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The Vedas

The basic principles of what is known today as Hinduism were already formulated by 1500 BC under the collective name of Sanatana dharma. They are to be found in the four Vedas. Vida, derived from the Samskrit root Vid to know, means the sum of knowledge. The Vedas are poems that record and narrate the story of the people of India and their deitiesmale and female. Vedas also reveal significant achievements in the fields of mathematics, science, agriculture, and many other disciplines.

Although Hindus of all grades always speak of the Veda as the foundation and authoritative support of their religion, a vast difference exists between that system as it was in ancient days, and as it is now. There has been a large growth from within and large accretions from without. Modern Hinduism is not a creed, but a vast congeries of conflicting creeds. It has developed into a system of worship of many gods and goddesses, of powers of nature, of men who attained to eminence by their deeds, of ancestors, and of objects both animate and inanimate.

There is no attempt at an ordered system of knowledge, nor is there any indication of self-knowledge or self-realisation. Nothing is found in the Vedas which would in any way support the gigantic assumption of Brahmanism. There is no allusion to the great Hindu Triad, or to the transmigration of souls, or to the present distinctions of caste, or to the pantheistic philosophy of the wise or the unwieldy polytheism of the ignorant. No mention of temples, or of a tyrannical and dominant Brahmanical priesthood, or of child marriage or zenana seclusion. The blessings asked for are temporal, the worship is domestic, addressed to presences representing the physical forces of Nature, not represented by visible types and therefore not Idol worship.

In the more ancient parts of the Rigveda Sanhita, the Aryans are settled on the northwestern borders of India, in the Panjab, and even beyond the Panjab in Kabul. The gradual spread of the Aryans from these seats towards the east, beyond the Sarasvati River and over Hindustan as far as the Ganges, can be traced in the later portions of the Vedic writings almost step by step. The writings of the following period, that of the epic, consists of accounts of the internal conflicts among the conquerors of Hindustan themselves, as, for instance, the MahaBharata; or of the farther spread of Brahmanism towards the south, as, for instance, the Ramayana.

During the latter part of the second millennium BC, the eastward migrations of the Indo-European peoples reached South Asia. The ritual liturgy of these peoples was memorized wholesale by families of hereditary priests. By extraordinary feats of memory and tradition 1028 of these hymns have reached modern times in much the same form as they existed circa 1200 BC. This body of Sanskrit liturgical literature is called veda [the knowledge]. The subject matter of these hymns is religious and includes the praise and worship of the gods, and prayers for health, long life, and many sons.

By 1700 to 1000 BC there was oral transmission of knowledge called the Vedas. They were later written in Sanskrit, the root language of all Indo-European languages, by the second century BC. The old writing was on birch bark and palm leaves, so it disintegrates over time. The Vedas are divided into four main categories. These are:

  1. The Samhitas, which are collections of hymns, rituals for sacrifices and chants. The four Smahitas are the the Rig-veda, Sama-veda, Yajur-veda and the Atharva-veda. These are the oldest vedas, dating from around 1500 to 1000 BC.
  2. The Brahmanas are prose technical treatises on performing sacrifices, together with the meanings associated to the sacrifices. Each Brahmana is associated with one of the Samhitas. They were composed from 1000 to about 600 BC.
  3. The Aranyakas explain some more dangerous rituals and were composed possibly about 700 BC.
  4. The Upanishads are the newest vedas from possibly about 800 to 500 BC. They are more philosophical in tone and discuss knowledge and meditation as paths to spiritual awakening. They are called the Vedantas, meaning the end of the Vedas.
These four Vedas are considered to be of divine origin and to have existed from all eternity, the Rishis or sacred poets to whom the hymns are ascribed being merely inspired seers who saw or received them by sight directly from the Supreme Creator. In accordance with this belief these sacred books have been preserved and handed down with the most reverential care from generation to generation, and have accompanied the great army of Aryan immigrants in their onward march from the Land of the Seven Rivers to the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal.

According to tradition, the Vedas were coeval with creation which had itself taken place according to the laws of the pre-existing Veda. They, however, lay in a scattered form. According to some legends, they were entirely lost, and it was after many a long year that a Rishi or Sage arranged them and gave them the form in which they are now known. This arrangement procured to the Editor the name of Vydsa, or Arranger. He is said to have flourished in the Second Yuga, and hence is his surname Dwaipayana, that is, he who belongs to the Second Age or Yuga, of the World. A number of learned Sages helped him in his labor. After he had divided the whole of the fragments of the Vedas into four parts, he taught them severally to four different pupils. Paila learnt the Rig-vida; Vais'ampayana, the Yajur-veda, while the Sama was taught to Jaimirti, and the Atharva to Sumantu. In time, however, the pupils of those four Sages made some alterations in the original arrangement of the several Vedas which had been handed down to them, and they thereby became Founders of the different schools which are called the Sakhas.

