Vedas are a large body of ancient Indian texts. The Vedas are the oldest of the Hindu scriptures and are regarded as sacred by Hindus. The Vedas are classified into four categories: the Rig Veda, the Atharva Veda, the Sama Veda, and the Yajur Veda.
In this post, we will understand everything about Vedas, their status in the Indian knowledge system, and how they are studied. Let’s start with the classification of all the knowledge of our knowledge system.
Shruti Vs Smriti
Indian systems of knowledge are classified into two main categories:
- Smriti: Knowledge which is thought of and created through human intellect. It includes knowledge systems like the creation and use of various tools of survival like hunting and farming tools, tools to enhance the external sense perceptions, and methods to make life more secure and comfortable. It also includes knowledge systems like the rules of societal behavior and function, the responsibilities and duties between the individual components of a family, of a society, and so on.
- Shruti: Knowledge that is perceived and realized by the human mind. existential knowledge systems, like how the creation came about, how life functions within the human body and outside it, the relationship between creatures and the forces of creation, the purpose and possibilities that this relationship comes with, and so on.
While the first kind of knowledge system is subject to change with the times one lives in and the society around, the second kind of knowledge system stays valid, irrespective of societal structures and needs of the time. This is knowledge that is not a product of the human mind. We might perceive it or use it, but it is not a product of human thought and imagination.
The Vedas are the shruti, or “revealed” scriptures, as opposed to the smriti, or “remembered” scriptures. The Vedas are apaurusheya, or “not of human origin”, meaning that they were not composed by humans.
The word “Veda” comes from the Sanskrit root vid, meaning “to know” or “to understand”. These is the root sounds from which words like Vidya, which means learning, and Vidalya, which means place of learning, come. The literal meaning of the word Veda is just knowledge. Knowledge of everything around us.
That is why it is said that the systems of knowledge are infinite. But we all have heard that there are four Vedas, each of which has four components of its own.
Vedas are not man-made or Vedas are of divine inspiration.
Veda Vyasa: Compiler of Vedas
Krishna Dvaipayana, famously known as Ved Vyasa, is the one who compiled and classified the Vedas. Mind you he did not create the Vedas. He merely compiled and classified them.
Still, we celebrate the brightest full moon night as Guru Purnama, in his memory. It directly shows the value of Ved Vyasa’s work and indirectly the status of Vedas in the Indian thought and knowledge system.
Vedas are central to Hinduism because they form the backbone of Hindu secret texts. Most of the texts of Hindus look up to Vedas as the most authentic source of wisdom.
The Vedas are classified into four collections – the Rigveda, the Atharva Veda, the Samaveda, and the Yajur Veda.
These collections are further divided into eighteen Brahmanas and eighty Aranyakas. The Vedas are also known as the ‘sacred books of the Hindus’. The Vedas are composed in Vedic Sanskrit.
Rig Veda: Rigveda is the compilation of various hymns, each of which is called as rik, which means descriptive words of praise. The hints of Rigveda describe and praise the properties of various natural elements around us, giving them personified forms of Admi, Indra, Varuna, Mitra, Soma, etc.
Sama Veda: The Sama Veda is a collection of hymns that are chanted during the performance of the sacrificial fire ritual. This Veda is about “Upasana”. It is called as the Samaveda, where the word Sama literally means a song.
Yajur Veda: The Yajur Veda is a collection of sacrificial formulas and instructions for the performance of Vedic rituals. This Veda is about “Rituals” or practical aspects of Vedic knowledge. It is called Yajurveda, where the word Yaju literally means practice or a ritual.
This Veda is a realization of the power of performing rituals. It contains instructions as to how to perform various kinds of rituals that are conducive to specific aspects of human wellbeing in terms of textual content.
Atharva Veda: The Atharva Veda is a collection of hymns. This Veda is about “science”. It has a lot of content that is unique from the rest of the three, but the realizations contained within it, are still Apaurusheya and are not made up in the human mind.
This Veda deals with the knowledge of handling life at a more physical level of existence, how to deal with various kinds of discomforts and diseases, what is considered wealth in human life, how to acquire, consume and disseminate it, and so on.
Section of Vedas
Samhita is the mantra part of Vedas. Some traditions of Hindus especially Arya Samaj only consider Samhita to be the Vedas. Samhita section is the object of focus for someone in brahmacharya ashrama or during learning age.
