Shruti: The Four Vedas

The Vedas are considered the oldest Hindu texts. Scholars believe that they were written down some 2,500 years ago, though the tradition often dates them to the beginning of Kali-yuga (circa 3000 BCE). Some Hindus say that there was originally only one Veda, the Yajur, which was later divided into four. Scholars, however, usually consider the Rig-Veda the oldest of all Hindu writings. The following is an overview of the four Vedas.

The Rig-Veda

The most important and, according to scholars, oldest of the Vedas. It is divided into ten books (called mandalas) and has 1028 hymns in praise of various deities. These include Indra, Agni, Vishnu, Rudra, Varuna, and other early or "Vedic gods." It also contains the famous Gayatri mantra and the prayer called the Purusha Shukta (the story of Primal Man).

The Yajur-Veda

A priestly handbook for use in the performance of yajnas (sacrifices) It is divided into two sections, the earlier "black" and the more recent "white."

Sama-Veda

This consists of chants and melodies to be sung during worship and the performance of yajna.

Atharva-Veda

Contains hymns, mantras and incantations, largely outside the scope of yajna.

Within each of the four books there are four types of composition, or divisions, as shown below. In the narrowest of senses, only the Samhitas comprise the true Vedas. The first two divisions relate to the performance of sacrificial rituals (the karma-kanda section), whereas the second pair consists of philosophy (and belong to the jnana-kanda section).

  1. The Samhitas – literally "collections," in this case of hymns and mantras. They form the Veda proper.
  2. The Brahmanas – prose manuals of ritual and prayer for the guiding priests. They tend to explain the Samhitas. They also contain early versions of some stories.
  3. The Aranyakas – literally "forest books" for hermits and saints. They are philosophical treatises.
  4. The Upanishads – books of philosophy, also called "Vedanta," the end or conclusion of the Vedas.

There are also two important bodies of supplementary literature, related closely to the Vedas themselves. They are:

The Six Vedangas (limbs of the Vedas)

  1. Kalpa (ritual detail)
  2. Siksha (pronunciation)
  3. Vyakarana (grammar)
  4. Nirukti (etymology)
  5. Chandas (metre)
  6. Jyotisha (astronomy/astrology)

The Four Upavedas (following the Vedas) explain arts and sciences

  1. Ayur-veda (medicine)
  2. Gandharva-veda (music and dance)
  3. Dhanur-veda (warfare)
  4. Shilpa-veda (architecture)

Scriptural Passage

"We meditate on that most adorable, most desirable and most enchanting effulgence of the Supreme Lord, who is the source of creation, inspiration and eternal happiness. May His light inspire and illumine our intellect."

Gayatri Mantra (from the Rig Veda)