A Glimpse of Vedic Literature

January 24, 2007 at 10:24 pm Leave a comment


Jan 23, (TUE) — A fundamental overview of the corpus of texts constituting the Vedic Literature.

In basic terms, ‘Vedic literature‘ simply means literature based on or derived from the Vedas. The texts which constitute the Vedic literature are: 1. The four Vedas i.e. Samhitas, 2. the Brahmanas attached to each of the Samhitas, 3. the Aranyakas, and 4. the Upanishads.

The Vedas

The Rg-Veda, Samveda and Yajurveda are collectively known as Vedatrayi. Atharva Veda is considered a later addition. Bharatamuni’s Natyasastra is considered to be the panchama Veda (fifth Veda). The Rg-Veda is the oldest among all Vedas. It must have been compiled over several centuries. Some of the earliest hymns are said to have been composed around 1500 BC. These were passed on from the teacher to the disciple, orally. The different parts (mandalas) are ascribed to different families of seers’ e.g. Gautama and Kanva etc. It is the foundation of all the Vedic literature.

The Rg-Veda is neither a historical nor a heroic poem but is mainly a collection of hymns by a number of priestly families. The hymns addressed to various Gods such as Agni, Indra etc are recited at the time of sacrificial rites and other rituals. The Rg-Veda contains 1028 hymns (sukta) which are divided into ten mandalas and sometimes into astakas. Mandalas 2 to 7 are considered to be the earliest of all compositions.

The tenth mandala is said to have been added later as its language differs slightly from the other nine mandalas. It contains the famous Purushasukta that explains that the four varnas (Castes) (Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra) were born from the mouth, arms, belly and the legs of the Creator. The universally famous Gayatri mantra (Savitri) is in Rg-Veda. There are five divisions of Rg-Veda namely, Sakala, Baskala, Asvalayana, Sankhayana and Mandukya. The total mantras in Rg-Veda are 10,600.

The Samaveda derived from the root saman i.e. ‘melody’, is a ‘collection of melodies. Samaveda consists of 1603 (excepting 75) verses that have been borrowed for the Rg-Veda. These were meant to be sung at the time of Soma sacrifice. The Jha Samaveda is important in tracing the history of Indian music.

The Yajurveda is the book of the Adhvaryu priests. The Yajurveda prescribes the procedures to be adopted at the time of performing different sacrifices. There are two main texts of the Yajurveda: Sukla Yajurveda or Vajasaneyi (Madhyandin and Kanva) and Krsna-Yajurveda (Taittiriya, Kathaka, Maitrayani and Kapisthal) . It is a collection of short magic spells used by a certain class of priests at the time of sacrifices. Patanjali, the grammarian, refers to 101 schools of Yajurveda.

The Atharaveda is entirely different from the other three Vedas is content and style. It is the latest of the four. However, it is equally important and interesting as it describes the popular beliefs and superstitions of the humble folk. For a very long time it was not included into the category of the Veda. It is divided into 20 kandas and has 711 hymns and a collection of 5987 mantras – most of these hymns are used to ward off the evil spirits. The Atharvaveda has two different divisions – Paippalada and Saunakiya. Each Vedas has its own Samhita and commentary.

Gaja-Laksmi, Dasavatara manuscript
The Brahmanas

The Brahmanas explain the hymns of the Vedas. They are written in prose and they elaborately describe the various sacrifices and rituals, along with their mystic meanings. Each Veda has several Brahmanas. The two Brahmanas attached to the Rg-Veda are Aitareya Brahmana and Kausitaki Brahmana. These were composed by Hotri-priests or invoker (the priest who recites mantras of the Rg-Veda at the sacrifices). The Sukla Yajurveda is appended with Satapatha Brahmana which recommends ‘one hundred sacred paths’ (Satapatha). It is the most exhaustive and important of all the Brahmanas. The Gopatha Brahmana is appended to the Atharvaveda. These Brahmanas, in fact, are the elaborate commentaries on the various hymns is Samhitas.

The Aranyaka

The word Aranyaka means ‘the forest’ and these are called ‘forest books’ written mainly for the hermits and students living in the jungles. These are the concluding portions of the Brahmanas or their appendices. A strict code of secrecy was maintained over the Aranyakas as it was believed that the contents would spell danger if taught to the uninitiated. And hence they were to be studied in the forest. They deal with mysticism and symbolism. They form the natural transition of the Upanishads. They offer the bridge between Karma marga (way of deeds) which was the sole concern of the Brahmanas and the jnana marga (way of knowledge) which the Upanishads advocated.

