only the spoken language and no script. The hymns of the Vedas represent thoughts and revelations that came to the Sages of yore during their meditations.
These revelations were in the form of hymns, which the Sages transmitted to their disciples. Thus it was that they were passed from generation to generation. For centuries, all this happened entirely by word of mouth. The written version came much later. Hindus asserts that the Vedas are without beginning and without end. One wonders how a book can be described thus. But by the Vedas no books are meant. According to Swami Vivekananda (1893) the Vedas mean …
"the accumulated treasure of spiritual laws discovered by different persons at different times."
Thus the growth of the Vedas is like a series of small streams joining to form tributaries that feed big rivers, the rivers all finally merging into the ocean. This analogy is very apt, because the water that the streams get is from the rain, whose source is really the ocean. In the same way, the revelations that the Sages had were from the Divine; and the Ocean made up by the collection of revelations that constitutes the Vedas, is also Divine.
The Vedas are a collection of writings structured as Samhitas (mantras), Brahmanas (commentaries), Aranyakas (forest treatises) and Upanishads (knowledge section of Vedic literature.) The four Samhitas are a collection of wisdom and comprise the Rigveda (praise wisdom), Yajurveda (sacred formula wisdom), Samaveda (the chant wisdom), and atharvaveda (the magical charm wisdom).
Compiler of Vedas
The great compiler of the Veda and Puranas was Vyasa Krishna Dwaipayana. He was said to be the twenty-eighth of the Vyasas or compilers of Vedic knowledge. He was somewhat older than the Avatar Krishna and his work continued after the death of Krishna. Perhaps he is symbolic of a whole Vedic school which flourished at that time, as many such Vedic schools were once prominent all over India and in some places beyond.
Why are the Vedas called Srutis ?
The Vedas originally existed only in sound form, they are sometimes referred to as Sruti. In scriptures, Sruti means that which is heard. The real reason for giving the name Sruti to the Vedas is that Cosmic Vibrations which are inaudible and cannot be seen were heard by the mediating Sages as sound. That is also one of the reasons why the sound aspect is given so much importance. Great stress is therefore laid by the teachers of Vedas on the correct pronunciation of the word and the intonation while chanting.
The ancients of India devised elaborate recitation drills so that through the ages, the chants would remain the same, without mutation and corruption. Macdonnel (1899) who, commenting on this oral tradition, said as far back as 1899 that …
" The Vedas are still learnt by heart as they were long before the invasion of Alexander, and could now be restored from the lips of religious teachers if every manuscript or printed copy were destroyed."
Branches of Knowledge
The Vedas are divided into four groups, Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda represent various shākhās, or branches, of knowledge. Depending on the branch, different commentaries and instructions are associated with each Veda.
- The Rigveda contains hymns (mantras) that formulate the mythology of ancient Vedic practice;
- The Sāmaveda consists mostly of mantras from the Rig Veda, but arranged in an order specifically suited to the Soma sacrifice;
- The Yajurveda contains detailed prose instructions for the sacrifices; and
- The atharvaveda comprises semi-magical spells against enemies, sorcerers, diseases and mistakes made during the sacrificial ritual, as well as kingly duties and some deeper spiritual truths.
Each of the four Vedas may be divided into two sections:
- The mantra portion, also called the Saṃhitā (संहिता), is a collection of hymns to be used in Vedic sacrifices.
- The Brāhmaṇas portion (ब्राह्मण), contains specific rules and regulations for the sacrifices as well as prose commentaries explaining the meaning of the mantras and rituals.
The Brāhmaṇas, describing rules and purpose of Saṃhitās, are further divided:
- The Āraṇyakas (आरण्यक), which conclude the Brahmanas, are written along a blurry line between
- The Upaniṣhads (उपनिषद्), which contain highly philosophical and metaphysical writings about the nature of, and the relationship between, the ātman (Inner Self) and Brahman. The Upanishads are often referred to collectively as Vedanta ("the end of the Vedas"), not only because they appear physically in the concluding pages of each Veda, but also because the mystical truths they express are seen by many as the culmination of all the other Vedic knowledge.
There are also auxiliary texts called vedanga. The new books that appeared later are called smriti. Smrti literature includes Itihasas (epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata), Puranas (mythological texts), agama (theological treatises) and darsanas (philosophical texts).
The Sound Aspect of Vedic Hymns – It’s Significance
The Vedas exist in the form of chants, and the sound aspect is therefore very important. The Vedic hymns must be chanted properly and there is a spiritual significance to the chant, which the late Paramacharya of Kanchi explains as follows:
Vedas must be chanted with grandeur so that the sound can be properly heard. Vedic Mantras not only produce beneficial vibrations in the pulse of the one who chants them properly, but also similar vibrations in those who may hear them. Since it is spread in the atmosphere, it ensures wellbeing here and hereafter. The outstanding feature of the Vedas lies in the fact that the sound of the Mantras by itself when chanted has a meaning, apart from the words themselves, which too are pregnant with significance.
The sound aspect has been preserved from very ancient times and that is something remarkable. The sound aspect is linked intimately to the words, and the two, namely the sound and the word together have been so intertwined that over time, Vedic hymns have defied corruption and mutation. This is an important point and needs some reflection.
Let us take any language, including English. All languages have evolved. If say, an Englishman who lived fifteen hundred years ago were to suddenly appear before us and start speaking, I am sure most of us would not be able to understand what he is saying. The words would be different and so also the style. This is true of almost all languages. Languages evolve with time, these days over even short periods, but the Vedic language has remained invariant over the several thousand years during which the Vedas evolved.
How have the Vedic Hymns Remained Uncorrupted
The Vedic hymns have remained uncorrupted because of the sound aspect. They had a particular metre and when chanted, they had a certain completeness of their own. Any mutation or distortion of the words would severely disturb the sound aspect, and this disturbance could be easily detected. Since the sound aspect was dominant, corruption could be spotted and eliminated immediately; this is how, the pristine purity of the Vedas had been preserved.
Anyway, the fact of the matter is that the way the Vedas are chanted now, is the same as the way they were chanted thousands of years ago. I must of course qualify this by adding that there are some special schools of Vedic chanting but I am not considering that here; rather, I am confining myself to the standard method of chanting.
Let us say there is a Vedic Pandit from the East Godavari District in Andhra Pradesh and another from Kerala. East Godavari District and Kerala are at least a thousand kilometres apart. The respective Vedic scholars would have imbibed their tradition from their ancestors in those two widely separated parts of the country, parts, which, until recently, did not have good communication between them.
Suppose these two scholars meet and one of them starts chanting say the Taittriya Upanishad. The other would have absolutely no difficulty in joining the first scholar in the recitation. That is because the recitation tradition is the same for both, and that is because the recitation is fixed and has remained invariant through the ages.
The Vedas Are Universal
The Vedas focus on a MYSTICAL ETERNAL SOMETHING that is beyond this world, beyond this Universe, beyond Space and Time itself, and is changeless. It is that Something beyond words and even the Mind that the Vedic seers were in quest of, and with good reason too.
Indeed, across the ages, seekers elsewhere too have been engaged in this very quest, though by different means. Einstein was one of them, and he gives expression to this beautifully. Explaining why he pursued Science, Einstein once said:
A knowledge of the existence of Something we cannot penetrate, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our Minds – it is this Knowledge and emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, I am a deeply religious man.
Einstein tried to catch a glimpse of Cosmic Infinity through Science while the seekers of the Vedic age sought that very same ETERNITY via the path of devotion and Spiritual inquiry.
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