Compilation of the Vedas Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

As the most revered scriptures of Hinduism and the oldest documentary monument of the Indo-Aryan people, the Vedas occupy an unrivaled place in India’s religious and cultural history.

Summary of Event

The Vedas are the oldest extant texts of the Indo-European language family and the most sacred scriptures of Hinduism. Etymologically, the word veda is derived from the Sanskrit root vid, meaning “to know” or “to understand,” and it is related to other Indo-European words such as the German wissen, “to know”; Latine videre, “ to see”; and English “vision.” Compiled over several centuries by many families of authors, these books vary widely in content, length, and literary style. They consist of hymns to forces of nature personified as gods, incantations and magical formulas sung by priests during performances of sacrifices and other religious rituals, and philosophical reflections about the origin and nature of the world, the essence and attributes of the ultimate reality, the deities’ relationship to human beings, and the fundamental ethical values that should guide human life on earth.

There are four Vedas: the Rigveda (also known as Ṛgveda, c. 1500-c. 1000 b.c.e.; English translation, 1896-1897), the Yajurveda (c. 1500-c. 1100 b.c.e.; The Texts of the White Yajurveda, 1899), the Sāmaveda (c. 1500-c. 1100 b.c.e.; Sama Veda of the Jaiminiyas, 1938), and the Atharvaveda (c. 1500-c. 1100 b.c.e.; The Hymns of the Arthava-veda, 1895-1896). Together they comprise the totality of the sruti (what is heard) literature, in contrast to the smriti (what is remembered) that constitutes some of the later writings of Hinduism. The Hindu scholars divide each Veda into four distinct sections: the Saṃhitās (hymns); the Brāhmanas (explanation and rules of rituals); the Āraṇyakas (forest treatises); and Upaniṣads (philosophical reflections on the meaning of the Vedas). Of these four parts, the Saṃhitās, or collections of hymns, forms the core and the most ancient texts of the Vedas.

By all accounts, the Rigveda Saṃhitā is the oldest of the four Vedas and the oldest extant religious book in continuous use by any people on earth. It is a book roughly equivalent in length to the Homeric epic of the Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) and Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614) and consists of 1,028 hymns that total about 10,600 stanzas. Its literary and poetic qualities are remarkably, though not consistently, high. The language of the Vedas is preclassical Sanskrit. The hymns are metrical in form, and each contains, on an average, ten stanzas. The hymns are mostly invocations to gods who inhabit the heavens (dyaus), space (antariksa), and the earth (pritvi). The chief celestial gods are Varuna, Mitra, Surya, Savitr, Pusan, the Asvins, Usas, and Ratri. Gods who make their abode in space are Indra, Rudra, Marut, Vayu, and Parjanya. Earthly gods include Prthivi, Agni, and Soma. Although the hymns are dedicated to these and a multitude of other gods, the Rigveda also has some concept of a dominant god called Prajapati, who created everything. Besides gods, the Vedas mention godly creatures such as apsaras and demons called pisacas. A few hymns deal with purely secular matters such as weddings and gambling.

The Yajurveda, which consists of two distinct parts called Krishna (black) and Shukla (white), is a collection of hymns and verses used by priests during religious ceremonies. The Sāmaveda repeats much of the Rigveda material by setting it to music, facilitating its singing during the performance of religious rituals, and the Atharvaveda contain magical formulas and medical treatises. The origin of Indian classical music has its foundation in the seven musical scales employed in the Sāmaveda.

The society that is reflected in the Vedas is that of a people occupied in agriculture and cattle raising and who were engaged in making war on the natives. Their family structure was fluid and allowed room both for monogamy and polygamy. Women were generally accorded a higher place than in other early societies and had the ability to choose their husbands. The Vedic people enjoyed chariot racing, gambling, and music for recreation. They believed that truth and righteousness would always triumph in the end, extolled these virtues as the highest ethical values, and searched for knowledge and immortality as the ultimate goals of human life.

