The word Veda comes from the root vid, i.e. to know, signifying knowledge. The Sanskrit root vid also appears in the Latin Videre 'to see'. The Vedas are said to have been passed on from one generation to the next through verbal transmission and are, therefore, also known as Shruti (to hear) or 'Revelation'.
The term 'Vedic Literature' means the four Vedas in their Samhitas and the allied literature based on or derived from the Vedas. We classify the Vedic literature into the following categories: (i) the four Vedas, i.e. the Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva and their Samhitas;
(ii) The Brahmanas attached to each Samhita;
(iii) The Aranyakas; and
(iv) The Upanishads.
Of the four Vedas (the Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda), the Rigveda is the oldest religious text in the world, and, therefore, is also known as 'the first testament of mankind'. It must have been composed around 1700 BC.
The first three Vedas are collectively known as Trayi or 'trio'. Initially, the Vedas were learnt by heart and then passed on from the teachers to the disciples until they were properly edited, written down and commented in South India during the second half of the fourteenth century AD.
The last hymns were probably composed between 1500 and 1200 BC. The Rigveda is neither a historical nor a heroic poem but is mainly a collection of hymns by a number of priestly families. These were recited at the time of sacrificial rites and other rituals with utmost devotion. The Rigveda contains 1017 (1028, including 11 hymns of the valakhilya recension) hymns (sukta) and is divided into ten mandalas.
The first and the tenth mandalas are said to have been added later as their language differs slightly from the other eight mandalas. The tenth mandala contains the famous Purushasukta which explains that the four varnas (Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra) were born from the mouth, arms, thighs and feet of the Primeval Being Bramha (Puruso).
The Samaveda derived from the root Saman, i.e. 'melody', is a 'collection of melodies'. It has 1603 verses (Aundh edition) but except 99 all the rest of the hymns have been borrowed from the Rigveda. A lesser number of verses are found in certain other editions. In them we have 1549 verses and of these only 78 are not found in the Rigveda. These were meant to be sung at the time of Soma sacrifice by the Udgatri priests.
The Yajurveda is a ritual Veda. It prescribes the rituals for performing different sacrifices. It was the manual of the Adhvaryus who prepared the ground and the altar, offered the sacrificial victims and poured out the libations. Two distinct forms of this Veda have come down to us. In the oldest, the instructions about rituals are mingled with the verses from the Rigveda.
The chief recension of this is that taught by a school of teachers called the Taittiriyans. At a later date other scholars called the Vajasaneyins separated the explanatory matter from the verses to be recited and hence were called 'white' (Shukla) Yajurveda, the other being called the 'black' (Krishna) Yajurveda. Yajurveda contains the oldest prose literature of the Indo- Europeans.
The Atharvaveda is entirely different from the other three Vedas and is chronologically the last of the four. It is important and interesting as it describes 'the popular beliefs and superstitions of the humble folk. For a very long time it was not included in the category of the Vedas.
The Satapatha-Brahmana uses the term trayi-vidya for the Rig, Sama and Yajur Vedas. The Atharva veda is found in two recension, the Saunakiya and Paippalada. It is now considered as one of the four Vedas. It is divided into 20 Kandas (books) and has 711 hymns - most of which tell us how to ward off the evil spirits.
The hymns of the Vedas are also called Suktas: a term derived from su-uktas, i.e. 'that which is well or properly recited'. This term is used for a Vedic hymn as a whole as distinguished from a richa or single verse.
The Atharvaveda, and the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads all together constitute the later-Vedic literature.
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