Read this article to learn about the literary evidences of the Vedic period in India:
The word ‘Veda’ is derived from the Sanskrit root Vid (to know) which means knowledge.
The Hindus consider the Vedas to be revealed books and give them the titles of Apaurusheya (not made by man) and Nitya (Eternal).
It is contented that the sages wrote under inspiration from God. The Vedas are said to have been passed from one generation to the other through verbal transmission and are therefore also known as shruti (to hear) or Revelation.
The term Vedic literature means the four Vedas and their Samhitas and the allied literature based on or derived from the Vedas. The Vedic literature “can be classified into the following categories.
1. The Four Vedas:
The Rig-Veda, Sama-Veda, Yajur-Veda and Atharva-Veda and their Samhitas;
2. The Brahmanas attached to each Samhita;
3. The Aranyakas and
4. The Upanishads.
Of the four vedas, the Rig-Veda is the oldest religious text in the world. The Rig-Veda consists of 1017 hymns (Suktas) and supplemented by 11 others called valakhilyas. It is divided into 10 books or mandates. Of these, Books ll-lll which are also known as the ‘Family Books’ (on account of their composition or perception being ascribed to certain families of sages, Book or Mandala II- by Gritsamada, Book III – by Visvamitra, Book IV – by Vamadeva, Book V – by Atri, Book VI – by Bharadvaja, Book VII – by Vasishtha) are commonly regarded as early, whereas Books I and VIII – X are regarded as late (Book-VIII – attributed to the family of Rishi Kanva & Book – IX contains the soma hymns.)
The Xth 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 creator. Rig-veda is purely a religious work, and most of the hymns are all invocations to the gods. These were recited at the time of sacrificial rites and other rituals with utmost devotion.
The Sam-Veda, derived from the root Saman, i.e. melody is a ‘collection of melodies.’ Also called the ‘Book of Chants’, the origins of Indian music are traced to it. It contains of 1810, or 1549 hymns, if one omits the repetitions. With the exception of 75 hymns the rest of have been taken from the Rig-veda and are meant to be sung at the time of the Soma sacrifice by a special class of Brahmanas called Udgatris.
The Yajur-Veda or ‘The Book of Sacrificial Prayers’ is a ritual text as it consists of various mantras (hymns) for the purpose of recitation and rules to be observed at the time of sacrifice. In contrast to the first two (Rig-veda and Sama Veda) which are in verse entirely, this one is in both verse and prose.
There are two main texts of Yajurveda:
Krisha Yajur Veda (Black) and Sukla Yajur Veda (White). The former is the older of the two and contains not only the hymns but also prose commentaries and the latter contains only the hymns. Yajur-Veda is primarily a guide for the use of the adhvaryu priest.
The white Yajur Veda consists of four Samhitas (the Kathaka, Kapishthaia, Katha, Maitrayaniand Taittiriya Samhitas), but the white Yajur Veda has only the Vajasaneyi Samhita. The Atharva Veda is entirely different from the other three Vedas and is the latest of all. It contains charms and spells in verse to ward off evils and diseases. Believed to be the work of non-Aryans, its contents throw light on the beliefs and practices of the non-Aryans. It is divided into two parts. Paippalada and Saunaka. This Veda is divided into 20 Kandas (books) and has 711 hymns.
These are amongst the earliest works in prose in Sanskrit and are primarily in the nature of explanations or discussions on the rituals and mantras, but throw light on other issues as well. Every Veda has several Brahmanas attached to it. Aitareya and Kausitaki Brahmana are related to the Rigveda and are composed by Hotri Priests.
The Sama Veda has Tandyamaha and Jaiminiya Brahmanas. The Tandyamaha Brahmana, is one of the oldest and contains many legends, and includes the Vratyastoma, a ceremony through which people of non-Aryan stock could be admitted into the Aryan fold.
The Brahmanas of Sama Veda were composed by Udgatri priests. The two important Brahmanas appended to the Yajur Veda are Taittiriya and Satapatha. The Satapatha Brahmana is the most exhaustive and important of all the Brahmanas it points out the progress of cultures from Kuru Panchals to Videha.
It provides us information about not only sacrifices and ceremonies but also theology, philosophy, manners and customs of the later vedic period. The Gopatha Brahmana is attached to the Atharva Veda.
The Aranyakas are generally called the ‘Forest books’ and are the concluding portions of the Brahmanas. The philosophical portions of the Brahmanas have been separated for the use and guidance of the hermits living in the jungles.
The Aranyakas deal with mysticism and philosophy and not with rituals. They are, in fact, opposed to sacrifices and many of the early rituals. Their stress is on moral virtues.