Determining the date of the Vedas has always been difficult because of a lack of references in the texts to known historical events and clearly datable items as well as a dearth of archaeological data that can be used as corroborating evidence. Most Indologists are comfortable in assigning 1500 b.c.e. to the earliest parts of the Vedas. One methodology employed by scholars to fix the date of the Vedas is based on their thought patterns and an analysis of the works’ linguistic forms. Using this methodology, Max Müller (1823-1900), one of the early European Indologists, estimated that the Vedas are more “ancient and primitive” in thought and expression than any other known texts, including the Babylonian and Akkadian cuneiform tablets. In his judgment, the Vedic concepts and writings are so ancient that they represent the “early growth” of human thinking, leading him to conclude that the Vedas were written no later than 1200 b.c.e. Müller’s estimate has since become a point of reference for most Western Vedic scholars.

Some Indian scholars assign the Rigveda, the first of the four Vedas, a much older date. For instance, Bala Gangadhar Tilak dates the Vedic hymns to 6000 b.c.e. These Indian scholars claim such extreme antiquity for the Vedas on the basis of astronomical calculations, a claim that is difficult to prove unless one assumes the exactness of those calculations. In any case, because Buddhism began to spread in the fifth century b.c.e., in part as a reaction to the excessive Vedic ritualism and abstract philosophical speculations contained in the Brāhmanas and Upaniṣads, it is safe to assume that the core of the Vedic canon was fixed several centuries before the birth of Buddhism.

Hindu theologians dismiss the question of the origin of the Vedas as inappropriate because of their belief that as eternal (sanatana) and impersonal (apaurusheya) wisdom revealed to the rshis, the Vedas are outside the ken of human history. The difficulties in estimating the date of these books and determining their authorship are themselves theologically interpreted as proof for their ahistorical character. These theologians do not, of course, deny that the written texts originated at some point in history; what they mean to assert is that their content and message are not of human origin.

Significance

Despite the successive invasions that India suffered at the hands of foreign powers such as the Persians, the Greeks, the Scythians, the Huns, the Arabs, the Persians, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and, finally, the British, India succeeded preserving its distinctive cultural identity largely because of its deep roots in the Vedic culture and practices. To the Indians, the Vedas are far more than a literary monument; they are the living foundations of the religious and cultural life of its predominantly Hindu population. The hymns of the Rigveda are still being sung, in their original Sanskrit, during religious ceremonies, weddings, funerals, dedications of temples, and other occasions. The Hindus accord no other piece of writing such an exalted position as the Vedas.

The Vedas, and Hindu scriptures in general, have assumed a new political and social significance in recent decades. Led by Hindu nationalists and aided by contemporary Indian political leaders, a potent Hindu revivalism (Hindutva) has swept the entire nation, bolstering India’s identity and place in the world at a time of increasing globalization. The unparalleled antiquity of the Vedas and the wisdom they contain are touted as pointers to the country’s cultural superiority over those who sought to dominate it in the past.

As the oldest written monument of the Indo-European languages, the Vedas also serve as valuable vehicles to understand the relationships among a large family of languages as they shed on the minds of the people who conquered and populated various parts of Asia, Persia, and Western Europe starting in the fifth millennium b.c.e.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bryant, Edwin. The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Edwin presents an excellent historiographical study of the origin of the Indo-Aryans and carefully examines evidentiary data concerning the date of the Vedas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elizarenkova, Tatyana, and Wendy Doninger. Language and Style of the Vedic Rsis. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. The authors apply the method of semiotics to Vedic philology, providing interesting insights into the linguistic structure of the Vedas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lal, B. B., and S. P. Gupta, eds. Frontiers of the Indus Civilization. New Delhi: Books and Books, 1984. This edited volume critically reacts to the Western theories about the origins of India’s Vedic civilization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Müller, Max F. A History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature. 1859. Reprint. Varanasi, India: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, 1968. Though dated, Müller’s work is still respected as that of a pioneer Indologist.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Patton, Laurie L. Authority, Anxiety, and Canon: Essays in Vedic Interpretation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. Going beyond the opposing camps of European philologists and Indian ritualists, the author focuses on the substantive relevance of the Vedas for modern discourse.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ragozin, Zenaide A. The Story of Vedic India as Embodied Principally in the Rig Veda. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1895. Ragozin’s book is a good example of the nineteenth century Western view of ancient India, an interesting reading from a historiographical perspective.

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