Vedas

{vay' - duhz}

General Information

The Vedas (Sanskrit: "knowledge"), the most sacred books of Hinduism and the oldest literature of India, represent the religious thought and activity of the Indo European speaking peoples who entered South Asia in the 2d millennium BC, although they probably also reflect the influence of the indigenous people of the area. The Vedic texts presumably date from between 1500 and 500 BC. This literature was preserved for centuries by an oral tradition in which particular families were entrusted with portions of the text for preservation. As a result, some parts of the texts are known by the names of the families they were assigned to.

In its narrowest sense, the term Veda applies to four collections of hymns (samhita): Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda. These hymns and verses, addressed to various deities, were chanted during sacrificial rituals. In a wider sense, Veda refers to both these hymns and the materials that accreted around them to form four books with four parts. For each of the Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva, there are not only hymns, but also Brahmanas - prose texts that explain and illustrate the significance of the ritual; Aranyakas, or forest - treatises - esoteric texts providing symbolic or magical interpretations of ritual formulae; and the commentaries called Upanishads - the beginnings of Hindu philosophy.

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Vedic rituals essentially involved offerings to and with fire under precisely prescribed conditions by which the sacrificer hoped to communicate with the deities and thus to obtain desired results. The importance attached to the satisfaction of formal conditions required that a priest with knowledge of the proper forms officiate at the sacrifice. Many of the deities addressed by the sacrifice were identified or associated with natural objects of forces such as fire, water, and wind. Among the most important were Indra (thunder, war, and perhaps creator), Varuna (guardian of the cosmic order and moral law), Agni (fire, light), and Soma (a liquid used in the sacrifice). The form and functions of one god, however, were not strictly distinguished from those of others and, as the Vedic period progressed, thought developed from polytheism to monotheism and thence, in the Upanishads, to monism.

The relation of Vedism to the Hinduism of later centuries is complex and not well understood. The Vedas are preserved in traditional fashion in certain parts of India, and the tendency is widespread to look to them as expressions of the fundamental genius of Hindu thought and aspiration. The originals of the major Hindu gods - Shiva and Vishnu - can be found among the minor deities of the Vedas. The sacrifice has, however, all but disappeared from India in its Vedic form, replaced by different rites; and the analogy, central to the Vedic ritual, between actions on Earth and events in the heavens is replaced in Hinduism by the goal of liberation from actions on Earth, from life itself. The concepts of Karma and Transmigration of Souls are not found in the Vedic corpus until the Upanishads.

Karl H Potter

Bibliography:
E V Arnold, The Rigveda (1960); S Aurobindo, The Secret of the Veda (1971); J Gonda, Vedic Literature: Samhitas and Brahmanas (1975); A B Keith, Religion and Philosophy of the Vedas and Upanishads (1926); C K Raja, The Vedas: A Critical Study (1957).


The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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