  1. The Rig-veda, derived from the root rich to laud, is intended to be read on occasions when encomiastic pravers and hymns to the Elemental Deities are prescribed by the Law.
  2. The Yajush (Yaj to sacrifice) deals principally with oblations and sacrifices, and consists of prayers adapted for certain rites to be performed at the Full, and change of, the Moon, and hymns and directions regarding oblations to the Manes. The Yajurveda introduces not only to a geographical area different from that of the Rigveda, but also to a new epoch of religious and social life marked by the eastward migration of the Aryan people from the valley of the Indus River [in modern Pakistan] to the valley of the Ganges River [in modern India]. The center of Vedic civilization now lies farther eastward. No more is heard of the Indus and its tributaries, for we are now in the territory of the Kurus and Panchalas, situated in the middle of Northern India. The country of the former, called Kurukshetra, is specifically the holy land of the Yajurvedas and of the Brahmanas attached to them.
  3. The Sama-veda is nothing but a recast of the Rich, composed, with very few exceptions, of the same hymns, broken into parts and arranged newly for being chanted on ceremonial occasions. Historically the Samaveda is unimportant, as all of its 1,549 stanzas, except seventy-five, are derived from the Rigveda. As it was compiled exclusively for application to the soma sacrifice, its verses, removed from their original context, are significant only in connexion with particular rites.
  4. The Atharva-veda, which is decidedly of a later origin, consists of hymns and incantations, the greater part of which is intended for the destruction and perdition of enemies. The Atharva Veda was composed a century or two after the first triad, after the Aryans had expanded from Pakistan across India to Bengal. This is a text of an entirely different nature from the other Vedas and mainly consists of spells and charms that were prevalent in the ancient times. It contains numerous metaphysical texts. The Atharva Veda, by tradition, composed mainly by two clans of fire priests known as Bhrgus (also called Atharvan) and Angirasas. By the time when the Atharva Veda was composed, Indra's position had been raised and Varuna's lowered. A high quality of Medical Knowledge was prevalent in ancient India. An analysis of the material in the Vedas reveals that, all the four Vedas replete the references regarding various aspects of medicine. The Atharva Veda is deemed to be an encyclopaedia for medicine "Interalia", and Ayurveda (the science of life) is considered as Upa Veda (supplementary subject) of the Atharva Veda.

The Rig-Veda is of primary importance. The other three Vedas are considered by scholars to be of later date than the Rig-Veda, and in part dependent upon it; the second and third Vedas consist almost exclusively of hymns derived from the Rig-Veda and arranged for special purposes connected with religious observances.

Each of these Vedas is divided into two parts, viz., Safahittas, or the aggregate assemblage of the prayers, hymns and the liturgic formulae of which they are composed, and the Brahmanas containing precepts which inculcate religious duties and maxims which explain these ptecepts and arguments relating to theology. According to the Brahmanical writers, the Vida consists of twocomponetvt parts called the Mantra and the Brahmana: first being the hymns and formulae collected in the Samkitd, and the second contains rules for the application of the Mantras, directions for the performance of Vedic rites and citations of hymns to be repeated on such occasions.

The Sanhitas of three of the Vedas are said to have some peculiarity. If a mantra is metrical, and intended for loud recitation, it is called Rich (from rich, praise), whence the name Rig-Veda; i.e. the Veda containing such praises. If it is prose (and then it must be muttered inaudibly), it is called Yajus {yaj, sacrifice, hence, literally, the means by which sacrifice is effected); therefore Yajur-Veda signifies the Veda containing such Yajus. And if it is metrical and intended for chanting, it is called Saman [equal] ; hence Saman Veda means the Veda containing such Samans. The author of the Mantra, or, as the Hindus would say, the inspired 'Seer,' who received it from the Deity, is termed its Rishi; and the object with which it is concerned is its devata a word which generally means a 'deity,' but the meaning of which, in its reference to mantras, must not always be taken literally, as there are hymns in which not gods or deified beings, but, for instance, a sacrificial post, weapons, &c., invoked, are considered as the devata. It is generally believed that the Brahmanas are much more recent than the Sanhitas.

The Upanishadds, or the gnostic portions of the Vedas, are also comprehended under the Brahmanas. Connected with the Vedas are the treatises on Grammar, Astronomy, Intonation, Prosody, Ritual, and the meaning of obsolete words, designated as the Vedangas, or the Auxiliaries of the Vedas. They do not constitute portions of the Veda itself, but are supplementary to it. Besides these, there are Pratisakhyds or treatises on the Grammar of the Vida, and the Sutras or Aphorisms inculcating and describing its practices.

The mathematics in the Vedas occurs in appendices called Vedangas. The fifth and sixth vedangas are the Jyotis (astronomy) and the Kalpa (rituals). One instance of geometry is the construction of a fire-altar in the shape of a falcon. The Sulba-Sutras are further works expanding upon the Vedangas, possibly supplementing the Kalpa. Sulba refers to a chord of rope used to construct altars. A sutra was a stylized form of vedic literature. They date from about 800 to 200 BC.



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