The Upanishads

The word Upanishad has been derived from the root Upani-sad that means ‘to sit down near someone’. It denotes a student sitting under the feet of his guru to learn. Eventually the word began to be used for the secret knowledge imparted by the guru to his selected pupils. Today the word began to be used for the secret knowledge imparted by the guru to his selected pupils. Today the word is associated with philosophical knowledge and spiritual learning. Upanishads are also called Vedanta (the end of the Veda) firstly, because they denote the last phase of the Vedic period and secondly, because they reveal the final aim of the Veda. Our nation’s motto Satyameva jayate is taken from the Mundakopanishad.

In fact, the Upanishads are the culmination of ancient Indian philosophical ideas. The whole of later philosophy of India is rooted in the Upanishads. The philosophical principles of Sankara, Ramanuja, Ramakrishna Paramahans, Aurobindo and others are derived from Upanishadsand, by and large, all the philosophical doctrines of subsequent days have borrowed something or the other from them. There are 108 Upanishads classified according to the Vedas, and they were composed by several learned saints between 800 BC and 500 BC. Some of the most renowned Upanishads are Aitareya, Kausitaki, Taittariya, Brhadaranyaka, Chhandogya and Kena.

All these are older than Buddha and Panini. Among the later Upanishads mention may be made of Katha. Svetashvatara, Isa, Maitrayaniya etc., which lay stress on Samkhya and Yoga doctrines. The language of these Upanishads is classical Sanskrit and not the Vedic Sanskrit.

Like Aranyakas, the Upanishads also give less importance to ceremonies and sacrifices. They discuss various theories on the creation of the Universe and define the doctrine of Karma (action). Brahman (God) and atman (soul) are treated as identical. They profess the goal of life to be-to attain moksha (salvation) which is possible through meditation and self-control.

All the works referred to above are also called Sruti, which means ‘revelation‘. Literally speaking Sruti means ‘heard’. The Vedas are not the outcome of logical interpretation, not a historical anecdote, but they are Divine revelations. The Vedic literature enjoys the status of the foremost authority in all religious matters for the Hindus.


Smritis are the auxiliary treatises of the Vedas and are the law books of Indian society. Literally ‘Smrti‘ means ‘to remember’ and these are regarded, as a part of the revelation though not included in the Vedic literature proper.

Sri Krsna and the Pandavas Vedangas

There are six Vedangas (limbs of Veda). They are: Siksha, Kalpa, vyakarana, niruktas, chhandas and jyotisa. Siksha deals with pronunciation, Kalpa with rituals, Vyakarana with grammar, Nirukta with etymology, Chhanda with meter and Jyotisa with astrosciences.


Similarly, there are six schools of Indian philosophy known as Shad-Darshana. These are: Nyaya, Vaishesika, Sankhya, Yoga, Purva and Uttara Mimansas. These are written in Sutra (aphorism) style, which are short, to the point and without doubts. They all propagate the virtues of life. The Nyaya Darshana was written by Gautama, Vaishesika Darshana by Kanada, Purvamimansa Darshana by Jaimini, Sankhya by Kapila, Yoga by Patanjali and the Uttaramimansa Darshana by Bhadarayana.


Both the Vedangas and the Darshanas claim to have derived inspiration from the Vedas, and they explain the Vedic Philosophy. Still they are not included in the umbrella of core Vedic literature. In the same manner, four Upavedas, namely Dhanurveda (deals with the art of warfare), the Gandharvaveda (deals with the music), Silpaveda (deals with are and architecture) and Ayurveda (deals with medicine) also do not form part of the Vedic literature, though they enjoy great sanctity.

The Vedic texts have been nourished, simplified and continued from one generation to the next through the Sruti parampara by the great saint scholars and sages, to name a few Sri Sankaracarya, Caitanya Mahaprabhu, Madhvacharya and Ramanuja. The Vedas are the treasure housed of knowledge not merely spiritual, but scientific, cultural and material. A fresh look at them, overcoming the hitherto laden emphasis on their religiosity would render that wisdom to us.

Kumar Sanjay Jha is the Assistant Archivist at Kaladarshana Division of the Indira Gandhi National Center for Arts


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