All the four Vedas can be thought of as having four sections called Samhita, a compilation of all the realized hymns, Brahmanas explanation of how to put them to practical use, Aranyakas various internal observances one can follow, and Upanishad footnotes which capture the entire essence of the Veda. Each of these four components is meant to be used in each of the four stages of human life called ashramas.
Brahmana section is of use to someone in Grihastha ashrama to put whatever has been learned in Samhita to practical use.
The Brahmanas are a class of ancient Hindu texts that contain instructions on rituals and ceremonies. They are often divided into two groups: the older, “primary” Brahmanas, and the later, “secondary” Brahmanas. The primary Brahmanas are part of the Vedas and are concerned with the specifics of ritual.
They are often divided into four groups, corresponding to the four Vedas: the Rig-veda Brahmana, the Yajur-Veda Brahmana, the Sama-Veda Brahmana, and the Atharva-Veda Brahmana. The secondary Brahmanas are not part of the Vedas but were composed later, around the time of the Upanishads. They are concerned with the symbolism and interpretation of ritual and are often divided into two groups: the Shatapatha Brahmana and the Brihadaranyaka Brahmana.
The Aranyaka section is supposed to be put to practice during Vanaprastha ashrama or during one’s withdrawal from society into a secluded area for spiritual pursuits.
The Aranyakas are a class of Hindu scriptures that are part of the Vedas. They are also known as forest Treatises because they were composed in forests. The Aranyakas discuss rituals and ceremonies that are to be performed by those who have renounced worldly life and live in forests.
The Upanishads are a class of Hindu scriptures that are part of the Vedas. They are also known as the Secret Teachings because they contain the secret knowledge of the nature of reality. The Upanishads discuss the nature of the soul, the nature of the universe, and the relationship between the two. Upanishads: The Upanishads are philosophical texts that discuss the nature of reality and the nature of the self.
And finally, the Upanishad section is said to be of practical use during Sanyasa Ashrama, where one renounces worldly pursuits in search of the absolute truth of creation.
The first two sections are called Karma Kanda, or the segment of Action, and the second two sections are called jyana Kanda, or the segment of Knowledge.
There were many other sages after Veda Vyasa who explained the concepts of these four Vedas and each of the four components further resulting in a lot of branching up of these knowledge systems into various shakas or branches. There are many, many subdivisions of Samhitas, Brahmas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads named after the sages who explore them uniquely.
Each Veda is also ascribed with a Upaveda or a subsystem of knowledge that is born out of the revelations contained within the Veda. Ayurveda. A study of ayyahu or life itself is ascribed to Rigveda. Dhanurveda, the study of archery and warfare is ascribed to Yajurveda Gandharva Veda. The study of aesthetics, music, and dance is ascribed to Samavedha and Arthashastra. The study of the pursuit of wealth and prosperity is ascribed to Atharva Veda.
Vedangas: Tools for understanding Vedas
Vedangas are the tools and methodologies to understand the knowledge of the Vedas that have been authored by many rishis or sages. One has to be proficient with Vedangas to study Vedas effectively. Please read our post on “How to study Vedas” to see what other tools are available to you. They are classified under six categories:
- Shiksha: This is the study of the phonetics aspect and pronunciation of the Vedic chants. This teaches you how different aksharas(letters) are pronounced, the right way to pronounce them, etc.
- Chandas: This is the study of poetic meters i.e. syllables, etc
- Vyakarana(Grammar): This is the study of rules of grammar and linguistics.
- Nirukta: This is the study of etymology i.e. How words are made and how they get their meaning.
- Kalpa: Study of ritualistic part, what do they mean? what’s their significance? Why and how should one perform them? It deals with the practices and proper application of these chants and rituals i.e. practical part in contrast to the theoretical understanding in 5 other parts.
- Jyotisha: Study time calculation and time keeping NOT fortune telling, etc.
The study of Vedas is the pursuit of a lifetime or even lifetimes. Understanding their meaning, studying various interpretations, and internalizing them is by no means, a small task.
This is the main reason why the traditional Gurukul systems prioritize memorization before the analysis of meaning because even if the meanings of the Vedas could be understood at a textual level, the real benefit happens only when their true essence dawns upon the sadhaka’s mind as experiential truth.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the Vedas?
