- Veda is derived from the word, vid, “to know.” A Veda, then, would literally be a compendium of knowledge. In Indian tradition the four Vedas (sometimes collectively referred to as “the Veda”) are the ancient scriptural texts that are considered the foundation for all of Hinduism. The four are the RIG, SAMA, YAJUR, and ATHARVA VEDAS.The Rig Veda (c. 1500 B.C.E.), the most ancient extant Indian text, is the most important of the four. It consists of over 1,000 hymns, the great majority of them from five to 20 verses long. Very few exceed 50 verses. The hymns praise a pantheon of divinities. A few of them are cosmo-gonic—they tell of the creation of the universe; these were extremely important in the later devel-opment of Hinduism.By far the greatest number of hymns in the Rig Veda are devoted to INDRA, king of the gods, a deity connected with storms and rain who holds a thunderbolt, and AGNI, the god of fire. The rest of the hymns are devoted to an array of gods, most prominently MITRA, VARUNA, SAVITRI, SOMA, and the ASHVINS. The most important gods in the later Hindu pantheon, VISHNU and SHIVA (in his Vedic guise as RUDRA), were far less frequently men-tioned in the Rig Veda. A number of goddesses are mentioned, most frequently USHAS, GODDESS of the dawn. ADITI is said to be the mother of the gods.Scholars have categorized the religion of the Rig Veda as henotheistic: that is, it was polythe-istic, but it recognized each divinity in turn as supreme in certain ways. Later Hinduism main-tained and enriched this henotheistic concept; in time Hindus have even been able to accept Christ and Allah as supreme “in turn.”A very powerful ritual tradition was central to the Rig Veda, with fire always a central feature. At public and private rituals (YAJNAS) worshippers spoke to and beseeched the divinities. Animal sac-rifices were a regular feature of the larger public rites in the Vedic tradition.Two of the other Vedas, the Yajur and Sama, were based on the Rig Veda. That is, it supplied most of their text, but the words were reorganized for the purposes of the rituals. Yajur Veda, the Veda of sacrificial formulas, has two branches, the K 480 VatsyayanaBlack and the White Yajur Vedas; it contains the chants that accompanied most of the important ancient rites. The Sama Veda, the Veda of sung chants, is largely focused on the praise of the god Soma, the personification of a sacred drink imbibed during most rituals that probably had psychedelic properties. Priests of the three Vedas needed to be present for any larger, public ritual.The Atharva Veda became part of the greater tradition somewhat later. It consists primarily of spells and charms used to ward off diseases or influence events. This text is considered the source document for Indian medicine (AYURVEDA). It also contains a number of cosmogonic hymns that show the development of the notion of divine unity in the tradition. A priest of the Atharva Veda was later included in all public rituals. From that time tradition spoke of four Vedas rather than three.In the Vedic tradition, the Vedas are not con-sidered to be human compositions. They were all “received” by RISHIS or seers whose names are frequently noted at the end of a hymn. Whatever their origin, none of the texts was written until the 15th century C.E. They were thus passed down from mouth to ear for at least 3,000 years. It is an oral tradition par excellence. The power of the word in the Vedic tradition is considered an oral and aural power, not a written one. The chanting itself has the power to provide material benefit and spiritual apotheosis. Great emphasis, therefore, was laid on correct pronunciation and on memorization. Any priest of the tradition was expected to have an entire Veda memorized, including all its components, as detailed in the following.Each of the four Vedas is properly divided into two parts, the MANTRA, or verse portion, and the BRAHMANA, or explicatory portion. Both parts are considered revelation or SHRUTI. The Brahma-nas comment on both the mantra text and the rituals associated with it, in very detailed, varied, and esoteric fashion. They repeatedly equate the rituals and those performing them with cosmic, terrestrial, and divine realities. Early Western scholars tended to discount these texts as priestly mumbo-jumbo, but later scholarship has recog-nized the central importance of the Brahmanas to the development of Indian thought and philoso-phy. It is not known when the various subdivi-sions of the Vedas were identified and named.The name Brahmana derives from a central word in the tradition, BRAHMAN. Brahman is generi-cally the name for “prayer,” specifically the power or magic of the Vedic mantras. (It also was used to designate the “one who prays,” hence the term BRAHMIN for priest). Brahman is from the root brih (to expand or grow) and refers to the expansion of the power of the prayer itself as the ritual pro-ceeds. The brahman is said to be “stirred up” by the prayer. In later philosophy, brahman was the transcendent, all-encompassing reality.The culmination of Brahmana philosophy is often