They form a bridge between Karma Marga (way of work) which was the sole concern of the Brahmanas and the Gyana Marga (Way of knowledge) which the Upanishads advocated Two Aranyakas, the Aitareya and the Kausitaki, are attached to the Rigveda. The Kausitaki Aranyaka expounds the Pranagnihotra (the fire oblation through breath) as a substitute for the basic rite.
The term Upanishad literally implies “sitting near”. Hence its original meaning is the sitting down of the initiated pupil near the teacher or Guru for the purpose of a confidential communication of the secret doctrine.
They are the philosophical texts dealing with topics like the Universal Soul, the Absolute, the individual self, the origin of the world, the mysteries of nature and so on. They criticise the rituals and lay stress on the value of right belief and knowledge.
The Upanishads mark the culmination of Indian thought in the Vedic period. There are 108 Upanishads which were written by various saints and sages between 800 and 500 B.C. Some of the important Upanishads are: Aitareya, Kausitaki (belong to Rigveda) Chandogya, Kena (belong to the Sama Veda) Katha, Svetasvatara, Brihadaranyaka, isa (belong to the Yajur Veda) Mundaka, Prasna and Mandukya (belong to the Atharva Veda). The language of these Upanishads is classical Sanskrit and not the Vedic Sanskrit. Like Aranyakas, the Upanishads also condemn the ceremonies and the sacrifices and are thus anti-ritualistic.
The fundamental doctrine which pervades all the genuine Upanishads can be summed up in the following sentence; “The Universe is the Brahman but the Brahman is the Atman.” The two conceptions of Brahman and Atman are united in the philosophy of the Upanishad. The Mundaka Upanishad is chiefly notable for the clear distinction it makes between the higher knowledge of the Supreme Brahman and the lower knowledge of the empirical world.
The first form of the doctrine of transmigration and the concept of karma is given in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and also in a slightly fuller form in the Chandogya Upanishad, the two oldest and most important of the Upanishads. The story of Nachiketa is given in the Kathaka Upanishad. The doctrine of the cosmic self (Vaisvanara atman) is taught in several stories in the Chandogya Upanishad.
One of them tells us of the great philosopher Uddakala Aruni, who along with five householders, go to the philosopher – king, Asvapati of Kekaya, seeking knowledge of the self. The most important episode in the Chandogya is the one in which Uddakala teaches his son, Svetaketu, the truth of the non-difference of the individual soul from the Brahman. Chandogya Upanishad also describes the vision of the sage Vaka Dalbhya (the priests unision) – where the dogs move round in a circle, each holding the tail of the preceding dog in its mouth.
Vedangas and Sutra Literature:
In contrast to the Vedic literature proper, which is considered sruti or divine revelation, the Vedangas are called smriti or literature handed down by tradition because they are of human origin. The six important Vedangas are Siksha (deals with pronounciation), Kalpa (Rituals), Vyakarna (grammar), Nirukta (Etymology), Chandas (Metrics) and Jyotisha (Astronomy).
The Vedangas are written in the form of sutras, i.e. condensed prose style intended for memorisation. The sutra literature, though not forming a part of the Vedic literature, helps us in the study of the Vedic literature. Of all the sutra texts, only Kalpa Sutras have come down to us, and are again divided into three classes:
(1) Srauta Sutras (deals with the rituals of the great sacrifices of Agni, Soma and animal. Attached to it is the Suiva Sutras the oldest books on Indian geometry containing instructions for the measurement and construction of the complex Vedic fire altars.
(2) Grihya Sutras (deals with domestic ceremonies and sacrifices to be performed by the householder) and
(3) Dharma Sutras (deals with the laws, manners and customs of people in general.). It constitutes the foundation of the Dharmasastras.
In addition to the Vedangas, we have four Upavedas or subsidiary Vedas. They are Ayurveda which deals with medicine, Dhanur veda which deals with the art of warfare, Gandharva veda which deals with the art of music and Shilpa veda which deals with architecture.
The six schools of Indian philosophy form an important part of Vedic literature known as Shad- Darshana.
These developed by the beginning of the Christian era and are:
(5) Mimansa and
These are written in the form of Sutras or aphorisms which are short, definite and free from doubt. The Nyaya Darshana was written by Gautama, Vaisheshika Darshana by Kanada, Sankhya Darshana by Kapila, Yoga Darshana by Patanjali, Mimansa or Purva Mimansa by Jaimini and the Vedanta or Uttara Mimansa was composed by Badarayana.