The Aryans gave Hinduism its priestly language, Sanskrit; and what could be called Hinduism’s holy book: The Veda. The Veda is a rather unusual collection of literature. It is not narrative like the Bible. It tells no grand story of gods and humans. The Vedas are more like a liturgy manual. It includes hundreds of hymns addressed to various deities, as well as myths, some spells and a bit of philosophical speculation.
It is clear that the Veda is concerned primarily with rituals and it was probably composed to be recited at sacrifices. The term Veda means “wisdom”. It derives from the Sanskrit root ved which means simply to see. You may recognize an English cognate in the word video. Seeing is an extremely important dimension for Hindu religious experience.
According to the beliefs of most Hindus today, the wisdom embodied in the Veda is timeless because it has no origin. It existed prior to this world and embodies an eternal law that transcends even the gods. The words of the Veda, according to traditional conviction, were revealed to ancient sages called Rishis in a distant past.
Some Hindus even maintain that the Veda contains all knowledge, even the principles of nuclear physics and the distance between heavenly bodies. A few even claim that the reason the West attained such rapid technological and scientific progress is because Westerners appropriated Vedic knowledge when its contents where revealed in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Today, the Veda is regarded as the most authoritative and sacred Hindu scripture. So important is the Veda that Hinduism is sometimes called Vedic Dharma: the religion of the Veda. Acceptance of the authority of the Veda has been a criterion for determining which schools of Indian thought are orthodox and which are heterodox.
Despite this fact, the Veda has never been widely read in India. The vast majority of Hindus have never read a fragment of them. For the daily life of ordinary Hindus, writings such as the Mahabharata, the Puranas and the Bhagavad Gita are far more significant.
The Vedic World View
Presenting the Vedic world to you I fear I’ll be making it seem more systematic and coherent that actually was. The collection of Vedic writings is not systematic theology. It wasn’t written with modern categories of thought in mind. There are passages whose entire meaning is totally obscure.
We should remember also that because the Veda represents the perspective of the priestly cast in the Aryan society. We cannot be certain of how widespread these views were. Lower classes did not keep records or had anything comparable to the Veda.
The Veda is divided into four Samhitas or collections, each concerned with a particular aspect of ritual. The oldest and most important of these is called the Rigveda. The Rigveda contains over a thousand hymns to various gods and goddesses. The word rig means praise, so this collection is aptly named.
Some scholars have argued that the Rigveda may be over 30000 years old. Most of them, however, believe it to be of much more recent origin, between 2300 and 1200 B.C. The Rigveda contain Mantras or sacred words that are used during rituals.
The other Samhitas include the Yajurveda, which contains instructions for sacrifices; the Samaveda, which contains melodies to be sung during sacrifices; and the Atharvaveda, which offers spells and incantations for rituals. In order to understand what the Vedas say about the nature of the world, you might be interested in reading the following articles:
- The Hindu Creation Story: The Aryan civilization honored how this world came into being and the Veda offered several different explanations. It doesn’t seem to be a problem that the stories of the world’s creation are often at odds with one another. Even today, the Hindu tradition contains dozen of different accounts of creation.