said to be found in the SHATAPATHA BRAH-MANA of the White Yajur Veda, which explicates the AGNICAYANA, the largest public ritual of the tradition. Shatapatha Brahmana makes clear that this public ritual is, in fact, a reenactment of the primordial ritual described in Rig Veda, X. 90, the most important cosmogonic hymn of the Vedas. That hymn describes the ritual immolation of a cosmic “man,” who is parceled out to encompass all of the visible universe and everything beyond that is not visible. That is, the cosmic “man” is ritually sacrificed to create the universe. Through the annual agnichayana, the universe is essentially re-created every year. The Brahmana understands that, at its most perfect, the Vedic ritual ground is identical to all the universe, visible and invisible.The Brahmanas contained two important sub-divisions that were important in the development of later tradition. The first is called the ARANYAKA; this portion of the text apparently pertained to activity in the forest (aranya).The Aranyakas contain evidence of an eso-teric version of Vedic yajna, or ritual practice, that was done by adepts internally. They would essentially perform the ritual mentally, as though it were being done in their own body and being. This practice was not unprecedented, since the priests of the Atharva Veda, though present at all public rituals, perform their role mentally and do not chant. However, the esoteric Aranyaka rituals were performed only internally. From this we can see the development of the notion that the adept himself was yajna or ritual.The UPANISHADS, a second subdivision within Brahmanas, were the last of the Vedic subdivi-sions, commonly found within the Aranyakas. Many of these texts, as did the Brahmanas in general, contained significant material reflecting on the nature of the Vedic sacrifice. In fact, the divisions among Brahmana proper, Aranyaka, and Upanishad are not always clear. The most impor-tant feature of the Upanishads was the emergence of a clear understanding of the identity between the individual self, or AT M A N, and the all-encom-passing brahman, which now was understood as the totality of universal reality, both manifest and unmanifest.The genesis of this Upanishadic view that the self was in unity with cosmic reality can be clearly traced. Firstly, Shatapatha Brahmana explained that the most perfect ritual was to be equated to the universe itself. More accurately it was the uni-verse, visible and invisible. Second, the Aranyakas began to make clear that the initiated practitioner was to be equated to the ritual itself. So, if the ritual equals all reality, and the individual adept equals the ritual, one easily arrives at the idea that the individual equals all reality. The Upanishads, then, were the outgrowth not of philosophical speculation, but of self-conscious ritual practice. The later orthodox Upanishads (those physically associated with a Vedic collection) barely mention the rituals; they merely state the derived abstract concepts.Another key breakthrough in the Upanishads was the explicit discussion of REINCARNATION and the theory of KARMA, the notion that actions in this birth would have consequence in a new birth. There is evidence that karma, or ethi-cally conditioned rebirth, had its roots in earlier Vedic thought. But its full expression in VEDANTA (Hindu philosophy) had to wait for the Upani-shads. There, the earlier notion of reaching unity with the ultimate reality was seen not merely as a spiritual apotheosis, but also as a way out of the trap of rebirth (and redeath).Many texts have called themselves the “fifth Veda” to emphasize their importance in the tradi-tion. The ARTHASHASTRA, the NATYASHASTRA, and the MAHABHARATA all have claimed that designa-tion. Sometimes the TANTRA also refers to itself as the fifth Veda.Tamil SHAIVITES or the Tamil Vaishnavites refer to their sacred texts, respectively, the TEVARAM and the Nalayira Divya Prabantham, as the Tamil Veda. Other local traditions in various languages do likewise.The term Veda is also sometimes used generi-cally in other fields of knowledge. Medicine, for example, is referred to as the “Veda of Life” (AYURVEDA), and the study of war is the “Veda of the Bow” (Dhanurveda).Further reading: Faddegon Barend, Studies in the Samaveda (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1951); S. N. Dasgupta, History of Indian Philosophy. Vol. 1 (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975); Jan Gonda, Vedic Literature (Samhitas and Brahmanas): A History of Indian Lit-erature, Vol. 1, no. 1 (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1975); Thomas Hopkins, The Hindu Religious Tradition (Encino, Calif.: Dickenson, 1971); J. C. Heesterman, The Broken World of Sacrifice: An Essay on Ancient Indian Ritual (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Brian K. Smith, Reflections on Resemblance, Ritual and Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989); Frits Staal, AGNI: The Altar of Fire, 2 vols. (Berkeley, Calif.: Asian Humanities Press, 1983).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.