Vedas are the primary source of all knowledge, both spiritual and mundane. The Vedas were originally an oral transmission, handed down from teacher to disciple for many centuries. The Vedas form the basis of all subsequent Indian thought and philosophy. The Vedas cannot be studied without the Vedangas, which are six in number.
The Vedas were accurately passed down from generation to generation in India by virtue of an extremely methodical system of oral transmission which involved chanting each verse in ten different ways to crosscheck for integrity. The Vedas state that we are a soul distinctly different from the body and mind. While body and mind undergo changes over a period of time, we have a feeling that we are the same person that we were some years ago. The Vedas were handed down by word of mouth for hundreds of years until about 500 BC, when the Aryans learned to write. The Vedas, therefore, made detailed studies of the stars and the movement of planets across the sky. The Vedas represent the vast treasury of spiritual knowledge revealed too many different sages at different times in their transcendental meditative state and were handed down from one generation to the next by oral tradition.
Classification of Vedas:
The Vedas are classified into four groups, called Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda. The Rig-Veda is primarily concerned with panegyrics to the gods in the heavens, and is the main book of mantras. The Yajur Veda is classified into the Krishna (black) and Sukla (white) recensions. The Yajur Veda contains mainly sacrificial formulae in prose and verse to be chanted at the performance of a sacrifice. The Sama Veda consists mostly of verses from the Rig-Veda set to music for singing during the sacrifice. The Atharva Veda abounds mainly in spells and incantations in verse meant for different lower purposes than the purely spiritual. Each Veda consists of four parts – the Samhitas (hymns), the Brahmanas (rituals), the Aranyakas (theologies) and the Upanishads (philosophies). The collection of mantras or hymns is called the Samhita. The Brahmanas are ritualistic texts and include precepts and religious duties. Each Veda has several Brahmanas attached to it. The Upanishads form the concluding portions of the Veda and therefore called the “Vedanta” or the end of the Veda and contains the essence of Vedic teachings. The Upanishads and the Aranyakas are the concluding portions of the Brahmanas, which discuss philosophical problems. The Aryanyakas (forest texts) intend to serve as objects of meditation for ascetics who live in forests and deal with mysticism and symbolism.
The Rig-Veda is a collection of over 1,000 hymns, which contain the mythology of the Hindu gods, and is considered to be one of the foundations of the Hindu religion. It is the oldest of all vedas. Rig Veda contains over 1,000 hymns directed to the gods. The content of these hymns includes praises, blessings, sacrifices, and curses. These hymns are the major way in which the Aryan people praised their gods. The subject of the hymns is the personification of the powers of nature. The hymns are written in poetic form.
The Sama Veda, is also known as The Veda of Chants or Book of Songs. It contains the required melodies and chants recited by priests for special sacrifices. It is a collection of spiritual hymns, used as musical notes, which were almost completely drawn from the Rig Veda and have no distinctive lessons of their own. One Vedic scholar said that if the Rig Veda is the word, Sama Veda is the song or the meaning; if Rig Veda is the knowledge, Sama Veda is its realization; if Rig Veda is the wife, the Sama Veda is her husband.
The Sama Veda resembles the Rig Veda. Most of its mantras are taken from the Rig Veda, but the order is modified for chanting. It is divided into two books called ankas. It has twenty-one chapters and contains 1,875 mantras. These mantras are addressed to Agni, Indra, and Sama.
The Yajur Veda, known as the Veda of Sacrificial Texts, a collection of sacrificial rites. It is also sometimes called a book of rituals. Simply put, it is a liturgical collection including the materials to be recited during sacrifices to the gods.
The Yajur Veda serves as a practical guidebook for the priests who execute sacrificial acts, simultaneously muttering the prose prayers and the sacrificial formulas (yajus). There are no less than six complete recensions of the Yajur Veda — Madyan-dina, Kanva, Taittiriya, Kathaka, Maitrayani, and Kapishthala.
The Yajur Veda inspires humans to walk on the path of karma (deeds), so it is also called Karma Veda. It comprises hymns taken from the Rig Veda and adds explanatory notes in prose form. It contains fifty chapters each, which are subdivided into kandikas, or paragraphs, numbering 1,975 mantras.
The Atharva Veda is the Veda of the Fire Priest, consisting of occult formulas and spells. This Book of Spells, the last of the Vedas, is completely different from the other three Vedas and is next in importance to Rig Veda with regard to history and sociology.
A different spirit pervades this Veda. Its hymns are of a more diverse character than the Rig Veda and are simpler in language. In fact, many scholars do not consider it part of the Vedas at all. This Veda consists of spells and charms prevalent at the time it was written, and it portrays a clearer picture of the Vedic society.
The theology of the Vedas was later developed in the Upanishads. At the end of the Rig and all of the Vedas, the Hindu Brahmins added a summary of the philosophy of the Veda. The Upanishads became the basis of Hinduism. For the Hindu person, they serve as a summary of all of the knowledge of the Veda as well as a commentary on them. Although the Vedas are seldom read or understood today, even by the devout, they no doubt form the bedrock of the universal religion or “Sanatana Dharma” that all Hindus follow. The Vedas have guided our religious direction for ages and will continue to do so for generations to come. And they will forever remain the most comprehensive and universal of all ancient scriptures.