Vedas – Four pillars of Hinduism
Veda is a Sanskrit word which means “knowledge” or “science”. Vedic knowledge is enshrined in fourteen sacred texts.The oldest literature of Indian thought is the Veda, a collection of religious and philisophical poems and hymns composed over several generations beginning as early as 3000 BC. The Veda was composed in Sanskrit, the intellectual language of both ancient and classical Indian civilizations. Four collections were made, so it is said that there are four Vedas. The four as a group came to be viewed as sacred in Hinduism. Some Vedic hymns and poems address philosophic themes, such as the henotheism that is key to much Hindu theology. Henotheism is the idea that one God takes many different forms, and that although individuals may worship several different gods and goddesses, they really revere but one Supreme Being. There are four Vedas –
The date for the Rig-Veda was in controversy for a long time. The traditional date goes back to 3000 BC, something which the German scholar Max Mueller accepted. However, modern historians have now reached a consensus that its oldest parts were written around a more cautious 1200BC.As a body of writing, the Rig-Veda (the wisdom of verses) is nothing short of remarkable. It contains 1028 hymns dedicated to thirty-three different gods; these gods were, quite expectedly, nature gods. The most often addressed gods are Indra (rain god; king of heavens), Agni (fire god) and Rudra (storm god; the ‘howler’). A sizeable chunk of the verses are also dedicated to Soma (the draught of immortality), which was a cool alcoholic brew made from the leaves of the soma plant and was drunk during sacrifices. The identity of the plant itself is subject of furious debate. In nature, however, it was somewhat similar to the brews that the American Indians used to consume before conducting sacrifices – to numb both the sacrificer and the sacrificee although human sacrifice was never a part of Aryan worship.
This oldest religious text in the world has10,589 verses which are divided into ten mandalas or book-sections. The oldest portions of the Rig-Veda are from books two to seven; the others were added later. The book-sections are arranged according to the number of hymns they possess.
The Sama-Veda or the wisdom of chants is basically a collection of samans or chants, derived from the eighth and ninth books of the ‘original Veda’, the Rig-Veda. These were meant for the priests who officiated at the rituals of the soma ceremonies – in full sway there could have as many as seventeen full rituals. As time went along rituals and ceremonies of worship became increasingly intricate and the simplicity of the original Rig-Vedic age was slowly forgotten. Thus a need arose to compile all the rituals and their chants in a book, as a sort of reference point for the priests whose functions this Veda clearly puts down.
It is not surprising that the Sama-Veda is better known for the precise meter of its poetry than for its literary content. There are also painstaking instructions in Sama-Veda about how particular hymns must be sung; this is perhaps because great emphasis was put upon sounds of the words of the mantras and the effect they could have on the environment and the person who pronounced them.
The Yajur-Veda or the wisdom of sacrifices lays down various sacred invocations (yajurs) which were chanted by a particular sect of priests called adhvaryu. They performed the sacrificial rites. This is very much a ritual based Veda for although there are a few hymns to various Gods the main stress is on the theory of the ritual. The Veda also outlines various chants which should be sung to pray and pay respects to the various instruments which are involved in the sacrifice.
The Atharva-Veda (the wisdom of the Atharvans) is called so because the families of the atharvan sect of the Brahmins have traditionally been credited with the composition of the Vedas. It is a compilation of hymns but lacks the awesome grandeur which makes the Rig-Veda such a breathtaking spiritual experience. It is roughly equivalent to the western magic spells and has incantations for everything – from success in love to the realization of otherworldly ambitions.