Vedas are the sacred holy texts of Hindus. Various traditions of Hindus though have many holy texts but Vedas are considered the most sacred among all of them.
Who wrote Vedas and when was it written?
Hindus do not consider Vedas were written by someone. Instead, Hindus say Vedas are “Apaurusheya” which means they are of divine origin and are not created or written by any human being.
Are Vedas scientific?
Vedas are definitely scientific in nature. Vedas discuss the laws of nature, scientific concepts, astronomy, mathematics, arthashastra, etc
Are Vedas true?
Vedas are considered sabd pramana i.e. statements that are considered true. Vedas contain knowledge about everything around us.
Are Vedas authentic?
Vedas are completely authentic because it is not possible to edit Vedas because it will require highly advanced knowledge of Vedic Sanskrit, chandas (poetic meters) and still it will be very easy to find the addition.
But it is very easy to distort the meaning through translation which is what has happened in the last 1000 or so years. But it accelerated a lot during British colonial period.
Can Shudras read Vedas?
Anyone can read Vedas. If one wants to merely read Vedas, then he can do so. But to understand Vedas, one has to pass through rigorous training in studying 6 Vedangas. Only someone who has studied the Vedangas should read the Vedas to understand the real meaning.
The talks about cutting the tongue and pouring molten lead in the ears of a Shudra who listens to Vedas are nothing but colonial constructs. But discrimination did happen, there is no denying it.
How many years old are Vedas?
Vedas are considered eternal by Hindus because they were not created by any human. The knowledge contained in them is considered apaurusheya but the knowledge itself has been realized at a particular time by a particular human.
Can women read/chant Vedas?
Vedas can be read, recited, or studied by anyone irrespective of their caste, creed, race, or religion. All those stories are nothing more than hearsay. They do not have any scriptural sanction in Hinduism.
Are Vedas written by God?
No, Vedas are not considered written by God. Instead, they are considered to be inspired by God. The proper term that describes this is “apaurusheya“.
Are Vedas facts or fiction?
Vedas do not contain stories. So they are not fiction. Instead, Vedas discuss astronomy, mathematics, natural sciences, etc.
Why Vedas are considered Shruti?
“Shruti” means something that has been heard. Among all the holy texts of Hindus, only Vedas are considered Shruti.
Can we keep Vedas at home?
No body is stopping you from keeping Vedas at home. And actually you should have Vedas at home. Best translation today is by Maharishi Dayananda Saraswati.
What do Vedas say about God?
Vedas speak about many Devas but only one supreme consciousness which we refer to God. Devas are nothing but natural forces around us and are considered to be exist due to supreme consciousness.
What Vedas say about eating meat
Vedas do not sanction meat eating. All the talk about Vedas contain meat eating is nothing more than fantasies of people as well as acharya’s like Mahidhar who couldn’t understand the complete meaning of Vedic mantras due to his disability. This the context
When was Vedas composed?
There is not a single book or piece of literature that talks about the Vedas being composed at a given time. Instead, Vedas are considered “apaurusheya” which literally means “something that hasn’t been created by humans.
Which Vedas is the oldest?
There is a widespread notion that Rigveda is the oldest and different Vedas were written at different times. But that is not the case. Instead, Vedas were classified at different times.
Why Vedas are called apaurusheya?
Apaurusheya means “something that is of no human origin”. Vedas are not composed or created by any human being. Instead, they are considered divine.
Why Vedas are important?
Vedas are the very foundation of Hinduism. So without Vedas, there is no Hinduism.
What is the best place to learn Vedas?
There are many gurukuls in India where one can learn and study Vedas. If you’d like to read Vedas, find a gurukul near you from our Gurukul List.
Are Vedas available in English?
There are many translations of Vedas available in English primarily by Ralph T.H. Griffith. They have introduced distortions knowingly. So it is better to not study Vedas through them unless you already know a lot about Vedas.
Best place to start for a newbie would be the translations of Maharishi Dayananda Saraswati.
Is there idol worship in Vedas?
Vedas do not have idol worship. Vedas is a compendium of knowledge about everything around us. Devas are nothing but natural concepts like air, water, etc.